Perhaps you’ve heard of Paul Strohm’s recent book The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and The Year that Made the Canterbury Tales. And perhaps you’ve read the picture he paints of Chaucer’s living quarters during that time.

Noisy. Cramped. Dingy. And foul smelling. These are the primary descriptors we can apply to the scene, according to reports. The Spectator has a lovely summary of it all.

“Chaucer occupied a single bare room of about 16’ x 14’. The only natural light would come from ‘two (or at most four) arrow slits’ tapering through the five-foot thickness of these walls (the towers were a defensive feature) to an external aperture of four or five inches. ‘Light, even at midday, would have been extremely feeble. Arrangement for a small fire might have been possible. Waste would be hand-carried down to the ditch that lapped against the tower and dumped there.’

You can imagine how cosy it was in winter. And the noise! Chaucer slept directly over the main London thoroughfare. Every morning at first light the portcullis would go rattling up, and thereafter ‘the creak of iron-wheeled carts in and out of the city, drovers’ calls, and the hubbub of merchants and travellers pressing for advantage on a wide but still one-laned road, probably made sleep impossible, five-foot walls or no five-foot walls’. That’s if he could hear anything over the incessant bong-bonging of bells from each of the three churches within a couple of hundred feet of his front door.

Meanwhile ‘a stench wafted from the open sewer known in its northern extension as Houndsditch that ran (or festered) just outside the city wall’; Houndsditch was so called because of the many dead dogs dumped there. In addition to rotting garbage, dead dogs, and faecal waste from the next-door Holy Trinity Priory (‘a populous foundation’, Strohm tells us jauntily), you’d find ‘the occasional human corpse’. ‘And then,’ Strohm adds with excellent tact, ‘there was the matter of felons’ and traitors’ rotting heads…’ This was an occupational hazard of living in a gatehouse tower.”

It provides some remarkable insight on the conditions Chaucer had to put up with as he wrote his remarkable poetry.

Still, not everyone is pleased with the description Strohm is painting of Chaucer’s home. And surely the most significant person disputing the account is… Chaucer himself?


Seriously, the person (people?) behind Chaucer Doth Tweet—ie, “Le Vostre GC”—is doing great work today. Some more examples:



I’d be remiss if I didn’t also note here that “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog.” It is, appropriately enough,


My friend Karl recently challenged me on Facebook to name ten books that have changed my life. Or, more accurately, I was to “write down ten books that have affected your life in some way and tag ten friends including me so I can see your choices as well.” Ignoring the fact that the word “affected” is “abominably vague” (as Karl also noted), here’s my list. It’s eclectic, to be sure, with fiction, poetry, theology, and more.

The books follow in no particular order.

narnia1. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

This series served, in many ways, as my gateway to both fantasy and theology. As a child, it was my favourite series of books, and I still reread them all every few years. The Christian symbolism is not something I become aware of until some years later, when my pastor explained it to me. At first I rebelled at the knowledge, but eventually the secret of it (Another story beneath! Deeper magic!) led me to read more of C.S. Lewis, including…

MereChristianity2. Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis

This. This was my first introduction to serious Christian thought. My first introduction, as it were, to theology. More detailed study into the various focuses of Christian theology came later, as did wide reading in the writings of Christians from across the centuries. But Mere Christianity was, for me, where it all began. And for that, I am truly grateful to C.S. Lewis.

man-who-was-thursday3. The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton

This book was my first introduction to Chesterton, and thus an introduction to numerous other important books in my life (like Heretics, Orthodoxy, Napoleon of Notting Hill, etc). The ability to make the ordinary strange is a particular gift of Chesterton’s and a prevailing theme in much of his other writing; but nowhere is the concept so well enfleshed as it is in The Man Who Was Thursday. This book is my favourite novel, bar none—even if (or perhaps because?) it so often confounds me.

The-Augsburg-Confession4. The Augsburg Confession (Confessio Augustana) – Philip Melanchthon

The primary Lutheran confession of faith, important not only for articulating Lutheran theology over/against contemporary abuses, but also for stressing the theological continuity of Lutheranism with the faith of the ancient Church. “The churches among us,” Melanchthon writes, “do not dissent from the Catholic Church in any article of faith.” Indeed.

