Although the Word of God comes to us supremely through faithful preaching and teaching, the Word also comes through symbolic means, like songs, music, art, architecture, poetry, public prayer, acts of service, liturgy, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. People aren’t only ears sitting in pews; we’re also eyes that see, hands that touch, and hearts that feel. People need to see the gospel as well as hear the gospel. In contemporary Christianity, one of the most commonly overlooked ways of seeing the Word is architecture.
Symbolizing and reflecting the truth, beauty, and goodness of God is one of the key benefits of intentional architectural design. Medieval Christians, many of whom were illiterate, relied on “theology in stone” to present the Word through art and architecture of basilicas and gothic cathedrals. The awe and grandeur of God are still plainly evident when you walk into one of the great cathedrals of Europe or their Gothic Revival replicas in North America. The stained glass windows, paintings, and sculptures tell tales from the Bible and church history, as well as convey moral and biblical lessons to viewers. The acoustics, grandness, and lighting create feelings of wonder for God and a keen awareness of the smallness of humanity. Author Doug Jones remarks that “architecture entices humility.” With thick walls and narrow, coloured windows that filter and mute natural light, traditional church architecture also symbolizes both separation from the outside world and a sense of the sacred.
Someone might argue that we don’t need church buildings. True. We also don’t “need” books, blogs, church picnics, seminaries, systematic theology, tracts, pianos, projectors, pews, or pulpits… but they are helpful, and the Lord uses these valuable (though unnecessary) tools to accomplish his purposes. Someone may also be concerned that aesthetically evoked emotions will serve as a substitute for an authentic relationship with God. Sadly, in some cases, this may be true. But a hammer can be a tool as well as a bludgeoning weapon. The problem isn’t necessarily with the tool but the user.
To illustrate the point, let’s take a look at another form of art that is more readily appreciated by modern Christians. Church music and hymns are a big part of Protestant worship, speaking more to our hearts and bodies than to our heads. Good theology matters in our hymnody, but the value of hymns goes beyond conveying doctrine in the lyrics. If we only wanted to transmit theology, then we wouldn’t use lyrical poetry and stirring tunes to do the job. Reading excerpts from Calvin’s Institutes would be more to the point. Yet, we choose to sing hymns, in part, because it moves our hearts. We feel music in our physical bodies as we sing and listen. Like music, architecture speaks to our “incarnated” souls. It is no wonder that Goethe describes architecture as “frozen music;” architecture helps us to feel as well as know the gospel.
We need to ask ourselves, what impressions are we giving to visitors who come to our places of worship? What messages are we sending to our congregations? Indeed, we are often limited by funding or by our situations. Some congregations rent spaces that have multiple uses, like schools, civic centres, and libraries. Architectural considerations may be off the table for many. As a substitute, consider the placement of chairs, the appearance of the stage, lighting, drapery, flowers, and artwork, and whether you use a pulpit or music stand. Do what you can to convey truth, beauty, and goodness with your surroundings, inspiring both love and wonder for the things of God. He is worthy of our efforts!
Part 3 of a three part series on architecture
This essay originally appeared in Barnabas, Vol. 12, No.3 (Summer 2020): 6
This is Part 3 of a three part series on Christianity and architecture. Click here for Part 1 "The Art of Architecture" and here for Part 2 "Architectural Gnostocism."
6/10/2021 0 Comments
Top Ten Things (Off the Top of my Head) that I Learned from my Pastor, Mentor, and Friend, Mike Wilkins (1954-2018)
It has been three years since my former pastor, mentor, and friend went home to be with the Lord. I had the privilege to know him and learn from him for nearly twenty years. Here are some nuggets of wisdom (as they come to mind) from Mike:
1) It is worth the time to re-read good books… For example, among the books Mike read and re-read countless times was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He testified how he saw new things each time, and he was reminded of good, old things that he had forgotten since the last reading. I have made it a habit to keep reading LOTR at least every two years. I also look for, read, and reread great books as often as I can.
(BONUS: He also taught me to appreciate Tom Bombadil...)
7) Write books. Mike wrote a range of books, from children’s literature to spiritually edifying books. He also inspired me and encouraged me as I put pen to paper. I have two books in print, dozens of essays published, and another couple of books in the works. Here's what he had to say about my first book, All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts: “Jeremy has brought together a diverse collection of his own Christian reflections on ‘Culture and the Arts.’ His many years of teaching English literature and the Classics and his own genuine appreciation and discernment of—and his wisdom concerning—works as diverse as The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Harry Potter books, have set him up as an experienced and knowledgeable guide to Christians, and others interested in Christian thinking.” He read and endorsed the manuscript, but he passed away shortly before the book came to print...
