This is a poem I wrote in the fall of last year after visiting a large used bookstore. I was in search of a book by American novelist John Steinbeck called The Pearl. The novella is about a pearl diver who spends his life hunting for naturally occurring pearls found in molluscs on the ocean floor. The book is about perseverance but also about humanity's greed-fueled pursuit for more. In entering the massive bookstore in search of this book, it felt like I was a lone diver in a "sea of books," looking for a single pearl. As I searched, my mind and heart drifted toward Jesus' "Parable of the Pearl" (Matthew 13:45-46).
Listen to the author read his poem below.
I recently wrote an essay on the pioneering poet Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672). She was America’s first published poet and one of the first professional female poets in English literature. Read about this amazing poet and pilgrim on The Imaginative Conservative. Check it out!
When I was perhaps five or six years old, I first encountered J.R.R. Tolkien through his book The Hobbit. At the time, my older brother was reading The Hobbit, possibly for a school assignment or maybe just for pleasure. Over several evenings, he recited summaries of the parts he had finished reading, regaling me with incredible adventures of Middle Earth. Like so many before and after me, I took tremendous delight in the setbacks and successes of Tolkien’s unlikely and humble hero, Bilbo Baggins, as he contended with grumpy dwarves, nasty trolls, and a fierce dragon. I am thankful for my older brother, who engaged me with snippets of this marvellous tale like a bard-of-old.
A few years later, when I was browsing the shelves of my middle school library, I saw The Hobbit again. Although I immediately recognized the title, the cover of that particular edition was unusual: Bilbo—the hero—was a portly individual with a wig-like mop of curls and a stubby, little sword. Bilbo looked nothing like the archetypal heroes of 1980s film and television shows that I had watched as a kid. In stark contrast to strapping stars like Burt Reynolds, Harrison Ford, and Tom Selleck, this portrait of Bilbo seemed out-of-place. He looked more like a curly-haired version of the comedian Dom DeLuise, who often played comical sidekicks in farcical films like Cannonball Run (1981). This is hardly the sort of hero who face-off with trolls, spiders, and a dragon. The illustration was further marred by a demonic-looking Gollum, who resembled a hairless version of the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. The cover of this mass market edition—now considered one of the worst covers of Tolkien’s numberless re-printed books—nearly dissuaded me from discovering for myself the wonders of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Fortunately, I trusted my brother, and I knew not to “judge a book by its cover.” So, I borrowed The Hobbit from the school library and found myself enraptured by Tolkien’s account of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Wizard, and thirteen dwarves.
Since I discovered The Hobbit, I have read The Lord of the Rings numerous times, along with many of Tolkien’s other works. I have devoured books and biographies about Tolkien and his remarkable friendship with C.S. Lewis. In particular, I read Humphrey Carpenter’s seminal biography J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. This ground-breaking work on the life of Tolkien gave me a deeper appreciation and love for the man behind the epic myth. Since Carpenter’s authorized biography appeared in 1977, several books were published about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien. There are also many books of collected literary criticism, illustrations, and letters by Tolkien, as well as numerous posthumously published versions of his creative writing and translation work. There now exists numerous blogs, podcasts, societies, clubs, journals, documentaries, films, paintings, graphic novels, songs, etc., that are inspired by and about Tolkien and his Legendarium.
In August 2020, H&E Publishing commissioned me to write a short, accessible, spiritual biography of the Maker of Middle Earth. This is a daunting task but also an incredible honour. Since August, I have been immersing myself in all things Tolkien. I have also been writing as often as I can spare the time. In a Tolkien-saturated literary landscape, some have asked me why I’m writing another biography on J.R.R. Tolkien. My aim for the book is to explore his life through the lens of his Christian faith. All of Tolkien’s biographies touch on his Christian faith—some to a lesser degree and some to a greater degree. Many writers and scholars have also examined his Christian worldview through his books; however, no single biographer (that I am aware of) seeks to consider his spirituality as the central focus of his life. In some cases, Tolkien’s spirituality is downplayed or ignored entirely, as is the case with the recent biopic film Tolkien (2019), a beautifully filmed but patchy portrayal of J.R.R. Tolkien. The biography that I hope to write is intended to show readers that Tolkien’s faith was central to his personal and familial life, as well as his professional pursuits and creative imagination.
