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Thursday, April 20, 2017

"The Arts and the Christian Imagination" (Clyde S. Kilby)

TITLE: The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature, and Aesthetics (Mount Tabor Books)
AUTHOR: Clyde S. Kilby
PUBLISHER: Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2016, (336 pages).

Throughout history, the integration of art, literature, philosophy, and theology is still a fascinating work in progress. As the saying goes, "A picture speaks a thousand words," what about imagination? What about letting a work of art express a thought that can be nuanced better with a picture, a diagram, or an image? A good piece of writing can heighten interest. A good piece of art can certainly move beyond words. Call it vision or imagination. It takes more than words or spoken language to capture the beauty of creation. As Helen Keller once wrote: "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart." I believe art and imagination could orientate us in that direction. With Clyde's work and accomplishments as the focus, this book has been published by Marion E. Wade Center to introduce to us the thoughts and convictions behind the late Clyde Kilby. The writings are from Kilby, combed from both previously published and unpublished works. Each introduction has been made by those familiar with Clyde's thinking and writing. This book is the first of two that looks at art from a historical and cultural context. The second volume focuses more on Clyde's interactions with the works of CS Lewis and JRRR Tolkien, entitled: "A Well of Wonder: Essays on C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Inklings." All the introductions are written by William Dyrness. Keith Call does the heavy lifting of collecting and organizing the materials. These series of articles probes many issues. Here is a sample of some:

  • Can a Christian devote his life and attention to the arts, especially when many unbelievers are dominating this field? Should Christians embrace or shun the arts?
  • What can one gain by the study of art?
  • Is art simply a flash of understanding or a long journey of struggles with things of life?
  • Can Scripture be handled truthfully with aesthetics?
  • Can a musical tone be moral?
  • Where does the impulse for art come from?
  • Is one's search for clarity an impediment for art?
  • Could art be an answer to address the skeptical mind?
  • Are the arts compatible with the spiritual life?
  • Are the human senses in themselves sinful?
  • Why must society see science as in the truth business while the non-sciences are not?
  • How can art be an apologetic for faith?
  • ...
These and many more form some of the many profound thoughts of Clyde Kilby, many of which have not even been broached by a typical clergyman or church goer. Divide in four parts, each part brings out a particular aspect of the arts to introduce readers into the reflection. The first part is called "Christianity, The Arts, and Aesthetics" where Kilby's apologetic concerns are highlighted. In fact, he cites both believers as well as secular artists and challenges us that the things and thoughts of God are evident in the creative pieces of art, both visual and imagined. We can try to take away God from our works but we cannot take away our inner search for God. We look into the relationship between Christianity and the Aesthetics, where Kilby argues that the Christian and theistic point of view leads to the highest expression of human creativity. He shows us the intriguing paradox of modern art where art is not necessary meaningful when objective. Neither do art need to be objective in order to be meaningful. The shape of the art is not about following a systematic list of steps but about an expression of what is happening inside the human soul. The second part is about the "Creation of the Artist" where Kilby challenges us to take the work of art as important as the way we treat the works of Lewis and Tolkien. Four articles taken from four lectures are used to justify this. As a vocation, the Christian could address the age-old relationship between Christ and culture. There is no contradiction as long as the Christian is fully oriented toward God. As an expression of beauty, Kilby takes issue with the ancient Hebrews who rejected the aesthetics on the basis of the second commandment and other misguided thinking. For the second commandment is not about rejecting art but about the misapplication about idolatry. As a personal vision, art enables one to come to God not just from a basis of 'belief' but a unique experience. On evangelicalism and human freedom, Kilby laments that we have suppressed the very nature of Christianity, that it is a "dangerous religion." We have unwittingly sought to reduce it to our human sense of clarity; to suppress the power of the gospel; and to explain away the deepest meaning of God's purposes. That is a reminder of one of my Professors, Iain Provan who contended that Christianity is a "Seriously Dangerous Religion." This is most evident in our attempts to try to tame the faith into cultural niceness, exchanging the truth for the lies of postmodernism. The third part is "Faith and the Role of the Imagination" where Kilby goes beyond justifying the role of art toward living out what art means. Imagination is key to faith. Dialogues are works of artistic expressions as it engages participants in interaction and creativity. The search for knowledge need the invocation of wisdom as well. Using the metaphor of quantity vs quality respectively, Kilby notes that the increase of knowledge has unfortunately made us more ignorant of the more important truths in life. If evangelicals fail to understand the importance of imagination, they will experience spiritual regress. In the Scriptures, imagination is about thinking, deliberating, meditating, weighing, and pondering. The Bible is a work of art, God's art. It is not a book of science or an encyclopedia of facts. It is the full expression of creation, the history of life, the nature of man, and the beauty of God. It is truth personified in Jesus Christ. Part Four deals specifically with "Poetry, Literature, and the Imagination." Readers get a better glimpse of Kilby's passion for poetry, the inspiration it brings, and the important role of fiction. The arts are powerful ways in which truth could be portrayed. 

From the way the book is written, I can see the deep conviction of Kilby in wanting to bring the hopeful world of art and aesthetics to a skeptical world of science that places a higher premium on objective facts and absolute clarity. Many things in life are not so clear and clean cut. By learning to live with the gray, we will definitely come up on the better side of struggle. I remember the sayings of GK Chesterton, "Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination." I am glad this book has highlighted once again the relevance of arts and the aesthetics to those of us more familiar with science and technology, and all things hard facts and objectivity. We need a good blend of science, arts, and other disciplines to make sense of the world we live in, and the people we are. Perhaps, what science cannot do, arts could fill in the gap. What science can do, arts might even do better! Do not let this book downplay the importance of the former. It is primarily a defense of arts and the aesthetics, not an attack on the good things that science and technological advancement have led us. More importantly, arts give us another chance to know and to experience what it means to be human.

The late Clyde Kilby was Assistant Dean of Students and Instructor in English at Wheaton College and had been credited as an inspiring teacher for nature and poetry. A friend of CS Lewis, Kilby had an intellectual curiosity that guided his expression of theology and art. He founded the Marion E. Wade Center that is a research center that essentially integrates the work of art, literature, and theology.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Paraclete Press without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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