One of the most published and widely recognized books of all time is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Since its first appearance in 1678, the impact of Bunyan’s masterpiece on the Church of Jesus Christ is incalculable. The famous 19th century poet preacher C. H. Spurgeon read The Pilgrim’s Progress over one hundred times during his lifetime, and he regularly encouraged saints to read and re-read it. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, called The Pilgrim’s Progress “a book that has astonished the whole world.” Even the famous twentieth century agnostic playwright, George Bernard Shaw, stated that Bunyan’s novel greatly influenced him (he had portions of it read at his funeral), and Shaw believed it surpassed the works of William Shakespeare in quality, form and style.
John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory, meaning that the characters, settings and events in the book hold symbolic significance beyond the story itself. The story represents a Christian’s journey of faith by following the adventures of a redeemed pilgrim, who was once named “Graceless” but who now bears the name “Christian.” Like all who call on the name of the Lord, Christian is fleeing his hometown (named “The City of Destruction”) and he is heading toward the wonderful City of God. Along the “narrow” way, he encounters many temptations, many foes of his faith, and many faithful friends, each symbolizing the real challenges all Christians face and the real help God gives his people as they seek to live according to the Way.
Although it is a work of marvellous fiction, The Pilgrim’s Progress is biblically saturated: there are over two hundred direct quotations from the Bible, as well as countless paraphrases, references and allusions. About Bunyan’s biblical richness, Spurgeon states, “Why, this man [Bunyan] is a living Bible! Prick him anywhere, and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows through him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.”
One of the great strengths of Bunyan’s book is its ability to convey complicated theological truths in a clear and simple way. C.S. Lewis praises Bunyan’s unencumbered style of writing: “the light is sharp; it never comes through stained glass.” In other words, Bunyan preaches without being “preachy;” he exposes human sin and foolishness without a “holier-than-thou” disposition. Nevertheless, there is no “tickling of ears” here: sin is squarely addressed as loathsome to God, and Bunyan’s characters—who bear names reflecting their wickedness and folly—are clearly condemned. The difference is that Bunyan gives us warnings in a sincere, compassionate and humble manner. He writes with the heart of a pastor who lovingly cares for his flock.
Beyond its richness in theological truths and spiritual applications, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a superb story—that is, entertaining, engaging and exciting. Leland Ryken, Professor Emeritus of Literature at Wheaton College, notes that “the book is like Homer’s Odyssey or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—a continuous series of narrow escapes and threatening ordeals.”
Similar to life itself, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress contains moments of electrifying adventure, deep despair, great delight, gripping sadness and enjoyable humour. Woven into the fabric of his story, Bunyan beautifully entwines the spiritual, psychological and physical aspects of the human and Christian experience; with biblical insight into the heart of humanity, Bunyan portrays an admonishing, encouraging and instructive narrative of what it means to be a real Christian in this world. Pick it up, read it, enjoy it and learn from it!
See below for a poem I wrote about reading The Pilgrim's Progress, as well as a and video chat about various editions of the book.
Video notes: Readers who are less familiar with the King James Version of the Bible may have difficulty with the original seventeenth-century English edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress. There are, however, many updated and revised versions of The Pilgrim’s Progress available today. My recommended edition is The Pilgrim’s Progress in Modern English revised by L. Edward Hazelbaker—“sensitively revised for the 21st century reader”—which includes explanatory notes, a timeline and a study guide.
 Thomas Spurgeon, introduction to C.H. Spurgeon, Pictures from The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 5.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Comprising the Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 75.
 E.E. Stokes, “Bernard Shaw's Debt to John Bunyan,” The Shaw Review 8, no. 2 (1965), 42–51, www.jstor.org/stable/40682054.
 Thomas Spurgeon, introduction to C.H. Spurgeon, Pictures from The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 6.
 C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 148.
 Leland Ryken, Christian Guides to the Classics: Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 13.
Our God reveals himself in Genesis as a Creator. We also learn that we, too, are made in his image and we have the ability and desire to be creative. This is why we see artistic creations in every time and place in history. Yet Francis Schaeffer observes that Christians “have tended to relegate art to the very fringe of life… The rest of human life we feel is more important. Despite our constant talk about the lordship of Christ, we have narrowed its scope to a very small area of reality” (Art in the Bible). Many Christians ask whether time and energy should be invested in enjoying and creating works of art. What does the gospel have to do with the arts?
Whether we fully understand it or not, art matters. We see this in the increasing value of fine art at auctions and the cultural place art holds in museums and art galleries; but we also see the importance of art in historic and contemporary iconoclasm. The impulse to destroy of artistic images and monuments for political or ideological reasons ironically testifies to the enduring significance human beings place on art. In times of great cultural and ideological shifts, works of art have been targeted and destroyed and new art put in its place. Whether demolishing statues of royal predecessors in Ancient Egypt, plastering over church icons in Muslim conquered regions, or shattering stained-glass windows during the Reformation; in more recent times, iconoclasm is seen in the destruction of monuments dedicated to dictators and newly labeled social pariahs.
The reason is because art is a language. Art speaks to our emotions as well as our minds; it moves us holistically. Art also reveals what a given time, place, or culture values most. If you want to get a pulse of the prevailing worldviews of a culture, look at the art they create and the art they destroy. Francis Schaeffer, the great 20th-century apologist devoted a great deal of time and energy seeking to understand the world of the arts because he believed it clearly shows the shifting values that shapes our current cultural context. If Christ is calling his church to be “salt and light” in this time and in this place, then Christians ought to know where this culture came from and where it is going. Art is one of the best ways to see these broad stroke shifts and changes.
