Book Review: The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

Helen Keller Many people are familiar to some degree with Helen Keller’s story of being locked in a dark and silent existence until her teacher, Anne Sullivan, found a way to communicate with her. The first part of The Story of My Life is in Helen’s own words. The second part is made up of her letters, from the time she was a little girl to the time of the book’s publication, showing the growth and development of her ability to communicate. The final section of the book, “A Supplementary Account of Helen Keller’s Life and Education,” shares more information by the editor of the book, John Macy, and includes letters from Anne Sullivan.

Helen was only in her early twenties and a junior in college when she wrote her part of this book. She began with her birth in Alabama in 1880, her family background, and what she could remember of her home and early childhood. When she was nineteen months old, she came down with “acute congestion of the stomach and brain” (Wikipedia says it was likely scarlet fever or meningitis). She survived the illness but lost her sight and hearing. She made her will known by signs or acting out what she wanted, but there was still much she could not express. She could tell other people communicated differently, put her hand on their lips, and then got extremely angry and frustrated that she could not talk the way they did.

The desire to express myself grew. The few signs I used became less and less adequate, and my failures to make myself understood were invariably followed by outbursts of passion. I felt as if invisible hands were holding me, and I made frantic efforts to free myself. I struggled–not that struggling helped matters, but the spirit of resistance was strong within me; I generally broke down in tears and physical exhaustion. If my mother happened to be near I crept into her arms, too miserable even to remember the cause of the tempest. After awhile the need of some means of communication became so urgent that these outbursts occurred daily, sometimes hourly.

When Helen was six, her parents took her to a doctor in Baltimore, who referred them to Alexander Graham Bell, who suggested Michael Anagnos of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. Mr. Agagnos sent them Anne Sullivan.

I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.

Anne started spelling the names of objects with a manual alphabet with her fingers in Helen’s hands, and although Helen could mimic what Anne did, Helen didn’t make the connection that the letters spelled the names of the objects. Then came the famous incident in which Anne spelled “water” while Helen’s hand felt water pouring from a pump. Suddenly the light dawned and the connection was made, opening up the world of language and communication for Helen. It took a while, though, to go from learning nouns to making sentences and learning abstract concepts.

In her narrative in the book, Helen recounted her education, various incidents in her childhood, people she met, books she read. She was determined to go to college: “A potent force within me, stronger than the persuasion of my friends, stronger even than the pleadings of my heart, had impelled me to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear. I knew that there were obstacles in the way; but I was eager to overcome them.” Anne went with her and spelled out the classroom lectures in Helen’s hand. Helen had to get textbooks printed in Braille. Different types of Braille caused difficulty in an examination where the raised print was different from what she was used to, yet Anne was not allowed to spell into Helen’s hand for the exam. She referred to “…those dreadful pitfalls called examinations, set by schools and colleges for the confusion of those who seek after knowledge.”

Despite the obstacles, Helen enjoyed learning in the midst of other students and interacting with them.

But I soon discovered that college was not quite the romantic lyceum I had imagined. Many of the dreams that had delighted my young inexperience became beautifully less and “faded into the light of common day.” Gradually I began to find that there were disadvantages in going to college.

The one I felt and still feel most is lack of time. I used to have time to think, to reflect, my mind and I. We would sit together of an evening and listen to the inner melodies of the spirit, which one hears only in leisure moments when the words of some loved poet touch a deep, sweet chord in the soul that until then had been silent. But in college, there is no time to commune with one’s thoughts. One goes to college to learn, it seems, not to think. When one enters the portals of learning, one leaves the dearest pleasures–solitude, books and imagination–outside with the whispering pines. I suppose I ought to find some comfort in the thought that I am laying up treasures for future enjoyment, but I am improvident enough to prefer present joy to hoarding riches against a rainy day.

Every one who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory. One more effort and I reach the luminous cloud, the blue depths of the sky, the uplands of my desire.

But I do not blame any one. The administrative board of Radcliffe did not realize how difficult they were making my examinations, nor did they understand the peculiar difficulties I had to surmount. But if they unintentionally placed obstacles in my way, I have the consolation of knowing that I overcame them all.

She did indeed overcome the obstacles and earned her degree, the first blind and deaf student to do so.

I realize now what a selfish, greedy girl I was to ask that my cup of happiness should be filled to overflowing, without stopping to think how many other people’s cups were quite empty. I feel heartily ashamed of my thoughtlessness.

It is only once in a great while that I feel discontented, and allow myself to wish for things I cannot hope for in this life. But, as you know, my heart is usually brimful of happiness. The thought that my dear Heavenly Father is always near, giving me abundantly of all those things, which truly enrich life and make it sweet and beautiful, makes every deprivation seem of little moment compared with the countless blessings I enjoy.

I enjoyed reading Anne Sullivan’s side of things, too, and wish I could share several quotes about how her philosophy of educating Helen developed. Even though Anne herself had attended the Institute, she had to come up with her own methods on the spot to teach Helen. She determined to teach her in a natural and not a “classroom” way, at least until Helen learned to communicate well. Anne’s letters here were informally written to a lady at the Institute who was like a mother to her, and I am so glad these letters were included rather than formal reports: they reveal much of her heart.

It is a rare privilege to watch the birth, growth, and first feeble struggles of a living mind; this privilege is mine; and moreover, it is given me to rouse and guide this bright intelligence.

If only I were better fitted for the great task! I feel every day more and more inadequate. My mind is full of ideas; but I cannot get them into working shape. You see, my mind is undisciplined, full of skips and jumps, and here and there a lot of things huddled together in dark corners. How I long to put it in order! Oh, if only there were some one to help me! I need a teacher quite as much as Helen. I know that the education of this child will be the distinguishing event of my life, if I have the brains and perseverance to accomplish it.

One aspect of Helen’s education that I did not quite pick up on was how it became so public. A lot of that publicity seemed to come from Mr. Anagnos, but I don’t know if he was just excited about it or promoting the work of the Institute or what. Major frustrations for Anne were the exaggerations of Helen’s accomplishments or Anne’ abilities in the news, or the judgments of her methods by people who had no real idea of what was involved.

Mr. Macy, the book’s editor, spends a great deal of time on one blight of Helen’s career or education. Helen had written a story and sent it to Mr. Anagnos, who then had it printed in the newspapers. Alert readers wrote in to say that the story resembled one written by another author and accused Helen of plagiarism. Helen was only eleven at the time, and an investigation was made. Neither Anne nor Helen’s mother had read to Helen the story which she was accused of plagiarizing: they had not even heard of it. Finally the story was tracked down at a home Helen had visited some years before. Evidently someone there had read it to her, and she had forgotten the incident, but retained bits of the story in her own imagination. Included in this book is a letter from the author of the original story, saying that she did not believe Helen repeated the story as her own on purpose, and she thought Helen even improved upon her story in some places. She concluded:

Please give her my warm love, and tell her not to feel troubled about it any more. No one shall be allowed to think it was anything wrong; and some day she will write a great, beautiful story or poem that will make many people happy. Tell her there are a few bitter drops in every one’s cup, and the only way is to take the bitter patiently, and the sweet thankfully.

As a Christian, I enjoy learning about a person’s spiritual development. This post is already long, so I don’t feel I can share many of the quotes I have marked on this aspect, but I think Helen was greatly confused. Anne recorded that she tried to avoid the topic of religion as she felt unqualified to deal with it. Wikipedia records that Helen eventually followed someone who taught universalism.

