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.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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