May 2017

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. Christ as poet more than doctrine-giver does not, however, reject creedal formulation. Evangelicals can open their minds to the artistic without losing doctrinal and moral clarity.

In Poincaré, Kilby finds inspiration in the aesthetic qualities of mathematics. The Frenchman expresses more than an intellectual interest in mathematics, evoking “the feeling of mathematical beauty, of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance,” Kilby observes. “This is a true aesthetic feeling that all real mathematicians know, and surely it belongs to emotional sensibility.”

Written before the advance of political correctness, these essays offer contemporary readers a fresh, almost innocent view of the importance of truth, including how it serves as a standard for aesthetics. The reference to Poincaré shows the possibility of mathematics as an art and an expression of metaphor and beauty. By broadening our understanding of proportion, moderation, and symmetry, mathematics in turn can contribute to an understanding of aesthetics.

Kilby cites Poincaré in order to highlight mathematics’ vocation as one of the arts. Math’s beauty stems from the “elements [being] harmoniously disposed so that the mind without effort can embrace their totality without realizing the details.” One sees here connections to poetry, music, or painting.

Kilby is not a revolutionary. His thoughts parallel in some ways the ressourcement wing of Vatican II in reaching back to the Church’s roots, attempting to get his readers to reawaken Christianity’s metaphorical insights that so astounded the ancients. Evangelicals are boring because their tamed Gospel fails to inspire them to do great things in their work and art.

This reflects another major theme in the essays: Evangelicals fail to take their daily work as seriously as they should because they are always searching for something more spiritually romantic. Christianity’s true revolution originates from making the everyday spiritual and giving it eternal value as opposed to prompting pie-in-the-sky quests. Jesus used everyday things to illustrate His points. His parables themselves were art because His novel metaphors, amounting to fresh spiritual insights, brought new spiritual depth to daily life.

This dramatic re-visualization of the commonplace turns ordinary life into a spiritual journey. Kilby observes: “I cannot overemphasize my conviction that Christianity is a dangerous religion. Our trouble is that we are not willing to let it be what it really is — dangerous. We seem determined to tame it, finally to reduce it to…expository clarity.” Thus, mid-20th-century evangelicals are un-spiritual: “The expository demon has got us,” he concludes, as exemplified in unimaginative hermeneutics stuck at the literal.

Not surprisingly, Kilby roots aesthetics in the everyday, listing the occupations of famous poets: “Chaucer was a man of business and a member of Parliament, Shakespeare an actor and theatre manager”; “Milton became blind through his toil as Secretary of the Commonwealth”; “Burns was a Scottish plowman and tax assessor.” He calls for a balanced, even practical, aesthetics grounded in reality. These poets were not detached from the mundane, but rather expanded our awareness of it.

Taken as a whole, Kilby’s writings are jarring for the contemporary reader accustomed to relativism. Kilby is confident that truth exists and that we can go some way in finding it, starting from our acceptance of the Gospel. From this foundation, we set out into an expanded world. That journey needs to include the aesthetic in all its forms. Be bold, he tells us.

- Brian Welter



Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis.  By Nicholas Eberstadt. Templeton Press. 216 pages. $12.95.

An unheralded cultural and economic phenomenon has been developing in the U.S. for decades: The proportion of men in the workforce has declined to the point where it can be called, according to Nicholas Eberstadt, “a quiet catastrophe.” Reviewing the data, Eberstadt finds that “the death of work for a large and ever-growing contingent of America’s manhood is a peculiar and historically unprecedented problem.” America now ranks 22nd among the 23 countries listed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development for prime-age male labor-force participation, underperformed only by Italy. Eberstadt’s most stunning assertion is that “almost all of the collapse of work in adult male America over the past half century is due to the rising numbers of men no longer seeking jobs.” Such men “constitute a sort of invisible army, ghost soldiers lost in an overlooked, modern-day depression.” Seven million men do not seek any work (even in the gig economy) and, stunningly, “a life without work” has become “a viable option for today’s prime-age male.”

