Thursday, 19 September 2013


Echoes of Eden

In his recent book, Echoes of Eden, Jerram Barrs [Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature and the Arts (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013)]  has a series of chapters on literature and the arts in general and then turns to some exemplars which exemplify his general theme.  Barrs argues that all art worthy of the designation reflects what he calls "echoes of Eden" in one way, shape or form. 

To make reference to Eden is to introduce the great underlying themes of all stories: the innate goodness of the creation in its original perfection, the brokenness of nature and of man which we experience daily, and the longing for redemption and deliverance.  In the latter portion of the book, Barrs turns to some examples or case studies of his theme: namely, Lewis, Tolkien, J K Rowling, Shakespeare and Jane Austen. 

The chapter on Tolkien alone is worth the price of the book.  Tolkien understood that myths are powerful in a culture because they inevitably sustain memories of God.
  Myths--that is, stories which pass down through generations--echo Eden.  He
saw them as containing memories of the truth about God, about the origin and desiny of our world, about the battle against supernatural evil that characterizes every age, and about the hope for redemption through God's intervention in human history.  Myths hold within them the treasure of echoes of Eden.  Myths and fairy stories are vessels containing truth--and the gospel itself is the greatest of these.  (Op cit, p. 107)
In his elaborate and extensive history of Middle Earth, Tolkien set his stories in a time prior to the coming of Christ into the world.  He always denied his work was allegory--it clearly is not.  But he did describe it as myth.  He lamented the fact that the British had no myths any longer.  They had expunged the mythical stories of their past which were vessels carrying intergenerational truth about God, the creation, man, the Fall, and redemption.  He set out to produce a new mythical story, using the ancient poem, Beowulf as his inspiration which would recapture these truths and infuse them again into our modern culture.  In the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings,
just as in Beowulf, there will be no explicitly Christian story or message, but there will be hints, hope, courage, heroism, love, and self-sacrifice in the fight against evil that characterizes the whole of our age.  (Ibid., p.106.)
The question is, How successful has he been?  Did he achieve his objectives.  It is too early to tell, but the early signs are quite encouraging.  As is so often the case, Tolkien repeatedly tried and failed to get The Rings published.  It was too long, too detailed, too "unreal", etc.  Thankfully it eventually made its way into print.  No-one could foresee how barren and empty a world relentless materialism would wreak.  Consequently few could have predicted how hungry the modern world would become for myth, for echoes of Eden.  Jerram Barrs asks,
So why do people enjoy these books so much?  Why are books published in the 1950's creating such a stir today?  Even before the release of the movies there were more than fifty million copies of  The Lord of the Rings in print.  Today, after the huge success of the movies, even the publishers are hesitant to give figures for the overall sales of The Lord of the Rings. Besides the various editions of the book in English, there are translations into many languages. . . . (A)t the turn of the millennium Tolkien was declared the author of the century.  He won this hands down over James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, the authors that the scholars and critics doing the poll, wanted to win; in fact the pollsters were so unhappy that Tolkien won easily, they did their poll a second time hoping for a different result, but to no avail.  In a poll conducted by BBC television The Lord of the Rings was voted the best-loved book of the British people. (Ibid, p. 113.)
Barr puts this success down to the quality of the story itself; to the beauty of the writing; to the depth, complexity and realism of the central characters; and to the realism of Middle Earth itself where almost everything has a long lineage and historical depth and complex authenticity (people after all today communicate and correspond in Tolkien's invented languages, Quenya and Sindarin).  But above all the popularity of the work rests upon, its mythical character, the echoes of Eden found therein, which have drawn a desperately empty people, living in a bleak and barren and voided land. 
It is certainly true that the books are influenced greatly by Germanic and Norse myths and sagas.  But they are much more deeply influenced by a Christian account of the world.  The stories reflect the Bible's account of creation, the fall of humanity due to rebellion against God, and the redemption that God will accomplish.  (Ibid., p.117.)
It is for this very reason that some writers have expressed not just a disdain of Tolkien (and Lewis) but hatred.  One, Phillip Pullman, himself a fantasy writer, has said that he is fed up with the Christian impact of Tolkien and Lewis.
Other passionate humanists have said they hate Tolkien and Lewis, whom they see as "riding in on a white horse," trying to rescue civilization by turning people back to the Christian faith.  (Ibid.)
The Lord of the Rings is not Scripture.  It cannot substitute for the Word of God, by which we are born again and brought to new life.  Tolkien would have abhorred such a notion.  But in a culture which is rapidly  integrating into the void such literature serves a powerful purpose.  It can capture the hearts of people making them long once again for another world, where those who believe that might makes right are defeated and broken by those who believe in honesty, loyalty, oaths and vows, integrity, courage, and righteousness.  Such works of literature so powerfully echo Eden, they can awaken again  a general longing for a Redeemer. 

Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, as the works of the Evil One become more manifest, such literary works can prepare hearts, can unclog ears, to long to hear the declaration of Him who says, "I am the Light of the World."

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