Saturday, April 28

Thursday, April 26

The American Covenant

On April 26, 1607, the ships Godspeed, Susan Constant, and Discovery first landed on the Cape Henry shores (now known as Virginia Beach). The expedition of English colonists, including Captain John Smith, was determined to establish the first permanent English settlement in America. During their first three days in the New World however, the settlers struggled mightily with sickness and were attacked by the Native Americans living in the area. There was talk of simply returning to England.

On April 29, Reverend Robert Hunt decided that their mistake was in not covenanting, praying over, and dedicating the land and their future journey to God first. He convinced the weary colonists to join him ashore where a cross was planted. Hunt then solemnly declared, "We do hereby dedicate this Land, and ourselves, to reach the People within these shores with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to raise up Godly generations after us, and with these generations take the Kingdom of God to all the earth. May this Covenant of Dedication remain to all generations, as long as this earth remains, and may this Land, along with England, be Evangelist to the World. May all who see this Cross, remember what we have done here, and may those who come here to inhabit join us in this Covenant and in this most noble work that the Holy Scriptures may be fulfilled."

He then read from Psalm 22, "All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to The Lord, and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before Thee. For the Kingdom is The Lord’s and He is the Governor among the nations."

He concluded, praying, "Almighty and Merciful God, let us never stray from the Commission to which Thou has Called us—to bring the inhabitants of this Land to the knowledge of Thy Kingdom. Help us to be bearers of Thy Truth to those who so sorely need to receive it. Hasten the day, Oh God, when the knowledge of Thy Son shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. And even if we should fall short in Thy Calling, Thou shalt stir up our children after us and bestow upon them this blessed Land. Let us add our mite to the Treasury of Heaven. Use us, Oh God, weak instruments as we are, for the building up of Thy Kingdom which shall be gathered form all corners of the earth. Let it be said that God has made His ways known upon earth and His saving help among all nations. In the Name of our Holy Savior, Amen."

Wednesday, April 25

Homo Quixotienses

In a fascinating essay in the Philosophy Now journal, Stefán Snaevarr wonders about the connections between the stories we tell and read and love and the lives we live. Are we shaped, as was Don Quixote, by the romances we tell and retell; are we in other words, Homo Quixotienses, the narrative self? Or are we rather more like Sartre’s protagonist, Antonin Roquentin, whose life did not form any narrative unity? Are we thus rather Homo Roquentinenses? Snaevarr's resulting inquiry into what he calls "Narrativism," however fraught with non-Christian assumptions, nevertheless sheds a light on profoundly our stories help to determine our world and life views.

Tuesday, April 24

Tolkien Review

Although Elizabeth Hand invariably mistakes the themes of Biblical Providence for Helenistic Fate, her review of J.R.R. Tolkien's newly published novel, The Children of Hurin for the Washington Post is otherwise surprisingly good.

RC and GG

On this day in 1558, the first two new candidates for the ministry since the beginning of the Reformation in Scotland were ordained by John Knox at Gileskirk in Edinburgh. Both Robert Campbell Sproul and James George Grant were members of prominent Highland families and would ultimately carry the message of the Gospel deep into the northern Gaelic lands near Inverness.

Monday, April 23

Country Music Marathon

Just five days to go before the Country Music Marathon is staged once again here in Nashville. I have trained for months for this, I am feeling strong and healthy, and have almost no injury worries. In addition, I actually have a team of students and church members to run with over the scenic 26.2 mile course from Vanderbilt University, through Music Row, along the Cumberland River, into East Nashville, and finally through the Shelby Bottoms to the downtown Titans Stadium. I can hardly wait. This year I am running in an effort to raise much needed funds for new fresh water wells in the desperately poor Darfur region of Sudan. If you would like to follow my progress, check out my training blog site. To contribute to the Darfur relief effort, send your offerings, gifts, or pledges to our King's Meadow office.