If interested in finding out more, join me for an online seminar Christ & Culture on July 10, 2020. I will be delivering two sessions. The first session is called Francis Schaeffer: The Gospel & the Arts, and it's designed to challenge Christians to not only see the value and beauty of the arts, but also to become more art literate to that we can effectively engage our world with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.
The second session asks the question “How Should We Then Live?” We live in unsettled and uncertain times. Fundamental truths about God and humanity are now viewed as offensive at best or hate speech at worst. Disagreement is often viewed as harmful and “truth” has been relegated to the subjective realm of personal experiences. How do we engage our current culture, which is not only opposed to God’s truth but also isn’t interested in what is true at all? To help us answer this question, we will consider the life and ministry of Francis Schaeffer, as he challenges us to live authentic, gospel transformed lives before a watching world.
Friday July 10, 2020
7:30 pm: Francis Schaeffer: The Gospel & the Arts | Q&A
9:00 pm: Francis Schaeffer: How Should We Then Live? | Q&A
I am pleased to announce the release of a new book of poems called Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life through H&E Publishing.
My poetry explores the span of a human life through the lens of faith in Jesus Christ. Although you may not be a fan of poetry, the poems are written to be clear and accessible, as well as “beautiful and thought-provoking” (Malcolm Guite, poet and chaplain at Cambridge University). English professor and author Karen Swallow Prior recommends Undiminished Returns “to all who wish to expand or even just begin their understanding and appreciation of poetry.” The poetry is meant to be reflective and devotional. Author and English professor, Leland Ryken, observes that the short poems collected in the book “are devotional poems of the highest order, meeting the essential criteria of fixing a reader’s thoughts on the spiritual life and (as John Milton put it) setting the affections in right tune.” Andrew Roycroft, poet, blogger, and pastor of Millisle Baptist Church in Northern Ireland, describes Undiminished Returns as “a deeply satisfying collection of poems—formally, psychologically, and spiritually.” The collection of new poems are written for our time, as Professor of English and Humanities, Doug Sikkema, notes: “in an age of irony, Johnston’s direct, sincere voice provides one healing word after another.”
My book is entering the final stages of publication, but my publisher has released a special pre-order 42% discount on the book. You can order the book with shipping and tax for just $15.79 Cdn).
Here is the pre-order link.
Please feel free to share this link widely with those who you think might benefit from my book. See below for more endorsements of the book.
Click here for a sampling of the poems included in Undiminished Returns.
Praise for Undiminished Returns
"I am often asked how to read poetry and what poetry to read. I will recommend Undiminished Returns to all who wish to expand or even just begin their understanding and appreciation of poetry. By including an educational introduction and selections from history’s great poets, this collection of original poems—written in a variety of forms and about significant themes—is a veritable course in poetry. Even more, the verses within form a beautiful, poetic exploration of a soul in pilgrimage." KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR, author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist
"What does it mean to believe and be haunted by doubt? Or to doubt yet be haunted by belief? Johnston’s poems, evidence of a life steeped in words and the Word, give voice to a secular condition ill-at-ease with our freedom and autonomy from God. In an age of irony, Johnston’s direct, sincere voice provides one healing word after another." DOUG SIKKEMA, regular contributor to Comment magazine and assistant Professor of English and Core Humanities at Redeemer University
"It is in the very nature of poetry that it offers undiminished returns. You can return to the same poem over and over and find that it is richer and has more to offer on each return, indeed one poem, in the midst of such returns, often generates another. So it is with this fine collection from Jeremy W. Johnston; he has returned us to the classic form of the sonnet and taken inspiration from the likes of George Herbert and Christina Rossetti, and in doing so he has crafted a collection of beautiful and thought-provoking new poetry. This return to formal verse is not a repetition but a renewal." MALCOLM GUITE, poet, musician, Chaplain at Girton College, Cambridge, and the author of numerous books of poetry and prose, including Sounding the Seasons, After Prayer, and Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Undiminished Returns is a deeply satisfying collection of poems—formally, psychologically, and spiritually. Charting the pilgrim path with candour and with a cadence and rhythm which capture the spirit as well as the body of being a believer, Jeremy W. Johnston opens up the private world of deeply held faith in a way which is at once unaffectedly personal, and touchingly universal. There are echoes here of Herbert, Bunyan, and Hopkins, all flowing into an original voice whose range can convey to us the grandeur of God, the sorrow of sin, and the fearful beauty of salvation in Christ Jesus. These are poems to turn the heart heavenwards, pieces which both capture what is easily seen, and highlight what is easily missed in Christian spirituality. These poems are a joy to read, and will be returned to again and again for their lyricism, thoughtfulness, and God-glorifying focus." ANDREW ROYCROFT, poet, blogger at thinkingpastorally.com, and pastor of Millisle Baptist Church in Northern Ireland
"This book is all that a book should be, starting with its marvelous title. Johnston’s poems are devotional poems of the highest order, meeting the essential criteria of fixing a reader’s thoughts on the spiritual life and (as Milton put it) setting the affections in right tune. A particular strength of the collection as a whole is its arrangement of the Christian life according to a chronological principle, tracing life in Christ from its beginning to its consummation. The book offers additional riches as well. The personal reflections at the beginning and close of the book are engaging and instructive. The quotations from famous Christian writers that are scattered as epigraphs throughout the book are priceless. The book sparkles with a sense of authorial attentiveness to every detail." LELAND RYKEN, professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College, literary editor of the ESV Bible, and the author / editor of over fifty books, including The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts and The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasure of Classic Devotional Poems
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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