I did not know until scanning the Wikipedia article on Helen that Anne married Mr. Macy, the editor, a couple of years after the book was published! I read a Kindle edition, but apparently the one I have is no longer available. There are various Kindle editions available, however. In the version I read, the formatting wasn’t done well: sometimes it was hard to tell when a quote from a letter ended and the editor’s words began. Some of the letters are indented, but many are not. I also just discovered that the book is online here and includes pictures that are not in my Kindle edition, including some samples of Helen’s writing. The original book was published in 1903: this particular edition was published in 2014, and I wish they had included an afterword about the rest of Helen’s life, but I had to peruse Wikipedia for that.

I had only known the bare basics of Helen’s early life, probably from the movie The Miracle Worker, and I very much enjoyed learning more about her and Anne.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved and Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: Jane Austen: Christian Encounter Series

Jane AustenBiographers of Jane Austen have a difficult task because Jane’s sister, Cassandra, destroyed much of her correspondence. But Peter Leithart endeavors to give us a sense of her in Jane Austen, part of publisher Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounter series. He draws from what letters we do have from her as well as others’ writings and remembrances of her. In his introduction he writes:

In the brief compass of this biography, I have tried to capture the varied sides of Austen’s character. Early biographers often turned her into a model of Victorian Christian domestic femininity, and emphasized her Christian faith in an evangelical idiom she never used. In reaction, many more recent biographers all but ignore her faith. Both of those extremes distort Austen’s life and personality. I have tried to depict accurately the depth and sincerity of her Christianity, as well as her Anglican discomfort with religious emotion, but without losing sight of the other sides of her complex character –her playfulness, her satiric gift for ridicule, her ‘waspishness,’ her rigid morality. I have attempted to capture Jane Austen in full.

I particularly enjoyed these observations:

The best marriages in Austen’s novels are marriages of minds and temperament, marriages that make both husband and wife more fully themselves.

Austen believed there was a moral dimension to social behavior. Manners and morals do not exist in separate realms of life. Manners are a moral concern, and morals take specific shape in the gestures of manners.

Jane…was satirizing Romanticism before Romanticism existed.

Sir Walter Scott wrote of Austen’s “exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.”

This being part of a Christian Encounter Series, part of it focuses on her faith. This was what particularly drew me to this book, because some kind of faith is evident in her books, but I wasn’t sure if it was a general, surface faith or a heartfelt personal one.

In his biographical sketch of his sister, Henry described her piety: “Jane Austen’s hopes of immortality were built upon the Rock of ages. That she deeply felt, and devoutly acknowledged, the insignificance of all worldly attainments, and the worthlessness of all human services, in the eyes of her heavenly Father. That she had no other hope of mercy, pardon, and peace, but through the merits and suffers of her Redeemer.” Jane never used such Evangelical language, preferring the more formal cadences of prayer-book Anglicanism, but that doesn’t falsify the substance of Henry’s characterization.

The Austens’ Christianity was not the excitable Christianity of Bunyan or John Newton, but a cooler, more rational and more ethically focused Christianity, which expressed itself chiefly in acts of charity.

Despite her comparative reticence and her careful avoidance of moralizing, Austen’s faith was sincere and deep.

Biographers minimize Austen’s Christianity mainly because they cannot believe that her acerbic, sometimes childishly cruel wit, her satires of the clerical imbecilities of Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, and her playful silliness are compatible with deep Christian faith…the assumption that Christian faith is incompatible with a satirical spirit is entirely wrongheaded.

Long-time readers here know that I generally love biographies, but, although I hate to do so, I must admit this is not a favorite. First of all, Leithart begins by going into great detail about a plethora of Jane’s relatives. That section got quite confusing and, though some of that information was necessary to understand Jane in context, to me the bulk of it detracted from rather than enhanced focus on her. Secondly, Leithart insists on calling her “Jenny” at least half the time, if not more, without documenting that she was ever called that. In my search to discover whether she was actually ever called Jenny, I came across this review of this book which mentions that her father spoke of her as “Jenny” to his sister shortly after Jane was born. But that hardly qualifies it as a permanent nickname, especially since none of the other correspondence or memorials of her call her Jenny. To make it worse, Leithart speaks of “Jenny” as if she were the “real” Austen. He evidently used the name to emphasize her child-likeness.

Childlikeness might not strike us an apt description of a “serious” novelist like Austen, but this only highlights how pretentious we are about art and artists. Anyone who spends her life making up stories has got to have more than her fair share of whimsy, and nearly all Austen’s virtues, personal and artistic, as well as nearly all of her vices, are those of a woman who, at the center of her soul, remained “Jenny Austen” all her life.

She recognized her own smallness, and she achieved artistic greatness because she recognized her limitations and joyfully worked within them, because she refused to outgrow being Jenny.

Quotes like these samples seem to imply that she was conscious of “being Jenny” when her “being Jenny” seems to me to be an implication only of Leithart.

Leithart comes across to me as pretentious in other ways as well: in his coining of his own word for Jane Austen mania (“Janeia”), in his criticism of other Austen biographers, and in what seems to me to be his mischaracterizations of her (“In another age, Austen might have written for Saturday Night Live.”)

There is an odd mix-up of characters from different books when Leithart says “Fanny Price is ignored and lost within the constant din of domestic life. She feels liberated when Frank Churchill shows up to take her into the open air.” Fanny is from Mansfield Park and Frank is from Emma.

While I don’t know that Leithart accurately “captured” Austen, this book does present a compact overview of her life, times, and career.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

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Book Review: Fierce Convictions

I really didn’t know anything about Hannah More when I first saw Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More – Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior making the rounds a couple of years ago, but so many bloggers spoke positively of it that I requested it for the next gift-giving occasion. It turns out I am in good company: in his preface to this book, Eric Metaxas said he hadn’t know much about her, either, until doing research for his book on William Wilberforce, and then he got so excited, he tried to include as much about her as he could. When he met Prior and found out her doctoral dissertation was on More, he urged her to write a book.

Hannah was born to a family of five daughters in 1745. Her father being a teacher and her own thirst for learning led to her receiving an education beyond the norm for girls in that era. She and her sisters established a school together as they got older. Hannah wrote some plays for the students that were well-received. She was engaged for a long period of time, but the marriage never went forward. In a transaction common for the day, her former fiance offered her an annuity “sufficient to allow More to pursue a literary vocation as compensation for the time she devoted to him” (p. 37).

An influential friend sent a copy of one of her plays to David Garrick, a famous actor of the day; thus “the door to the literary capital of England was opened” (p. 49). Hannah became friends with a number of Londoners, including Garrick and his wife, Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, William Wilberforce, and a host of others. She was so close to Wilberforce that one of her anonymous publications was thought to be his. She was included in the Bluestocking Circle begun by “one of the wealthiest and most influential women of the day” (p. 76), Elizabeth Montagu. More’s influence and literary career grew.

But for various reasons, More became disenchanted with life in London and moved to Cowslip Green in between two villages.

More had always been bemused–and sometimes amused–by the excesses and superficialities she witnessed [in London]. So while the glistening of the fashionable life grew ever duller over several years, hints of More’s doubts about this fool’s gold can be found even from her earliest seasons there. It is clear that she was undergoing a greater sense of calling to more serious work, to more devotion in her faith, and with it to ministry in serving others (p. 95).

She was given a book of John Newton’s letters which she described as “full of vital, experimental religion” – vital meaning, according to Prior, “‘full of life,’ so opposite the stale, dead religion found in many Church of England members” (p. 105).

The word experimental alluded to the growing emphasis during the eighteenth century on the importance of individual experience in religious practice, the need of each person to have an authentic and personal faith rather than simply to adhere to rote tradition (p. 105).