Reuchlin and the Reformation

Johann Reuchlin was one of the great scholastic precursors to the Reformation. He was a linguist who wrote the first Latin dictionary to be published in Germany and a standard Greek grammar. But Hebrew was his dearest love. He ferreted out the rules of Israel's ancient language by study of Hebrew texts and conversed with every rabbi who appeared within his range. His authority became widely recognized.

Alas, his reputation was nearly the cause of his ruin. A converted Jew and a Dominican inquisitor obtained from Emperor Maximilian an order to burn all Hebrew works except the Old Testament, charging they were full of errors and blasphemies. Before the edict could be carried out, the Emperor had second thoughts and consulted the greatest Hebraist of the age: Reuchlin.

Reuchlin urged preservation of the Jewish books as aides to study, and as examples of errors against which champions of faith joust. To destroy the books would give ammunition to church enemies. The emperor revoked his order.

The Dominicans were furious. Selecting passages from Reuchlin's writings, they tried to prove him a heretic. The inquisition summoned him and ordered his writings burnt. Sympathetic scholars appealed to Leo X. The Pope referred the matter to the Bishop of Spires, whose tribunal heard the issue. On this day in 1514, the tribunal declared Reuchlin not guilty.

But the Dominicans were not so easily deterred. They instigated the faculties at Cologne, Erfurt, Louvain, Mainz and Paris to condemn Reuchlin's writings. Thus armed, they approached Leo X once again. Leo demurred. He appointed yet another commission. It backed Reuchlin. Still Leo hesitated. At last he decided to suspend all judgment. This in itself was a victory for Reuchlin. The cause of the embattled scholar became the cause of the innovators. Reuchlin's nephew, Philip Melancthon, rejoiced as did the renowned Greek scholar, Desiderius Erasmus.

In 1517 Luther posted his 95 Theses. "Thanks be to God," said the weary Reuchlin when he heard the news. "At last they have found a man who will give them so much to do that they will be compelled to let my old age end in peace."

Thanks to Reuchlin, a host of essential Hebrew texts were preserved. His studies formed the basis for most of the better translations of the Old Testament--including Luther’s. And his influence assured Melancthon a position among the learned and a vital place in the Reformation.

Islamic Imperialism

Several correspondents have recently asked me about the history and character of Islamic imperialism, conquest, and terror across the centuries. In my lectures on Islam, I often refer to the fact that no nation has ever willingly converted to Islam. Every scrap of land, every person, every tribe, and every country currently under Muslim dominion was forcibly conquered and brought into submission--which prfobably should not surprise us since "submission" is actually the meaning of the word "Islam." This is a fact, however, often denied by modern historiography--citing the isolated and unusual instances of Malaysia and Indonesia which were conquered, but by Muslim pirates rather than by Muslim armies.

These two thoroughly documented books, one focusing on Muhammad's life and teachings and the other focusing on the history of the movement following his demise, help to give the plain historical facts new currency. Both books put an effective end to the notions that Islam is a noble religion of peace and that there ever has been an Islamic "golden age." Karsh, a professor of Mediterranean Studies at King's College in London and Craig Winn, a dotcom entrepreneur and widely published author, have assembled a massive amount of research--sure fodder for future academic inquiry.

Friday, April 20


The first installment of Plutarch’s famous Lives was published on this day in the year 118. He came to his vocation rather late in life--during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian. This period at beginning of the second century was a momentous time in the history of western civilization for any number of reasons.

Greece, of course, had lost by this time the last vestiges of her independence. Her population had fallen precipitously since the days of her glory--the riches of Rome and the Asian provinces had not only attracted her most able administrators but also her most capable laborers. Thus, materially, culturally, and politically Plutarch’s homeland was is decline. Though he could do little to arrest this trend, he felt obliged to put it into perspective--and that he did quite ingeniously in the Lives.

At the same time, the Roman Empire was in its most stable and vibrant stage. The economy was prosperous. The military was invincible. And the culture was vibrant. Education, the arts, and the sciences were all flourishing. Despite the decrepit paganism of the day, there was a degree of personal freedom unprecedented in all of history.