freedom-of-a-christian5. The Freedom of a Christian – Martin Luther

Too many people (including too many Lutherans) seem to think that salvation by grace through faith alone means works are excluded from the Christian’s life. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this book, Luther explains the proper relationship between faith and works. While only the former justifies before God, he writes, both are nevertheless necessary in the Christian’s life. This little work, too seldom read, also introduces a number of other important Lutheran ideas, as I’ve summarized elsewhere: “Here Luther touches on the simultaneous sinner/saint state of Christians; explains Law and Gospel; argues justification by faith alone; defends the necessity of works as a fruit of faith; discusses what makes works ‘good’; expounds on the priesthood of all believers (both what it does and doesn’t mean); and delves into his theology of vocation, as well as hinting at the doctrine of the ‘two kingdoms.’”

spirituality-of-the-cross6. The Spirituality of the Cross – Gene Edward Veith

This is the quintessential introduction to Lutheranism for those wanting to know more about “the way of first evangelicals.” Veith provides a winsome case for the Evangelical Catholic (aka Lutheran) tradition, taking readers on a tour through the major points of Lutheran theology in clear and eminently readable prose. And it never descends into mere academic musings; this is a theology that is forever relevant and applicable to Christians today. Looking for a sacramental evangelicalism? A protestantism that is, at its core, nevertheless catholic? Veith explains why Lutheranism is the church you’re seeking.

poems-john-donne-16337. Poems (1633) – John Donne

Where do I begin? Donne’s poetry, whether focused on the earthly or the divine—and really, Donne would say (and I would agree), everything in creation counts under the category of “divine”—is deeply profound and deeply moving. Meaning is packed tightly into each line, each phrase, like a compressed spring waiting to be released. The Holy Sonnets have especially been important to me in my own spiritual journeys. While what I’m writing here applies to any edition of Donne’s English poetry, there’s something particularly pleasing about holding my reproduction copy of the 1633 edition, as I reflect on Donne’s Holy Sonnets. It provides a tactile experience, a weight in my hands to mirror the weight in my heart—a heart that Donne (and God) batter, for my good.

Pilgrim's_Progress_first_edition_16788. The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

I know what you’re thinking: “That old book? That long-on-words and short-on-plot book? That thinly-veiled not-at-all-veiled allegory? Why that book?” I know this book isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s been important to me for a number of reasons, not least of all because Bunyan’s thoughts have helped me formulate my understanding of what literature is for. I also acknowledge this book for Bunyan’s theology of despair, a condition in which I have an interest both personally and academically. Christian’s encounter with Giant Despair is, for those interested, made all the more illuminating when reading it alongside Bunyan’s own spiritual battle with despair (as described in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners).

Gospel-of-John9. The Gospel of John

While the Bible in its totality has had an obviously massive impact on my life, the Gospel of John is particularly dear to me. St. John’s surprisingly simple vocabulary make accessible complex theological ideas—mirroring, in a way, the enfleshing of the Divine Word in the Man Jesus. God humbles Himself that we may be brought up—He discloses Himself that we might to know Him Who made us.

odyssey10. The Odyssey – Homer

I am a lover of classical mythology and culture, and for me there is no greater story from the era than Homer’s Odyssey. This text led to my wider interest in the literature and philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome—studies which have significantly impacted how I view all other literature and philosophies.

I can’t help but feel I’ve cut too many books that should also be on this list, just in order to keep it to ten. An expanded list must needs include some classic science fiction (such as the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells), children’s adventure stories (Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain), philosophy (Plato), drama (Shakespeare) fantasy (JRR Tolkien), and more from the Inklings (especially Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion and War in Heaven). I should also mention the first book of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, as the description of Ransom learning alien language is what first kindled my interest (and subsequent degree) in Linguistics.

But there is one other book I just must mention, and that is C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Now what is so important about this book you ask? Well, it’s responsible (at least in part) for my marrying Leah. Some years ago, not long after Leah and I had first met, we fell into conversation at a large-group dinner event. We began by chance to speak of Lewis, zeroing in on The Great Divorce. I made some remark about the characterization of George MacDonald in the text. But Leah promptly corrected me, telling me in no uncertain terms I was wrong. Surprised, I actually went home that night and reread the book. Leah was right: I was wrong. About that time I began to realize just how attractive Leah was….

I count it a great blessing that Leah and I can talk so easily together about big ideas, and that each of us can learn from (and correct) each other. But it’s never lost on me that The Great Divorce led, in our case, to a rather Great Marriage.


Edit (August 27): I have no idea how I forgot to put The Screwtape Letters on this list. Major oversight.


Why is the imaginative life important for Christians?

I ask that question, among others, to Dr. Gene Veith in a recent interview for The Canadian Lutheran. In the course of the discussion, we delved into such topics as Christian subcultures, imaginative apologetics, C.S. Lewis, and how the Church can foster a healthy imaginative life.

