I have temporarily abandoned Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. After reading more than half-way through it, I still feel an awkwardness in navigating through the novel’s linguistic tides. Immersing in the richness and depth of Eco’s language (translated to English from the original Italian) has compelled me to come up to the surface for air—oftentimes that meant flipping through the dictionary after every couple of pages to befriend strange words; backtracking several paragraphs to try to recover my bearings to make sense of the plot; and, lately, that has come to mean temporarily parking the book by the desk lamp and turning to another one for company. (This business of expanding my experience with books is proving to be quite a challenge!)
Retreating from Eco’s prose has allowed me to spend more time with Elisabeth Elliot’s Shadow of the Almighty (which I first picked up around the same time I set out to hurdle Eco). As it turns out, this biography of Jim Elliot, the author’s martyred missionary husband, is just what I need right now. Elisabeth invites readers to know a man whose passionate and single-minded love for God permeated every part of his life, even infecting those around him. Wanting the reader to somehow experience Jim’s very heart and soul, Elisabeth extensively quotes from Jim’s writings, culled mostly from personal letters and journal entries. Jim’s words reveal not a perfect saint devoid of doubt or struggle, but a man who loved God deeply despite his imperfections and lived his life to reflect this intimate devotion to his Creator.
Some books you are forced to read slowly owing to their tricky or unfamiliar language or theme. Others, penned with a beautiful and yet potent simplicity, you simply choose to read carefully and slowly because the words ring with oft-neglected truth and personal relevance that engage more than your mind—they touch your very spirit. Jim Elliot’s life and faith has forced me to mount my own under a spiritual microscope, to be examined against the ultimate standard of godliness and holiness. I am still on page 70 of Shadows as of this writing. Each time I pick it up, I sense that I do so not to relax nor escape, but to interact with God and wrestle with my inner self. I simply can’t sustain this engagement for long stretches. So I take my time. One good thing about books is that they are patient friends, postponing their message until you are ready to receive it. But even more patient is the One who chooses to creatively and unmistakably speak to you through the printed word.
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In one of Jim’s meditations, he expressed a sentiment that has strongly resonated with me about writing with integrity:
I cannot hope to be absolutely honest in what is herein recorded, for the hypocrisy of this shamming heart will ever be putting on a front and dares not write what is actually found in its abysmal depths. Yet, I pray Lord, that You will make these notations to be as nearly true to fact as is possible, that I may know my own heart and be able to definitely pray regarding my gross, though often unrecognized, inconsistencies.
Amen. I echo this as my tap-dancing prayer.