Wilberforce had originally “thought that being a sincere Christian required withdrawing from the corrupt corners of human business” and was inclined to “retreat from public life in favor of a course devoted to piety.” John Newton encouraged him to “stay at his post, and neither give up work, nor throw away wealth; wait and watch occasions, sure that He, who put him at his post, would find him work to do” (p. 113). Later Wilberforce’s “influence dissuaded [Hannah] from her growing inclination to shrink from the world” (p. 117). Thank God that both of these people “stayed at their post.” “Even John Wesley sent Hannah a message through her sister: ‘Tell her to live in the world; there is the sphere of her usefulness; they will not let us come nigh them” (p. 203). The bishop of London asked her, “Where can we find any but yourself that can make the ‘fashionable world’ read books of morality and religion, and find improvement when they are only looking for amusement?” (p. 202).

More joined with Newton, Wilberforce, and others involved in fighting the slave trade.

As a goldfish swimming in a bowl doesn’t know what water is, so a person living in eighteenth-century Great Britain–immersed in an economic and social structure built on the slave trade–could not easily, if at all, see slavery for what it was. To do so required, it seemed, a certain kind of perceptiveness of mind and spirit. Hannah More was one of the few who possessed it (p. 108).

Even Wilberforce acknowledged that the fight against slavery could not by won in Parliament alone, that “more is to be done out of the House than in it,” that “changing the minds in Parliament would require changing the heart of the nation first” (p. 128).

The battle against slavery was, in many ways, led by the poets–and other writers and artists–who expanded their country’s moral imagination so it might at last see horrors too grave for the rational mind to grasp (p. 128).

Hannah used her influence and her pen to fight against slavery, a fight which took over forty years. She also used it to encourage education, especially for girls and for the poor, and to provide edifying reading material. Prior explained that tracts or pamphlets at that time were like blog posts today, and Hannah used them for educational, religious, and sometimes political causes, eventually leading to the establishment of Cheap Repository Tracts.

But she did more than write. She and her sisters started a number of schools for the poor, financed by Wilberforce, fighting against the opinion of the time that the poor should not be educated or taught to read (some thought the poor would have no use for it: others thought it might disturb the order of things). She became one of the few female members of what was called the Clapham Sect – not a sect as we think of it today, but a group of influential “like-minded believers, ‘bound together by shared moral and spiritual values, by religious mission and social activism, by love for each other, and by marriage,’ [who] changed history as they sought to serve God in every area of their lives, personal and public, at home and abroad” (p. 167). “The efforts of the Clapham community were three-pronged: they aimed at alleviating the suffering and oppression of the lower classes, reforming the excessive and negligent behaviors of the upper classes, and advancing Christianity at home and throughout the world” (pp. 173-174).

She was not flawless. Some of her views would have modern readers scratching their heads, and Prior does an excellent job explaining them in the context of Hannah’s times. But she yielded herself, her influence, her energy, her finances, and her pen to God and was used mightily by Him. One quoted source said, “What Wilberforce was among men, Hannah More was among women” (p. 240).

Somewhere between Birrell’s hatred and Roberts’s hagiography is a woman who was at once ordinary and remarkable. She was a woman with virtues and flaws, faith and fears, vision and blind spots. But she was also one whose unique gifts and fierce convictions transformed first her life and subsequently her world and ours (p. 253).

To Walpole, More was testimony, in the words of one of her early biographers, that “the most implicit faith and the most devoted zeal in Christianity could consist with the highest mental attainments; and that the most devoted piety was no obstacle to cheerfulness and humor” (p. 170).

In the epilogue Prior also shares some reasons why More is not more well-known today, among them the modernist movement, which “rejected the values that most defined the Victorian age: duty, family, piety” (p. 252). In addition, her one novel “is practically unreadable for most readers today. tastes have changed, and the art of the novel has progressed toward more nuance and complexity than the plain didacticism of More’s novel” (p. 235). But I am glad that Prior brought her to our attention and shared her life with us.

It took me just a little while to truly get into the book. I am not sure if it took that long to get into the rhythm of Prior’s style or if it just got more interesting to me around the time that Hannah went to London, and more so when she decided to leave. I especially appreciated Prior’s couching everything into its historical setting so that we weren’t getting just the facts, but truly understanding how historical events and beliefs affected Hannah and how she in turn affected them.

And on a completely separate note, one of Prior’s explanations helped me better understand Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility:

During the so-called long eighteenth century (1660-1830), a “cult of sensibility” arose that exalted the outward manifestations of emotional sensitivity–weeping, fainting, and the like–as the marks of morality and refined character, to the point that sensibility became more important than benevolent or moral actions (p. 185).

In context, Prior said this about More’s writing concerning animal cruelty. She sought to raise awareness of some of the brutal practices of the day in order to stop them yet did not devolve into “emotional indulgence” and “inordinate affection” the “cult of sensibility” employed towards animals (p. 197).

I’ll close with a few favorite quotes from More herself:

It should be held as an eternal truth, that what is morally wrong can never be politically right (p. 136).

I am at this moment as quiet as my heart can wish. Quietness is my definition of happiness (p. 69).

Atrocious deeds should never be called by gentle names (p. 205).

God can carry on his own work, though all such poor tools as I were broken (p. 247).

The more I see of the ‘hounoured, famed, and great,’ the more I see of the littleness, the unsatisfactoriness of all created good; and that no earthly pleasure can fill up the wants of the immortal principle within.

Bible Christianity is what I love…a Christianity practical and pure, which teaches holiness, humility, repentance and faith in Christ; and which after summing up all the Evangelical graces, declares that the greatest of these is charity (p. 155).

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: Eight Women of Faith

8 Women of FaithEight Women of Faith by Michael A. G. Haykin is a series of essays about different women of faith between 1537 and 1826 and how they ministered to the church in their time. Karen Swallow Prior asserts in her forward to the book that we tend to focus on the one thing that women cannot do* and even use that to suppress them in other ways, instead of celebrating and encouraging the many things they can do, and this book is an attempt to highlight a few of the many ways women can be used by God.

After a brief introduction of an abbreviated history of thought on what women were and were not allowed to do in the church and a bit of background into how the book came about, Haykin proceeds with his essays. The eight women he discusses are:

Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554). The author details how Jane came to saving faith in Christ and the series of events in which Jane became queen for nine days (at her family and others’ direction, not her own ambition) until her disinherited cousin, Mary (of Bloody Mary fame) “marched on London with an army” (p. 26) and almost everyone turned to her, even those who had previously supported Jane. Jane was arrested and imprisoned, and Mary, a “die-hard Catholic,” sent one of her “most able chaplains” seasoned in debate (p. 21) to convert Jane to Catholicism. There are several pages of Jane’s record of the conversation, and it’s amazing that a teenager could be so firm in her faith and so ably answer this man from Scripture. My favorite part from this chapter is from a note Jane wrote shortly before she died to her sister:

I have here sent you, good sister Katherine, a book, which, although it be not outwardly trimmed with gold, yet inwardly it is more worth than precious stones. It is the book, dear sister, of the Law of the Lord. It is his testament and last will, which he bequeathed to us wretches, which shall lead you to the path of eternal joy. And if you with a good mind read it, and with an earnest desire follow it, it shall bring you to an immortal and everlasting life. It will teach you to live and learn you to die (p. 33).

Margaret Baxter (1636-1681) was the wife of esteemed Puritan pastor and writer Richard Baxter. In this chapter the author gives a brief history of opinions on marriage from early Christians through the Puritans. He gives some background information on both Richard and Margaret and how they came to trust in Christ and to marry. They were vastly different, in age, finances, and personality, and she struggled with anxiety after almost having died four times and witnessed a number of atrocities. But they appreciated each other’s gifts. He “freely admitted that Margaret was better than he at solving problems relating to financial and civil affairs” and “practical issues of the Christian life” (p. 48). A couple of favorite quotes of Baxter’s:

My dear wife did look for more good in me than she found, especially lately in my weakness and decay. We are all like pictures that must not be looked at too near. They that come near us find more faults and badness in us than others at a distance know.