A couple of snippets to whet your appetite:

Many of the obstacles against the Christian faith in people’s minds are really imaginative creations: they think of God as an old man with a beard up in the sky looking down on this suffering world, and they can’t believe that. No one should believe that. God is much bigger than that…

And another:

C.S. Lewis wonders why he didn’t see how mind-blowing and wonderful Christianity is when he was first taught it as a child. Part of the problem, he says, is that it wasn’t taught in a way that addressed the imagination. He marvels how it is possible to make the story of God-becoming-flesh and dying for sinful man so boring. But that’s how it was presented to him as a youth.

Gene Veith, Provost and Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College in Virginia, was keynote speaker for the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith’s third annual conference March 21-22, 2014 at Concordia University College of Alberta in Edmonton. His topic was “The Arts, the Imagination, and the Christian Life.”

Dr. Veith is the author of numerous books, including The Spirituality of the Cross and God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. He is also co-author of a forthcoming title on the Christian imagination.

Read the full interview at The Canadian Lutheran. You may also want to check out Gene’s site Cranach, where he is using the interview as the starting point for additional online discussion.


John_Lydgate-web April 1 might be “April Fool’s Day,” but it is also (at least as of this year) “Whan That Aprille Day.” The name is drawn from the opening lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: “Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote / The drogthe of March hath perced to the roote …. Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.”

Not only is the phrase the beginning of one of the most famous works of English fiction, it is also—as is obvious—an example of a now-obsolete form of the English language (specifically, the London dialect of Middle English). Whan That Aprille Day is meant to celebrate and encourage the study of such old languages. The author of Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog explains it this way:

Ower mission ys to remynde folk of the beautye and grete lovelinesse of studyinge the wordes of the past. And eke ower mission ys to bringe to mynde the importaunce of supportinge the scolership and labour that doth bringe thes wordes to us. To remynde folk to support the techinge of paleographye and of archival werke and eek, ywis, the techinge of thes oold langages. To remynde folk of the gret blisse and joye of research libraryes. For wythout al of thes, the past wolde have no wordes for us.

All wise words with which I agree. In honour of the day, I’d like to share a little bit of John Lydgate’s poetry with you all. Lydgate was a monk and poet who lived in the late 14th through early 15th centuries. He was a celebrated writer in his own time but is little remembered today. [By chance, The Guardian and BBC News have run stories about him in the last few days.]

I’m sharing with you a selection from his Legend of St. George. The tale, as we enter it, has advanced thus: A dragon has taken up residence near the Libyan city of Lysseene. In order to placate the monster, the people send out to it two sheep daily. But when the people begin to run out of sheep, the city is put in a difficult situation. How shall they feed the creature and prevent it from attacking? Eventually, they decide to draw lots to send their own people—“man or chylde”—out as food for the dragon. As Lydgate writes, “Allas, ellas, it was to gret pytee / To seen the sorowe that was in that citee.

One day the lot falls to the King’s daughter. And as “the statuit made noon excepcyoun / Of heghe ne lowe,” she prepares to leave upon her fatal journey. Grief consumes the city: “Hir fader wepte, hir moder, boothe tweyne, / And al the cytee in teers did so reyne.” But on the way to the dragon, she meets a knight, whom she warns to flee lest he also be devoured. But this is St. George, and Lydgate tells us he has been “sent frome the Lord as in hir diffence / Ageynst the dragoun to make resistence.” He is moved by the woman’s plight and decides to save her if he can.

Lydgate continues:

Hooly Seint George his hors smote on the syde
Whane he the dragoun sawe lyft up his hede,
And towardes him he proudely gan to ryde
Ful lyche a knight with outen fere or dreede;
Avysyly of witt he tooke goode heed,
With his spere sharp and kene egrounde
Thoroughe the body he gaf the feonde a wownde.

The cely mayde, knelyng on hir kne,
Unto hir goddes maked hir preyer,
And Saint George, whane he did it see,
To hir he sayde, with debonayre cheer,
“Ryse up anoon, myn owen doughter deer,
Take thy girdell, and make therof a bande,
And leed this dragoun boldly in thyn hande

“Into the cyté, lyche a conqueresse,
And the dragoun meekly shall obeye.”
And to the cytee anoon she gan hir dresse,
The ouggely monstre durst it not withseye,
And Saint George the mayden gan conveye,
That whane the kyng hade inspeccyoun,
With palme and banner he goothe processyoun,

Giving to him the laude of this victorye,
Which hathe theyre cytee delyverd out of dreed;
And Saint George, to encresce his glorye,
Pulled out a swerde and smote of his hed,
The people alwey taking ful goode heed,
How God this martyr list to magnefye,
And him to enhaunce thorughe his chivallerye.

