How is it that we can read a story, comprised only of words of ink printed on pages of paper, and be so deeply moved?
This question crossed my mind as I was wrapping up speaking at a weekend conference for several churches in Missoula, Montana.
I was prompted to mull over the answer in the airport on the way home, because while waiting for my flight, I picked up the book A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean.
I spent much of my youth fly fishing in rural Florida, so this haunting tale of two very different brothers who grew up fishing the mountain rivers around Missoula quickly drew me in.
I was deeply moved by the story, especially as I read the last paragraph:
Eventually, all things merge into one, and the river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s greatest flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are words, and some of the words are theirs…I am haunted by the waters.
byFaith magazine asked Covenant Seminary professor Jerram Barrs why certain books, movies, and plays resonate with something that is deep within us. Barrs provides an interesting framework for thinking biblically about art and shows us how to read and evaluate literature as Christians.
Echoes of Eden
Barrs says in great art,
There are what I call echoes of Eden—memories of the true story of who we are—and of the world as God originally created it—beautiful and good and glorious.
There are also memories of our rebellion and the Fall, he says, “of that sense of the brokenness of our present human condition.” There is, too, “a longing for things to be set right and made new.”
Barrs goes on to say that these “echoes of Eden” are found in all forms of great art, whether it be a play by Shakespeare, a painting by Rembrandt, a novel by Jane Austen, or a symphony by Bach.
Barrs also makes the important point that in the arts there are no secular topics in the same way that there are no secular jobs:
Just as we need to stop talking about secular jobs and sacred jobs, I think when we discuss the arts that we should stop using the language of secular topics and sacred topics.
He points to one of my favorite essays by Dorothy Sayers, “The Mind of the Maker,” where she argues that the most fundamental way in which we are made in God’s image is that we are creative. We are artists just as God is the great artist.
In whatever we do, Sayers writes, we are called to image the God who made us and create something that will be a pleasure to others. This is true not only for artists but for all of us, no matter our calling. As Christians, as we work, we push back a little bit of the darkness and give others a glimpse of the way things could be when we do this.
A Tale of Two Brothers
A River Runs Through It reminded me of another story about two brothers, that of Cain and Abel. This story reminds us of what every human knows: life is broken. We rejoice in what is beautiful and good, but the tragedy that takes place between Cain and Abel is a stark contrast exposing that life is not what it ought to be.
That is why, Barrs says, when we go to a movie we long for,
…[a] story that ends with a redemptive, restorative theme—where relationships are renewed and where things are set right. Conversely, when a play ends in tragedy, like “Macbeth,” let’s say, or “Hamlet,” people are troubled. They see the brokenness of life, and they respond to it.
We need to continually reflect on the hope that is found in the gospel, understanding that we play a part in the great restoration project that Jesus started in his life, death, and resurrection two thousand years ago.
It is a project that he will complete at the end of this age, where he will build a new city for his people, the new Jerusalem…and a river will run through it.
Editor’s note: Learn more about how your work is part of God’s grand plan of restoration in All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel.
On “Flashback Friday” we publish some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was first published on November 18, 2013.
Have you been encouraged by IFWE blogs? Help us spread the word by becoming a monthly IFWE partner!