8) When preaching, teaching, or writing, remember that we are often doing so “on borrowed time.” This advice has been gold as I have been teaching, preaching, and writing for the last two decades. In an email he once sent me offering advice about a sermon I botched (e.g., it took me a quarter of an hour to get to the point of my message…) Mike told me to be “careful to explain what it is we are about to explain, with a view to persuading our audience that they really need to understand this.”
9) Related to number 8… If you love someone, then you will give them honest feedback. Mike did this for me in droves… I am a better teacher, preacher, and writer because of his honest and critical feedback. He said we need to offer each other the “right, delicate, but firm words” if we are going to spur each other on. I thank God for the time, thought, and energy he took offering me “the strong beer of [his] delicate criticisms…”
10) In important areas of life, always strive for excellence. In another letter, Mike reminded me that “competence looks like excellence in the midst of mediocrity.” So, I press on.
"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ" (Colossians 3:23-24).
This essay considers the enduring legacy of the great seventeenth-century allegory by John Bunyan and why we still need to read (and re-read) it today. 
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!
 Originally published in Barnabas Spring 2014 edition; this essay also appears in my book, All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts (Joshua Press, 2018).
 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.
ABOVE LEFT: 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. Recommended Edition: 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.
ABOVE RIGHT: Christian Reading in His Book (William Blake: Plate 2, 1824–27)
Marriage and family form a major thread throughout Anne Bradstreet’s poetry. She wrote touching and beautiful poems to her husband and about her children. She also wrote letters and journals of collected wisdom specifically for her sons and daughters to read and benefit from long after she passed on to glory. Living in what modern feminists might class an oppressively patriarchal society, it boggles the minds of some scholars how Anne Bradstreet could be so progressive yet so contentedly traditional as a woman, mother, and wife. She was a poet—at a time when few women were—who wrote on a range of subjects: history, politics, religion, culture, spirituality. Yet, she also wrote tenderly about the blessings of marital and maternal obligations.
The 20th-century American poet, Adrienne Rich, writes that Anne was “devotedly, even passionately married” to Simon Bradstreet. Many contemporary readers of Anne Bradstreet are surprised by this. She was only 16 years old when she married Simon while still living in England. Though he was nine years her senior, he was well known to Anne because he worked with Anne’s father and had spent considerable time with Anne’s family over the years. Simon had much to recommend him to her as well: he was the son of a minister, he was a Cambridge man, and he was highly esteemed by both his employers and the family. One of Anne’s biographers notes that despite their age difference, there is every indication that Simon had only respect for Anne’s intellect and opinions. His love for her is evident in their forty-four-year love story that defies modern mistaken views of Puritans and their attitudes toward marital life.
A number of Anne’s best poems corroborate the depth of their relationship, revealing her unwavering love and commitment to her husband. Despite Bradstreet’s love poetry and the effusive personal love letters of other Puritans, there persists a negative view of Puritan matrimony, that they were literally “puritanical” in the pejorative sense—that is, stodgy, stifled, and opposed to sex. The use of the word “puritanical” is actually an anachronistic, inaccurate, and derogatory term that is more reflective of Victorian society than English Puritanism. On the present-day view of Puritans as “moss-backed moralists,” Church historian Bruce L. Shelley writes, “In modern times, marked by zeal for individual rights and sexual freedom, ‘puritan’ has come to mean ‘holy Joe,’ a religious snob, filled with fears of sex, who does his best to keep people from having fun.” Nothing is further from the truth.
Anne’s love poems—written originally for her husband’s eyes only—indicate a genuinely loving relationship with Simon, which seems to have included a healthy sex life. Bradstreet’s love poems are powerful and, at times, sexually charged. The poems are not erotic, nor are they crass or graphic; however, her poetry exudes a beautiful and intimate affection for her husband. The style and tone is in keeping with the visceral and affectionate love exchanges found in the Song of Solomon. For example, in “A Letter to her Husband, absent upon public employment,” she makes reference to her husband as a “magazine.” A magazine is a military warehouse for securing explosive materials, such as gunpowder. Although the metaphor is hyperbolic (i.e., using exaggeration for effect), it does allude to an explosive emotional and physical relationship. She goes on to describe her children as the “fruit of thy heat”—that is her husband’s heat as the metaphorical sun—as well as other references to physical closeness that she has with Simon. This and her other love poems reveal the intimacy and genuine pleasure Anne and her husband enjoyed together. Anne’s transparency of her relationship with Simon should not be surprising; these endearing love poems were not intended for publication, but rather they were meant for Simon’s eyes only. Thankfully these beautiful albeit private love poems were published posthumously with the permission of Anne’s heirs. Nevertheless, her descriptions are mild compared to today’s penchant for being explicit and shocking, but they still reveal the high view Puritans had for matrimony and their appreciation for sexual relations within the marriage bed. The Editors of Christian History Magazine concur, noting that Anne Bradstreet’s “writings debunk the myth of the stodgy, prudish Puritan so long a part of the American psyche.”