When husband and wife take pleasure in each other, it uniteth them in duty, it helpeth them with ease to do their work, and bear their burdens; and it is not the least part of the comfort of the married state (p. 51).

Anne Dutton (1692-1765) was a Calvinistic Baptist writer even though that profession was not encouraged for women at the time. She wrote “tracts and treatises,…sacred correspondence, and poems” and corresponded regularly with George Whitfield and Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, and others (p. 57). The Puritans “splintered into three major groups: the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and the Particular or Calvinistic Baptists” (p. 57), and Anne spent a lot of writing defending her beliefs, critiquing others’ teaching, and weighing in on controversies of the day.

Sarah Edwards (1710-1758) was the wife of Jonathan Edwards, leading figure in the “Great Awakening.” After very little biographical information, the author spends much of the chapter on Edwards’ writing about his wife “as a model of a Spirit-filled person” as opposed to some of the fanaticism and excesses of the day (p. 68).

Anne Steele (1717-1778) also came from a Calvinistic Baptist family, remained single on purpose, and wrote several hymns, and was known as “the Baptist equivalent of Isaac Watts” (p. 81).

Esther Edwards Burr (1732-1758) was the third daughter of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, and the author concentrates her chapter on her writings about friendship.

Ann Judson (1789-1826) and her husband Adoniram were America’s first missionaries. The author tells of her own conversion, Adoniram’s proposal, which not only included marriage but also life as missionaries in Asia, the voyage there, the struggles learning the language, and their first few years.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is, as I’m sure everyone knows, one of England’s most famous and most beloved novelists. A line in the notes and references at the end of the book says that “Religion to her was a private matter: to discuss it in a novel would have been a breach of good taste” (p. 148). But from her letters and what she does say in her novels, and especially a prayer she wrote, the author brings out strands of her beliefs.

My thoughts:

I was actually fairly frustrated with this book, but the primary reason for that was my own fault. I was expecting it to be more biographical, like When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give Up, which I read recently. So I was dismayed to find out that the chapters were essays. They did, however, contain a good bit of biographical information.

My secondary frustration had to do with Haykin’s choices of what he put in and left out. Granted, when you’re writing just a few pages of a life about which books have been written, you can’t include everything, and different authors would make different decisions about what to emphasize. Ann Judson and Sarah Edwards were the two with whom I was most familiar, having read a number of biographies of Ann in particular (I wrote about Ann here and Sarah here and here). The great bulk of the most interesting part of Ann’s life was summarized in the last paragraph of the chapter. The author spent a great deal of time on Adoniram and Ann’s study concerning infant baptism (paedobaptism). They came from a tradition of infant baptism, and as they studied, they began to question it, studied some more, and eventually came out on the side of believer’s baptism, being baptized after one has made a profession of faith. This incident is important for a number of reasons. It shows their character and concern for truth and fidelity to Scripture (which was the main theme of the chapter). They had not wanted to make this change: Ann “felt afraid [Adoniram] would become a Baptist, and frequently urged the unhappy consequences if he should. But he said his duty compelled him to satisfy his own mind, and embrace those sentiments which appeared most concordant with Scripture” (p. 108). Once it became clear to both of them, they felt they had no choice but to make it known and deal with the consequences, which included leaving the mission board that had just formed in order to send them out, seeking Baptist support, facing the dismay and even anger of their friends and colleagues. So, yes, for all those reasons this was important. But if you’re writing 14 pages of a person’s life, do you want to spend 5 pages on this? A good page and a half or so was spent on listing the books the Judsons studied on this issue and telling us about the authors: in my mind, these books and authors could have been a footnote or end note with much less detail.

But aside from that, the book does share a lot of good information about these women and does meet its purpose in showing a variety of ways in which women have used their gifts to minister to others. I especially enjoyed the chapter on Lady Jane Grey. I knew her basic story and had read a fictional account of her life, but I appreciated learning more about her. I felt this chapter was the best written in the book, with a good blend of historical and biographical detail. I had read a magazine article on Margaret Baxter which made me want to read more about her, so I as glad to find more here. I had not heard on Anne Steele or Anne Dutton before. One of the main reasons I got this book, besides liking biographies and seeing it recommended by other bloggers I respect, was to find out more about Jane Austen’s faith. I had deduced that she was God-fearing in the sense that most of society in England was in those days, but I had wondered about her personal faith. I was a little disappointed in that there is just not much information available, especially with her feeling it was a private matter, and it’s not entirely certain that the lengthy prayer that was shared was hers. But I enjoyed the author’s tracing the way she dealt with preachers in her books.

So…mixed emotions about this book. There were parts I did enjoy and learned from, but I don’t think I will be seeking out any more books by Haykin any time soon.

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* I know that there are a variety of opinions among my readers concerning what women can and can’t do in the church, but I would ask that you not make this post a place for that debate. I shared my own views here.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: When Others Shuddered

When Others ShudderedWhen Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give Up by Jamie Janosz contains eight short biographies of women who lived between 1820 and 1955 who influenced their world for God. They came from different walks of life: some single, some married, some wealthy, some former slaves. They were ordinary women except, as the title indicates, they didn’t “shudder,” they didn’t turn away from circumstances or tasks that many of us would have, and thus they can inspire us.

They are:

Fanny Crosby, who was blinded due a mistreatment to her eyes when she was six weeks old. Yet she later thanked God for this “gift,” feeling that it set the course of her life and made her more attuned to God working in and through her. Fanny determined to be optimistic, and her mother and grandmother tried to give her as normal a childhood as possible and teach her about God. She went to a blind school, taught there, married, was active in Christian work. She had always loved music and reading and composed poems since her girlhood, and that grew into hymn writing, many of her hymns well-known ones that we still sing today. The book shares her manner of hymn-writing and many of the incidences that led to hymns.

Emma Dryer was “a thinker, a dreamer, a girl who wanted more out of life” (p. 37). She loved and excelled at school and eventually became a teacher even though extra schooling was thought to “make women unfit for marriage and motherhood” (p. 37). She loved teaching and the orderliness of her life, but wondered if there was something more. A bout of severe typhoid fever hanged her life and made her want to give herself to Christian work. Visiting the growing city of Chicago, she was burdened with the needs of people, particularly women, there who came to the city to work but were often led astray. She felt “the Bible was the solution to the social problems” she saw there (p. 42). A meeting with D. L. Moody and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 convinced her that she was needed in Chicago. Eventually Moody talked with her about a training school he wanted to establish, something right up Emma’s alley. Emma worked and planned toward that end, but Moody, distracted with his travels, meetings, and other work, didn’t get around the the school for some time. When Emma, who could be outspoken and confrontational at times, wrote strongly to him about it, he was offended and decided to leave Chicago and start a school in NY. But another letter and the urging of his wife and others led him to Chicago and the founding of the Moody Bible Institute.

Nettie McCormick was the wife of Cyrus McCormick, wealthy from his invention of a reaper. A number of her children died, she suffered several miscarriages, two of her children developed mental illnesses, and Nettie herself went deaf at age 34. She “struggled to see God’s hand” (p. 66) but wrestled in prayer and rested in Him. The McCormicks were always generous, giving to many good causes and works, and after Cyrus died, Nettie continued to give wherever she could, even to missionary schools in other countries. She wasn’t self-promotional and did much behind the scenes, but she didn’t stay behind her four walls: she traveled and even planted trees herself in front of a building she had funded. She was close friends with Emma Dryer and a major supporter of Moody and the Institute.

