Published by B&H Publishing on September 15, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, Biography, Christian Life, Theology
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Elisabeth Elliot was a young missionary in Ecuador when members of a violent Amazonian tribe savagely speared her husband Jim and his four colleagues. Incredibly, prayerfully, Elisabeth took her toddler daughter, snakebite kit, Bible, and journal . . . and lived in the jungle with the Stone-Age people who killed her husband. Compelled by her friendship and forgiveness, many came to faith in Jesus.
This courageous, no-nonsense Christian went on to write dozens of books, host a long-running radio show, and speak at conferences all over the world. She was a pillar of coherent, committed faith; a beloved and sometimes controversial icon. In this authorized biography, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, bestselling author Ellen Vaughn uses Elisabeth’s private, unpublished journals, and candid interviews with her family and friends, to paint the adventures and misadventures God used to shape one of the most influential women in modern church history. It’s the story of a hilarious, sensual, brilliant, witty, self-deprecating, sensitive, radical, and surprisingly relatable person utterly submitted to doing God’s will, no matter how high the cost. For Elisabeth, the central question was not, “How does this make me feel?” but, simply, “is this true?” If so, then the next question was, “what do I need to do about it to obey God?” “My life is on Thy Altar, Lord—for Thee to consume. Set the fire, Father! Bind me with cords of love to the Altar. Hold me there. Let me remember the Cross.” –Elisabeth Elliot, age 21
Becoming Elisabeth Elliot is an authorized biography full of details from Elisabeth Elliot’s journals and diaries. I learned a lot of new information about her life, personality, relationships, and missions work, and have a whole new appreciation of her. Even though this is only the first part of her story, and concludes after her return to the United States, it provides a satisfying character arc and comes to a meaningful conclusion. I am excited to read the sequel when it releases next year, and enjoyed this so much that it will be hard to wait. I greatly admire how well the author shaped her narrative, picking out details from a wealth of material to give modern readers a sense of who Elisabeth Elliot was.
Complex and Nuanced
Vaughn writes the story in chronological order, and even though she sometimes foreshadows things or refers back to earlier events, she never does so in a way that muddies the timeline. This book is clear and easy to follow, and gives readers insight into Elliot’s formative years and spiritual development. One thing that I found especially interesting about this book is how Vaughn moved beyond a reductionist image of Elliot as the ideal Christian woman, engaging with her alternately reserved and passionate personality, her frustrations with colleagues, her grief over Jim’s murder, her difficult questions about God, and the tensions that she felt between her lived reality and the triumphal messages of a shallow, consumerist Christian culture that packaged her story in inauthentic terms.
The same Christian PR mechanisms that frustrated Elliot in her day often still sell her story as a triumphal and inspiring missionary adventure. Becoming Elisabeth Elliot pushes back against that narrative, taking into account the wearying and disappointing aspects of Elliot’s service, all the things that went wrong, and the tensions and uncertainties that she felt. Vaughn also includes political information about Ecuador, gives a sense of 1950s American culture, and shows how Elliot and her closest ministry partners diverged from contemporary missionary norms by meeting indigenous people on their own terms, supporting them as leaders, and not trying to import Western civilization into their environment. One of the best things about this book is that it grounds Elliot’s story within its cultural, historical, and political context, and this, coupled with the clear chronological progression of the story, can overcome common misunderstandings and confusion that people have.
For Both Fans and Critics
Elisabeth Elliot’s fans will enjoy this, and it is also worthwhile for people who are unfamiliar with her, or who would criticize aspects of her ministry. This book reveals new, complex sides to her, showing the challenges that she faced internally, her struggles with Christian culture, and the continual uncertainty that she felt about God’s will as she tried to take each next step. Vaughn explores Elliot’s life in all of its complexity, and even though she glosses over some challenging topics, such as Elliot’s choice to bring her young daughter into unsafe and threatening situations, she addresses other issues with great nuance. This book isn’t perfect, because no biography could be, but Vaughn does an admirable job of balancing narrative, journal entries, correspondence, historical context, and the probable questions and reactions that modern reader would have.
The final, reflective section of the book underscores Elliot’s emphasis on obeying God no matter the cost, taking up her cross, and accepting the suffering inherent in both existence and the Christian life. These final chapters seem somewhat tacked on, like extra notes that the author couldn’t fit into the conclusion of her narrative, but they summarize the lessons that Elliot learned during that stage of her life and foreshadow her continuing life and legacy. I enjoyed this book very much, and have a whole new appreciation for Elliot’s endurance, consistent obedience to God, and willingness to face circumstantial challenges, misunderstandings, and personal defeat to do what God had called her to do. This is a very encouraging book, and will delight long-term fans of Elliot while giving others a new sense of her historical significance and the lessons that her life can teach us today.