The love Anne and Simon had for each other is further acknowledged by Simon’s four-year delay in remarrying after the death of Anne in 1672. To our contemporary society, four years isn’t very long at all. But for 17th-century New England, four years was an unusually long gap for a widower to remain unmarried. Part of the reason most people had speedy remarriages in those days was because a spouse was an essential partnership for survival; wives in particular played a crucial role in managing all aspects of the household operations as well as rearing the children. Simon’s delay is a testimony of his heartbreak and his great love for Anne.
Another indicator of their loving relationship was the fact that Simon encouraged Anne to exercise her gifts as a writer and poet. Although life was demanding and difficult, Simon was supportive of Anne’s writing, which she began in earnest when they moved to the fledgling wilderness community of Ipswich in 1635. The remote village was surprisingly fertile ground for her writing, and “she wrote most of her poetry while living there from 1635 to 1644.” The isolation from social engagements as well as the beauty of nature gave Bradstreet ample opportunity to read and to write. In the book, American Puritans, the authors note that “Anne did not relish the fact of moving yet again, especially to the far-flung outreaches of the colony, but she would soon discover that her greatest writing would come to fruition in this new wilderness.” That was indeed the case. The bulk of her first published book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650), was written during the Ipswich stage of her life. Over the course of their life in the New World, the Bradstreet family moved to two wilderness communities; first Ipswich and finally to Andover (1644–1672). While in Andover, Bradstreet not only revised her first published book but also wrote some of her best poems, which would be published after her death in 1672.
Not only was Simon supportive of Anne’s poetry, but it seems the Puritan community on both sides of the Atlantic praised her talents as a poet as well. Many subsequent critics have made much ado about Bradstreet exerting “rebellious” qualities by becoming a poet and going against the supposed puritanical patriarchy. However, the overwhelming support of many Puritan leaders and ministers for Anne’s writing contravenes this presumption. In the 1650 edition of her book of poems, there are no less than twelve pages of endorsements by fellow Puritans and several “prefatory verses by admirers.” The praise for Anne and her poetry is overwhelmingly positive and effusive. Although the Puritans did have clearly defined roles for men and women within their community, it was within the biblical concepts of submission and sacrifice articulated not only for families and marriages, but society as a whole. For example, children submit to parents (Proverbs 6:20; Colossians 3:20), wives respect and submit to husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 33; Colossians 3:18), husbands love their wives and submit to elders, employers, governments (Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 2:18; Romans 13:1; 1 Corinthians 11:3), the church submits to each other and to Christ (Ephesians 5:21–24), and Christ submits to God (1 Corinthians 11:3; Philippians 2:5–9; Hebrews 5:8). The Bible views submission as a beautiful and profoundly Christian concept modelled perfectly in Jesus Christ himself. The Puritans sought to live out this vision of sacrifice, submission, and love in all levels of their society. This isn’t to say that the Puritans didn’t miss the mark on certain areas of community life. American Puritans have a controversial and mixed record with the way they addressed religious differences (e.g., Quakers, Baptists), outspoken outliers (e.g., Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson) and, of course, the infamous Salem witch-hunts and trials. Nevertheless, viewing the Puritans though the lens of the simplistic paradigm of oppressor and oppressed fails to incorporate the rich reality of life as “worldly saints”—Christians who sought to live Christ-centric, biblical, God-honouring, and abundant lives both in this life and hoping in the next (John 10:10).
Despite their flaws, the Puritans were a remarkable group, who helped to produce the ideals of the America nation, as well as produce remarkable poets on both sides of the Atlantic, including Anne Bradstreet, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Edmund Spenser, and John Bunyan. It’s important to note that Bradstreet as a female poet did not emerge in spite of her puritan upbringing, but in many ways, because of it. C.S. Lewis writes, “We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear the name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date.” Without a doubt, Lewis’s description of Puritans describes very well the person and work of Anne Bradstreet.
 Adrienne Rich, “Anne Bradstreet and Her Poetry” in The Works of Anne Bradstreet Edited by Jeannine Henley (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard UP, 2010), xi.
 D. B. Kellogg, Anne Bradstreet (Nashville: Nelson, 2010), 12
 See, for example, “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” “A Letter to her Husband, absent upon public employment,” “Phoebus, make haste,” and “As loving hind” included in this volume.