Sarah Dunn Clark grew up wealthy and privileged, but in her mid-twenties felt God’s urging to work in that which will last for eternity. She moved to Chicago and helped in many ways by visiting needy families and establishing a mission Sunday School. She met her husband there: they moved in the same social circles and had similar burdens. They visited slums and jails and opened a small rescue mission “in the heart of what people called ‘the devil’s territory'” (p. 80), which eventually eventually became the Pacific Garden Mission (which you may know of from the radio program Unshackled). George was called by some “the poorest preacher who ever tried to expound God’s Word,” but he was “deeply convicted and spoke emotionally about the condition of the lost” (p. 81). Sarah became the “mother of the mission,” ministering to people on a personal level. “In her quiet way, she extended respect and dignity to people regardless of their condition. It was this steadfast love that broke through many hardened hearts” (p. 87). The Clarks invested all of their money in the mission and lived simply and frugally.

Amanda Smith grew up the child of parents who were slaves at two different farms. Her father purchased his freedom, and the rest of the family was set free as the dying wish of the family’s daughter they tended. Her parents “believed in God,” “demonstrated a calm and steady faith” (p. 92) and were active helpers for the Underground Railroad. Amanda was only able to attend a short time of school and then began domestic work. Lonely one day, she decided to attend church, where the preaching and singing reminded her of home, and she felt God “wanted her, a poor, simple black girl, to serve Him” (p. 93). She wanted to be a “consistent, downright, outright Christian” (p. 99). Her first husband was a drunkard and died; only one of her children lived to adulthood; her second husband deceived her as to what kind of a man he was so she would marry him, deserted his family, and later died. She was invited to camp meetings, began to sing and testify at them, and soon people were paying her expenses to do so at other camp meetings. She had opportunity to travel to England, India, and Africa. She never asked for money, but prayed, and God sent her money that she then used to meet needs she saw in other places. She became active in the Christian temperance union, established an orphanage, and wrote a book about her life.

Virginia Asher became active in Christian work after her salvation, in time particularly drawn to “‘fallen women’ and the madams who ran houses of prostitution. She was often called in to read and pray with the sick, write letters to parents, dress wounds, and whisper words of peace to the dying” (p. 119). She helped care for their children: though she was unable to have her own, she “took in the world of lost souls and mothered them with divine love” (p. 122). She and her husband sometimes entered saloons and ask if they could put on a brief service for their customers – and they were allowed to. She established Business Women’s Councils.

Evangeline Booth was the daughter of William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army in London, who “believed in the three ‘S’s while reaching those the rest of society rejected: soup, soap, and salvation” (p. 148). Evangeline remained single and eventually became the head of the Salvation Army in the US, and eventually led it internationally.

Mary Mcleod Bethune was born after the Emancipation Proclamation to parents who had been slaves. She thirsted for education and prayed earnestly for it. God answered through a local mission school and later through scholarships to other schools, eventually to Moody Bible Institute. She had a beautiful singing voice and toured with the choir. She wanted to be a  missionary in Africa, but God closed the door. She eventually established a school in Florida with the meagerest of supplies, in opposition to the white community and the KKK, which eventually joined with another college to become Bethune Cookman. She became an advisor to presidents, eventually taking the newly created position of administration of the Office of Minority Affairs for FDR and then other government posts, and established the National Council of Negro Women. She realized her dream of going to Africa when as a US representative she went to Liberia for the inauguration of their new president when she was in her seventies.

Along with more detail about the life and faith of these women, there are three chapters on “Woman and Education,” “Women in Missions,” and “Women in Politics,” detailing a bit of the history of the times in each of those areas. A final chapter wraps up “Being That Kind of Woman,” discussing some of the key features they had in common. None had a trouble-free life: some dealt with poverty, health issues, marital problems, deaths of children, opposition. None were faultless or flawless. But each sought to follow God in the way that He led them and relied on Him for what they needed to do so.

You may have noticed that most of them had some connection with D. L. Moody and/or the Moody Bible Institute. That’s because the author is a professor at Moody and her initial research into Emma Dryer’s life led her to a study of all these women.

If you like biographies, you will probably like this book. If you don’t like biographies but feel you might be able to take them in smaller doses, this book is worth a try. If you like hearing how God has worked in people’s lives and get inspired by them in your own – which is why I like biographies – you will glean a lot from this book.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: I’m No Angel

im-no-angelI’m No Angel: From Victoria’s Secret Model to Role Model by Kylie Bisutti tells the story of her successful rise through the modeling world only to abandon it at the height of her success.

As a young girl Kylie was thin and pretty with “freakishy long legs,” and constantly people would tell her she looked just like a model or should be a model some day. Kylie makes an important point when she says:

Adults don’t always realize the profound effect their words can have on young kids—girls in particular. These people mean well, of course. What harm could possibly come from telling a little girl she’s pretty? Technically, none—unless that’s the only affirmation she ever hears…

It wasn’t as though I didn’t have anything else going for me…but whenever anyone looked at me, all they seemed to see was model.

As my identity became wrapped up in being pretty, it also became the primary attribute I used to define my value. If people weren’t praising me for my looks, I started feeling like I was lacking somehow, and I would go out of my way to make them like me. This would turn into a cycle that would haunt me for years to come.

In her junior high years, she felt a growing disconnect with her father, who had taken a new job and was working all the time so that she could “have what [he] didn’t have growing up.” She “missed their old life…when we had less money but more time together.” Then her height and thinness started getting her teased at school, with girls saying she was anorexic and boys calling her a giraffe.

So when opportunities for modeling did come her way, the positive attention and affirmation soothed. her. She hoped to “prove something to all the people who had teased me at school” and even to “regain [her] dad’s attention.”

From the very start, at just 14, she was made up and dressed to look older than she was and to appear sultry and sexy and pose provocatively. Being expected to change clothes in a room with models of both sexes made her uncomfortable, but she figured it was part of the job and she needed to get used to it. In addition:

That’s one of the harsh realities I learned early on about the modeling industry: ultimately, your body doesn’t really belong to you.  It belongs to the client.  Since they’re paying, they figure they can do pretty much whatever they want to you.  They can curl your hair, straighten it, dye it, cut it –even shave it.  I’ve seen hair extensions being pulled out by the roots and smoke billowing out of flat irons while the hair inside gets singed and fried.  I’ve watched models squeeze their feet into shoes so small their feet literally bled, and I’ve seen false eyelashes torn off so quickly that the natural lashes came off with them.  Modeling may look glamorous on the outside, but believe me, beauty can be an ugly business.

Some girls even had surgery to remove ribs to look thinner, Kylie herself, at a size 2 and 115 lbs., was referred to as “the big model,” and her agent called her a “fat pig” and a “cow” and told her she needed to lose weight.

After a devastating heartbreak in high school, Kylie was open when a friend invited her to her church’s youth group. She began going to her church and learning about God, Jesus, and salvation for the first time. At a youth camp some time later, she finally put her faith in the Lord Jesus as her Savior. After she came home, her mom saw such a difference that she was open to what Kylie shared about what she was learning.

It still took years, though, for Kylie to come to a realization that there might be a problem with her modeling, especially modeling lingerie. We are saved in a moment, but growth and sanctification are processes that come with time in God’s Word and in His church. Kylie tells how her modeling career continued until she reached what she considered the pinnacle: winning a Victoria’s Secret Runway Angel competition. Aspects of modeling continued to bother her, but at first she just thought it was part of the job, then didn’t want to displease her agent or company or jeopardize her job or risk rejection. Finally she was convicted, but continued to compromise. She “wasn’t mature enough to understand this at the time, but it wasn’t simply a question of what you can or can’t see in those types of photos. My sinful choice was rooted in something deeper: what the photos represented. I can only imagine how sad it made God to see my complete lack of honor and purity and respect, not only for myself, but also for my parents, for my future spouse, and most of all, for Him.”

Had I been further along in my Christian walk and more focused on serving God rather than myself, I might have seen that. But I still had a long way to go in my faith. In my mind, being a Christian meant that God loved me and that He wanted me to be happy, healthy, and successful. I’d been listening to CDs that taught me how to transform my mind, when I should have been immersing myself in the Bible so God could transform my heart through His Word. Up to that point, I’d been treating God like a genie in a lamp, making childish wishes and then waiting for Him to deliver.

