Thursday, June 28, 2012


(One’s level of piety, whether devotional or practical, depends much on knowledge being either learned or misconceived. In these analyses we have made mention, occasionally, of books that either help or hinder the grand object of piety. It seems natural, consequently, to supplement the analyses, now and again, with correlating book reports.) 


Elisabeth Elliot, A Chance to Die (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Revell, 1987), 382 pp.

Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) was a little Christian dynamo who emerged from Ireland to make a huge mark in India through the gospel and fruitful living. Before going to India, she went out from her happy but disciplined childhood to evangelize in the slums of Belfast and Manchester. Although this biography plods rather than moves, Miss Carmichael’s life and success as a missionary to India becomes, before long, the biographer’s main focus. By the time Amy Carmichael died, nearly nine hundred persons (p. 372) had been gathered under her spiritual wing in the safety and service of Christ.

Her missionary service occurred during the fallout from Britain’s influence over India through the East India Company (pp. 111, 132.) The political, financial, and social elements of this tense, and sometimes violent, engagement between East and West produced a compound of confusion and trouble for missionary enterprise. The missionary inevitably but unexpectedly entered an ancient heathen culture that was being further tainted by Western materialism and nominal Christianity, the latter of which, as in our day, was perpetuated by ‘Christian’ officials participating in pagan ceremonies, amounting, unbeknownst to them, to the propitiating of foreign deities (p. 128.) On the one hand, British rule was against evangelism because profit was being made through markets aimed at Hindooism. On the other hand, Westerners without vested interests were pressing for moral reformation (p. 112.) The missionary had to discourage the love of mammon and disprove hypocrisy, thus setting herself against marketers and hypocrites. And she had to show that Christianity is not moral reform, but the force and life that produce it, which truth could not but bewilder moralists for whom conduct alone was regarded as true religion (p. 291.) Beauty flourished in India due to the English presence there (p. 208.) Such exterior beautification (to throw in a thought of my own) is like that skin-deep morality that some think sufficient. “To share…what the Lord Jesus has done and can do” is the important thing that must not be sacrificed in the interest of good works (p. 291.)

The situation was mostly resistant to evangelism because of Indian culture. This was the formidable, complex barrier. A lower caste Indian might be tempted to make a false profession of Christ because association with that Faith would dignify him before other Indians and even the British (p. 117), while an upper caste Indian, like the Brahman, was a fortress against the ‘unclean’ from outside (p. 141.) According to the Hindu, caste and piety are one and the same (p. 156.) To convert to any other religion is to defile one’s caste. Ruthless relatives might kill such a ‘defiling’ Indian by any means possible. Accounts of this happening are recorded in this book, including some of the means involved. Much more was known of such horrors than Amy Carmichael felt free to share (p. 155.)

While certain facts were too horrid for her to speak of or write about, she was determined to convey a transparent account of missionary experience in India, Things as They Are (p. 161.) The chapters were too terrible, not thrilling enough for those who wanted crowded missionary meetings. Her honest reporting caused a movement calling for her return home, which campaign failed. Her position was, “Do not come unless you can say to your Lord and to us, The Cross is the attraction” (p. 265.) A missionary who put first things first and tried to walk and guide by the Book had to discourage nominal followers (p. 198.) In addition to the dangerous intrigues connected with trying to win souls from various castes, there came the compassionate impulse to rescue girls from temple prostitution and from child marriage (pp. 167, 181.) “So we have tried to tell you the truth—the uninteresting, unromantic truth,” she wrote (p. 162.)

What sort of woman could manage to accomplish so much good in spite of so many whirling conflicts and confusing circumstances all around? She was extremely modest, even to the point of showing no ankle (p. 297.) She was very innocent concerning evil, but at the same time very scrupulous to avoid stirring up sexual desire by her manner of dress (p. 298.) She was humble to the point of being ashamed at the blurb that was put on her book’s dust jacket (p. 235), and could take no pleasure in her accomplishment because of that blurb. She refused to use gimmicks to attract souls to the gospel (pp. 84, 126.) She did not make appeals for money (p. 189) and refused to accept funds from the government to fuel her ministry (p. 252.) Even money sent during a financial crunch, because it was sent under misapprehension, was sent back, not once but twice (p. 258.) What ministry is that conscientious today? She even refused an inheritance offered to the Fellowship (p. 306.) How different from ‘the Bible Answer Man’ who regularly asks for inheritances over the radio! She had scruples over killing bugs unnecessarily (p. 206, 214.) She ‘shrank in dread’ from the practice of ‘using pictures of Christ,’ a valid scruple if ever there was one, for depicting the Lord is to defile ‘holy ground’ (p. 93.) She endeavored to be ‘dead to the world’ (p. 37), hence the title for this book, or ‘dead to self, alive to God,’ which meant that natural hopes and plans were stifled in order for the voice of God to be heard (p. 57.) She was determined, if she could not find it, to develop that Christian love she read about in 1 Peter 1.22 (p. 69.) She was deeply convinced of what she believed to be true. A leader convinced of what needs to be done will not be dissuaded from following the ‘Pattern Shewn in the Mount’ (pp. 189, 253.)

