Loneliness, by Elisabeth Elliot (Oliver-Nelson, 158 pp.; $12.95, hardcover); Two-Part Invention, by Madeleine L’Engle (Harper & Row, 240 pp.; $8.95, paper); God in the Dark, by Luci Shaw (Zondervan, 266 pp.; $14.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Katie Andraski, a writer living in Belvidere, Illinois, and the author of When the Plow Cuts.
For years, Elisabeth Elliot, Madeleine L’Engle, and Luci Shaw have each testified to a particular Christian vision of life. The stories from Elisabeth Elliot have helped form the evangelical subculture’s ethos of sacrifice. Madeleine L’Engle’s children’s books have challenged the imagination, pushing out the envelope of possibility. Luci Shaw has shown that it is possible to write Christian poetry that is faithful to both Christianity and poetry. Now in the past year, each has testified about how she has coped with loss.
In Loneliness, Elisabeth Elliot shows us how to cope with the stale grief that accompanies becoming alone. She encourages the reader, as she did in earlier books, Through Gates of Splendor and In the Shadow of the Almighty, to hold tight to God, to allow him to teach everything he wants without backing off from the pain. She calls the years of her widowhood a gift. “I began to go deeper into the lesson of college days—that of finding satisfaction in Christ, apart from the man I hungered for.”
She develops the meaning of loneliness as a gift from God, something received and accepted—something that can be offered back to him just as the widow of Zarephath baked her last cake for Elijah. “The emphasis is not on loss, privation or a price to be paid. I see it as an act of intelligent worship, and as a gift God has given me to give back to Him in order that He may make something of it.”
Using personal anecdotes and letters she has received, Elliot describes the pain that is loneliness. She not only waited five years to marry Jim Elliot, only to be widowed 27 months later, but she was widowed a second time when her husband Addison Leitch died of cancer. Knowing how tender the pain makes us, Elliot packs salve in the wounds, carefully applying the promises of God to widows, divorcees, jilted lovers, single people, and empty nesters. She respects the power and grace of suffering even for Americans “who are so accustomed to luxury we think of traffic jams as hardship.” She wisely asks, “Who can compare sufferings?”
She broadens the idea of what it means to suffer for Christ’s sake so that it includes all kinds of pain, but focuses here on loneliness. “Suffering is never useless but can, by grace, bless others.” Also, “Events are the sacraments of the will of God—that is, they are the visible signs of an invisible Reality. These provide the very place where we may learn to love and trust.”
The sentences are pithy, wise, worthy of rumination, and so the book deserves to be read slowly.
Proper, Private Places
In Two-Part Invention, Madeleine L’Engle adds poignancy to her portrayal of the first shocks and stabs of grief from her husband’s death by contrasting it with their longer story of love.
L’Engle offers us a rare glimpse of her early womanhood and the story of her and Hugh’s courtship. We see her early mistakes in love, the renowned circle of friends she traveled with, and how those friends, the cast for the New York production of The Cherry Orchard, were so enthusiastic about the match that they nearly ruined the courtship.
A year later, Hugh took Madeleine out on a date. When they returned home, he proposed, quoting Conrad Aiken, “Music I heard with you was more than music, / and bread I broke with you was more than bread.”
But there is a premonition that one partner would die first. Hugh warned her that he didn’t expect to live very long, into his fifties perhaps. Madeleine states, “And I would take Hugh for any length of time, no matter how short.” By the end of the book the forty-odd years they did have together seems painfully brief.
The “two-part invention” is the counterpoint between the stories of Madeleine and Hugh’s married life together and their fight against Hugh’s terminal illness. L’Engle does not flinch as she skillfully shows the awful images of Hugh’s suffering—a punctured lung, sutures ripped open, and so on. She juxtaposes these with stories about how they argued and cleared the air, how they moved to the country to raise a family and then moved back to the city. We see this couple when they are laughing, with friends, silently communing, traveling.
L’Engle comes alongside and shows us it is all right to hurt, to cry out at God about human suffering that seems more intense than the cross, the frustration that even modern medicine fails. And she instructs us on gratitude in the midst of bereavement. L’Engle is grateful for her community of friends and family and for the compassion of the medical staff. She doesn’t neglect her own needs, knowing she must keep up her strength. She shares the meals, starlight, quiet conversations, and poetry that sustain her during this terrible time.
