This weekend is the American Thanksgiving. Our friends to the south are experiencing one of the most challenging Thanksgivings in years, with social, economic, and political upheaval, coupled with a global pandemic and restrictions on personal liberties like travel and family gatherings. My brother and his family live in North Carolina, so it has been impossible for them to cross the border and visit loved ones in Canada.
This reminded me of the earliest American settlers, the Pilgrims, who faced extreme hardship for many of their first autumns and winters. One particular Pilgrim that I have been reflecting on is the Puritan poet, Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672). She is on my mind because I am currently working on an annotated collection of her poems.
Anne Bradstreet was a remarkable pioneer in two ways—she was a pioneering settler in 17th-century New England, helping to establish a new community in the New World. She was also a pioneering poet.
Anne Bradstreet is known as America’s first published poet and she is also one of the first professional female poets in English literature. Despite these incredible “firsts,” she is not as well-known as some of her American contemporaries like William Bradford, John Winthrop, or Cotton Mather. Nor is she as well-known as her female poetic successors, such as Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontë sisters, or Emily Dickinson. Although Bradstreet was born in England, the reason she holds the unique title of the first “published American poet” is because she was among the original English settlers during the early colonial period in America. She participated in the historic pilgrimage to build a “City upon a Hill,” having left her home in England and travelled to America with her husband, parents, and siblings in 1630. Sailing with John Winthrop’s fleet across the Atlantic Ocean, Anne Bradstreet helped to establish a settlement in the rough and wild country of the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Colony. The famed “Plymouth Rock” Pilgrims had already made landfall in the New World ten years before Anne arrived on the east coast of North America. However, the continent was far from “settled,” and in spite of a decade of European presence, the area of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was still a relatively hostile and undeveloped wilderness.
As an aspiring poet, Anne did not write a great deal during those early days in Massachusetts. No doubt this is due to the amount of work required to establish a new colony in a seemingly inhospitable and foreboding land. Anne and her family, along with the other Puritan settlers, faced several debilitating challenges upon their arrival. There were limited supplies of food, textiles, tools, building materials, and other necessities for survival. The previous settlers had suffered significant losses, including illnesses and death, and they were unable to plant sufficient crops or build enough houses for themselves, much less the newly arrived Winthrop pilgrims. The Bradstreet’s first winter in Massachusetts (1630–1631) is known as “the great starving time” when two hundred settlers ended up fleeing back to England and tragically two hundred more perished. Early life in the New World was not only difficult but deadly.
During her years in the New World, Anne often experienced serious sicknesses. In a time when death was common both in the Old World and the New, Anne often assumed her illnesses would result in her death. She also experienced the loss of friends and loved ones, including her parents, grandchildren, and a daughter-in-law. Such frequent brushes with mortality gave Anne a sense of sober contemplation on the priorities of life, which she frequently reflects on in her poems. The theme of her life and her poetry can be summed up with the words of the Apostle Paul, who writes in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Over the course of her life she also embodied the truth espoused by the Apostle Paul who asserts in 1 Timothy 6:6, “godliness with contentment is great gain” (KJV). Like the Apostle Paul, Bradstreet learned contentment in all circumstances: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12–13). Because of her Puritan theology grounded in the Sovereignty of God, she believed wholeheartedly in the goodness of her heavenly father both in this life and the next. This is why Anne and her fellow Puritans could make the best of this world, working hard to establish a new community—content with setbacks and grateful for successes—but they knew that this fallen earth was not their final home. Ultimately her greatest joys lie ahead beyond the grave. This is why Anne’s priorities—as her poems clearly show—were with delighting in God and living her life in a God-glorifying way. She knew how she must answer the rhetorical question posed by Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, KJV). Rather than fearing death and cowering from the wrath of God, Bradstreet’s contentment—whether in life or in death—is amplified by her absolute trust in the grace and goodness of God through Jesus Christ. This does not mean that she never struggled with doubts or fears—which she also reflects in her poetry—but it does mean that she lived with a grounded hope in God’s care both in this life and the next.
A Poem of Thanksgiving by Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet wrote this poem in 1661 after her husband recovered from a serious illness. At a time when so many people perished due to illness, Anne is so thankful that her Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ not only carried her through her time of uncertainty, but also healed her husband.
 This famous phrase is from John Winthrop’s sermon written on board the Arbella in 1630. He and his company of English Puritans were seeking to establish a new, model community (“City upon a Hill”) as a beacon of hope for the world and a fulfilment of Jesus’ call to Christians to be “the light of the world. A city set on a hill, cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14).
 The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Edited by Jeannine Henley (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard UP, 2010), xlvi.
 Anne Bradstreet, “To My Dear Children” in Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (London, UK: FORGOTTEN Books, 2012), 315.
 Anne Bradstreet, “To My Dear Children” in Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (London, UK: FORGOTTEN Books, 2012), 315.
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!
In this short chat, I discuss the poet George Herbert and a couple of his concrete poems. Concrete poetry is a form of poetry where the words on the page are shaped to align with the meaning of the poem. We also take a close look at my own concrete poem, "A Cruciform King," as we consider this interplay between the arrangement of words and the meaning conveyed by the poem. "A Cruciform King" and other poems are published in my book Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life released by H&E Publishers (2020). Here's the link to order!
