Each Advent season, John Piper writes an Advent poem as a gift to his congregation in Minneapolis. One such Advent poem is The Innkeeper. In this short narrative poem, Piper paints the scene of Jesus returning to the Inn where he was born in Bethlehem. As he does, he meets Jake, the innkeeper, who suffered quite a cost for allowing Mary and Joseph to spend the first Christmas night in his stable.
Upon receiving this book to review I was very excited. I like the idea of a Reformed theologian writing a theological poem as a creative way to communicate gospel truth. To this end, Piper does a fantastic job. Jake, the innkeeper, we learn, lost his wife and two sons as a result of Herod’s decree in Matthew 2:16—that all children two years and under were to be killed. Herod did this, of course, in response to the birth of Christ, because he feared the true King of Jews threatened his claim to the throne.
The poem begins with Jesus at the end of his journey back to the inn, walking through streets full of children. Very quickly, Jesus meets Jake, and the two sit down and talk. While talking, Jesus learns of Jake’s loss and Jake’s grief as he recalls watching his two sons die as well as his wife as she attempted to save her little boys. Anyone wrestling with the problem of evil and suffering in our world will appreciate how Piper brings in the gospel as an answer to the suffering of Jake, the innkeeper in the story.
Piper dedicates this book to anyone who has ever lost a child. If you have lost a child, this book offers hope but the perspective reader should be warned that Piper does raise this difficult issue. I know some that have lost a child are more harmed than helped by books like this. I say this so the reader can make an informed decision that is right for them.
Overall the poem is very good and thought provoking. However, after reading the short work, I was a little disappointed. First of all, while I am a big fan of pastors reading, and even writing poetry, those committed to sola scriptura (as I know Piper himself is) might wonder if such a speculative “filling in of the gaps” is true to a Reformed hermeneutic. Piper’s work is much different than a work like Pilgrim’s Progress, where Bunyan writes fiction to express theological truth. Piper does not write fiction as much as midrash.
Theologically, there are a few things of which interested readers should be aware. Piper seems to conflate Luke’s manger account and Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-12). Scholars debate whether or not the house in Matthew is the same as the manger in Luke. It is very possible, as ancient Palestinian homes often had a lower level stable where the animals spent the night. Yet it is also probable that Jesus and his family remained in Bethlehem for a time after his birth but moved from the manger to a more permanent dwelling, such as a house. This is why Herod’s decree not to murder all newborn baby boys, but all under two years of age.
Also, at times Piper is close to a hyper-Calvinist position. For instance, when talking about the year when Caesar issued his tax that made all enroll, Jake says, “A grim and awful year it was for me when God ordained that strange decree.” Theologically, this is true, but read wrongly it could place the blame of Caesar’s awful evil on God. In addition, Jake knew this one born at his inn was the Lord, and he wonders for thirty years why the Lord never came back to help. Piper’s speculative exploration leaves me wondering if he, perhaps unintentionally, places the blame of Herod’s evil act on God. Indeed God is sovereign, even over evil, but he is not the author of evil. Piper could have made this a little clearer in my opinion.
Also, Piper assumes that the innkeeper knew he was housing the Savior when he offered the stable out back. In Luke’s birth narrative, the innkeeper is not named or even mentioned. It is Matthew’s account of the Magi visiting the Christ child where the true “King of the Jews,” and Savior of all nations is made manifest for all to see. Piper reads a lot into the “innkeeper.”
The major strength of this poem is its ending. Piper’s curious statement that the innkeeper wondered for thirty years why Jesus never came back to help is a bridge to the hope of the gospel. Piper presents a wonderful biblical theology reminding those who suffer that this One born in the manger is the One who has defeated, and will fully and finally defeat, all evil. Jesus tells Jake that he will soon be crucified, but that he would rise in three days and crush the head of the one who has the power of death. From here, Piper reminds us all of our resurrection and our life of reigning with Christ in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
What I appreciate about Piper’s short work is his attempt to present creatively an apologetic for evil while highlighting the sovereignty and glory of God. Yet I wonder if it is not better to write true fiction more in the vein of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien instead of leading the reader down a trail of biblical speculation. The poetic genre is beauty and the church need to consider seriously the aesthetic value of beautiful prose in our theological writing, especially in our apologetic writing, as the church seeks to comfort her own and reach out to those outside as well. However, The Innkeeper, is a little too theologically speculative for this reviewer.