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
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.
Check out my chat with Cody Kaufmann on the Poetry Piper Podcast! I count it a great privilege to be a guest on Cody's podcast. In this episode, we talk about poetry, pipes, my new book of poems, and all sorts of tantalizing tidbits... "Episode 7 - Jeremy W Johnston." Be sure to subscribe, listen to his other episodes, and keep tuning in for future podcasts!
Christians have a tendency to divide secular and sacred concerns; in fact, everything belongs to the Lord. “All that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours,” writes the author of Chronicles. “Yours is the kingdom, O Lord and you are exalted as head above all” (1 Chron 29:11). All aspects of creation—“all that is in the heavens and in the earth”—belong to God. So what does the Lordship of Christ mean for the world of arts and creativity? Should Christians ignore or shun the arts? Embrace or utilize the arts? Appreciate and enjoy the arts? I wrote this article--"Glorifying God through Arts & Culture"--to help us answer this question: what are Christians supposed to do with the arts? Published in edited form for TGC Canada, this article was originally published as the introduction to my book, All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts.
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
Creation itself begins as words. In Genesis, God speaks the universe into being (or sings, as C.S. Lewis might have imagined it). With his words, God brings form, function, and meaning into creation. Out of the empty void came all things as God imagined it. The universe, we are told, is “without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). Then God speaks: “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:3 – 4). God’s creativity involved sorting and differentiating one thing from the other. When God created Heaven and Earth, he created order out of chaos.
We are now commissioned to continue the creative process, cultivating the world and making new beauty (Genesis 1:26 – 28). Since we are made in the image of God, we also have a desire to create in the way God himself creates; this does not mean we can create ex nihilo—out of nothing—but it does mean we have been made with the desire to move our surroundings from chaos to order. God’s commission to Adam to name all of the creatures God made is humanity’s first way of ordering the environment and sorting out what is what. It is also humanity’s first creative act (Genesis 2:19). Adam invents the names himself.
Since the beginning, understanding our world through words has been central to our creative and cultural mandate as humans made in the image of God. It should be no surprise, then, to see that poetry has always been a process of creating order out of chaos. Making sense in a seemingly senseless world has a long history in the annals of literature. From Homer’s The Iliad, written as Ancient Greece exited its own dark age, to Virgil’s The Aeneid, which helped usher in “Pax Romana,” to the great period of English poetry as “maker of meaning amid chaos” born in the crucible of WWI. During that frenzied and unstable condition of the trenches, poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves, sought to make sense of the horrors of war and convey these experiences to the English-speaking world. Although WWI was not the “war to end all wars” as was hoped for, it is John McCrae’s Great War poem, “In Flanders Field,” that still resonates with us as we attempt to come to terms with all occurrences of modern war and conflict in countries around the world.
A biblical example of a poet seeking to make sense of his world in the midst of chaos is young David while on the run from King Saul. Fleeing for his life and trying to survive in the unforgiving wilderness as an outcast and outlaw, David hid in the Cave of Adullam and he wrote poems. Many of the poems David wrote appear in the Book of Psalms. Although the Holy Spirit uniquely inspires these psalms, David’s skill of writing poetry was a talent that he likely honed while passing the time as an isolated shepherd boy tending his father’s sheep. Like playing the harp, poetic prayer was one of the ways David used his gifts to manage the challenges of his life. We still turn to the psalms in our present times of challenges and difficulty, to read them, meditate on them, and pray those words back to God.
Poetry is born out of chaos, and it brings us comfort when we are surrounded by the chaos of life. This is why poetry is the oldest form of human writing and has dominated the literary world for millennia, with works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spencer’s Fairie Queen, Milton’s Paradise Lost—just to name a few. This is also why poetic hymns have meant so much to the church, especially in times of persecution, and why the poetry of Negro spirituals grew out of the trauma of race-based slavery in the United States.
