It’s become more common today to see churches, denominations, and religious organizations begin to embrace and grapple with the role of the Christian (and the church) in the arts. But it’s been a long time coming.
The reason for that long time coming has been what can only be called antagonism, likely born in the Protestant Reformation. Protestants not only looked to reform theology; they also were done with icons, church paintings, and statues, seeing these as idolatrous. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fundamentalists and others turned their backs on culture, both popular and “high.” Art, movies, magazines, novels, and other aspects of culture were often considered a danger.
By the 1970s, a Christian imitation of popular culture had begun to appear, especially in music, self-help books, and fiction. “CCM” or “Christian Contemporary Music” became widely known, and secular music producers began buying up Christian labels. The same thing has happened over time with Christian books, with many Christian publishers now subsidiaries or imprints of larger secular concerns. But much of what is called Christian is still clearly separated from the general culture.
Also in the 1970s, Francis Schaeffer was one of the first spokesmen for Christians to re-engage with the culture at large. He, and many others, could clearly see the decay of secular culture – essentially what was happening without the redeeming “salt” of Christianity. The decline seemed to be happening quickly, but it had actually been happening for more than a century.
But before there was Francis Schaeffer, there was Clyde Kilby.
Kilby (1902-1986) was a long-time professor of English and department head at Wheaton College in Illinois. He also happened to be a passionate advocate for the arts. He taught literature and poetry and fought the good fight to defend both, and especially poetry. He was heavily influenced by British Christian writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and other members of the Inklings. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Marion Wade Center at Wheaton, what became a major research center and document depository for the works of Lewis, Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, George Macdonald, and Charles Williams.
Various manuscripts and essays by Kilby have been collected and published under the title of The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature, and Aesthetics. It’s almost uncanny how Kilby advocated for and anticipated the renewed Christian involvement in the arts, which is only now beginning to gain velocity.
The collection is divided into four sections. The first, “Christianity, the Arts, and Aesthetics,” includes a lengthy unpublished manuscript by Kilby drawn partially from his published essays as well as original material. He was especially interested in form in the arts, but parted company with academics, critics, and artists who saw form as everything. Kilby, says collection editor Willian Dyrness in his introduction, understood form in a radically different way: “True form, for the Christian, is exemplified by the Spirit-filled life. It is more closely connected to being than doing.”
The second section, “The Vocation of the Artist,” discusses the Christian and culture, a defense of beauty, individuality, and evangelicalism and human freedom. “Faith and the Role of the Imagination” is the third section, followed by a section specifically addressing poetry and fiction, two art forms too long neglected or ignored by the Christian community. Kilby, in fact, saw Jesus as more of a poet than an expositor, and said that “we have forsaken the poetry of Christianity for it prose, and especially its dull expository prose.”
Kilby was the author of several works about Lewis and Tolkien, including The Christian World of C.S. Lewis (1964); Tolkien and the Silmarillion (1971); Images of Salvation in the Fiction of C.S. Lewis (1978); and Brothers & Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis (1983). He served as editor for C.S. Lewis: Letters to an American Lady (1967). And a companion volume to The Arts and the Christian Imagination, A Well of Wonder: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings, was also published in 2016. Kilby also published Minority of One: A Biography of Jonathan Blanchard (1982).
The Arts and the Christian Imagination has insights and thought-provoking observations on almost every page. Kilby was a shrewd observer of both the contemporary arts and how Christians did, and didn’t respond to and participate in them. It’s an important collection that is pertinent for Christians and for anyone who cares about the arts today.
Photograph: Whitby Abbey in the United Kingdom by George Hodan, via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.