But God didn’t send His Son to die on the cross so that one day I could become a famous fashion model. He doesn’t exist to serve me; I exist to serve Him.

When she married, her husband at first didn’t realize all that was involved in her modeling, and once he did, instead of “making” her quit, he just quietly prayed for God to convict her. And He did. “God was opening my eyes to the fact that I couldn’t glorify Him in my life while at the same time taking modeling jobs that compromised His values. The disconnect was too great, and if I kept trying to do both, I would end up despising one. I had to choose. Would I serve the world, or would I serve God?”

When she repented and chose to serve God, at first she thought she would continue t model but avoid jobs that were immodest.

But as I continued to grow in my relationship with the Lord, I started to lose the desire to model at all. Regardless of the type of clothing, I knew that modeling promotes the world’s sense of beauty. This wasn’t the type of beauty I wanted to endorse for girls and women. Not only that, but the temptation would always be there to be thinner, prettier, and more in demand. I’d seen how addictive those desires can become, and I didn’t want any part of it anymore.

Unfortunately a sad consequence of modeling is that the photos that were taken of her will forever be available on the Internet, even some by a unscrupulous photographer who sold some to a porn site. There’s no way to get them back or have them erased. “I could make godly decisions related to my future, but I couldn’t control how others chose to exploit my past.” She chooses to think of them as “a powerful reminder of the consequences of sin and the depths of God’s redemptive grace.”

Now she is married with two children and a ministry encouraging women in their walk with the Lord. She blogs at I’m No Angel.

A few years ago during Victoria’s Secret show on TV, Kylie was watching Twitter and finding mostly negative comments about it, some from women who felt that it was a negative not only because of the immodesty, but because of making “everyday” women feel inadequate. One man tweeted, “I’d rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a VS model.” Kylie responded, “I quit being a VS model to become a Proverbs 31 wife.” Within minutes she was contacted and asked to do a guest blog post which went viral and led to interviews on a number of news sites. There were some verbal attacks as a result, but there were also words of encouragement in unlikely places in the industry.

At the end of the book is a 30-day devotional section titled “The Master’s Makeover,” with Scripture and words of wisdom about beauty from God’s point of view.

I found this quite an eye-opening book and was blessed by Kylie’s growth. As far as I can tell no one sat her down and had “a talk” about modesty with her, but God dealt with her heart and brought her to conviction Himself. In the few pictures shared in the book, she looks so much healthier and happier, in addition to being more modest, in her more recent photos.

Genre: Autobiography
My rating: 9 out of 10
Objectionable elements: I think Kylie does a good job showing the seamy side of the industry without getting unnecessarily explicit, but there are scenes that might bother some. In addition, a lady preacher is mentioned with whose teaching I would disagree, but I think that was who Kylie was talking about when she referenced listening to CDs teaching that God wanted her to be positive, happy, and successful rather than teaching the whole counsel of God.
Recommendation: Yes.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Mondays, and Carol‘s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: Ten Fingers For God

Ten Fingers For GodI first read Ten Fingers For God about Dr. Paul Brand by Dorothy Clarke Wilson some 25-30 years ago when we attended a church with a solid lending library of mostly biographies. After reading this book I read the same author’s book about Paul’s mother, Granny Brand, and I believe I also read her Take My Hands: The Remarkable Story of Dr. Mary Verghese, after seeing her story mentioned in this book. I reread Granny Brand a few years ago, and that caused me to want to reread Ten Fingers, so I found an inexpensive used copy online.

Originally my primary interest in Ten Fingers For God was stirred when I was told it mentioned Dr. John Dreisbach, who attended our church whenever he was in the country. But I was soon caught up in Paul’s story on it’s own merits.

He was the son of unconventional pioneer missionaries to India, Jesse and Evelyn Brand. He and his sister were allowed to roam pretty freely, his mother even letting him do his school work up in a tree and drop finished assignments down to her. “If [his work] was wrong, he had to climb down and get [it], reascend, and start over again” (p. 14). So it was a pretty strong shock to his system when, at the age of 9, I believe, he was taken to live with two maiden aunts in England for his schooling. Some of my favorite parts of the book are his and his sister’s antics there, like hanging upside down on the crosspiece of a streetlight in front of the aunt’s house, smiling at passers-by, or pretending the floor was lava and trying to make it around the room on the furniture without touching the floor. The aunties handled it as well as they could.

Paul’s father died when he was 15, and his mother returned to England for a time, devastated, but eventually she went back to India. It was understood that Paul would follow. Initially his main interest was in carpentry, so he apprenticed to a man his mother knew. When he applied to be a missionary, however, he was turned down. His father had had to build structures, which is one reason why Paul was interested in building, but it wasn’t accepted as a main missionary occupation. Medicine had originally been repulsive to him, with memories of his father treating gross and disgusting conditions. But once Paul decided to go that way and got into it, he marveled at the way God created the body and its systems and saw it as a wonderful way to help people.

He married and went to India and was thrust into more than full time medical ministry. Leprosy was still a mystery with a huge stigma attached. Sadly, most lepers were not actively contagious, but once the disease began they were ostracized. It was thought that their flesh wasted away, so much so that they couldn’t even be operated on, but Paul discovered that the cause for their ulcers and even lost digits was lack of pain sensation. He pioneered a surgery to transform their hands from their clawed version to workable, usable hands.

But that actually created more problems. People would not hire them because of the stigma of leprosy, but they couldn’t successfully beg any more because they no longer could garner the sympathy their clawed hands had elicited. Paul found employment for some at the hospital, but of course he could not do that for all of them. Eventually a training center was built where patients could not only learn a trade, but learn how to handle their tools in safe ways that wouldn’t damage hands that couldn’t feel, and in turn, as Paul and his crew became aware of problem areas, they could adapt tools or processes to the patients’ needs. Paul’s carpentry experience was valuable many times over in these endeavors.

Not many doctors were treating leprosy patients, so when possible, Paul traveled to other parts of the world to gain more insight (which led him to Dr. Dreisbach in Africa).

Eventually treatment expanded to include operations on feet, noses, and restoration of eyebrows. Paul’s wife, Margaret, became an expert in her own right on how leprosy affects the eyes.

I had forgotten that Paul worked in the ministry founded by Dr. Isa Scudder, someone else whose biography I enjoyed.

The last third or so of the book was not quite as interesting to me, as it got further away from Paul himself and more into how his procedures and methods gained worldwide attention, what organizations he became affiliated with, which organizations sent people or set up additional centers in Vellore, etc. There’s a nice epilogue in this edition which I don’t believe was in the one I first read, telling what happened in the lives of Paul, his wife, and each of his children.

He was so incredibly busy, I don’t know how he found time to even have a family. Yet he was known for being unflappable in just about any circumstance.

A lot of his insights into pain are in this book, but perhaps his best known book was originally titled Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, which I’ve not read. It’s been republished and retitled The Gift of Pain with Philip Yancey, but I don’t know if the text has been altered or what Yancey’s contribution to the book was. They did collaborate on other books, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made and In His Image (I’ve not read these, either.)

Overall this was a fascinating look into a unique and remarkable man, perfectly fitted to what God called him to. I’m glad I read it again.

Genre: Biography
My rating: 10 out of 10
Objectionable elements: None
Recommendation: Yes, I highly recommend it.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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Book Review: SEAL of God

SEAL of GodI got SEAL of God by Chad Williams and David Thomas a few years ago when it came up on a Kindle app sale without really knowing much about it.

