The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature, and Aesthetics

By Welter, Brian | New Oxford Review, May 2017 | Go to article overview

The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature, and Aesthetics


Welter, Brian, New Oxford Review


The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature, and Aesthetics. By Clyde S. Kilby. Edited by William Dyrness and Keith Call. Paraclete Press. 336 pages. $28.99.

Clyde Kilby (1902-1986) taught English literature at Wheaton College and had ties to the Oxford Inklings, including correspondence with C.S. Lewis. An evangelical with a holistic view of aesthetics, he chides his religious co-believers for turning away from the arts or, when they do make an effort, for producing second-rate kitsch. The essays collected in The Arts and the Christian Imagination make reference to a broad, at times surprising, swath of thinkers, including French mathematician Henri Poincaré. Such breadth strengthens Kilby's call for evangelical Christians to take the arts more seriously. He returns repeatedly to two concepts: metaphor's importance to aesthetics, and the centrality of the imagination for the individual and for Christianity. By imagination, Kilby means creativity, including tolerance for a certain amount of risk-taking.

Kilby tasks aesthetics with uncovering new, heretofore unimagined relations between seemingly un-alike things or persons, such as the metaphor of Christ as the Hound of Heaven, which enriches our understanding of our Lord. Metaphorical thinking is religious because it brings a little bit of order to the seeming chaos of the universe. This parallels Genesis, in which God brings order to primal chaos. Throughout his essays, Kilby emphasizes the vast generative power of metaphor for creativity and deeper understanding. He recognizes metaphor's central contribution to fields as varied as mathematics, literature and literary criticism, art, and architecture. Metaphorical thinking links all these together.

Kilby's reflections on Scripture's metaphorical aspects aim to inspire evangelical readers to rethink their attitudes toward the Bible. Avoiding a fundamentalist stance, he at times approaches the medieval four-senses approach to the Bible, wherein a given passage has as many as four possible meanings: literal, allegorical, tropological (or moral), and anagogic (concerned with what is to come). This approach advances a richer hermeneutics than many Protestant churches enjoy today. Being open to such possibilities implies being open to metaphysics, something Kilby touches on without developing more fully. Such a development would have given the Wheaton professor's thought a more complete, holistic quality. As it is, one has the sense that he leaves things unfinished.

Kilby reminds us of the dignity given to men when, in Genesis, God gave Adam the power to name things in the created order: "It is the very nature of humanity to leave nothing undiscovered, uncoordinated, unnamed." He implies that this power of naming is the sign and process by which we participate in God's nature, which marks us as made in the divine image. Naming things is not simply matching the signifier with the signified, as semioticians would have it, but is, in Kilby's view, metaphysical. A certain nobility in human nature stems from this creativeness: "Creative activity belongs not alone to geniuses but is a universal urge." This discounts an elitist view of art. Creativity means participation in being itself. It is ontological. Again, had Kilby taken this further, he might have made a larger impact on evangelicals and American culture in general.

Kilby aims to fill a large gap in evangelical circles regarding aesthetics. "They are scared to death of the imagination," he laments. "As a consequence, they have tended to create an image of God which is small, contemporary, and even shoddy." Much space is given to theological arguments that serve to highlight the Bible's literary and artistic value. …

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