So far, researching and writing about Tolkien has been a labour of love. When my biography is published, I trust that this love and appreciation for the Maker of Middle Earth and his writings will pour off the pages into the hearts of those who read and enjoy my book. Those who are new to Tolkien will be in for a treat. Much like his books, Tolkien’s life is full of tragedy and triumph. Those old veterans of Middle Earth—especially those who have read Tolkien for more years than I have been alive—I suspect they have not yet grown weary of hearing retellings of the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
 Ballantine released this mass-market paperback edition of The Hobbit in the 1980s. It seemed to populate school libraries and book fairs across North America, probably dissuading a whole generation of readers from ever picking up the book.
 My brother, it should also be noted, introduced me to the world of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia by giving me my own set of Narnia books. He recommended that I read the books in the order Lewis wrote them (i.e., starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) as opposed to in chronological order (i.e., beginning with The Magician’s Nephew), a habit I still follow when revisiting Narnia.
 I also read Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the informal literary group of which Tolkien and Lewis were founding members (The Inklings, 1978). Carpenter also collected and published a volume of select Tolkien letters (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981).
 Over forty years after Tolkien’s death, dozens and dozens of previously unpublished works were brought to print by the Tolkien Estate; among the most prominent of these posthumous publications are works such as The Silmarillion (1977), The History of Middle Earth (12 volumes published between 1983 and 1996), Roverandum (1998), The Children of Hurin (2007) and Beowulf (2014).
Lake Erie after the storm
I sit, suspended--
held above the sand
by canvas and wood.
I am a spectator to a war.
I am an impartial observer on this shore.
Froth crested mountains surge forward,
writhing and enraged.
Each pressing wave devour each other with frenzy
like wild berserkers
assaulting the limits of reason.
Watching with wonder
wave upon wave upon wave--
shouting tumult, ceaselessly roaring
march against the shore.
Silently drinking up every
battalion to the last man
immovable as God himself.
Why do the nations rage?
Why does my heart rage?
The earth and sand and rock remain
despite the bluster, the pounding,
The shore remains.
© 2021 Jeremy W. Johnston
One of the hallmarks of faith is remembering. The Bible frequently exhorts us to remember what God has done. Both in the Old and New Testaments, God calls his people to remember. God remembers, God's people remember, and God's people sometimes call on God to remember. For example, in Exodus 12 during the liberation of Israelites from Egyptian captivity, we see several examples of remembering. After 430 years, God remembers and fulfills a promise he made to bring his people back to the land of Abraham, their father. The people remember God's promises to Abraham and God calls them to establish the Passover as a memorial of what God is about to do in their midst. What also stands out is that the people of God remembered to bring Joseph's bones with them. Egypt had forgotten all about Joseph. He was the second-in-command ruler who saved the surrounding nations and Egypt from famine. Under Joseph's leadership, Egypt became wealthy, well-fed, and powerful. Four centuries later, cultural amnesia set in, and the Egyptians forgot their own history. The people of God, however, did not.
There is a parallel to our own day. As Tim Challies recently observed,
It’s increasingly obvious that the modern West has become antihistorical. The past is no longer seen as a useful guide to the present or future, but a misleading, unreliable one. Those who lived in the past are more likely to be dishonoured than honoured. The study of history itself is often seen as wasteful or even dangerous.
This anti-historical attitude is perhaps best seen in the ahistorical "cancel" culture that is rampant in the Western world. Without understanding context, circumstances, and worldviews that influence and shape a particular time and place, our culture is superficially dismissing the past as irrelevant at best and downright evil at worst. The contributions of people, events, and institutions from history are being judged and summarily executed in social media "kangaroo courts." The tweets and blogs and YouTube rants are shaping public perception and public policy. Instead of learning from the past, we have declared war on it. Instead of seeking to understand how perceptions, context, and beliefs shaped various times and places, we universally condemn the past for having different values and beliefs than we do. Instead of understanding how the past has shaped our present perceptions, context, and beliefs and how they still shape us in this time and place, we are glutting on self-admiration and virtue signalling as we dig up the dead and lynch old bones. I need to interject here that we do need to reckon with the past. Evils have been perpetrated, and in many cases, reconciliation and restitution must follow. But before we can reckon with the past, we first need to understand what happened, how it happened, to whom it happened, and why it happened. That is what history is all about. Not only do we need to remember, but we need to remember rightly.
