Book Review: Saving The Appearances

Saving The Appearances:  A Study In Idolatry, by Owen Barfield

Having never read anything by the author before, although I have long known about him as a member of the Inklings, I can see how it was that both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were influenced by his clear and sound and striking thinking.  This book is, as its subtitle makes plain, a study in idolatry, and it does so in an immensely thoughtful way that exposes the ugly magical nature of contemporary thinking while encouraging the reader to an appreciation of both medieval thinking as well as biblical thinking.  The author simultaneously recognizes the difference between Greek and Hebrew thinking while viewing both of them as superior to ancient paganism and contemporary materialist thinking.  And if the author believes it is too late for humanity to enjoy the sort of naive participation that allowed for allegorical thinking in the past, he believes that we can achieve a non-idolatrous participation that recognizes I and thou through the conscious and intentional workings of the mind.  The author views the parabolic reasoning of Jesus Christ in the Gospels as being an important aspect of this process, which ought to please some of his readers even as the author’s discussion of the idolatry of scientism will likely go over the head of many contemporary readers, alas.

This book is a relatively short but powerful one at less than 200 pages, and it begins with an introduction to its 1987 edition as well as the original introduction.  After that the author discusses the reality of the rainbow (1), the importance of collective representations of reality (2), and the relationship between figuration and thinking (3) and the matter of participation (4).  The author discusses various views of prehistory (5), original participation as it occurred in ancient heathen thinking (6), and the meaning of appearance and hypothesis in medieval thinking (7).  The author discusses the problematic relationship between technology and truth (8) as well as the evolution of idolatry (9) and understanding of phenomena (10) between the premodern and modern Western world.  After that there is a discussion of the medieval thinking environment (11), some changes (12), and of the texture of medieval thought (13).  The author compares the difference of thinking before and after the Scientific revolution (14), mind and motion in the Greco-Roman world (15), and the importance of Israel’s anti-idolatrous approach (16).  After this historical context the author writes about the development of meaning (17), the origin of language (18), symptoms of iconoclasm (19), and the author’s thoughts about conscious and intentional final participation (20).  After this the author discusses saving the appearances (21), space time and wisdom (22), matters of religion (23), the incarnation of the Word (24), and then, finally, the mystery of the Kingdom of God (25), after which there is an index.

Every human worldview that seeks to raise itself against God’s ways requires iconoclasts willing and able to tear down the strongholds of those arguments that would seek to attack the laws and ways of the Eternal, and this book does a good job at showing the internal contradictions that are present within materialism that makes it impossible to avoid degrading others and engaging in idolatrous thinking that fails to demonstrate self-awareness and that seeks to do violence to our language and even threaten the possibility of genuine insight about the world around us and how it can be collectively understood and represented.  The fact that the author can talk about a seemingly esoteric subject like idolatry and make it chillingly relevant and present a scope of the history of consciousness and how it has varied over the ages demonstrates considerable insight.  A good deal of the author’s intent is to encourage the reader to avoid the chronological snobbery that thinks we understand the past and how people thought and are superior to it when that is frequently not the case, and the author even manages to demonstrate the importance of creativity to the contemporary mind and the importance of that creativity being turned towards moral ends rather than being praised without discernment or discrimination.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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