Thanne he made the dragoun to be drawe,
With waynes and cartes fer out of the towne,
And after that he taught hem Crystes lawe,
By his doctryne and predicacyoun,
And frome th’errour by conversyoun,
He made hem tourne, the kyng and the cyté,
And of oon hert baptysed for to be.

As we see, then, St. George not only frees the people of Lysseene from their physical captivity, he further frees them from their spiritual captivity. The people hear the Good News of Christ and are converted from Paganism. Thus it is that the physical dragon’s downfall at St. George’s hands anticipates the city’s spiritual salvation from “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9).

To read the rest of Lydgate’s Legend of St. George (and for explanatory notes and glosses), visit TEAMS Middle English Texts.



tolkien-beowulfNews last week that a translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien is forthcoming caught me by surprise. I had presumed that we had reached the end of Tolkien’s major works to be published posthumously by his son (following the 2013 publication of the incomplete Fall of Arthur and the 2009 publication of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún). Clearly I was wrong.

I can think of no better person to translate Beowulf than Tolkien. In fact, it’s thanks to him that most of us have even heard of the Anglo-Saxon poem. While many people think of Tolkien primarily as a fantasist, his day-job was actually as an English professor. And his major focus was in Old English—the language of Beowulf. But in Tolkien’s day, texts like Beowulf were not studied for their literary value. Instead, scholars merely attempted to extricate historical data from them, with philologists using them primarily as source material for the study of the evolution of the English language. The idea that Beowulf was literature was not a question even entertained.

This all changed in 1936 when Tolkien gave a lecture entitled“On the Monsters and the Critics.” “Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy,” he argues in the opening of the essay, “far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art.” So what Tolkien did in his own lecture came as a surprise: he “took for granted the poem’s integrity and distinction as a work of art and proceeded to show in what this integrity and distinction inhered,” as Seamus Heaney puts it in the introduction to his own translation of Beowulf. Tolkien’s lecture sounded as a clarion call to something new. Heaney again: “Tolkien’s brilliant literary treatment changed the way the poem was valued and initiated a new era—and new terms—of appreciation.”

Today scholars debate numerous things about Beowulf. They debate the date of authorship, whether the Christian elements are original (or tacked on later), and many more things besides. But they do not really question whether the poem is a work of art. That seems obvious now. But the fact that it seems obvious is thanks to Tolkien.

How fitting that the man who resurrected Beowulf in the imagination of our generation should at last have his own translation of the poem likewise resurrected. I for one couldn’t be more eager to read it.


George_HerbertOn this day—February 27—our Anglican friends remember the George Herbert. Let us join with them in doing so.

Prayer: O Lord, we remember with thanks this day your servant George Herbert, priest and poet. May his writings, which speak beautifully and deeply of Your grace, be for us a source of comfort, and a strengthening of faith also for all who believe the Gospel. In the name of Jesus Christ—Herbert’s Lord and our Lord—we pray. Amen.


     Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, of kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
     But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove,
Yet few there are that found them; Sinne and Love.

     Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
     His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.

     Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
     If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

– George Herbert


Back when I was in university—in my first semester, in fact—I took Religious Studies 100. It wasn’t a very intense class, just an introduction to world religions. We looked at Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in particular, taking a cursory look at the doctrines that make up these different faiths. It was hardly earth-shattering stuff. Trying to get through all the world’s major faiths plus a number of smaller ones in a few months? You hardly have time to do more than take a quick glance at each of them.

Imagine my surprise then when a Christian classmate confided to me after the course that the class had “really shaken” his faith. I was flabbergasted. How could it shake his faith? We had hardly learned anything about these other religions!

A little conversation revealed the truth: despite growing up in a Christian family and going regularly to church, he had somehow learned hardly anything about his own faith along the way. He had faith, but no real roots to ground him in that faith.

Navigating the faith



That’s a danger we all face in the Church: we can go through the motions, show up every Sunday, even serve on church committees, but unless we learn to dive beneath the surface, we can end up with an unanchored faith. When the weather is good, we bob along on top and all seems well. But then a big storm—or maybe even just a minor squall—strikes, and we find ourselves, as St. Paul warns, “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching, and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14 NIV).

