Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: Saving the Appearances

The Owen Barfield Reading Tour continues. Saving the Appearances was a bit more uncomfortable for me to read than Poetic Diction, which had been written by Barfield about a quarter century before. It's a smidgen less pithy than Poetic Diction and lost me in abstract terms a few times -- something that never happened in Poetic Diction -- but if I want to be honest, the reason Saving the Appearances made me uncomfortable is that in it, Barfield goes after science. Well, "goes after" is a little too harsh, because Barfield is not suggesting a return to Medeival non-science -- he's suggesting going forward from what he terms the "idolatry" of materialism and scientism. He does it with the same dense but clear style that was such a revelation to me in Poetic Diction, and my goodness, I used to think some writers made me think but Barfield leaves everyone else in the dust for making you THINK. I spent as much time staring off into space processing what I just read as I did actually reading.

I'm going to have a bunch of quotes coming up to show you exactly what I mean by all this, but for now, my recommendation is to definitely read Poetic Diction first, but then read this one. At the end of the book Barfield finally gets specific about Christianity and he just rattles off fascinating paragraphs about topics I've spent years thinking about -- the creation of Adam, how to take the Eucharist, etc. -- and in each case he says something I've never really heard before (although I hear echoes of these ideas in Tolkien and Lewis).

A few "really?!" moments: the proposal that Galileo was insisting that the church's model of the heavens was wrong and that his was the only one to be right (with Barfield's implicit support of the proposal that BOTH could be right?!); the assertion that evolution and the Christian faith naturally go together (Lewis was never quite that sanguine, although his long quote from the Problem of Pain about human evolution would fit right in with Barfield's ideas); and the quote that I think may go too far, that "Man is the messiah of nature" in interpreting Romans 8.

I'm beginning to understand why Barfield isn't more widely read. He is indeed brilliant and seminal, but while Lewis and Tolkien work to make themselves accessible, Barfield is intent on clarity but not as much accessibility. He is intent on iconoclasm and that's an uncomfortable thing! He and Lewis do not agree on every point, but the importance of his thought is obvious in Lewis's quote that Barfield was "the wisest and best of my unofficial teachers". Your mind may be blown, and the fact that he's a Christian may not be obvious till the end of this book, and you may argue with him on certain points (I think I will!) but I fully recommend taking a "class" from Professor Barfield. (Even though he never was a professor, this was his side work from his day job as a barrister!)

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