But the most significant feature of the age was the sudden emergence of Christianity as a major societal force. Although Plutarch does not deal with Christianity directly, it is clear that he was attempting to revive interest in the very best of ancient paganism. In the face of the moral challenge that Christian evangelism posed to the ancien regime he wanted to reignite the moral vitality of classicism. Thus, we see in the Lives the last great gasping apologetic for Greco-Roman civilization on the threshold of an ascendant Christendom.

When later writers, thinkers, and social activists would appeal to the classical age for reforms in their own time, they would picture its ideals as seen through Plutarch’s rose colored glasses. This is why the American founders could remain so enamored with the ancients--despite their unhesitating commitment to Christian truth, their comprehension of the pagan essence of Greece and Rome was myopically obscured by Plutarch.

Thursday, April 19

The First Protestants

On this day in 1526, the citizens of Strasburg, Nuremburg, Ulm, and nine other cities with the support of a few electors and princes, protested an earlier decree of the Diet of Worms. They petitioned the emperor for an exemption to the "uniformity of religion act" that the assembly of the imperial German principalities, kingdoms, and electorates had imposed on all the member states--and then reaffirmed several years later in Speyer. These progressive advocates of reform were thus first given the name "Protestants."

Wednesday, April 18

Stranger than Fiction

It would be highly unusual for me to preach a sermon in which I fail to mention a book, quote from a book, discuss a book, or recommend a book. This past Sunday, I talked about a particularly rare volume--one that was in the library of the Titanic when it sank eighty-five years ago this week. Afterward, I had a host of folks ask me to fill in a few additional details. Well, here is what I told them:

Fourteen years before the White Star liner Titanic sailed on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, a novel called Futility was published about an unsinkable and glamorous Atlantic liner, the largest in the world. Like the Titanic, the fictional vessel was a triple-screw design and could make 24-25 knots; at 800 feet it was a little shorter than the Titanic, but at 70,000 tons its displacement was 4,000 tons greater. Like the Titanic's, its passenger list included the crème de la crème of high society--and there were not enough lifeboats aboard for all of them. On a cold April night, the fictional “unsinkable” vessel struck an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The name of this liner, in the story written by turn-of-the-century author Morgan Robertson was the Titan. And yes, two copies of the book really were aboard when the real-life "unsinkable" ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank.

Truth is stranger than fiction; life imitates art; and a host of other truisms seem to apply.

Saturday, April 14

Sermon Podcasts

We have worked out most of the technical and hosting problems so now podcasts of the sermons from Parish Presbyterian Church are finally available at both iTunes and our own Parish Pres Podcast site. The first eight messages from our expositional series in the Gospel of John are now posted.

Thursday, April 12

Imus: Like I Even Care

The whole Don Imus flap has gotten me thinking. Before this, I’d practically forgotten that Don Imus even existed. His brazen, crass, and crude manner caused me to tune out his clap-trap long, long ago. Now, I find his sorry saga splashed all over every imaginable media outlet--print, broadcast, and digital. Like I care! Like I actually care that Al Sharpton--not exactly my idea of a healthy arbiter of morality, justice, and truth--has exposed as a rogue someone that anyone with a lick of sense would have already known was a rogue! All that notwithstanding, this lamentable example of one noxious insult traded for another has gotten me thinking once again about media, bias, and the state of modern journalism.

There is only one thing a person can say in this day of brash intemperance that requires real courage--and that is a truism. A truism is often so biting and precise that it is discomfiting. It is anathema and thus scorned. Making the accusation of media bias is a perfect case in point. Like a truism, it is universally acknowledged. And like anathema, it is simultaneously universally scorned. Even so, as is the case with most truisms, it is true.

