I have been struck recently by the incredible power of books to shape us.
Some of you know that my wife Deborah is an English professor, and she can be quite evangelistic on behalf of the benefits of reading fiction. One book she uses as a text-book (Literature through the Eyes of Faith, by Gallagher and Lundin) says things like:
“In and out of literature, stories tell us who we are and what we might become.”
“Reading literature can help us to love others and to construct a world that demonstrates that love, because one of its functions is to increase our knowledge.”
“Encountering new ideas in a text may allow you to understand your neighbour but also may allow you to understand yourself more clearly in juxtaposition.”
When you read a novel, you encounter people and situations in places you will never yourself experience, and your imagination and your heart expand as a result.
The same is true for Christian biography. As I look back, I realise how profoundly I have been shaped by reading the biographies of great Christians, not least pioneers in overseas ministry. When we were undergrads in IVCF at Oxford, we were encouraged to read such things, and I really believe those books shaped—and continue to shape—our understanding of the Christian life and what it means to “live for Jesus,” even though we were reading about people and places we would never experience directly.
One of the first I read was Shadow of the Almighty, by Elizabeth Elliott, about her husband Jim, who was one of five young missionaries killed by Auca Indians in Ecuador at the age of 29. I still remember his words, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” That book was the first I remember finishing and immediately going back to the beginning to read it again.
The Cambridge Seven by John Pollock was also very influential at that time: the story of seven young men (yes, a lot were about men, even though so many women were missionaries!) who gave up fame and fortune to serve the Gospel in China with Hudson Taylor, pioneer of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship.
Henry Martyn by Constance Padwick was about another Cambridge student (not a lot of Oxford people for some reason)—a brilliant mathematician this time—who gave up his career and the woman he loved to be a missionary in the Middle East. He translated the whole of the New Testament into Urdu, Persian and Judaeo-Persic. Then, like so many of these folk, he died at an early age—31.
My two favourite stories of women missionaries (yes, I have read some) were The Little Woman, by Alan Burgess, about Gladys Aylward, who was refused by Hudson Taylor—but went to China by herself anyway and spent most of her life there; and A Passion for the Impossible, by Miriam Huffman Rockness, about Lilias Trotter, who gave up fame and fortune and a promising career in art to serve the poor of Algeria for forty years.
More recently, I have become interested in Jesuit missionaries at the time of the Protestant Reformation. (Why did it take so long for Protestants to develop such a passionate, dedicated missionary movement?) Ignatius Loyola’s own biography (by Philip Caraman) is fascinating , but so is A Pearl to India by Vincent Cronin (the story of Robert deNobili, whom you may have studied in Foundations). And I have just found second-hand online (for the princely sum of 99 cents) The Memory of Palace of Matteo Ricci (the pioneer Jesuit missionary in China) by Jonathan Spence.
The creativity of these people, and what they were prepared to put up with for the sake of the Gospel!
Being a pioneer is not just a matter of learning strategies and analzying cultures and reading Lesslie Newbigin, good though those things are. It is also a matter of having our hearts strangely warmed by the examples of those who have pioneered before us—often in contexts much tougher than we will ever face.
And those stories can indeed “tell us who we are and what we might become.”