Unless we learn to dive beneath the surface, we can end up with an unanchored faith.

Part of the problem is that we’re often trying to row the boat alone. Or maybe we remember the old Sunday school song and sing, “With Jesus in my boat, I can smile at the storm.” That’s true. But it’s not just Jesus who’s in the boat with us. He’s the Captain, but we have fellow shipmates, too. The trouble is, we often ignore them as we go about daily life. We each think we’re sailing the storm on our own. We each think we have to navigate the ship ourselves. But the Church is a big boat, and there are many people aboard it. Others have been sailing longer than we have, and it’s important that we look to them for help.

It’s to prevent shipwrecked faith, St. Paul tells us, that God provided different servants to work in the Church in the first place: “It was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service,” he writes. Why? “So that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13 NIV). Teachers and pastors in the Church are like experienced sailors; they know how to keep the ship on course, and they’re there to train us to become mature, experienced sailors, too.

Teachers and pastors in the Church are like experienced sailors; they know how to keep the ship on course, and they’re there to train us to become mature, experienced sailors, too.

In our turn, we’ll help other young Christians grow up in the faith. In fact, St. Paul encourages us in another part of Scripture to teach each other. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” he writes, “as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16 NIV). The things we learn, we’re supposed to share with others. Faith isn’t meant to be a private thing; it’s something we all do together.

Looking back


That means connecting with the people in the pews beside you, of course, but it doesn’t stop there. The Church isn’t just your own congregation; it stretches, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “through all time and space” and is “rooted in eternity.” We confess in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe in “one holy Christian and apostolic Church.” The ancient text says “catholic” instead of “Christian,” because “catholic” is the Latin word for “universal.” In other words, we believe in the whole Christian Church, the universal Church, spread out across the globe, reaching back to the beginning of all things and stretching out to forever—the great, vast body of Christ in all times and places.

If that’s the Church we say we believe in, if that’s the Church we say we’re part of, then that changes how we ought to approach faith. The ship we’re sailing is truly massive, and there are some master sailors on board to learn from. Many of them are no longer with us; they’ve passed on to glory. But we can still learn from them in the words they’ve left behind.

The ship we’re sailing is truly massive, and there are some master sailors on board to learn from. Many of them are no longer with us; they’ve passed on to glory. But we can still learn from them in the words they’ve left behind.

We’ve quoted one of these master sailors just a few moments ago: the great 20th century Christian author C.S. Lewis. He played an incredibly important role in the development of my own faith. As a child, I first came to know Lewis as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. When I was young, my pastor explained to me that these stories have Christian elements in them—that the great lion Aslan from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was, in fact, a symbol for Christ, and that Aslan’s death and resurrection pointed to Jesus’ sacrifice at the cross and His triumphant resurrection three days later.

As a teen I came to read some of Lewis’ other works. This Oxford professor wrote numerous books, some fiction (like his Space Trilogy and The Great Divorce), and some non-fiction, including his autobiography Surprised by Joy and the classic Mere Christianity. I particularly enjoyed The Screwtape Letters. In this book, Lewis takes on the persona of an “uncle” demon writing to his “nephew,” giving advice on how to tempt humans. It’s witty, and clever, and made me think about temptation in a way I never had before.

From Lewis, I moved on to other great teachers of the faith. There are of course Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and the rest of the leaders of the Lutheran reformation. But there are other important writers too—Christians who came before and after the Reformation—who also have things to teach us. There’s John Donne, the 17th century English priest and poet. There’s the famous mystery writer, Dorothy Sayers, from the early 20th century. There’s St. Augustine from the 5th century. There’s St. Clement, a bishop from the 1st century, who likely knew some of the Apostles themselves.

The writings of these and other Christians throughout the ages help us understand our faith better. They’re there to help us understand the Scriptures, to “teach and admonish us,” just as St. Paul encouraged the early Christians to do (Colossians 3:16 NIV). Are these writers always right? By no means! But they’ve faced the same trials we face. They’ve survived the same storms we are still struggling through. We have so much to learn from their advice, if we will only listen.

Don’t sail the ship alone! Get to know your fellow shipmates. Join or start a Bible study at your local congregation. Take an online seminary class. While you’re at it, ask your pastor to recommend a book by a great Christian writer who has gone on before. You’ll be surprised to see how much they have to teach you.


The above article was originally written for the Fall 2013 issue of Tapestry Magazine (the national magazine of Lutheran Women’s Missionary League—Canada). I thank the League for giving me permission to reprint it here. Download the article in its original magazine layout (in pdf) here.

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