Wineskins Archive

February 10, 2014

Book Review: “Soul Survivor” (Jul-Aug 2003)

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Book Review by Marge Wood

Philip Yancey, SOUL SURVIVOR: HOW MY FAITH SURVIVED THE CHURCH (New York: Doubleday, 2001). $21.95, 319 pages. Highly recommended for young adult and adult readers.

Philip Yancey wrote this book as a response to his struggles of growing up in a very conservative church.

Many of you have already read SOUL SURVIVOR. Many more have probably heard of it and intend to read it. Yancey’s reputation paved the way for this wonderful collection of essays about individuals whose lives profoundly influenced Yancey’s life. Each of the thirteen individuals described in this book had not only education; he or she had the courage of his convictions. It would be a surprise if anyone here were not already familiar with some of the characters: Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Annie Dillard.

Yancey discusses people who have changed his life and those of tens of thousands of others. Someone once said, “One person at peace can change the lives of a thousand.” For instance, few of us make the connection between a whole generation of Americans who gave up smoking or never started because of the convictions and strong actions of Dr. C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General of the United States. He totally believed in the sovereignty of God. Koop also gave his life to seeing that infants would live and be functional. “He lashed out against drunk drivers, convened task forces on child abuse and spouse abuse, criticized American eating habits.”

Of the AIDS epidemic, before much sympathy or understanding of the disease existed, Koop said, “We are fighting a disease, not people.” He, along with others, followed the lives of other Christians who gave themselves for caring for the sick and helpless.

While some Christian jettison fiction as useless, writers of good fiction do enrich our lives, strengthen us and encourage us. Frederick Buechner, novelist and Christian, has written books that make life meaningful for those who otherwise might give up. Another author John Donne was convinced he was dying of the plague but recovered to write about pain and death.

Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky addressed the dissonance that Yancey felt both in him and among other believers. He came to understand the “tension between Christian ideals and reality” from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, both of whom contributed significantly to the religious revival in the U.S.S.R. in the 1970s. Tolstoy’s book THE KINGDOM OFGOD IS WITHIN YOU inspired Mahatma Gandhi. (Why, asks Yancey, did Gandhi’s studies of the life of Jesus not convict him to become a Christian?) Tolstoy’s life contrasted sharply with that of Fyodor Dostoevsky, a darker, less disciplined person. Tolstoy was determined to become perfect and gave away not only his time but his money and resources. Dostoevsky had to work around the clock to pay off gambling debts. He had a major conversion experience while in prison. From then on, his life was given to rejoicing and to writing of grace.

Annie Dillard, a contemporary American novelist, shares her faith and her humanity with readers in her own easy to read language. Few of her readers will forget her or give away her books. The book most able to describe Dillard herself is AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD, a great book to keep by the bedside or on the reading table. It is not fiction, nor are most of her books. She loves to sing with the Fundamentalists because well, she loves to sing and she admires them for not caring what other people think.

Yancey also writes about G.K. Chesterton, who wrote popular novels that were read by all sorts. Laughter was his major weapon. He was not only brilliant but happy. He said that “the modern age is characterized by a sadness that calls for a new kind of prophet…someone who would remind them that they are not dead yet.”

Shusaku Endo was well known in Japan, an excellent writer, low-key and descriptive. His life was a struggle to deal with Christianity. He said that “(a novelist)…can write about Jesus through the eyes of….his disciples and others who betrayed the Christ.”

Henri Nouwen, a priest and writer, wrote books about his life among the handicapped and sick. Yancey learned from Nouwen to pray “God, help me to see this person not as repulsive, but as thirsty.” Nouwen, himself gay, knew that “by hiding our pain, we also hide our ability to heal.”

Political activists rarely attain the heights of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose contact with God overwhelmed him so much that he never quite recovered. It gave him the courage to speak, to march, to encourage others to go and do likewise. When told by Mayor Daley of Chicago to stop marching, his speech in “Bearing the Cross” ended by saying, “We don’t have much. We don’t have much money…education…political power. We have only our bodies and you are asking us to give up the one thing that we have when you say, “Don’t march.” He and Mayor Daley reached a new agreement. King’s followers registered voters, opened clinics, gave their lives.

Two lesser-known but truly memorable individuals in this book are Paul Brand and Robert Coles. Dr. Paul Brand and his wife Margaret gave themselves totally to healing lepers in every way. They not only held the hands of lepers but also did surgery to help make the lepers whole again. Brand points out the value of pain. Lepers could not feel pain and therefore were damaged for life. The Brands helped heal them. Brand’s mother worked among the poor of India all her life, going up into the mountains to teach people about health care and wellness. She also brought home unwanted babies and raised them. She stood firmly against the rich and powerful, reminding them of all the poor people.

Dr. Robert Coles, the “Crayon Man,” put himself at the level of small children. He rode school buses, sat on floors and played with toys with children, visited homes. He even visited the churches of the poor with them, expecting to find sorrow. He was astounded to discover that the poor people of all sorts were empowered by what went on in those services. He wrote books about them, such as MIGRANTS, SHARECROPPERS, and MOUNTAINEERS and won the Pulitzer Prize. He finally came to believe that “the most dangerous temptation of all is the temptation of plenty…it tends to stifle compassion, curtail community, and feed ambition.” He emerged with “old-fashioned words like conscience and sin and free will.” He talks incessantly about “the inherent dignity of human beings, the image of God that lives in all of us….”

Each chapter includes a short section at the end describing books by the individuals. Buy a copy and keep it handy. Read it over and over. You will feel strengthened and enriched.

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