The fact is undeniable: every journalist sees the news through the very peculiar lens of a very particular worldview. Tom Brokaw once quipped that “Bias like beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Quite so. News is rooted in the unique vision of things a reporter brings to the task of selecting, researching, and telling stories. Thus, as Neil Postman and Steve Powers assert in their remarkable book, How to Watch TV News, “every news story is a reflection of the reporter who tells the story.” Every news story is biased precisely because every journalist has a bias. As Rudloph Bultmann once admitted, "There is no such thing as presuppositionless exegesis."

Herbert Gans, a renowned media analyst, has said, “Journalism is, like sociology, an empirical discipline. As a result, the news consists not only of the findings of an inquiry, but also of the concepts and methods which go into that inquiry, the assumptions that underlie those concepts and methods, and even a further set of assumptions, which could in turn be tested--if only journalists had the time.”

Those assumptions and presuppositions ultimately drive what is and what is not revealed in, by, and through the media. Again, according to Postman and Powers, “Most news does not inhere in the event. An event becomes news. And it becomes news because it is selected for notice out of the buzzing, booming confusion around us. This may seem a fairly obvious point but keep in mind that many people believe that the news is always out there, waiting to be gathered or collected. In fact, the news is more often made rather than gathered. And it is made on the basis of what the journalist thinks is important or what the journalist thinks the audience thinks is important.”

Therefore, they say, “a viewer must know something about the political beliefs and economic situation of those who provide the news.” It is after all, not the world as it is that they present day after day in their reports, columns, stories, and broadcasts; it is the world as they believe it is--or even, as they believe it ought to be.

Linclon Steffens, a journalist working during the early part of this century, proved that he could “create a crime wave” anytime he wanted simply by writing about all the criminal activity that normally occurs in the New York metropolitan region during any given any month. He could then "end the crime wave" simply by not tallying the lists of crimes committed.

Cecil Chesterton and A.R. Orage, English journalists of the same era, conducted a similar exercise in London. They created a scandalous hysteria simply by reporting all the odd doings of Parliament members in and around Westminster.

In both cases, journalists were able to transform public perceptions, not by manufacturing events, but by highlighting generally neglected facts about the actual every-day affairs of modern urban life. They were able to change the course of future events by giving their own peculiar slant to prior events.

Evidence of the power of the media to shape public opinion is not just anecdotal. Virtually every American demographic and sociological study over the past thirty years has underscored the tremendous impact that newspapers, television, radio, magazines, and other popular mediums have on the way we think, feel, and behave. More often than not, the perception of the world that the man on the street has, is shaped by what journalists choose to emphasize as opposed to what they choose not to emphasize.

Apologist Francis Schaeffer pointed this fact out in his seminal work How Should We Then Live? He wrote, “There are certain news organizations, newspapers, news magazines, wire services, and news broadcasts which have the ability to generate news. They are the newsmakers, and when an item appears in them, it becomes news. When it is omitted, it is not news.”

Only God controls events. But the media controls what we know of those events--or even whether we know of them. They are indeed the newsmakers.

The literary lion Sidney Lanier once commented that “small minds love to bring large news, and failing a load, will make one.” What was once merely epigrammatic is now epidemic.

Historian Daniel Boorstin observes that there was once a time when journalists saw their task simply in terms of recording events--precisely as they occurred. They believed that, “The responsibility for making news was entirely God's--or the Devil's. The newsman's task was only to give an account of such considerable things as arrived unto their notice.”

Thus, James Parton observed in 1866, “The skilled and faithful journalist recording with exactness and power the thing that has come to pass, is Providence addressing men." Similarly, Charles Dana, the great nineteenth century editor of the New York Sun, declared, “I have always felt that whatever Divine Providence permitted to occur, I was not too proud to report." Or as Joe Friday was wont to say, “The facts m’am. Just the facts.”

Of course, this notion no longer has much currency. If our daily newspaper is boring, we are likely to blame the reporter, whereas our ancestors would have blamed the day. As Boorstin has commented, “We need not be theologians to see that we have shifted responsibility for making the world interesting from God to the newspaperman.”

