A relatable disciple
2023 BOOKS OF THE YEAR | Two biographies offer fresh perspectives on missionary Elisabeth Elliot
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Biographers may be tempted to write swooning accounts of Elisabeth Elliot’s life, as though her feet never touched the ground. Elliot herself would’ve been the last to endorse them. While generations of women looked to her as a role model, asking her advice about marriage, sexual purity, child-rearing, and feminism, Elliot exhorted audiences not to put any Christian leader on a pedestal. “Pedestals are for statues,” she said.
Elliot, who died in 2015, was and continues to be, an influencer, and two books this year explored her life. In her biography Elisabeth Elliot: A Life (Crossway 2023), author Lucy Austen presents her subject as someone to be admired, and not simply because of her wisdom or bravery. Elliot’s words should not be taken as gospel, but her understanding of the gospel should be taken seriously.
Elliot spent 11 years in Ecuador, working to translate Scripture. When she returned to the United States in the 1960s, Elliot felt her efforts had largely proven unfruitful. In making Elliot’s disappointment the climax of the biography, Austen asks the reader: What makes a Christian’s life “successful”? The biography may offer readers a new perspective on Elliot and encourage self-reflection.
In some passages, Austen could have toned down her own analysis, which goes so far as to suggest that Operation Auca was carried out impulsively. But Austen’s honesty makes for an approachable chronicle of a woman who sometimes struggled to make friends, didn’t care for the often-saccharine Christian literature genre, and patiently endured Alzheimer’s.
Elliot didn’t overly spiritualize her own biography projects. When commissioned to write about Amy Carmichael, Elliot said, “For a time, I thought she must have been perfect. … As I grew up, I knew she could not have been, and that was better, for it meant that I might possibly walk in her footprints.” Perhaps Austen felt the same.
Being Elisabeth Elliot (B&H Books 2023) is Part 2 of Ellen Vaughn’s profile of Elliot. Culled from Elliot’s own journals, letters, and writings and Vaughn’s interviews with family and friends, this authorized biography presents a well-researched, three-dimensional portrait.
Being traces Elliot’s life starting with her return to the United States from her missionary work in Ecuador to her third marriage and final days. Vaughn uses historical events to provide a backdrop for the life Elliot builds beyond being Jim Elliot’s widow. Interwoven throughout are Elliot’s own words and impressions, giving the reader insight into the mind of this complex, devoted Christ-follower. In writing one biography, for example, she worried about her “own inadequacy in perceiving the truth and in actually formulating it on paper. One wonders if one’s soul is really big enough for the task.”
During Elliot’s most prolific years, she experienced some of her greatest hardships, which may surprise many readers. Echoing Elliot’s own words, Vaughn takes care to tell those truths in love.
For Elliot devotees, this chronicle reveals the life of a relatable disciple in all her humanity: her longings, doubts, mistakes, trials, and victories—bearing them all with her gaze fixed firmly on eternity.
The Great Dechurching
Jim Davis & Michael Graham
This study shows that 40 million Americans have left the church in the past 25 years. That’s more than the number of people who professed faith during the First and Second Great Awakenings combined. Davis and Graham analyze why so many have said goodbye to Sunday worship. No demographic or political affiliation has escaped the trend. Some folks experienced abuse from clergymen. Others just got out of the habit. The book outlines several shortcomings of Protestant, evangelical, and Catholic churches. Though it’s wise to consider past shortcomings, certain chapters do linger on addressing social justice issues. It’s not all bad news, though, and the book has many hopeful insights. —Bekah McCallum
God Speaks Science
John Van Sloten
Can science be a spiritual discipline, or even the subject of a sermon series? Pastor John Van Sloten uses this 208-page volume to demonstrate that it can. With an unmistakable sense of wonder, he shepherds non-scientist readers through the doctrine of “two books”—the idea that mankind finds knowledge about God not just in the Bible but also in creation. He probes the miracles of chemotherapy, hydrology, giant squid, neurons, and more, showing that God and science are far from opposed. Instead, they constantly reveal each other. Each chapter features a foreword from a scientist and closes with practical questions to help readers embrace God through topics as far-flung as supernovae and as near as human DNA. —Chelsea Boes
You Are a Theologian
Jen Wilkin & J.T. English
Wilkin and English are passionate about helping Christians become comfortable and well-versed in theology because, they write, it is the way to know and love God well. This book addresses key elements of the Christian faith, such as the doctrines of the Trinity and sin as well as ecclesiology and eschatology. But Wilkin and English write in an approachable manner that avoids the scholarly tone of some theology texts. In areas where denominational differences exist, the authors focus on the big picture (e.g., for baptism they discuss its meaning, not whether it should be infant, adult, immersion, or sprinkling). For those seeking a starting point to better understand and articulate their faith, You Are a Theologian serves as an excellent resource.—Kristin Chapman
A Praying Church
Paul E. Miller
“The church isn’t just weak in prayer,” Miller writes, “its current way of functioning makes it prayer resistant.” It is a malady, however, that Miller believes can be overcome by equipping congregations to tap into the power train of prayer that should be at the heart of all ministry. Starting with Scripture and Jesus’ example, Miller also draws from his experiences at church to show how corporate prayer is “a way of entering the story of Jesus.” A Praying Church further outlines how prayer in the early Church serves as a model for the modern Church, gives practical methods for implementing intentional prayer practices, and includes ways to overcome challenges associated with group prayer time. —Kristin Chapman
Next in this 2023 Books of the Year special issue: “Worry is not a parenting skill.”