A person singled out by God to execute spiritual good will have been shewn a pattern in the mount, as it were. So, as in the life of Moses, there will be points in that person’s history where the supernatural intersects. Such points are not lacking in Miss Carmichael’s life. (Appropriately, the biographer pictures her expostulating with God in the manner of Moses, p. 268.) The word of God was known to flash in upon her mind when she was routinely occupied (p. 31.) The Spirit sometimes favored her with what the Bible calls ‘joy unspeakable’ (p. 78.) Her biographer believes that she once had ‘what amounted to a vision’ (p. 181.) Occasionally she was led by dreams (p. 210.) She sometimes possessed ‘the gift of a healing touch’ (pp. 220, 221.) She performed exorcisms, and was successful at it (pp. 89, 90.) And for her both curse and answered prayer coincided to fulfill the purposes of God (pp. 311, 312.) So different from all of this is the actual religion of today’s charismatic that we might dare say that his spirituality is more akin to that of the stubborn, upper-caste Indian: “You have no medicine that will cure my body,” she said to Amy, “I want none to cure my soul” (p. 164.)

Another aspect of the supernatural in the life of this woman and her Fellowship concerns the putting out of fleece to salutary effect. Or you could call this asking for a sign and getting one, or asking for a token and receiving one. It’s all the same, or very nearly so. There are several instances of this to choose from. I’ll cite just one: “asked for a sign: one hundred pounds as a seal on the new endeavor…the next mail day it came” (p. 247.) By reviewing two books in a row showing the ‘token for good’ as a conventional, rather than obsolete, means of applying to God, some realignment has taken place in my own thinking on prayer. Amy Carmichael took advantage of whatever biblical means were available to her. We should too. Like her, we should be bold and tenacious about it.  

A person shown a pattern in the mount will exhibit an unswerving dictatorial aspect. It will be tempered with humility, as in Moses’ case, but it will be prominent. She would not deviate from her ‘vision of holy living’ (p. 198.) She might dismiss someone without explaining herself to the public (p. 266.) She seldom, if ever, gave in to the points of others (p. 268.) She was virtually an unquestioned authority figure. “Who dare oppose her” (p. 282.)

It seems plain, even though undeviating leadership is necessary in one sent by God to establish a spiritual foothold on foreign soil, that Amy Carmichael was autocratic to a fault, which begs us to consider her faulty side, as that may be shown by some negative points gathered in summary form from this account of her life. Maybe it is just due to a lack of precision that she advises us to be on guard against the foe of spiritual joy (p. 254.) Can a fruit of the Spirit be our foe? Next, if we should not explain things to our Father, if we should never press him as though he were unwilling, if we should never suggest to him what to do, as Miss Carmichael teaches, then what will be left for prayers to consist of? (p. 365.) The Psalmist is always explaining and suggesting, is he not? God knows everything, but the Psalmist explains and suggests anyway, all the time. And Jesus, both by parable and command, insists that we press in prayer to a God who seems to suspend answering! That’s where importunate prayer comes in! (I suspect that her Keswick affiliation might be the source of her strange opinions on prayer.) Her most noticeable fault, though, concerns the effect (it seems harsh to be this candid) of her prudish ignorance (pp. 298-300.) She seems to have had the gift it takes to live unattached (pp. 287, 302.) She understood that to push for the same in the lives of others is wrong (p. 287.) But celibacy was imposed upon others by her. She discouraged marriage in her favorite recruits (p. 286), who usually happened to be fair-skinned girls, by the way (p. 214.) She even arranged for married couples to separate (p. 299.) Her comments on portions of Scripture pertaining to the role of women all but prove that Victorian restraint was all that held her back from breaking right into the role of man (p. 347.) The seed of feminism must be alive in, and eager to pounce from, that woman, Christian or not, who is bold enough to hold that “men’s work was spiritually at a lower level than the women’s” (p. 300.) That doctors have something to answer for in refusing to give suffering patients a gentle push into the other world is an ugly piece of feminist belief as well (p. 338), for what feminist is against the ‘right to die?’ To delight in startling pedestrians by suddenly dashing near them on a horse (p. 119), or to imitate an uneducated dialect (p. 304), these are the kinds of peculiar faults that might be found in anyone at all. But some of these other faults are too serious to take lightly. They leave a disreputable mark on the life and legacy of Amy Carmichael.       