In this short chat, I discuss the history and importance of words, particularly the Word of God. I also show a few old copies of the Scriptures that I have in my study and I read a 14-line poem about Christ, the Incarnated Word. This poem (and others) are published in my book Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life released by H&E Publishers in the Autumn 2020. Here's the link to order!
A big shout out to Malcolm Guite, the true master of these sorts of delightful library chats. His poetry and his video chats are the inspiration for the work that I am attempting to do here. Check out his series called "A Spell in the Library". They're truly brilliant!
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.
I just received in the mail the proof copy of my new book of poems. Hot off the press and fresh from my publisher! I get to proofread this copy looking for any remaining errors, typos, or layout problems... My book, "Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life," will be available this Fall 2020. Pre-order discount available now!
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
The Apostle Paul is known for his elongated prose and brilliant rhetoric. He also is known for quoting poetry and surprisingly embedding his own poetry in a few of his letters. Some great examples are Colossians 1:15-20, 1 Timothy 1:17, 3:16, 6:15-16 and 2 Timothy 2:11-13.
This morning my pastor, Hagop Tchobanian, preached an excellent message on the first part of Phillippians 2. In this portion of Scripture, Paul includes a creedal-like poem in Philippians 2:6-11. Below is a sonnet I wrote that aims to convey the paradox presented in this Pauline poem, that Jesus Christ is both God and Man. It is called, “Divine Paradox: After Philippians 2:6–11.”
When a Christian dies, we rejoice in the fact that he or she is with the saviour in glory, yet we still grieve our loss. Death hurts even though death is common to us all. The writer of Ecclesiastes bluntly states, “For the living know that they will die,” and there’s “a time to be born, and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2; 9:5).
Death is a major theme in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Some scholars argue that he wrote this play shortly after the death of his own son Hamnet at age 11. It is no surprise that the play Hamlet wrestles with the bewildering and unsettling reality of death and the loss of loved ones. One of the earliest scenes in the play has Hamlet speaking with his mother and uncle about the death of his father. Hamlet’s mother questions Hamlet’s persistent mourning for his father, telling him not to “seek for thy father in the dust. Thou knowest ’tis common. All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity” (I.ii.72-74). Hamlet’s uncle chastises him for his “stubbornness” and “obstinate condolement,” stating that “you must know, your father lost a father. That father lost, lost his…” (I.ii.91-92, 95-96). The argument is simple: death happens to all of us. It is normal, and it is natural. Get over it.
As common as death is, however, it never seems natural or normal for death to be in the world. As human beings, we feel as though we were meant to live forever and never to experience the death of loved ones. If it were natural, then death would feel the same as thirst or hunger, merely natural bodily functions. Yet death is abnormal. The Bible is clear that we were made to live forever; death entered the world as a consequence of turning away from our Creator (Genesis 3:19). Paul writes in Romans, “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Sin and death are our biggest problems in life. We were meant to be holy, alive, and in fellowship with our God.
C.S. Lewis observes in his classic book, Mere Christianity, that “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” We have a desire to live forever, to be good, to be known, and to be loved. Sin and death stand as obstacles to our fundamental desire as human beings. This is because we were made for another world.
Our culture seems to be diminishing death as an enemy. Celebrations of life have replaced funerals. Assisted suicide is considered medical treatment for terminal illnesses and ageing. Abortion is celebrated as a hallmark of freedom. Death is part of the natural “circle of life,” the answer for death given by Elton John and Disney. Treating death as a normal step in life may offer a superficial anesthetic to the pain of loss, but it isn’t helpful in the long run. The Bible says that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). The Christian knows that death isn't right, and the Christian knows that only God can deal with death.
The poem I wrote, “not natural, not normal,” is about death and what Jesus does about it. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Amen!
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.
Over the last ten years or so, one of my pastors, Benno Kurvits, has been a tremendous support to me and my writing. He carefully reads my quarterly arts column that I write for Barnabas magazine, often commenting on the ideas I present, asking further questions, and keeping me sharp. He has also read and reviewed my book All Things New and frequently comments on my blog. The proverbs tells us that "as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17). I thank God for Benno and his unique ministry to me as a writer seeking to serve the church and glorify God with my pen. Having a supportive writing community is essential for developing the writing craft as well as for encouraging writers to keep writing. Throughout literary history, there have been little pockets of writers who offer mutual support, criticism, and encouragement. One of the most famous group is the “Inklings,” which included well-known writers C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien among others.
That being said, I want to give a shout-out to my friend and fellow wordsmith, Benno Kurvits. I am pleased to say that he has recently launched his author’s webpage and blog. It’s well designed, informative, and a good way to keep up with the work Benno is currently doing as a writer. I recommend you take a look at it and subscribe to his monthly newsletters.
I have also included below a review of his book Outrun the Bear: Reflections on the Intersection of Sports and God (Winnipeg: Word Alive Press, 2019). The review was written by my wife Laurie and appeared in Barnabas (Summer 2019).
Outrun the Bear by Benno Kurvits (Book Review by Laurie Johnston)
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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