We live in chaotic and unsettled times again. Such times require poets and hymn writers to help us see God’s plan and purpose written into the fabric of our current culture. Poetry reminds us there is still beauty in times of disorder. Poetry also reminds us of the power of words, especially that of prayer and God’s word. We need to continue the creation mandate to cultivate order and beauty amidst the chaos and ugliness of our surroundings. Like David and so many others in times of uncertainty, we need poets to hunker down and write words of comfort. We need poets to once again point us to the Great Poet himself, the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).
 C.S. Lewis describes the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. In the chapters called “The Fight at the Lamp-post” and “The Founding of Narnia,” Aslan is heard and seen singing the world beyond the wardrobe into existence. I wouldn’t be surprised if God’s voice sounded like “the most beautiful,” “harmonious” and “triumphant” music ever heard when he spoke the universe into being.
 See, for example, Psalm 13; 35; 52; 54; 57; 59; 63; 64; 108; 142.
Here is Part 2 of a three part series on Christianity and architecture. Click here for Part 1 "The Art of Architecture."
As New Covenant believers, it is easy to consider our present places of worship, ministry, and living as temporary and even fruitless investments. Architecture is often viewed as a distraction from the real business of heaven. Besides the often monumental costs of maintaining facilities, the investment in material spaces may seem too worldly. Throughout the history of the church, there has been a constant struggle between these two extremes: establishing too many earthly roots on the one hand or living only for heaven on the other hand. This conflict is plainly seen in the first century heresy of Gnosticism, where disembodied and esoteric “spiritual knowledge” was celebrated, whereas the importance of the material world was diminished or denied. The incarnation, however, is a powerful reminder that the material world matters to God. Jesus did not condemn creation; instead, the Son of Man was a carpenter who understood life in “flesh and blood” terms. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, feasted with friends, and suffered on a real, rough-hewn cross. There isn’t a dichotomy between the spiritual realm and the physical realm in God’s economy.
So what does this mean for architecture? By ignoring beauty in our surroundings and by not being intentional with our aesthetic vision, we are promoting a kind of “architectural Gnosticism.” This is further exacerbated by a pious desire to avoid “storing up treasures on earth.” We eschew beauty in architectural design, seeing it as unspiritual, dated, and decadent. We exchange aesthetic vision for contemporary and practical relevance. The result is that we turn our worship spaces into human-centric facilities prized for freshness, functionality, and flexibility. Apologist Francis Schaeffer often criticised the proliferation of “ugliness in evangelical church buildings,” arguing that Christianity had adopted the world’s anemic view of beauty. Our God is beautiful, and that beauty should be seen not only in our lives, our worship, and our preaching, but also in our surroundings. Christians ought to reject the pseudo-spirituality of monastic-like Spartan aesthetics; blandness is not biblical. Bland buildings, bland worship, and bland preaching show the watching world that our God is bland. He is no such thing! Blandness and mediocrity are the opposite of who God is and what God is calling us to. God is excellent in every way, in his character, his creation, and his Word. Why would he expect anything less from us?
"Our God is beautiful, and that beauty should be seen not only in our lives, our worship, and our preaching, but also in our surroundings. "
God is also interested in sanctifying us fully—in mind, soul, and body—and he does this through countless means at his disposal. Since we are creatures of time and space, our environment impacts and shapes us. Attractive and meaningful meeting halls can be as inspiring as attractive and meaningful worship music. High ceilings, well-crafted woodwork, effective use of natural light, symbolic artwork, and other architectural features can awaken us to the wonder of God and his ways. If we are going to resist architectural Gnosticism, then God’s truth, beauty, and goodness should be seen in our buildings and interior designs. Beautiful spaces should represent and surround the Living Church. Though there is an even better place being prepared for us in glory, this does not preclude the need to be faithful stewards of our earthly resources here and now. This may not mean that we need to build new church buildings; it could mean that we need to better care for existing buildings, reclaiming older structures and meeting halls from dying denominations and dwindling congregations, both for the gospel and for the glory of God.