It’s the story of Chad Williams, who, as he was growing up, was talented athletically, played baseball, went on to skateboarding (even making commercials and receiving sponsorships), and then made a lot of money sport fishing, but his interest in each fizzled out after a time. He didn’t do well at school, not because he couldn’t, but because he didn’t like academic work. He was from a Christian home, but was not a believer (beyond the occasional prayer for help out of a jam) and got into drinking, doing drugs, and partying. He liked taking risks, pulling pranks, and doing crazy, senseless (to anyone else) stunts just for the thrill. But at a point in his freshman year of college when the thrill of everything else was gone, and desiring to do “something big,” he decided he wanted to be a Navy SEAL.

His parents were dismayed, not only because of the danger, but because nothing in his life indicated that being a SEAL would work out for him. But he was determined. They had numerous discussions and confrontations that ended in stalemates until his father hit on the idea to ask a former navy SEAL to put him through the toughest workout he could. But that backfired – the SEAL, Scott Helvenston, saw something in Chad and took him on to train him for SEAL tryouts. They developed a close friendship through their time together, and Chad looked on Scott as a mentor.

Before Chad left for the Navy, Scott accepted a contract with a security firm that aided the military to go to Iraq. Only nineteen days before leaving for boot camp, Chad learned that Scott had been one of four Americans killed when Iraqis ambushed their vehicle, beat them, dragged them through the streets, and then hung them upside down from a bridge. Chad was crushed, but his sorrow turned to rage and a desire for revenge.

A good chunk of the book tells of the SEAL training, beyond rigorous both physically and mentally.

Chad continued his drinking, partying, and drug use when he was away from the base. On one trip home, he placated his parents during an argument by agreeing to go to church with them and planning to go to a party afterward. He warned his girlfriend what the service would be like and cautioned her not to raise her hand during the service if the preacher asked if anyone wanted to get right with God because it was a trick – they would then ask anyone who raised their hands to come forward and go to a room and talk with someone. But as Chad listened to the message, something finally clicked. He ended up raising his hand, going forward, and trusting Christ as Savior.

Fairly soon afterward, he had a desire to be an evangelist. He tried to see if there was a way to leave the SEALs early, both because of this desire and because his becoming a Christian and not going with the guys to drink any more put a wedge between them: they thought he was diluting their camaraderie and even physically attacked him. He ended up having to stay but was transferred to another unit. He eventually was “one of only thirteen out of a class of 173 to make it through to graduation.”

The rest of the book tells of some of his missions, his first forays into ministry, and how God led in both his ministry and his personal life.

One aspect that surprised and greatly interested me was that this story touched on two other books I had read. In the Presence of My Enemies by Gracia Burnham tells of her and her husband’s experience being captured by the militant group Abu Sayyaf, and a couple of years after that, Chad’s SEAL group along with some Green Berets helped “lay the groundwork” to overcome them. Also his group almost was part of the SEAL group that rescued Captain Richard Phillips, whose ship was commandeered by Somali pirates.

There is a lot of good spiritual truth in this book, but one that stood out to me was his description of how, during his SEAL training, his instructors would push them to the brink of quitting – not because they wanted anyone to quit, but because they wanted the trainees to be able to resist that temptation when they were in adverse conditions on the field. Instructors would either berate them or tempt them with the nice warm bed and food that would be awaiting them if they quit. Whenever someone wanted to quit during what was called their BUD/S course (Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL) and Hell Week, they’d have to go ring a bell specifically designed for the purpose. One particularly hard night, “the bell kept ringing at the hands of guys who were walking out on their dream for just a little bit of comfort.” I can identify with that. I would not have lasted a day in SEAL training, but in other areas of life, it’s so tempting to go the easy route when God’s help is available for whatever He wants us to do.

I enjoyed the book, especially seeing how God radically changed Chad. There are people for whom I am praying for just such a radical change, and seeing it in Chad’s life when there was no previous inclination bolsters my hope for others.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

Book Review: A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea

A Captain's DutyA Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy Seals, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips first came to my attention through Lisa. I vaguely remembered this incident in 2009 and knew a movie had been based on it, which I’ve not seen. But I decided I wanted to read the story behind it.

Captain Phillips tells a bit of his own background and a bit of merchant marine history. I had a step-uncle in the merchant marines and didn’t know much about it, so I found this quite informative. I liked that Phillips read a lot of merchant marine history and regarded his position as not just a job to earn a paycheck and pay bills, but rather a continuation of that tradition. This information as well as some background into his family is told mostly in flashbacks in conjunction with getting ready for his next trip. He also tells of the danger of pirates, particularly in certain hot spots, but said there had not been an instance of pirates taking an American ship in 200 years. However, he notes, “Sailors are bringing the world’s most vital resource through the world’s most unstable region, which had turned the area around the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast into a shooting gallery. Anyone sailing there would be under constant threat of attack from pirates, who were getting smarter and more violent by the month” (p. 26).

The chapters are set up in a countdown fashion leading up to the day the pirates did overtake his ship. He talks about training his men in what to do in case of a pirate attack and shoring up security. They had two uncanny close calls with pirates, and then, suddenly, when the Somali pirates did come after his ship, it happened incredibly fast. They had time to sound an alarm so that most of the men could go into a prearranged hiding place and so that Phillips could turn dials and switches that would disable the radar and many of the functions on the ship. They wanted as few people as possible to be visible so that the pirates could not kill them or hold them hostage.

The way it usually worked was that the pirates had a larger “mother ship” nearby which they could communicate with once a ship was taken, and negotiations would begin to demand a ransom. But Phillips had made it so that the radar wasn’t detecting their ship and had turned the radio channel so their hails were on a little-used frequency. He convinced them that many of the ship’s operations were broken and he couldn’t fix them and didn’t know where the rest of the crew was, and they believed him. They threatened to kill the four men on the bridge but did not carry out their threat after two deadlines, and finally stopped threatening. They took Phillips through the ship to try to find the missing crew, but he was able to keep them away from their hiding place, or, in a couple of instances, the one or two crewman who were at large heard them coming and hid in time. When they began taking the other crewmen on the bridge to do the same thing, those men were able to get away into hiding places of their own. Finally Phillips was able to convince the pirates to take the lifeboat, and him along with them. I had not realized that the bulk of this ordeal occurred with just Phillips and the pirates on the lifeboat, but he succeeded in getting ship and crew free.

The pirates thought they could still hold out for a ransom. They actually all got along pretty well, even joking together, until Phillips tried to escape. Then they turned on him, kept him tied up, and began beating him. After four more long days, Navy SEALs rescued him (no spoiler there since that was in the news. 🙂 ) In fact, during some of the tenser moments in the book, I had to keep reminding myself, “It’s going to be ok. He makes it our alive.”) The SEALs did admit, though, that the outcome was better than they thought it was going to be.

Phillips weaves in to the story what was going on with his wife and family during this situation as well, how friends came to be with his wife and help in various ways, how the media made a nuisance of itself by camping in front of their house.

Even knowing the outcome, this was a riveting story.

One major problem with the book, however, is a heavy smattering of bad language. I had set it aside for a time, not sure if I should go ahead with it. I finally decided to pick it back up again, and large chunks of it would be profanity-free, then I would be blasted with it again. Of course, it’s his story, and he is telling it like it happened. “Cussing like a sailor” is a known idiom, though I don’t know why they have a penchant for or think they’re free to engage in such speech. I know it’s real to the story: I just don’t like to fill my brain with it so that it comes into my own mind in tense moments.

I am always interested in the spiritual side of things, even though spirituality is not a major component of the book. Phillips and his wife were Catholics, but, by his admission, not good ones. He talks about being a believer in some sense of the word, and says that this incident helped his wife come back to her faith. He calls one of his crewman a born again Christian, so he seems to acknowledge that that’s something different from himself. He says he prayed:

“God, give me the strength and the patience to see my chance and to take it. I know I’m going to get only one shot. Give me the wisdom to know it.” I never prayed to get away. I just prayed for strength and patience and knowledge to know when to make my move. I believe God helps those who help themselves. Asking for Him to do all the work is just not my style (p. 191).