But we have not only forgotten about Canadian and world history. Like the Ancient Egyptians who forgot about the remarkable contributions of Joseph, our own society has forgotten about the civic, social, cultural, political, economic, intellectual benefits of the Christian faith and the church. Not that the primary goal of the gospel is to transform society; however, it is a byproduct of revival and redemption of individuals within a society. Christians are salt and light. We need to remember what God has done in our midst. The world forgets, but we shouldn't. We aren't mired in the past but we should remember. Memory should lead both to gratitude and to fearlessness! If Christians remember the impact of Christ-followers on shaping their own time and place, Christians will be better equipped to continue shaping our present time and place. We need to be thankful for and avail ourselves of the countless biographies and the few faithful historians (such as scholars like Dr. Michael Haykin) who help us remember God's faithfulness to his faithful ones. Let us remember the past, to live in the present so that we can shape the future.
I had the opportunity to chat with Cody Kaufmann ("Poetry Piper Podcast") all about the death of words. We discuss the clarity of words, how words die, and the implications of dying words, all based on an essay by C.S. Lewis aptly named "The death of words" (from The Spectator, 22 September 1944). We also touch on Lewis's book Studies in Words (Cambridge UP, 1960). Although we eschew our culture's incessant use of "actually, you know, and like" I incessantly use words like "actually, you know, and like..." Anyway, it's actually a great conversation, which, you know, you will like, I'm sure... Give it a listen! (Two parts)
Episode 12 | Season 1 | The Death of Words - Part 1 (Originally aired DECEMBER 09, 2020)
Episode 13 | Season 1 | The Death of Words - Part 2 (Originally aired DECEMBER 16, 2020)
Our present age of obnoxious selfies and kitschy self-promotion campaigns have made it difficult for Christian artists, musicians, and writers to promote their work without coming across as glory-seekers clamouring for the spotlight. What is the right course of action? Should Christian creators seek out public platforms for their work? In this recent article on TGC Canada, I tackle these questions! Click here.
Today is the Feast Day of Epiphany, the traditional date when the Magi arrived to see the Christ-child. This date in the church calendar celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the world (not just the people of Israel) as symbolized by the Gentile wise men who were "invited" from the East by a star. The Magi were distinguished foreigners who first go to Jerusalem, where the religious leaders pointed them to Bethlehem. Interestingly, the religious leaders misquote the prophecy from Micah (cp. Matthew 2:6 and Micah 5:2). Nevertheless, they get Bethlehem right, and so the Magi make the short jounrey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to see this newborn king.
Below is a poem I wrote to capture the expansion of Christ's Kingdom to include all the world. I draw a parallel between the Gentile Egyptians in Exodus and the coming of the Gentile Magi in Matthew 2. In Exodus 12:35-36, the Egyptians gave the exiting Israelites precious gifts (gold and silver jewlery and fine linens), some of which was used to make the Ark of the Covenant and the furniture for the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle means "God dwells with us." In Matthew, the Gentile Magi also give gifts, willingly and in worship, to Immanuel--"God with us!" Like the Magi, we are invited to come, and like them, we receive more than we give. In this poem, I examine this shift from gift giving to recieving the greatest gift, Jesus Christ. He is God with us.
Sunday, January 3, 1892
Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, Africa
J.R.R. Tolkien was born 129 years ago on a warm Sunday morning in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, in what is today known as South Africa. He was named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien by his father Arthur and his mother Mabel (née Suffield). In a letter home to the baby’s grandmother back in England, Arthur described his firstborn as a “beautiful little son” who arrived earlier than expected, although both the mother and the baby were healthy and well. Arthur goes on to say that the baby “has beautiful hands and ears (very long fingers), very light hair, ‘Tolkien’ eyes and a very distinctly ‘Suffield’ mouth.” Two of Tolkien’s names were family names. “John” is the first name of both maternal and paternal grandfathers, John Suffield and John Tolkien. The name “Reuel” was taken from Arthur’s middle name, and derives from a Hebrew word meaning “friend of God.” Tolkien’s second name, “Ronald,” was the name given specifically to him by his parents, and this is the name they used when addressing him.