This essay originally appeared in Barnabas, Vol. 12, No.1 & 2 (Winter/Spring 2020): 18
WORDS FROM THE WANDERINGS:
I recently had a chat with Chance Faulker, Executive Director of H&E Publishing. Here is the podcast of our conversation about art, creativity, and Christianity!
On this episode we talk with Jeremy W. Johnston, the author of All Things New: Essays on Christianity, art & culture. Here are a few things we discuss:
For a copy of Jeremy's book, All Things New be sure to use promo code "allthings" for a 40% discount (Joshua Press online store)
Jeremy's current reading list: The Temple by George Herbert and Confessions by Augustine of Hippo (Chadwick trans.) Check out more of Jeremy's work at www.JeremyWJohnston.ca
Follow Jeremy on twitter | Follow H&E Publishing on twitter
“...as we speak truth, beauty, and goodness with our words and with our lives, we also need to speak with our surroundings...”
Lacking architectural vision or even opting for utilitarian aesthetic features is still, in fact, an architectural statement about what we truly value—which may be self-reliant pragmatism or the need for contemporary relevance and cultural acceptance. So, as we speak truth, beauty, and goodness with our words and with our lives, we also need to speak with our surroundings. Our physical spaces of worship should be warm, inviting, down-to-earth, and human yet also awe-inspiring, beautiful, high, and holy; our spaces should be intimate yet grand, solitary yet communal, ancient yet new, familiar yet unique. Isn’t this what we want to declare about God and his living church?
part 1 of a 3 part series on architecture
WORDS FROM THE WANDERINGS: Podcast "The Art of Architecture"
We like our communication fast—texts; we like our food fast—McDonald’s; we like our cooking fast—microwaves. Our culture is filled with services and devices that provide ease and speedy convenience. As a result, we have come to expect everything to be fast, easy and just-a-click away. Our collective cultural “attention span” is becoming shorter by the second: when surfing the internet for example, the average viewer will spend fewer than 5 seconds on a webpage before clicking away. The problem with “fast, easy and convenient” is the accompanying lack of depth, vitality and longevity. Few of us cherish emails the way we might cherish a handwritten note or letter; few of us remember the last fast-food meal or celebrate the microwave meatloaf the way we remember and celebrate Grandma’s turkey dinner or homemade pie.
So what do emails, Big Macs and microwaves have to do with poetry? These icons of cultural convenience have very little to do with poetry, other than to serve as a stark contrast: poetry is anything but fast, easy or convenient. So why should Christians bother investing time and energy into understanding poetry? Because poetry helps us to slow down, ponder and understand the deep and profound realities of God’s universe. While our culture is chock-full of vapid, ephemeral experiences, God’s creation is full of inspiring, rich and eternal experiences. “Be still,” the psalmist writes, “and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). In our fast-paced, non-stop, 24/7 culture, reading poetry teaches us to slow down and “be still.” Poetry instills in us the habit of remembering and reflecting on who we are, who God is, and what life is all about.
Poetry is also a powerful way to express the wonder, depth and beauty of God’s world and to capture the essence of our human experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poetry of the Bible. The great poems of the Psalms have been the mainstay of many Christians through times of trial and joy; the depth and profundity of the Psalms are in part due to the medium of poetry. This is true with hymns as well; Christians cherish the poetry of hymns sung weekly during church meetings. But our enjoyment of poetry should not be limited to the psalms or to hymns. All great poets are great observers; they hold up a mirror to ourselves and to society, so they have much to teach us about life on earth. In a powerful way, they urge us to stop and reflect on our human experience, God’s universe and his goodness to us in a world mired in sin.
As we read a broad range of poetry, both secular and sacred, we will be challenged to look at ourselves and God’s world with fresh perspectives. Our ability to appreciate the Psalms and hymnody will also be enhanced by concerted attention to all kinds of poems. Most importantly, perhaps, we will learn to pause in our hectic lives in order to take in the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.
