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Lucy S.R. Austen – Elisabeth Elliot [Feature Review]

Elisabeth ElliotA Portrait of Devotion and Depth

A Feature Review of

Elisabeth Elliot: A Life
Lucy S.R. Austen

Hardcover: Crossway, 2023
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Reviewed by Stephen Kamm
I knew three things about Elisabeth Elliot before reading Lucy Austen’s Elisabeth Elliot: A Life. First, my mother met Elliot and observed that she deferred to her husband (her third, Lars Gren) when, according to my mother, “it was clear that Elliot  was the powerhouse of the two.” Also, Elliot visited Westmont College, my alma mater, and created a bit of a ruckus when she wore a button bearing three letters – VIP – which, she explained, meant that Virginity is Possible. Finally, I knew that her first husband, Jim, had been killed while attempting to make contact with an elusive tribe in South America. (I could not have named the country.)

From these bits of information, I guessed Elliot was part of the fundamentalist tradition in early twentieth-century America. Fundamentalism was the soil of my grandparents’ faith, and I loved and respected my grandparents, so I was curious. George Marsden’s quip that a ‘fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something,’ informed my expectations. I had, therefore, a vague sense of Elliot as a type but no sense of her as an individual. I thought Austen’s biography would be, at the least, interesting, a glimpse into history through the life of an individual. I was wholly unprepared for how deeply moving it would be. 

This is true, in part, for the simple reason that the book brought Elliot to life and I felt her death as a loss. Not only did I learn about Elliot, but I experienced, as much as this is possible, her life with her. For example, we hear a young Elliot, “thinking about her future, dreaming of greatness, and wanting to find the right life path.” Later, she “dozed and woke on the rocking train en route to Oklahoma, [thinking] of Jim Elliot.” Austen uses Elliot’s journals, letters, published writings, interviews with family and friends, and radio addresses to plausibly recreate Elliot’s thoughts, motivations, and fears for the reader. Austen has done her homework, and the result is a book rich in detail from which Elliot the person emerges.

Elisabeth Elliot (nēe Howard) grew up in a devout Christian home with loving parents. Her young faith was nurtured in the rich, complex soil of the fundamentalist and evangelical traditions, with high expectations for personal holiness and the charge to share the gospel always and in all ways. She attended a Christian boarding school and then Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in Illinois, where she met Jim Elliot. Sharing the conviction that missionary work is a Christian’s highest calling, they moved (separately) to South America. After a tumultuous courtship, they married and, one year after Elliot had given birth to their daughter, Jim and four other missionaries were killed in their effort to reach the Huaorani, a tribe known to be hostile to outsiders. 

Later that month, Life magazine published a ten-page story about the missionaries’ deaths, creating for Elliot something of a dark celebrity status. Less than a year after Jim’s death, and with the encouragement and support of the other widows, Elliot wrote Through the Gates of Splendor, telling Jim’s story. It would go on to four printings, and Elliot would say, years later and with some exasperation, that she was expected to reference this episode of her life at all of her speaking engagements. Austen does a masterful job of letting the reader experience the story of Jim’s death as Elliot would have experienced it, thereby situating it as a chapter in Elliot’s life, rather than its defining moment.

Austen reminds the reader that Elliot lived fifty-nine years after Jim’s death. She raised her daughter, was married twice more, and became a well-known speaker. We see Elliot the voracious reader, an asker of questions, and learn of Elliot’s passion to be a writer – ”[B]ut how I long to write one really good poem, or compose one piece, or write a book good enough to be published,” she wrote in a letter to her mother in high school. She felt compelled, she would later say, to “describe things as they really are,” a longing Austen rightly described as the “heart cry of a writer.” Elliot published forty-eight books in her lifetime, many of which are still in print. 

One of her early books was a biography of Ken Strachan, a revered missionary in Elliot’s circles. Commissioned to write the book, she refused to write a hagiography. Austen offers that “Elliot had observed – and disapproved of – a tendency in Christian biographies toward sentimentalism.” Rather, Elliot wrote with “one critical consideration: Is this true?” Austen shares Elliot’s commitment to transparency and honesty, and Elliot emerges from A Life with strengths and flaws, quirks and idiosyncrasies, blind spots and clear vision. She was curious, stubborn, honest (mostly), and demanding – “some people found [Elliot] aloof, others found her overbearing.” Made of stern stuff, she was impatient to get to the heart of things, and her faith was never a finished thing. 

This malleability of Elliot’s faith was, in Austen’s account, most evident in the early and mid chapters of her life. It was also, for this reader, somewhat of a surprise. I assumed (I must admit) that Elliot would not have entertained questions or doubts, yet she acknowledged both. For example, of a particularly challenging moment early in her years as a missionary, Elliot writes, “To my inner crises and questionings no answer came. . .  I looked into the abyss  . . . there was nothing there but darkness and silence.” Later in a letter to supporters, she writes “Questions which a few years ago I could have answered quite easily are now unanswerable.” Elliot deconstructed her faith before that term was in vogue.

Her faith may have been malleable but it was also relentless. It played many notes during her lifetime, but the loudest heard in the pages of A Life was Elliot’s desire to be obedient to the demands of faith as she understood them. Of her questions and doubts, Austen notes that, “Elliot presents her loss of knowledge and certainty not as a loss of faith but as a stripping away of false knowledge to reveal the living heart of faith.” Elliot’s devotion was imperfect, to be sure, but hers was a staggering commitment. I found myself admiring her greatly, even as, toward the end of the book, I mourned what appeared to be a more constrained Elliot, a period of her life dominated by her marriage to Lars Gren, a marriage Elliot recognized as a mistake almost immediately. 

“Mourning” is, of course, an interpretative stretch of the text; we don’t know that Elliot mourned this chapter of her life. Indeed, Elliot’s journals of this time were not available to Austen, and she treads carefully, presenting the facts, only occasionally pushing against comments made by Lars. This circumspection is consistent with her approach throughout the book. The reader senses that Austen is trying to understand Elliot, to make sense of her life, and she approaches the task with reverence. Her queries have the feel of genuine curiosity, and if they have a ‘bite,’ it’s often couched in a degree of humility. As Elliot said in her biography of Strachan, so in Austen’s biography: “Here are the data we can deal with. There is much more that we do not know.” 

Austen’s voice does come through – in asides, observations, and assessments – and these are offered gently even when they are incisive. At times, this gentleness feels like tentativeness, which is a shame because more of Austen’s voice would have been welcome. There is more to be said of Elliot’s life and faith, hard questions to ask of her theology, and Austen would be a trusted guide through even the thorniest topics. Ink for other pages, perhaps. Regardless, I experienced Elisabeth Elliot: A Life as a gift: a person of faith engaging another person of faith with true grace. It reminded me that we do not know ‘types,’ we know people, and people are inevitably far more complex than the caricatures we may have about them. For that long, thoughtful lesson alone, the book is well worth reading.

Stephen Kamm

Stephen Kamm is a writer living in Sammamish, Washington. You can read more of his writing at stephenkamm.com. Find him on Twitter: @stephenkamm

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