It is not commonly known that Tolkien, the famous English writer who gave the world hobbits, was actually born in Africa. Many biographers and inquisitors into the life of J.R.R. Tolkien have pondered the degree to which his life in South Africa shaped his writing and his outlook on life. Tolkien only lived in South Africa for only three years, however, so he retained only a handful of vivid memories from his time in Bloemfontein. One such memory was of his an African Christmas, with “blazing sun, drawn curtains and a drooping eucalyptus.” Another half-remembered recollection was when Tolkien, as a toddler, stumbled upon a tarantula in the garden. The venomous spider bit Tolkien, and although he doesn’t remember the spider itself, he recalls running in terror to his nanny who sensibly sucked out the potentially lethal poison from the boy’s wound. Later in life, Tolkien states that he had no negative feelings toward spiders as a result of this partially forgotten event; however, in his writing, Tolkien paints terrifying portraits of numerous villainous spiders in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and elsewhere in his legendarium. Certainly one of the most gripping and terrifying scenes in The Two Towers—the second volume in The Lord of the Rings series—is the battle between Frodo and Samwise and the monstrous spider Shelob!
Tolkien himself notes that one of the most powerful memories of his time in Africa was actually his departure from Bloemfontein. Bloemfontein was his first home, so the climate, terrain, and the flora and fauna of South Africa were the only aspects of the world that he knew during his early formative years. In a letter to his son Christopher many years later, he writes about the impact of leaving his first, known world: “My own rather sharp memory is probably due to the dislocation of all my childhood ‘pictures’ between 3 and 4 by leaving Africa.” This feeling of dislocation and dislodgement from home is certainly a major theme in much of Tolkien’s later writing. Tolkien goes on to say that he sought to cope with the many setbacks in life by transforming these experiences “into another form and symbol with Morgoth and Orcs and the Eldalie (representing beauty and grace of life and artefact) and so on; and it has stood me in good stead in many hard years…” Although Tolkien wasn’t fond of biographical investigation as a means to identify the “source” of his literary works, he admits to his son how this own life experiences provided the groundwork for the imaginative world of Middle Earth. For example, Tolkien’s early experiences of displacement from Africa to England—where his left both his home and his father—can be seen in The Lord of the Rings. The theme of dislocation is prominent in the lives of Tolkien’s major characters, such as Frodo and the hobbits displaced from the Shire, as well as Théoden and the Rohirrim who were forced to flee Meduseld, and Aragorn as a wandering ranger dislocated from Gondor. But, feelings of dislocation are also evident in the lives of minor characters like the Gondorians, as well as the elves mournfully leaving Middle Earth.
The idea of dislocation goes beyond Tolkien’s early childhood experiences, however. Tolkien became a devout Christian at a young age, and he kept the faith “by the mercy of God”—as he told his son Michael—remaining a devout follower of Christ for the rest of his life. His Christian and biblical worldview permeates all of his writing. In a letter to the English poet W.H. Auden, Tolkien writes that he wrote The Lord of the Rings “to be consonant with Christian thought and belief,” and in another letter he states that it is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” As is evident from Tolkien’s life and writing, his own faith in Christ was no mere addendum to his life; it was central. So it is no surprise that in Tolkien’s writing, the notion of dislocation is viewed through a deeper theological and Christian lens. Dislocation is a central biblical theme beginning in Genesis with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden and humanity’s ensuing separation from the Creator. The Bible shows that the ultimate antidote to humanity’s deep-seated sense of dislocation is faith in Christ—“a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). Belief in Christ ultimately provided Tolkien with a fixed refuge from the many uncertainties he had experienced in these early chapters of his life. These hardships were of no small consequence: moving from his home in Africa, losing both his father and mother by the age of 12, and experiencing the death of dear friends in the Great War by his mid-twenties. Reflecting on the turmoil of his early life, Tolkien writes in a letter to his son Michael about his fixed belief in Christ and who he claims to be:
“It takes a fantastic will of unbelief to suppose that Jesus never really ‘happened’, and more to suppose that he did not say the things recorded of him—so incapable of being ‘invented’ by anyone in the world at that time: such as ‘before Abraham came to be I am’ (John viii). ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’ (John ix); or the promulgation of the Blessed Sacrament in John v: ‘He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life’. We must therefore either believe in Him and in what he said and take the consequences; or reject him and take the consequences.”
Again, during Second World War, Tolkien writes of his faith sustaining him while separated from his son Christopher while the world was at war. Tolkien states
“there is still some hope that things may be better for us, even on the temporal plane, in the mercy of God. And though we need all our natural human courage and guts […] and all our religious faith to face evil that may befall us (as it befalls others, if God wills) still we may pray and hope. I do.”
