What Christian fictional character has been nearly fried in the Negev, frozen at the North Pole, blown up at the Berlin Wall, depth-bombed by the U.S. in the waters off Cuba, and shelled by Soviets after a howling sou’wester off the coast of Australia? The answer, of course, is Raymond Sebastian, the clergy-spy hero of six suspense novels.

Sebastian’s creator, the Reverend James Leonard Johnson, died on June 25, 1987, a month that marked both the twentieth anniversary of Code Name Sebastian—the first such adventure—and the publication date of Trackless Seas (Crossway)—the final one.

Johnson’s life was as much an adventure as his creation’s. Returning from military service, he came to faith in Christ through the brother of a service buddy. He plunged into theological training, went to Nigeria as a missionary with his wife, Rosemary, to edit African Challenge—the premier Christian magazine in Africa at that time—and served as a pastor. His contribution to both missionary and Christian literature was immeasurable.

A man who threw himself with passion into everything he did, Johnson wrote 16 books, headed a literary agency, served as director of Evangelical Literature Overseas, established the graduate communications department at Wheaton College (Ill.), and most recently was associate director of resource development for World Relief.

In the character of Sebastian, Johnson fleshes out an evangelical adaptation of the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A namby-pamby workaday minister, Sebastian is sent to tour the Holy Land by his despairing church after his wife’s death in an automobile accident. Crashing in the Negev, he meets the ferocious God of Israel, who changes him into an active, not merely vocal, servant to the desperate and the hurting.

Suspicion of empty words plays a strong part in all of Johnson’s novels (including his story of missionary fliers, The Death of Kings). Always the main character is thrown into an environment of deprivation—the jungle, the desert, the Arctic, the ocean, the bombed-out ruins of East Berlin. There, stripped of comfort and eventually of physical strength, the protagonist and his comrades must confront God in a Saint John of the Cross-like experience of sensory and spiritual deprivation. Then God forges a Christian community out of Sebastian and his acquaintances and makes it the present help in trouble—often at a great cost of life, and always with the cost of comfort.

Jim Johnson has left us a delightful legacy, the illustrated promise that all of us, if we rely on the powerful living God, can be turned from weak-kneed losers, pushed around by the the world, into more than conquerors.

By William David Spencer, pastor of encouragement of Pilgrim Church of Beverly/ Salem, Massachusetts, and a teacher at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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