What a wonderful opportunity that would have been to completely humble himself and abandon himself to God. I’m glad he had the measure of faith he did and pray God will continue to grow it.

Another interesting thing he discusses near the end is what he calls “the H word: Hero.” He was very uncomfortable with people calling him that and noticed that other people in a similar position would also comment that they didn’t feel they were. I have noticed that, too, in those kinds of interviews. People will say things like, “I wasn’t a hero – I just did what I had to do.” Phillips theorizes that “we are stronger than we think we are” and we can handle far more than we think we can (p. 284). He feels that everyone has “this potential inside you, too. If fate put you in my shoes, you’d have done the same thing” (p. 285). He acknowledges that “mental toughness” and “training your mind never to give up” are a part of it (pp. 284-284).

I’ll close with one quote I especially liked that he opened the book with from John Paul Jones, who was also a merchant mariner and Revolutionary war hero:

If fear is cultivated, it will become stronger. If faith is cultivated, it will achieve mastery.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Narnian

NarnianIn The Narnian, Alan Jacobs wanted to write a biography of C. S. Lewis, but not one that brought out a lot of extraneous details of his life. He wanted to concentrate mainly on what made him “the Narnian” – the intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual developments in Lewis’s life that led to his creating Narnia.

He begins with Lewis’s early life and family: the death of his mother and the fact that afterward “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life”; the imaginary worlds he created with his brother (separately first, then they joined them together), his problems with his father, the solitary days playing alone in his home after his brother went to boarding school. When Lewis’s own turn came for boarding school he didn’t get on very well socially and eventually thrived under a private tutor. Jacobs then progresses through Lewis’s time in the military, in academia, His conversion from atheism,  his apologetic writing, his fame as a defender of the faith, and his turning from that genre to children’s stories, and closes soon after telling of the end of Lewis’s life.

Along the way he pulls up information from Lewis’s published writings, letters, diaries, and other people’s letters, diaries, comments, and a few other people’s biographies of him.

I didn’t “discover” Lewis until in my early 40s (I know, how did that happen? My education was definitely deficient!) Some time after my first reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I read a biography of Lewis, but I don’t remember which one. I’m thinking it must have been one geared to children, because his childhood is what I mostly remembered from it, but then maybe that’s just due to a faulty memory. At any rate, I enjoyed being reminded of elements I knew and then learning new details of his older life.

I liked the way Jacobs juxtaposed elements of Lewis’s life with the Narnia books, quoting some of the sections about schooling along with talking about Lewis’s schooling, doing the same with his early childhood and military service. There is not much more than basic information about Lewis’s time in the military – he seems to have kept thoughts about it close to his vest – but some of the passages in the Narnia books about having to fight, particularly from Peter’s viewpoint, probably grew from his own experiences. Digory Kirke was based on Lewis’s private Professor Kirkpatrick (sometimes called Kirk), though Kirk was a staunch unbeliever (“Digory Kirke is a picture of what William T. Kirkpatrick might have been – had he ever found a way into Narnia.”) Of course, Jacobs isn’t saying that everything in the books is based on something from Lewis’s life explicitly. Much in the stories came from his imagination, but that’s going to be based on his own experiences as well as those he had read about.

I especially appreciated his defense or explanation of where Lewis was coming from in a couple of areas where some are critical of him. He has been called a misogynist because of his views on women, particularly in regard to teaching that the man is the woman’s head in a relationship, and racist because the Calormen people, the “bad guys” in Narnia, are dark-skinned. Tolkien was also accused of racism in LOTR, and Jacobs explains:

The imaginations of those two men were shaped before the great wars of the twentieth century: they belonged indeed to an Old Western culture to which the chief threat, for hundreds of years, had been the Ottoman Empire. The Calormenes and the Haradrim are but slightly disguised versions of the ravaging Turk who filled the nightmares of European children for more than half a millennium — but whose “exotic” culture (manifested in images of elegant carpets, strong sweet coffee, slippers with turned-up toes, and elaborate story-telling traditions) had also been an endless source of fascinated delight.

Jacobs asserts, and I agree, that most readers “can tell the difference between, on the one hand, an intentionally hostile depiction of some alien culture and, on the other, the use of cultural differences as a mere plot device,” and he puts Lewis’s comments on both topics within the context of the culture of his time and his own upbringing.

What I strongly disliked about this book was Jacobs’ frequent arguing with Lewis’s own reasons for saying certain things. For instance, Lewis asserted that his having prayed for his mother to be cured and not receiving the answer he sought did not influence his eventual conversion one way or the other. He had thought of praying not so much as a religious exercise but as a formula in those days and assumed he didn’t have the right formula or it hadn’t worked. Her death affected him in many ways, but it wasn’t a particular factor in that decision. Jacobs is incredulous and posits that perhaps Lewis’s “insistence must be his attempt to uphold a set of beliefs about what Christianity really is, or really should be” or he had “a great resistance to anything like a ‘Freudian’ explanation of his spiritual history – and in the Freudian account, childhood experiences are usually definitive for later life.” On another subject Lewis “seemed to think that [certain experiences] were not related; I have a sense that they may be.” Jacobs finds it “rather difficult to believe that Lewis’s description of [his first meeting with his tutor] is wholly accurate.” He feels Lewis’s claim that his wartime experiences “‘show rarely and faintly in memory’ – is either something less than fully honest or something less than fully self-knowing.” He quotes Lewis as saying those experiences “haunted my dreams for years” as proof, but Lewis says for years, not for the rest of his life, so at the time he said they were only rare and faint memories, that could have indeed been the case at the time of that writing. He questions Lewis’s account of his conversion and what stage of belief he was in at what point. He questions his relationship with Janie Moore, the mother of a friend who died in WWI. He and this friend had promised each other that if anything happened to one of them, the other would care for the dead one’s parent. This man did die, and Lewis took care of his mother for the rest of her life. He often refers to her as “the woman I call my mother.” But Jacobs insists that the relationship was romantic and even sexual at first (he is not alone in that view, but I am not convinced). When Lewis asserted that he had no “romantic feelings” at first for Joy Davidman Gresham, whom he married in a civil ceremony so she could stay in the country, Jacobs notes that his other biographers “take his word for it” and exclaims, “This seems crazy to me,” and explains why. (Lewis did come to love her, but who is to know at one point that happened.” About a third of the way into the book, Jacobs says as an aside, “Autobiography is, of course, often suspected.” I don’t think that’s the best way to look at autobiography, as if as a reader or researcher one has to disbelieve or suspect or prove what is written. Sure, the viewpoint of an autobiography may be limited: I feel it’s the best source for learning what is going on in the author’s head, what his motives and concerns were, etc., yet it can only show his own point of view. I’m sure there are autobiographies where the material is deliberately slanted, but I don’t think it’s healthy to have a suspectful view of autobiographies in general.

Mr. Jacobs not only disagreed with Lewis’s own views about his life, he also disagreed with some of his biographers, some of whom knew Lewis personally. In one of my snarkier moments I felt that an apt subtitle to his book could have been, “Why I Am Right About C. S. Lewis and Everyone Else Is Wrong, Including Lewis.”

But though this seeming attitude or perspective of Jacobs really bugged me, I did enjoy the book overall and enjoyed getting a fuller picture of the “The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis.”

I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes from Lewis in the book:

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labor is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”

Finishing this book completes my TBR Challenge. I also read it as a part of  Carrie‘s Reading to Know Classics Book Club and her Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge.

Reading to Know - Book Club

Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)