There are many unusual but touching anecdotes in this Christian biography. Imagine having to console a girl who just had her ‘eye pecked out by a heron,’ or a selfless girl picking flowers for her friends, only to slip, fall, and die in the act (p. 333), or little Chellalu whose heart said ‘pickapickapick!’ when a voice inside pressed her to ‘tell those men about God’ (p. 229.) Imagine a sick tiny boy strapped to a cot, anxiously waiting for the lyric to be given out so he can participate by waving his own flag (p. 294.) Or what about the ‘poor simple Lascar’ who clung to Jesus as his ‘own one’? (p. 66.) Such tenderizing anecdotes are enough to make a hard man cry! On a lighter note, this biography is frequently fun. Consider growling behind a tree to give some kids a shivering good time (p. 234.) Or take the fact that “Amy whizzed from one [room] to the other on a large tricycle” (p. 216.) And then, life in this Fellowship was also peaceful: “A set of more loving, unselfish women and girls and children could not easily be found” (p. 183.) But things were not so spiritual as to be without normal moments: “Amma [what the workers called Amy]…chided me. I threw the hot-water bottle at her and ran” (p. 356.) The compound was no doubt a fine place to live. Hard work, religious love, and tailor-made traditions made it so (pp. 187, 215.) This summary of fellowship life might make A Chance to Die seem like a riveting read.

Although Amy Carmichael is not a notable, nor very quotable, poet, some godly, stylish couplets may be found in her stanzas. And Elisabeth Elliot is not without her own sense of dash. She draws an eloquent, contrasting parallel between ‘dockside partings’ and travelers who simply disappear ‘into the jetway’ (p. 64.) She can shoot out the lyrical line: “Ceylon, a wonderland of rest to their sea-weary eyes” (p. 67.) Take one more: “Dohnavur bungalows in a bullock bandy with bells jingling” (p. 265.) I don’t know the meaning, but there’s a pretty sound there. Again, this time because of stylistic encounters, A Chance to Die seems like a page-turner.

But if A Chance to Die be read one page at a time and all the way through, the volume will be found as dry as desert dust. That Amy Carmichael was a realist (p. 76) intent on holy living (p. 32) explains the odd meld of military history (p. 239) and mystical authors (p. 315) on her bookshelves. These books were to her a ‘great luxury, my mental change of air’ (p. 313.) Her heavy consumption of mystical literature probably explains the absence of doctrine in this biography. Mystic writers are anti-intellectual; their readers tend to be likewise; and so there is probably very little doctrine for a biographer to glean from this woman’s literary remains. The absence of doctrine is why, I think, the story here told of Amy’s life, as well written as it is, is so painfully dry. The biography is full of excellent practice, but even extraordinary facts of life will end up seeming mundane unless theory, doctrine, or even psychological guesswork comes in to relieve us of practical information. A Christian life is founded on doctrine. Therefore the biography of one should contain some. No matter how void of this element the writings of Amy Carmichael must be, this omission is partly the fault of Elisabeth Elliot. For instance, her Subject was of the Keswick persuasion (p. 50), certain beliefs of which Amy rightly doubted the veracity of (p. 190.) Yet nothing even remotely substantial is told us about this Christian sect! More importantly, the gospel of Jesus Christ is nowhere woven into the story Elisabeth Elliot tells us about. If it is, the job is so uninterestingly done that I failed to notice it. Omission of that sort is a kind of Christian malpractice, to say the least. There were fair opportunities to bring the gospel in. “Then she beat her own arm instead of mine and explained salvation to me” (p. 213.) The gospel screams to be disclosed by the biographer in this place. But her mind is obviously elsewhere.

 A Chance to Die is about a life filled with meaning, purpose, pain, and conquest. Needless to say, such a life has no need of novels, fiction, or fairy tales (pp. 116, 205, 303.) And reading about a life like that should be more exciting than reading a good novel or fiction of whatever sort. But this one isn’t. I’ve heard it from translators that after they’ve gotten the book they are translating all correctly penned into another language, they have yet to do this further draft into which some spirit will be blown. That is what Elisabeth Elliot forgot or failed to do. She collected the data, but blew very little spirit into her findings. I am very surprised that I managed to finish reading A Chance to Die. This biography lacks thought, and therefore spirit. Nothing contained in the book can make up for this fault, for because of it the book is unreadable. This is not the definitive history of Amy Carmichael’s remarkable life. However, because it shows the ways around so many obstacles that romantic missionaries are bound to stumble at, I would certainly reread it before entering upon missionary work; and once on the mission field, I would keep this book close by for frequent inquiry.

 Content: B (A life boringly and slowly told, but with useful content.)
      Style: B (Unambiguous but dry.)
      Tone: B (Not romanticized; Amy's 'warts' are included.)

Grading Table: A: a keeper; reread it; promote it; share it.
                       B: an average book; let it go.
                       C: read only if you have to. 

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