 This essay is reprinted from Jeremy W. Johnston, All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts (Kitchener: Joshua Press, 2018), 59 – 61.
"Opera challenges the listener to exercise their full imaginations. Audiences need to exert actively a 'willing suspension of disbelief' while viewing the operatic performance..."
Opera also amplifies the human experience for all to hear and see. The power of the prolonged death sequence, for example, is that it slows down and magnifies a heartrending moment in time, allowing the audience to grasp the full weight of emotional and psychological trauma that the dying victim is enduring. The audience gets to witness the feelings of deep betrayal, the impending sense of finality and the reality that one’s hopes will remain unfulfilled. This is what good opera typically does well: enlarging and fully displaying the human emotional and psychological experience for all to see, hear and feel. Humanity’s greatness and folly, triumph and tragedy are showcased with the full weight of an operatic masterpiece. Opera presents a deeper insight into reality, which a realistic “death” would fail to do. In a realistic portrayal, if you blink, you miss it; opera doesn’t allow the audience to miss anything. So good opera, then, is profoundly real yet not realistic—real in its attempt to cause the audience to pause, reflect and respond to the magnified spectacle of human triumph and tragedy.
Christians can gain a great deal of insight into the human experience—the depth of human depravity and folly, the extent of human pride, and the beauty of love and sacrifice—all laid out and magnified before them on the opera stage. But learning to appreciate opera may also help Christians to slow down and better understand what God is doing in their own lives. So often, we rush through life without sufficient reflection or deep consideration of what God is doing or saying. Too often in our Bible readings we zoom through the text and sometimes miss the wonderful truths he has for us in his Word. Take, for example, Mary’s Magnificat recorded in Luke. Robert C. Tannehill in his essay, “The Magnificat as Poem,” points out that the narrative flow in Luke’s gospel is seemingly interrupted by Mary’s song of praise (Luke 1:46-55). This interjection, Tannehill argues, is intentionally designed to cause readers to pause and reflect on the magnificent events that have just occurred in the story so far. He writes, "the Magnificat is like an aria in opera. The artistic conventions of opera allow the composer to stop the action at any point so that, through a poetic and musical development exceeding the possibilities of ordinary life, a deeper awareness of what is happening may be achieved. A similar deep participation in the meaning of an event is made possible by the placement of this poem in Luke’s narrative."
Like an aria in an opera, Mary’s hymn slows the narrative down allowing readers to truly reflect on what is transpiring in Luke chapter 1. Mary’s song literally magnifies the moment—the pivotal moment in history, the incarnation—by putting a spotlight on what God has done and will do, and like an operatic aria, amplifies Mary’s emotional, psychological and spiritual response for all to see and hear. In so doing, the Magnificat invites the reader, like an audience at the opera, to reflect and respond with Mary in her praise of her Saviour and her God. Opera, like Mary’s “Magnificat,” can teach us to slow down and take in all that we are seeing and hearing on the stage, in life and in the Word.
Not all opera is good opera. As one opera aficionado pointed out to me, some operas are merely vehicles for narcissistic soloists seeking self-glorification. Nevertheless, Christians can learn to appreciate and enjoy opera and benefit from deeper insights into the human experience as well as be encouraged to pause and reflect on the marvellous work of God in our lives, day to day and moment by moment.
 Originally published in Barnabas, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Summer 2018): 20.
 The phrase, “willing suspension of disbelief” comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817)
Chapter XIV, and has been wildly applied to works of poetry, theatre and opera to mean an audience’s willingness to exercise an imaginative and poetic faith in the work of art, believing that the events are real and deciding not to “see” the stage, actors or set so as to enter into and experience the performance more fully.
 Aaron Copland, What to Listen for in Music. Penguin Putnam, 2011, p.185.
 Robert C. Tannehill, “The Magnificat as Poem.” Journal of Biblical Literature 93, no. 2 (1974): 265
 This opera aficionado is my dear friend Gordon Vanderwoude.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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