Thus, no longer content to be news gatherers, journalists have become instead, newmakers. No longer satisfied with merely reporting the news, they look for the “story behind the event.” They want to convey more than news; they desire to be purveyors of truth.

A generation ago, the great writer and editor Walter Lippman, offered a clear warning against that kind of aspiration. He said, “The function of news is to signalize an event; the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.”

According to Lippman, the dramatic distinction between the news and truth stems not solely from the inadequacies of journalists, but also "from the exigencies of the news business, which limits the time, space, and resources that can be allotted to any single story.” He argued that if the public required “a more truthful interpretation of the world” they lived in, they would have to “depend on institutions other than the press.” Postman and Powers concur saying "anyone who relies exclusively on the news for his or her knowledge of the world is making a serious mistake."

Schaeffer comments, “Many viewers seem to assume that when they have seen something on TV, they have seen it with their own eyes. It makes the viewer think he has actually been on the scene. He knows, because his own eyes have seen. He has the impression of greater direct objective knowledge than ever before. For many, what they see on television becomes more true than what they see with their eyes in the external world. But this is not so, for one must never forget that every television minute has been edited. The viewer does not see the event. He sees an edited form of the event. It is not the event which is seen, but an edited symbol or an edited image of the event. An aura and illusion of objectivity and truth is built up, which could not be totally the case if the people shooting the film were completely neutral. The physical limitations of the camera dictate that only one aspect of the total situation is given. If the camera were aimed ten feet to the left or ten feet to the right, an entirely different objective story might come across. And on top of that, the people taking the film and editing it often do have a subjective viewpoint that enters in. When we see a political figure on TV, we are not seeing the person as he necessarily is; we are seeing, rather, the image someone has decided we should see.”

In the ideological and commercial world of media presuppositional worldviews will skew the product toward a particular perspective and away from another. That is simply the order of things in this poor fallen world.

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But according to Postman and Powers, “it is probably equally true that one word is worth a thousand pictures, at least sometimes--for example, when it comes to understanding the world we live in.” They say, “The whole problem with the news comes down to this: all the words uttered in an hour of news coverage could be printed on a single page. And the world cannot be understood in one page.”

But besides these rather understandable limits of time and space, there are moral limits as well. According to the veteran journalist Jimmy Breslin, today’s media moguls are the heirs of a rather steadily eroding moral tradition. He says that news organizations all too often succumb to "bribery, extortion, calumny, also known as slander, and two kinds of lies, bald-faced and by omission." For some this causes more than a little confusion because, after all, "the sins being committed at typewriters are greater than the ones being written about." In fact, Breslin says, "there is no situation so bad that a fresh edition of the morning newspaper can't make worse."

Perhaps it was that kind of calumny that provoked H.L. Mencken, the profound pundit of the last generation, to comment that, “All the durable truths that have come into the world within historic times have been opposed as bitterly as if they were so many waves of small pox, and every individual who has welcomed and advocated them, absolutely, without exception, has been denounced and punished as an enemy of the race. In that kind of atmosphere, with that kind of publicity, the connoisseur of the higher political mountebankery cannot fail to gain the upper hand.”

If that be the case, may we be ever vigilant to rectify the situation--lest our republic be torn asunder by the bacchic asceticism of the day.

Monday, April 9

Johnny Hart

In 1996, the Los Angeles Times and a host of other newspapers around the country refused to print Johnny Hart’s Palm Sunday BC comic strip. It was apparently too politically incorrect--or perhaps, too evangelically incorrect. The comic had Wiley--a brooding, poet-wannabe in the strip’s pre-historic cast of characters--sitting against a tree, tablet in hand, writing a poem entitled "The Suffering Prince":

Picture yourself tied to a tree,
condemned of the sins of eternity.
Then picture a spear, parting the air,
seeking your heart to cut your despair.
Suddenly—a knight, in armor of white,
stands in the gap betwixt you and its flight,
And shedding his 'armor of God' for you—
bears the lance that runs him through.
His heart has been pierced that yours may beat,
and the blood of his corpse washes your feet.
Picture yourself in raiment white,
cleansed by the blood of the lifeless knight.
Never to mourn,
the prince who was downed,
For he is not lost! It is you who are found.

