For several years now, Jacob and Melissa Stock have been running a delightful, slightly otherworldly retreat center in Strawberry Plains, Tennessee. The architectural centerpiece of this place is the Stocks’ house, which is a castle. No, really. They also have a love for the Oxford Inklings, creative community in general, and for the Church at large. Jacob was kind enough to sit down and answer a few of our questions. We’re excited to introduce you to the work of Castle Ministries.
Foundling House: It’s obvious that, somewhere along the way, you discovered this need to get away from the busy-ness of daily life for a season. What’s the story behind that?
Jacob Stock: My wife and I discussed TV when we first got married and decided to watch one show a week. We eventually gave up on even that, because of content really. So after a year with no TV and maybe four to six movies, we just experienced such a relief and peace from not being inundated by the world. It was through this—and maybe a trip to Canada—that we stumbled into an experience that we wanted to try to encourage, even if for a week or a weekend. It is hard to step away from what I now call the “noise”—noise being all things that grab for our attention and rush at us.
FH: At the heart of Castle Ministries, it should be noted: there is a castle. Tell us about this place.
JS: It is really a house with stone siding and a tower. The hope was to have an icon or marketing tool, but also to mimic more of a monastery with simple beauty. It would just be harder to convince folks to go away to the monastery with all the connotations that involves. We have simply used the building to express a desire to be different, to come away from the normal. And kids love it, so I do gain campers as a result of its slick market appeal. We are not a very high end venue, so it is humble and all that we do is geared to be accessible to most demographic and economic levels. Beauty and Goodness are high values we place on space and quite a lost art in my opinion. Art and Architecture had such an effect on past generations of the church, and this is in some way a connection can be made to that old tradition.
FH: One does not normally build a castle (or indeed any medieval military structure) in the rural hills of East Tennessee. What castles inspired this decision?
JS: I wanted a log conference center, but while in Europe during college I saw the beauty in these old structures, and while I did see extravagant Neuschwanstein and others, the old ruins of simple stone were most appealing. I can’t point to any set one, just that gothic arches and wood ceilings made me feel rooted in something old. Furthermore, stone is a natural material that blends in with earth and doesn’t scream “manmade” quite like vinyl siding.
FH: It is necessary that we ask: has anyone ever laid siege to your castle?
JS: That’s why the tower had to be round! My four friends who helped build the tower kept saying, “This would be easier if it were square,” to which I just couldn’t concede. [Editor’s note: square towers fall prey to siege engines more easily—just in case you’re planning something medieval and awesome.] The look had to be more authentic. So, no. But don’t get any ideas.
FH: In running a Christian retreat center, it goes without saying that you would be serving people whose theology would sometimes differ from your own. What’s your method of serving the Church at large, with its variegated approaches to even central matters of doctrine, while maintaining your own understandings of Scripture?
JS: It certainly does, and as an older man I might have chosen the easier path and just landed within a denomination. However, our experience has been that as a smaller “mom and pop” outfit, people are not as quick to express discontent. We outline up front our positions and try to ward off problems, but to tell the truth our simple mission to love the Lord and love your neighbor has proven not to cause big doctrinal issues. It is important to stick close to the scriptures, and if we just copy the Word, it’s hard to take up offense with us—you’ve got to take it up with the author. Humbleness in interpretation will serve the church greatly, I believe.
FH: Castle Ministries recently completed the latest iteration of its annual conference called Lewolkien (congratulations, by the way!). This year, you held the event in Rugby, Tennessee, which is apparently a hidden town of books—more hidden, anyway, than Hay-on-Wye, the more famous and less hidden town of books in Wales. Please tell us about this magical town and how you discovered it.
JS: Yes! Don’t tell anyone, but Rugby was a great treat. It was through a friend in my book club who knew about the library there as a little time capsule. Apparently the library was closed up for nearly sixty years and today is exactly as it was in 1882, books and all. It is interesting that the community failed because they didn’t know how to farm. Ironically though, the library was so well built, it preserve the books immaculately for 140 years with no modern technology. The town was a utopian dream of Thomas Hughs, who was famous in the late 1800s. I can’t get into all the history, but his idea for architecture was what got me [thinking] “simple in form, but beautiful.” We needed a bigger space. Maybe one day Lewolkien can come back to the Castle, but for now Rugby has it all: architecture, low cost, and a great book connection!
FH: Would we be right considering Lewolkien the flagship event of Castle Ministries? What is the backstory of this conference?
JS: Well, no. Probably not. We serve students mostly and have a number of events here. Our Reformation Day celebration was pretty big for a while. Lewolkien is a niche market: Christians, then Christians who read, then down to Christians who read faerie stories and literature. It birthed out love for C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. It was a men’s gathering—a way to get together and talk about the truths we found and love in these authors and those like them. It is really just an annual conference of our book society (for the society hasn’t got a proper name just yet). We wanted to promote and encourage good reading. I guess this goes back to point number one: if TV is not goodness and truth and beauty, the logical questions follows—what is, then? Castle Ministries is, in a way, more of a study center than a campground, and this is the kind of thing we hope to do more of.
FH: If you could envision Castle Ministries and Lewolkien in ten years, what are your hopes for where they would be and what you would be doing?
JS: That’s hard to say. It’s like saying, do you want people to find Rugby? On the one hand, yes, but then it will get commercialized, and ropes will go up around all the books and buildings, and it will cost a fortune to take a tour. Yes, we hope to expand the ministry of bringing the word of God to more people and having more influence on culture, but the truth is, small numbers bring about better discipleship. We do have plans to build a larger pavilion of timber frame or some such earthy architecture, however I think the small ministry has some bonus in keeping costs down and being effective. I do think expansion could be in the form of others taking up the mantel, repeating our scripture-writing retreats or starting another chapter of a book society. Lewolkien needs sixty-plus people and more demand so we can get high quality speakers and pay artist and authors for their work—while promoting the things we love as in Philippians 4 (“Whatever is noble, true, pure…”).
We exist for God’s glory, so if we can stay in his plan and faithfully do our small part, we will let Him guide us into the next phase.
You can find out more about the various retreats available through Castle Ministries at their website. In addition, you can find out more about the conference Lewolkien (plus stellar reading lists) here. Author and Lewolkien attendee D. J. Edwardson wrote an excellent review of the conference, which we encourage you to read.