This week’s column takes a slight turn from fiction and non-fiction books to look at two easily overlooked genres of great Christian literature: poetry and sermons. And both are exemplified in the brilliant and curious character John Donne.
First, a caution: “Donne” is pronounced, “dun.” Do not open yourself up to the teasing I did.
Second, another caution: Do not buy a Complete Works of John Donne, start reading from the beginning, and cancel your WORLD membership because of my recommendation. As a young man around the turn of the 17th century, Donne was not a Christian and worked among royal government officials. He was a ladies’ man and a good writer. But most of his early writings were love poems that, while probably well written, I do not recommend. Donne married a Christian girl named Anne, became a believer, mended his ways, and eventually became an Anglican priest.
Post-Anne and post-conversion, Donne’s writing explores the nature of salvation and the Christian life, and reaches some beautiful insights.
It is from Donne that we get famous sayings such as “No man is an island,” “Death, be not proud,” and “Ask not for whome the bells toll; they toll for thee.”
His poems are among my favorites. In the “Holy Sonnets”and his other “Divine Poems,” Donne struggles with assurance of salvation and sanctification. His word pictures and analogies are striking. Some of my favorites are “Holy Sonnet X,” where he explores Christ’s victory over death, and “Holy Sonnet XIV,” where he begs God to capture his heart, regardless of the cost. “La Corona” is a powerful poetic retelling of the life and passion of Christ.
His prose is wonderful, too. “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions,” written while he was very ill, are beautiful reflections on the nature of life and death. His sermon, “Death’s Duell,” was the last he preached before he died and is absolutely stunning. It faces with equal honesty and courage the agony and hope surrounding death, and reaches a beautiful conclusion.
Many great Christian writers and preachers faced the depths of human despair and depravity first, and John Donne is among them. His words, once redeemed, have touched many Christians down through the centuries.