The brouhaha over the censorship did not stop Johnny, a committed believer, from continuing to mark the Christian year with special comics in BC or The Wizzard of Id. And it did not hamper his excellence or popularity--over the years he came to be syndicated in more than 1100 newspapers and he was able to win every award a cartoonist could win and several more that you wouldn’t think he could have.

This year, his Easter Sunday strip was his last. Johnny Hart died on Saturday following a stroke at the age of 76. To the end, he was true to his art and true to his faith:

Sunday, April 8

Easter Joy!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Saturday, April 7

Chaucer's Classic

All too rare is the literary work that completely chronicles an epoch--a work that opens a window on the entirety of a culture: from its art, music, and ideas to its fancies, fables, and foibles. The Canterbury Tales is just such a rarity. But this remarkable work not only described an age, it defined it. Written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late fourteenth century--though not published until this day in 1499, almost a hundred years after his death--the book is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word.

Besides his fascinating insights into the roots and origins of our language, in it, Chaucer gives us a glimpse into the odd nuances of daily life during the halcyon days of the High Middle Ages. He offers us a remarkably enlightened approach to the questions of medieval love, marriage, and family. He affords us a first-hand look at the contemporary sciences, especially astronomy, medicine, psychology, physics, and alchemy. He gives a chronicler’s account of the raging social, political, and theological issues of the time. He parodies the social oddities, exults in the cultural profundities, and scrutinizes the civic moralities of his times. He has a genius for capturing the quirks and nuances of ordinary life, the twists and turns of ordinary conversation, and the motivations and inclinations of ordinary people. He expands barnyard fables into cosmic comedies, he transforms old wives tales into morality plays, and he develops the tidbits of everyday gossip into observations of the universal human condition. He observed what everyone recognized and recognized what everyone observed. And that is precisely what made him so great.

Thus he painted a vivid portrait of an entire nation--an entire civilization--high and low, male and female, old and young, lay and clerical, learned and ignorant, rogue and righteous, land and sea, town and county, cosmopolitan and provincial--in some of the most beautiful descriptions even penned. On any given page you’ll find poetry, mythology, history, science, theology, practical ethics, biography, linguistics, art, geography, music, and philosophy--all rendered in a rollicking good story-line brimming over with mystery, adventure, romance, and good humor. And he did this in a language that was hardly usable until he used it; he did this for a nation that was hardly recognizable until he recognized it.

The Canterbury Tales is not a classic because some stuffy old professors in musty ivory towers decreed it so; it is a classic because it is classically good and vitally important. Almost two centuries before Shakespeare was born, Chaucer crafted an immortal work that should take a priority place in any Christian’s must-read list.

As G.K. Chesterton asserted, “The Poet is the Maker; he is the creator of a cosmos; and Chaucer is the creator of the whole world of his creatures. He made the pilgrimage; he made the pilgrims. He made all the tales told by the pilgrims. Out of him is all the golden pageantry and chivalry of the Knight’s Tale; all the rank and rowdy farce of the Miller’s. And he told all his tales in a sustained melodious verse, seldom so continuously prolonged in literature; in a style that sings from start to finish.”

Wednesday, April 4

What I'm Reading

Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too

In 1840 the Whig Party took the gamble of nominating the oldest man ever to run for President, 68-year-old William H. Harrison (1773-1841), and they won the election but lost the gamble, for Harrison lived only one month after his inauguration. On March 4, 1841 he made a three hour inaugural speech in a drenching rain and caught pneumonia. One month later, on this day, he died in the White House.

He served the shortest term of any President, but his election ended the Jacksonian reign and brought the growing Whigs to power, even though John Tyler, the Vice-president who succeeded Harrison, was an ex-Democrat with rather watery Whig convictions.