History provides perspective: In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” birthed the welfare state, crime rose, and “between 1965 and 2015, work rates for the American male spiraled relentlessly downward.” Moreover, in 1965, “one man out of twenty-two in the corresponding civilian noninstitutional population was economically inactive and also not in school.” Economic data for 2014 show that figure as “more than one man in seven.” By June 2016, “the ratio has dropped below one in six for an average of 17.5 percent of prime-age men with no paid work in the past month.”

Why are these men adrift, bereft of dreams and the drive to achieve them? Do public-assistance programs, family support, and cash payments for under-the-table work propagate aimlessness while shredding dignity and duty? Work ethics decline, entitlement mentalities appear to grow, and formerly unthinkable lifestyles become acceptable: “For un-working men, watching TV and movies ate up an average of five and a half hours a day,” Eberstadt observes. Disturbingly, non-working men abandon responsibilities “not only as breadwinners but as parents, family members, community members, and citizens.” The results are evident in broken families, neglected children, crime, and debt. Eberstadt asserts that this “voluntary flight from work by men” is central to “so much of America’s new dysfunction and despair.” From a sociological standpoint, he notes that “the genial indifference with which the rest of society has greeted the growing absence of adult men from the productive economy is in itself powerful testimony that these men have become essentially dispensable.”

Eberstadt highlights generational changes: Decades ago, most mothers were full-time homemakers; husbands with a wife in the workforce were stigmatized as subpar providers. Today, however, many teenage and young-adult males in school aren’t expected to have part-time jobs. Self-sufficiency and salting away funds for inevitable rainy days have historically been marks of adulthood, yet family breakdowns and corrosive cultural influences now promote permanent adolescence in a make-believe world of no consequences.

Most women are employed today, and millions of mothers who have been out of the workforce for years are generally able to find work with little trouble. Eberstadt asks, “Can the same be said today of the prime-age American man who has neither worked nor looked for work for six months, a year, or even longer?” Not so readily. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) “dispensed more than $11 billion a month to over ten million beneficiaries as of late 2014.” The Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) program, the Veterans Administration’s disability-compensation program, and others have also dispensed billions of dollars. As for expansive welfare payments, Eberstadt asserts that “it is impossible to imagine any earlier generation of younger American men reconciling themselves in such tremendous numbers to a daily routine of idleness, financed substantially by some government programs that certified them as incapable of working. And it is likewise impossible to imagine that any earlier generation of working and taxpaying Americans would find acceptable our nation’s current arrangements for supporting men who are neither working nor looking for work.” The man-child is “essentially living off the rest of us.” Eberstadt also probes the broader welfare system’s disincentives to work and the need to integrate felons into the workforce. (The felon population in 2004 was estimated at more than 16 million; in 2010, that estimate was more than 20 million.)

Data show that “if educational attainment has buoyed work rates and workforce participation for prime-age American men, changes in marriage patterns and family structure had at least as strong an influence in pulling those rates down.” In 1965, “85 percent of prime-age men were married, nearly thirty percentage points higher than in 2015.” Furthermore, explains Eberstadt, “marriage and migration decisions point to motivations, aspirations, priorities, values, and other intangibles that do so much to explain real-world human achievements.” As for immigrants, “today’s foreign-born prime-age men are more likely to have a job or be in the labor force than their native-born counterparts.” Eberstadt succinctly sums it up: “One critical determinant to being in the U.S. workforce today seems to be wanting to be there in the first place.”

Men Without Work includes alternative perspectives on the topic by Henry Olsen, who cites World War II’s historical role in providing young soldiers with skills and references, and Jared Bernstein, who probes the effects of trade deficits, manufacturing-job losses, criminal-justice reform, immigration, and globalization on employment rates. Eberstadt calls for strategies from everyone, as “only a broad and inclusive approach will develop and sustain the consensus needed” to bring prime-age non-working men “back into the workplace, back into their families, back into our civil society.” Our culture, our economy, and the spiritual well-being of our citizenry are all in play.

- Mary McWay Seaman





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