The Arts and the Christian Imagination

Essays on Art, Literature, and Aesthetics

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Clyde S. Kilby
Editor(s): 
William Dyrness, Keith Call
Mount Tabor Books, Volume 2
  • Brewster, MA: 
    Paraclete Press
    , April
     2016.
     336 pages.
     $28.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781612618616.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Clyde S. Kilby (1902-86) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly five decades and, in addition to mentoring generations of Christian scholars in the arts, he is credited with introducing the work of C. S. Lewis and the Inklings to a broader American audience. Kilby remains one of the most quietly influential voices on the arts in the modern evangelical movement. One of his former students, William Dyrness, with the assistance of Keith Call, has compiled his reflections into one accessible volume, The Arts and the Christian Imagination, and thereby performed a great service to those studying the legacy of Evangelicalism’s engagement with the arts. While offering a much-needed link in that history, this volume catalogs Kilby’s unpublished writing on art and aesthetics in four parts. Section 1 “Christianity, the Arts, and Aesthetics” represents the largest and most significant body of his reflections, including the extended essay "The Christian and the Arts" (11-105). Section 2 “The Vocation of the Artist” gathers together four different lectures offered by Kilby on specific and timely subjects. Section 3 “Faith and the Role of the Imagination” presents an eclectic mix of short projects and occasioned talks that demonstrate the breadth of his interests in the arts, and his determination to make connections with his life of service in a Christian college. Lastly, Section 4 “Poetry, Literature, and the Imagination” focuses on his principal passion of poetry and showcases many of his unique insights into that medium. The resonances between Kilby’s reflections in this volume and that of his legacy-bearers—Calvin Seerveld, Nicholas Wolterstorff and William Dyrness—can be found on almost every page of this book. In this way, much of what Kilby conveys here is not altogether new or unheard of in the literature of evangelicals considering the arts. What is remarkable about his voice as represented in this volume however, is the wise and almost pastoral tone he displays. Kilby’s reflections are timely, self-effacing, and forthright.

The author possesses an ease and familiarity with the best thinkers, artists and poets of the Christian tradition, which is not surprising at all given his teaching career. His sustained interactions with non-Christian artists, thinkers and writers however, prove exciting and illuminating. In matters so typically suspect for fundamentalists and evangelicals, the willingness to engage with the most relevant voices in the secular, pluralistic dialogue of contemporary intellectual debate is rare indeed. For instance, Kilby’s thorough engagement with Aldous Huxley and the question of reenchantment through psychedelic experiences testifies to the author’s willingness to transgress such fears. Kilby’s willingness to do so, no doubt, stems from an informed perspective on art history, and a generative confidence in the role Christianity can play in culture. He writes: "More important even is the fact that Christianity provided an atmosphere of joy and freedom which, after the great age of Greek art, made possible a vital renewal of the entire creative impulse" (125). From that place, Kilby is able to issue a word of caution to his fellow evangelicals: "You will perhaps agree that too many people already suppose Christianity to be asceticism and otherworldliness. If we adopt such a position deliberately and consciously, it is one thing, and if we drift into it for lack of thought, it is another" (152).

Indeed, Kilby demonstrates a self-critical awareness that seems particularly commendable given the insular context of evangelicalism, or what he calls "evangelical isolationism" (91). Nowhere do we find a triumphalist or self-congratulatory note in his writing. Instead, he allows the difficult but authentic questions of his evangelical audience to emerge quite naturally. Given the often reluctant, if not retreatest, imperatives of an evangelical assessment of culture, Kilby begs the question: "Should my belief in the fundamentals of the Christian faith make any difference in my attitude toward the arts? Have I as a Christian more, less, or exactly the same right to enjoy the arts as others who may not profess a Christian view?" (149). He even chides: "More important, does the relative unconcern of Evangelicals with worthy art indicate a point of corrosion in their spiritual thinking and sensitivity?" (90). His thoroughgoing candor seems particularly wise in light of the culture wars that proceeded and followed his time.

Kilby, in fact, gets right to the heart of the matter with his sustained concern for pleasure. While many evangelicals might be reticent to consider the subject, he engages the issue early and often in the pages of this volume. He wonders: "And living in a world of sin, sorrow, and death, may the Christian allow himself to experience pleasure? May he really believe that there is a time to rejoice as well as to mourn?" (33). His affirmation of aesthetic pleasure for Christians, then, provides him the means to dismantle a greater enemy: indifference. "The indifferent Christian is the true relativist who throws away the tape and makes everything equal to everything—God, truth, error, pleasure, pain. There is no rebellion in the indifferent Christian and therefore no life" (235).

This fresh and authentic tone constitutes the altogether remarkable character of Kilby’s reflections. At the same time, however, the volume suffers in a few straightforward ways. His clear emphases linger on poetry, music, and literature with a little attention to visual art, and no consideration of popular forms such as film or television, which are described as "trash" or "Hollywoodish." Due to the occasional nature of much of the material, the book repeats Kilby’s favorite themes and dominant motifs throughout, often recycling his most powerful statements and illustrations in several spots. In the end, however, his thoughts on art and aesthetics prove illuminating, instructive, and refreshingly honest. Thankfully, The Arts and the Christian Imagination can now extend Kilby’s winsome perception beyond just his students, for as Dyrness himself confesses, “in many ways we still work within the wise guidance he has provided” (270)

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Worley is associate professor of faith and culture at Trinity International University.

Date of Review: 
May 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Clyde Samuel Kilby was an American author and English professor, best known for his scholarship on the Inklings, especially J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. A professor at Wheaton College, IL for most of his life, Dr. Kilby founded the Marion E. Wade Center there, making it a center for the study of the Inklings and their literary companions.

Keywords: 

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