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Books: ‘The Arts and the Christian Imagination’ and ‘A Well of Wonder’

Review by Richard Harries
Church Times

Clyde Kilby once visited C. S. Lewis in his rooms in Oxford and gave a vivid description of his conversation, especially Lewis’s direct, no-nonsense opinions.

When asked about the relationship of Christianity and art, he replied: “The same as existed between Christianity and carpentry.” He laughed at the idea of a scholar’s life as being a sedentary one, and said that “the physical labour of pulling the folios from the shelves of the Bodleian was all the exercise he needed.”

In all his talk, there was “an incipient good humour and genuineness” as well as a “fear of the subtle sin of pride”. Kilby rightly champions Nevill Coghill’s view of Lewis as the nearest figure we have to the great Dr Samuel Johnson.

Clyde Kilby (1902-86) founded the Marion E. Wade Centre at Wheaton College, which contains a significant research collection of materials by, and about, not only C. S. Lewis, but also J. R. R. Tolkein, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, George MacDonald, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. He was clearly a much-loved professor and mentor, who devoted his life to introducing this group of British Christian writers to American Evangelicals and defending their imaginative approach to the faith.

A Well of Wonder contains essays on this group and their developing relationship with one another, and he often has interesting things to say about them. It is characterised by the sense of wonder of the title: wonder at the world in which we live, together with a great capacity to appreciate and admire the figures about whom he writes.

The Arts and the Christian Imagination contains essays defending everything to do with the arts against the suspicions of certain fundamentalist Christians. “Evangelical Christians don’t understand imagination,” he writes, and points out that the imagination is, in fact, strictly neutral, and can be used for very positive Christian ends, as it was for his seven favorite authors.

Essays in this book argue for the importance not only of the imagination, but also of poetry, the concept of beauty, human creativity, individual vision, and fiction. He defends fiction against the view that it is, at best, a well-told lie, and, from his visit to Lewis, remembers Lewis saying that “one is far more likely to find the truth in a novel than in a newspaper and that he had given up reading newspapers because they were so untruthful.”

Arguing that Christians have much to learn from all the artsm he warns against using them as tools for Christian propaganda. At the same time, any genuine work of art will be suffused with a moral vision.

Although I am not in a position to judge, I suspect that many American Evangelicals will, as a result of Kilby, have re-thought their attitude to the arts, and the essays in these two books might come across as less necessary now; but they still have a warmth and passion about them.

The books also bring home the fact that the main period in which he wrote was a golden period for Christians producing great works of art, not only the seven he focuses on, but also Eliot and Auden in poetry, and people such as Chagall in the visual arts, and others who get a passing mention.

Bishop Lord Harries of Pentre­garth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His latest book is “The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world.”

A Well of Wonder: Essays on C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein and the Inklings
Clyde S. Kilby
Loren Wilkinson and Keith Call, editors
Paraclete Press 

The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on art, literature and aesthetics
Clyde S. Kilby
Loren Wilkinson and Keith Call, editors
Paraclete Press

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