Lucy S. R. Austen: A New Set of Books About Elisabeth Elliot

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Years ago, I needed to write a brief biography of Elisabeth Elliot as part of a larger project. I searched for book-length biographies that I could draw on for information about her life and came to the startling realization that, despite Elliot’s status as one of the most widely-known American Christians of the 20th century, there were none available. To complete my project, I had to turn to primary sources.

Elliot loved to read biographies, and she wrote three of them herself. She once said, “We read biographies to get out of ourselves and into another’s skin, to understand the convulsive drama that shapes, motivates, and issues from that other life.” I suspect this is also why we write biographies. I found that after the brief biographical sketch was written, I went on thinking about Elliot, pondering the things that had “shaped, motivated, and issued from” her life. Somewhere in the process of poring over bad photocopies of old magazine articles obtained through interlibrary loan, I had been hooked, captured by the process of trying “to understand … that other life.”

A Fuller Picture

It’s tricky to write about a life. No one has the complete picture—not even the person whose life it is. My parents, who have known me longer than I’ve known myself, see me in a way I never can. Only my siblings know what it was like to grow up with me. Each of my friends knows me a little differently, as I respond to their different personalities. By definition, only I can even hope to know the person I am when I’m alone. Each of these “selves” is a facet of the whole person.

One of the biographer’s tasks is to angle the stage lights, so to speak, so that they bring out as many facets of a life as possible. And every new spotlight lets us see a little more. So I’ve been looking forward to the publication of a new batch of Elliot’s writings, compiled by her daughter, Valerie Elliot Shepard, and released as Devotedly: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot.

I was not disappointed. Shepard combines excerpts from her parents’ letters and journals, beautiful photographs, and her own memories and reflections to produce a delightful and thought-provoking book. By integrating portions from source materials unavailable for scholarship with her own responses to them as someone who knew Elliot long and well, she shines valuable light on each of her parents and on their relationship.

Much of the book’s basic outline will be familiar to readers of Elliot’s These Strange Ashes (1975), The Journals of Jim Elliot (1978), and Passion and Purity (1984). But Elliot’s writing tends toward the form of literary essay rather than straight narrative. Shepard fills in the gaps to give us a story.

Devotedly follows the young Betty Howard, as she was then, from college to a summer linguistics program and Bible school, and then through brief stints as a home missionary, speech teacher, tutor, department store clerk, camp counselor, and office assistant, before accompanying her to Ecuador and the beginning of her linguistic work there. Shepard places her mother’s life and relationship with Jim Elliot in historical context (imagine conducting an argument with your significant other by way of letters that take weeks to arrive!) and sets them against the very different backgrounds of the Howard and Elliot families.

We see an Elliot who is growing and becoming—a teenage girl, insecure about her looks and trying to hide her height with poor posture; a college student, scrupulously guarding her conscience and wrangling with her desire for romantic love; a young adult, developing her intellectual and theological underpinnings while rocking sunglasses and a good tan.

And we get a fuller view of the courtship memorialized in Passion and Purity—not, as in the book’s presentation, as a polished springboard for a series of meditations on romantic love for Christians but as a relationship unfolding tentatively and with missteps between two very human and very young people with very different personalities. This is helpful context for conversations around Elliot’s later writing on male-female relationships, particularly where it highlights ways in which her thinking on these lines was influenced by American culture more than New Testament teaching. A long letter on spiritual friendship, quoted extensively, is of interest in this regard, as are indicators of what Shepard calls “a storminess” in her parents’ pre-engagement relationship.

The ‘Terrible Truth’ of Suffering

Released alongside Devotedly is a companion volume of sorts, Suffering Is Never for Nothing. Originally written by Elisabeth Elliot as a series of six talks delivered at a 1989 Christian conference, this material has previously been accessible only in various audio or video versions. It’s now available as a book for those of us who like to underline, highlight, make notes in the margin, and generally chew over the written word. (For those who prefer, the talks are still available online as videos.) Avid readers of Elliot’s work will spot similarities to her 1990 book, A Path Through Suffering. Nevertheless, this new offering is a distinct book, worth reading even if you’ve read the other.

Both books cover the theme of suffering—but then, as Elliot’s friend Lesa Engelthaler has pointed out, in one way or another suffering is the theme of virtually everything Elliot ever wrote. Many of the thoughts of the 20-something woman in Devotedly appear in the writing of the 63-year-old who wrote Suffering Is Never for Nothing.

Because it was originally a spoken talk, Suffering Is Never for Nothing is more linear than A Path Through Suffering, a series of literary essays organized around Lilias Trotter’s meditations on nature. Editor Jennifer Lyell’s light touch has preserved Elliot’s spoken voice, with its dry, self-deprecating sense of humor and her great sense of comic timing, which comes through even when she is speaking on the subject of suffering.

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Source: Christianity Today