Even though L’Engle comes “undone” at the sight of little things—a pair of cozy socks ordered as Christmas presents for Hugh, or his shaving brush—she hopes with the kind of hope that faces death and refuses to break apart. “I do not think that death can take away the fact that Hugh and I are ‘we’ and ‘us,’ a new creature born at the time of our marriage vows, which has grown along with us as our marriage has grown.” But she doesn’t deny death. When death finally comes to her husband, she says, “It is hard to let go of beloved flesh.”
L’Engle belongs to the same generation as Elisabeth Elliot, one that believes in the proper, private place for tears. But here she shares openly about the stabs of pain that plunge deeper than tears.
Looking For God
With less reserve than L’Engle or Elliot, Luci Shaw shares her pain, her tears, and her doubts during her husband’s dying and the days after.
In God in the Dark, Shaw’s journal reads as a novel. We follow along quickly. The book opens with her commitment to know God’s reality “clear as the sun no matter what it takes” even though she is prone to long “seasons of doubt and questioning.” Later she commits herself to “never desert the faith.” God in the Dark continues by showing how she bears out this commitment.
Through Shaw’s church and community, we catch a glimpse of what Christ meant when he said that the world will know we are Christians by our love. Her therapist reminds her, “You miss the physical Harold, but this is how you can feel the presence of Christ—in me and in others who touch you in love.”
But Shaw hungers for God himself to wrap his spiritual presence around her. “I am surrounded by people and stimuli and work, but my soul is lonely. I cry and cry to God to come by me and I suppose, in some unseen, unprovable way, he does, but the Presence is not immediate enough to bring comfort—it’s like taking half an aspirin for a migraine.”
After her husband, Harold, dies, she experiences terrible anxiety attacks. To escape, she calls people to rescue her from the pain until her therapist encourages her to go alone into her sorrow and fear: “If I keep calling on other people to rescue me from the silence of God, God himself will remain silent and leave me stranded on the Ash Heap. I must listen for him, be rescued by him. Only.”
In the midst of grief Shaw admits that not all the days were terrible. She describes the beauty of nature and brings us along when she pursues her hobby, photography. She tells how she walked along beaches, marveled at the ocean, photographed the angle of the sun on leaves or through a cloud bank in suburban Chicago.
Shaw allows us to feel the pity the bereaved know for the things left behind. She describes cleaning out the drawer in the bathroom, the detail down to “combs with his fine hair still woven into them” and “nail files with the marks of his nails on them.” These are the artifacts of her husband, things she longs to hold onto, but must throw away if she is to walk forward into acceptance. This act drives home to her how they will no longer be together, how she will be experiencing changes he won’t know about.
By the conclusion of the journal we see Shaw coming full circle, where she makes a sort of peace with her questioning, probing nature by finding in raspberry picking an emblem. “It is instructive how you think you’ve stripped a bush, then you crouch lower and from the new angle you see all the hidden possibilities—berries hanging like red hearts, hiding behind the leaves.
“I feel sad for the ones that are never picked because no one takes the trouble to look for them, or the ones that are too small or too inaccessible.… Harvesting ideas takes time and the willingness to crouch, to hunker down in sandy soil, to peer to lift the raspberry leaves so we can see deep to the heart of the bush—to penetrate.”
God in the Dark encourages us to seek God in the midst of loss and assures us that he can be found.
Elisabeth Elliot, Madeleine L’Engle, and Luci Shaw show us different walks through grief. They are three great women of the faith, each with her own gift of encouragement to widows and others who experience loss. Each book exemplifies the wonderful comfort that Margaret Smith offered Luci Shaw: “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your life depends upon it; and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
Adam, Eve and the Serpent, by Elaine Pagels (Vintage, 189 pp.; $8.95, paper). Reviewed by Robert Webber, professor of theology at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, and the author of many books, including What Christians Believe: A Biblical and Historical Summary, coauthored with Alan Johnson.