So as we face uncertain days in the New Year ahead, may we—like Tolkien—seek comfort and hope in Christ, who “will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge” (Isaiah 33:6 NIV).
 Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1977), 25.
 Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1977), 26
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “163. To W.H. Auden, 7 June 1955,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 213.
 Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1977), 27.
 In The Hobbit, for example, Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves battle giant spiders in Mirkwood; in The Silmarillion, Tolkien gives us a gigantic and hideous spider-like creature called Ungoliant.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “73. To Christopher Tolkien, 10 June 1944,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 85.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “73. To Christopher Tolkien, 10 June 1944,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 85.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “250. To Michael Tolkien, 1 November 1963,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 340.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “269. To W.H. Auden, 12 May 1965” and “142. To Robert Murray, 2 December, 1952” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 355, 172.
 See Genesis 3:23–24.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “250. To Michael Tolkien, 1 November 1963,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 338.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “64. To Christopher Tolkien, 30 April 1944,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 76.
This past year has been challenging to say the least. Concerns about climate change, the environment, and stewarding the earth’s finite resources, to human rights concerns, to political and economic upheaval, to civil disobedience and sometimes violent protests, to a global pandemic… Many folks are looking forward to turning the page on their calendars and starting a fresh new year. But if hindsight is 20/20, then we should see clearly that our problems are much bigger and much harder to solve then a mere change in date. As my friend and publisher, Chance Faulkner, recently noted, humanity’s hope is not in 2021 but in Christ alone. Christ is our future hope, and he is our past and present hope. As we enter this new year, let us look to Christ, the only hope of the nations (Matthew 12:17–21; Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 42:1; Isaiah 49:6, 51:4-5; Isaiah 61:4-5; Isaiah 61:6; 1 Peter 2:9-10). In him you will find peace and rest and justice in turbulent times; in him you will find light and joy in dark times.
Below is my poem “Violent Winds,” which appears in my collection of poems Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christion Life (H&E Publishing, 2020). The poem is a prayer to God to rescue us not only from the challenges of our present world crisis but also from our self-made mess of sin and destruction. It is a fitting prayer for this New Year.
"Violent Winds," a sonnet, read by the author.
Here is the final video from my advent poetry series. In this episode, I read two poems reflecting on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Within Protestant circles, Mary is often overlooked. However, she stands as a beautiful example of grace, humility, and faith. I hope and pray you will be blessed by this reflection. Merry Christmas!
In this Christmas poem, "A winter feast," I embed a line from C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where he describes Narnia before the coming of Aslan as "always winter but never Christmas." My poem is about what our lives are like before Christ breaks in and changes our cold, dark December into a merry time of lights, beauty, joy, and peace. I hope you enjoy it!
For one week only (Monday, December 7 to Saturday, December 12), you can purchase directly from the author copies of Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life (H&E, 2020) and All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts (Joshua Press, 2018). The price for a single copy of either book is $12. If you buy two or more, the price is $10 each. No shipping if pick-up or delivery is in Hamilton and area. Send an email to email@example.com to place your order.
Note: Unfortunately, this sale does not apply to US or international sales. Please see H&E Publishing or Amazon.
All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts
Joshua Press, 2018 SALE PRICE $12 ea. or $10 ea. for two or more copies
This is a collection of essays on Christianity, culture & the arts, most of which appeared in Barnabas magazine over the past decade. The essays are split into six sections, focusing on art & creativity, the artist’s call, literature, music, cinema and faith & culture. The idea of the essays is to engage Christians to think through how their faith impacts their interaction and involvement with arts & culture, specifically in seeing the value of the imagination, the enrichment creativity brings to all of society and the delight the arts bring to daily life.
During a fresh morning snowfall, I took the opportunity to read a couple of my Advent poems from my new book of poetry, "Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life" (H&E Publishing 2020). Enjoy these wintery readings!
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
All CHRISTMAS COVID 19 CS LEWIS DOUBT EASTER Family Worship FRANCIS SCHAEFFER GUEST BLOG POST JRR TOLKIEN MONK'S GUIDE ON ARCHITECTURE ON DEATH ON EXCELLENCE ON HISTORY ON MUSIC ON OLD BOOKS ON POETRY ON THE ARTS ON WRITING PODCAST POETRY PRAYER THANKSGIVING TOLKIEN