Sunday, February 27, 2011
A few months ago I heard an NPR book reviewer gushing over a book called Unbroken. When it showed up as Time Magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, I downloaded it and began reading. And couldn’t stop. Author Laura Hillenbrand (who wrote the best-seller Seabiscuit) has a terse, matter-of-fact style that is disarming. She spent seven years meticulously researching her subject. After I stayed up all night to finish it, toward the end of the account it took a turn that totally caught me by surprise, taking my breath away with a “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming…” response from me.
It’s a harrowing story of an Italian immigrant named Louis Zamperini, a young hellion growing up in the 1930’s in Torrance, California, who is eventually distracted from troublemaking by his older brother who connected him with the high school track team. Zamperini ran in the Olympic games of 1936 in Berlin. Adolf Hitler requested to meet him and shook his hand.
When World War II broke out, he joined the U.S. Army Air Force. In 1943 his plane went down in the Pacific and survived forty-seven days in a raft circled with sharks until he was picked up by the Japanese. He languished in a prisoner of war camp until the end of the war. In prison, a particularly cruel guard beat him regularly. After his release, he returned to the States and became a raging alcoholic suffering recurring nightmares of his inhumane POW years, emotionally destroying his wife Cynthia. After finding him shaking their squalling newborn, she left him, taking their daughter with her. Louis went on bender after bender, cycling out of control.
As I was reading this part of the book, I could empathize with his private hell and was fearing a sad, dark ending.
SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading here if you don’t want to know how the story ends.
Really. I mean it this time. Stop.
Let’s continue. It didn’t seem fair to me that someone should somehow survive years of horrific warfare and torture only to self-destruct at home. But most of us know that life isn’t always fair as we define "fair". Circumstances, our dysfunctional choices and fallen humanity sure mix a bad cosmic cocktail. Like a train wreck you can’t turn away from, Unbroken was forcing me to turn each page; I understood it to be a secular book about a man’s dark wartime experience, so I wasn’t holding out much hope for pleasant closure.
But in desperation, his harried wife attended the now-famous (in evangelical circles) eight-week long Billy Graham Los Angeles tent revival in 1949, the one that stratospherically launched Graham’s ministry because of William Randolph Hearst’s national coverage of it in his newspapers and magazines. In that setting, Cynthia surrendered her heart to Jesus and begged Louis to join him. After finally relenting and attending with her, he found himself fascinated with Graham’s retelling of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. But when Graham talked about being lost and the claims of salvation, Louis angrily walked out during the invitation. Yet he couldn’t shake it.
Author Hillenbrand describes Graham after weeks of preaching seven days a week and being at the tent from five a.m. to late at night “counseling troubled souls” every day:
“Graham’s weight was dropping, and dark semicircles shadowed his eyes. At times he felt that if he stopped moving, his legs would buckle, so he took to pacing his pulpit to keep himself from keeling over. Once, someone brought a baby to him, and he asked whose child she was. He’d been away from home for so long that he didn’t recognize his own daughter. He longed to end the campaign, but the success of it made him sure that Providence had other wishes.”
Louis returned on another evening. Inexplicably, this time he broke and wept and walked to the front. That night he poured his alcohol down the sink and felt clean for the first time. And oddly, the nightmares stopped. He never looked back. Eventually he forgave all his torturers, even meeting many of them later in Japan.
But I just didn’t see it coming.
As a side note: Louis Zamperini is still living to this day. And still devotedly serving Jesus.
I certainly wasn’t expecting…that. Especially with the phenomenal response it was getting from marketplace book reviewers all over the country. It reminded me that everyone loves a story of redemption, even if faith is included in the story. It is the ultimate “and-they-lived-happily-ever-after” ending, where justice and mercy somehow meet and a life is transformed. I was so moved by the story that after I got past the sheer shock of Louis Zamperini committing his life to Christ in a secular New York Times bestseller, I cried. For joy, for him, for how God somehow redeems the seemingly worst-case scenarios. If there had been a soundtrack, I would have been a puddle of mush.
And then it made me think about art and literature. How did this author tell a story that was received so well and not relegated to the Christian subculture?—a story that includes a page-and-a-half of Graham’s L.A. sermon? In music-world, what makes a group like Mumford and Sons so appealing to the marketplace (Marcus Mumford is the son of John and Eleanor Mumford, leaders of the Vineyard UK movement) and allows them a primetime spot on the Grammys?
But even more puzzling is why I was so surprised. Was it because I was not expecting anything like a "classic salvation story" in that genre? I suppose so. But I want more surprises like that in my own life, my own circles. I want to see the redemptive work of Jesus and the wooing of the Spirit to happen with the people I least expect. And I never want to get so jaded and thick-skinned that I miss those opportunities. And no one—no matter how horrible their background, how hurt and damaged they are, how addicted and in pain they might be, or how much havoc they’ve created for others—are beyond the reach of God’s amazing love and transformative power.
Does it take a secular book for me to really get that?
Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. (Isaiah 59:1)