In Adam, Eve and the Serpent, Elaine Pagels, the controversial Princeton University professor who became famous in 1979 with the publication of The Gnostic Gospels, argues that the early Christians emphasized the freedom of the will, a freedom that had the power to choose the good and thus to change not only individuals but also society. But later, Augustine, by his teaching on original sin, emphasized the fallenness of the human person and humanity’s bondage to sin. This, in turn, changed how Christians viewed the Christian life and society.
Augustine’s paradigm shifts the emphasis for the Christian and the church from a vision of a new humanity and a new creation rooted in the Christian ability to choose the good to an inability to do the good. This enslavement to the power of evil therefore necessitates a strong government to hold sin in check. And obviously the best government, according to Augustine, is a Christian government, the Bishop who rules in God’s place.
The issues are fundamental. Does one suppress the evil within as Augustine urges or does one free the converted and baptized self to become the “new man in Christ”? Does the church police its people through rules and regulations or does the church challenge its people to become their best re-created self through choice?
Her thesis that these two views of the way to handle the tension between the church and the world is traceable to differing views of sexual desire is interesting and provocative. While the issues are more complicated than she lets on, and while some of her views fall short of even a generous understanding of orthodoxy, Pagels’s writing nevertheless strikes at a fundamental issue in the early church—an issue that is still with us today not only in our personal quest for sanctification, but in our concern for the church’s place in the cultures of the world.
Abortion In The Headlines
The Press and Abortion, 1839–1988, by Marvin N. Olasky (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 200 pp.; $27.50, hardcover; $16.50 paper). Reviewed by Laurie Anne Ramsey, director of education, Americans United for Life.
From a nineteenth-century New York Times editorial on abortion: “It is time to rouse ourselves. The evil that is tolerated is aggressive.” In 1989, it is hard to imagine that this bold declaration could adorn the same editorial pages that a hundred years later would call the legalization of abortion “a major contribution to the preservation of individual liberties.”
Marvin Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas in Austin, documents the ideological progression of the New York Times and other major newspapers from being champions of the unborn in the 1800s to serving as advocates for the abortion lobby in recent decades.
Protection for unborn children had been quietly, yet firmly, grounded in American public policy for hundreds of years. But in 1838 the silence broke. Wanting to build an abortion business, “Madame Restell’ and “Dr. Mauriceau” began an advertising campaign in New York newspapers designed to reach women who suffered from “stoppage of the menses.” The strategy spread. Soon abortionists everywhere were successfully winking at the masses through thinly veiled abortion advertising.
Antiabortionists in the 1800s were frustrated by roadblocks in restricting the ads and prosecuting abortion providers. Realizing the need to inform the general public, they saw the press as the perfect educational channel. Yet most large city newspapers were then “captive” to big-spending abortion advertisers. In fact, by 1867, 61 percent of ads appearing in the New York Herald “Medical” column were for abortion.
The New York Times struggled with the ethics of the advertising, and completely ceased running them in 1869 when the ads were outlawed by the state. Olasky discusses the great influence of Times editor Louis Jennings, a conservative Christian, who in 1870 began a “crusade against abortion.” Hard-hitting editorials focusing concern on the unborn child, coupled with shocking investigative reports on the realities of the abortion practice helped to put pressure on public officials to tighten laws and prosecute abortionists.
But in 1896, an editorial shift occurred at the Times with the advent of a new owner, Adolph Ochs. Pledging that the news should not “soil the breakfast cloth,” Ochs withdrew the Times from the abortion battle.
Coverage was superficial for the next 50 years except for the “sensational” press. By the 1940s, “only abortionists considered unscrupulous received the antagonism once aimed at all abortionists,” writes Olasky.
The major difference between the nineteenth and twentieth-century abortion campaigns, writes Olasky, is that “abortionists did not have to buy space to make their ideological arguments: Latter-day journalists made them for free.” He cites countless articles documenting proabortionists’ effectiveness in controlling “the most powerful pulpits in the land—the front and editorial pages of leading newspapers.” If fact, “newspapers from mid-century on, both set an abortion agenda and were used by those setting the agenda.” He does not exaggerate; a study of the New York Times from 1965 through 1972 demonstrated that 90 percent of its abortion-related articles and editorials expressed a favorable position.
Examining this fascinating history of abortion coverage dispels any notion of “objectivity” among the American press. The book concludes, “journalists’ beliefs, whether for abortion or against abortion, do heavily influence coverage.”
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