 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 292.
 For a refreshing overview of the positive and rich view of Christian marriage in church history, see the collection of love letters edited by Michael A.G. Haykin and Victoria J. Haykin, titled The Christian Lover: The Sweetness of Love and Marriage in the Letters of Believers (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2009).
 Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, eds., “Anne Bradstreet: America’s First Poet,” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville: Holman, 2000), 153.
 D. B. Kellogg, Anne Bradstreet (Nashville: Nelson, 2010), 62.
 Dustin Benge and Nate Pickowicz, The American Puritans (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020) 110.
 See pages 3–14 of Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (London, UK: FORGOTTEN Books, 2012).
 C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), 121.
4/13/2021 0 Comments
When people let you down...
I’m a people person. I love being around people. I spend my working days surrounded by dozens and dozens of teenagers. I daily interact with colleagues, support staff, and administrators. At home, I am a husband and father in a family of six. I enjoy the hubbub of family dinners and the interactions between siblings. I also like to see the neighbourhood kids out and about, playing b-ball or badminton in the street. I cherish the times when I can walk and talk with dear friends or sit by a woodstove and chat. On Sunday, I spend my mornings worshipping God and fellowshipping with the body of Christ. I love people.
There are times, however, when even I am stretched thin. People (myself included) can sometimes be bitter, unhappy, impatient, treacherous, gossipy, dishonest, cantankerous, sullen, jealous, judgmental, ungrateful, bellicose, proud, argumentative, and discouraging. There are miscommunications, misunderstandings, broken trusts, and hurt feelings. People often scrutinize and criticize other people’s arguments and actions more harshly than their own… People let you down. Sigh.
Just before my Spring break, my week at school seemed to highlight some of these negative attributes. I was disheartened by some of my students and by some of my colleagues. This Spring break could not come fast enough. It is true that even the most people-friendly persons need to take breaks from their fellow-man. But withdrawing from others should only be a temporary measure, and it isn’t the complete picture or ultimate solution to griefs doled out by humanity. As a Christian, I am called to love my neighbours and show compassion to my enemies. Why? Because while I was an enemy to God, Christ died for me. Christ loved me. Christ “put up” with me, and he still has patience with me.
Christ’s example of loving the unlovable is powerful. I was recently reminded of this while reading a collection of daily excerpts from the Early Church Fathers. Cyprian of Carthage (AD 200-258) writes about the “longsuffering,” “great self-control,” and “patience” of Christ. Cyprian observes that Jesus’ earthly ministry provides countless examples of him “calming the ungrateful by meeting them halfway, answering contradictors gently, enduring the pompous with leniency, humbly submitting to His persecutors…” Jesus “patiently endured outrageous insults, and suffered scornful mockery. He submitted to being spat on by scoffers.” In return for all the grief that Christ endured from us, he gives us grace, mercy, love, kindness, blessings, and rewards of righteousness. I was humbled and encouraged by this divine perspective. In 2 Peter 3:9, the Apostle writes, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Amen! My priorities with others should align with Christ’s priorities. Interacting with people can be painful. But, I am not called to be pain-free but patient, and in so doing, help others see the glorious gospel more clearly.
Not only does Christ offer me an example, but he also provides the power to love others in a supernatural way. The Apostle Paul reminds us that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). As I “keep in step with the Spirit,” I will be able to show this supernatural kind of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” to others. Not perfectly, however, but in Christ, powerfully. And, though I will still let people down, and people will still let me down, Christ never will. The greatest people lover is our greatest consolation and comfort.
Cyprian quotations from "April 8" in Daily Readings from the Early Church Fathers, Edited by Nick Needham (Scotland: Christian Heritage, 2017).
Is splatter art really art? What about formless poetry? Is dissonance in music beautiful?
I had the privilege to be a guest on Cody Kaufmann's Poetry Piper Podcast to discuss splatter art, Jackson Pollock, e.e. cummings, Pink Floyd, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and G.K. Chesterton, as well as free verse poetry, music, liturgy, and much more. It was a great conversation! Tune in to this and other great episodes on the Poetry Piper Podcast!
"Major and Minor Themes" Episode 8 Season 2 Poetry Piper Podcast
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.
1/10/2021 0 Comments
I have been tasked with writing a biography on J.R.R. Tolkien for H&E Publishing. I am four months in on my reading and research... and I still have a lot of reading and writing to go. Here's a glimpse at some (!) of the books I am sinking my teeth into...
1/10/2021 0 Comments
On the death of words...
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.
1/6/2021 0 Comments
A poem for Epiphany
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.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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