The election of 1840 marked the beginning of elaborate national campaigns—by then the Whigs had become established as a second party, a development which helped to institutionalize the party system as the country’s method of selecting candidates. Smarting from their defeat in 1836, when they were new and poorly organized, the Whigs met almost a year before the election for their first national convention. They then proceeded to build an elaborate campaign around everything but the issues: Harrison’s military exploits against the Indians--especially the battle of Tippecanoe; and his service as a simple man of the West—the Ohio and Indiana Territories where he served as a civil and military leader.

Campaign posters pictured Harrison as “The Hero of Tippecanoe” or “The Farmer of North Bend,” hand to the plow in front of a log cabin. The catchy slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” rang out at the largest political rallies and mass meetings ever held in America. And it is one of the ironies of politics that the log cabin developed into a potent campaign symbol for Harrison, a man who was born in a white-pillared mansion into one of the aristocratic families of Tidewater Virginia. His father, Benjamin Harrison, was one of the Founding Fathers of the nation, a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

And so it was that the man to hold the presidency for the shortest tenure may have made the biggest impact--if only from the standpoint of having invented the modern presidential campaign.

Monday, April 2

Dr. Johnson

He was the most dominant figure of the eighteenth century literary world. The renown of Samuel Johnson was due in part because of his moral essays, poetry, and prayers, in part because of his remarkable Dictionary of the English Language, and in part because of his amazing novel Rasselas. But in spite of all his carefully composed contributions to the prose of his native land, he may have never attained the stature that places him in the same rank as Shakespeare and Milton were it not for his famous trip to Scotland with his friend and biographer, James Boswell.

Born in Litchfield in 1709, the son of a failed bookseller, Johnson struggled throughout his early life against the ravages of poverty. Though he demonstrated a precocious mind and a prodigious literary talent, he was unable to complete his education at Oxford, and instead began his lifelong labors as a hack freelance writer in London for a series of newspapers, magazines, journals, and book publishers. As a result, he became phenomenally prolific and adept at virtually every genre, from criticism, translation, poetry, and biography to sermons, parliamentary reports, political polemics, and dramatic stage plays. Though his work was recognized as brilliant, he was never quite able to climb out of the miry privation that seemed to bog him down throughout his life.

At last, when he was nearly fifty, he received a commission to produce a dictionary. Over the course of the next seven years, he single-handedly took on the great task of comprehensively documenting English usage--which when completed, set the standard for etymology forever afterward. The work was indeed, stunning. Each word was not only carefully and succinctly defined, but illustrated from classic or poetic literature. It is the only dictionary I use--despite the plethora of language tools that have been released in the years, decades, and centuries since it was first published.

The dictionary earned Dr. Johnson a royal allowance which enabled him to pay off the bill collectors and to live with a modicum of ease. It was during this season of his life that he first met James Boswell, a Scottish ne’re-do-well and spendthrift who had already spent half a lifetime squandering his father’s considerable estate on the pleasure of the flesh. Johnson was a pious, thoughtful, bookish, and venerable elder statesman. Boswell was an impetuous, ingratiating, bombastic, and irreverent young Turk. But amazingly, the two men struck up a fast friendship.

By that time, Johnson was nearly incapacitated with gout, corpulence, and arthritis. By all accounts he was built for a stationary life--overweight and slovenly, asthmatic and awkward. First impressions of him always surprised people. He was big-boned, six feet tall, stout, and stooped. Over a crop of wiry, frizzy hair he wore varying, ill-fitting wigs in unfetching shades of gray. His short-sightedness led to his reading so close to lamps and candles that the wigs frequently bore scorch marks.

Despite the fact that he was eloquent of speech and elegant of mind, he was hardly a fit candidate to become a dominating literary figure. But Boswell would see to that. Over the next several years, the unlikely pair carried on a conversation that, when documented in Boswell’s biographies and journals, would enchant the world. And thus, an unlikely star in the already brilliant English literary constellation was born.