March 19, 2008
On the Great Cloud
You have these moments, every once in a while, when you discover that what you thought was just another ordinary moment is actually something closer to momentous. I had such a moment this morning, when I interviewed an author for an IVP office meeting and, mid-question, realized that this particular author, over the past half-century, has helped to define much of what American evangelicalism has become.
Marie Little is a petite, unassuming ninety-year-old woman with poor eyesight and even poorer hearing. She lost her husband, Paul, in a car accident thirty-three years ago. Since then she's regularly revised and updated his writing to keep it fresh and relevant in a changing publishing climate. Last month IVP Books rereleased two of Paul's books--Know Why You Believe and How to Give Away Your Faith--alongside two books we recently acquired from another publisher: Know Who and Know What You Believe. Marie came to the office for an interview and a reception.
Paul's writing was an extension of his work for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, addressing the core issues he encountered as he spoke to and, more important, listened to college students. There's great footage of Paul interacting directly with students in the video on our website. These college students had sharp intellects and a sixties-era suspicion of all things inherited, particularly the church. Paul honored their skepticism and their intellect, and very effectively turned them again and again toward Jesus, the author and perfecter of their faith. He would go on to write books such as the million-selling How to Give Away Your Faith and Know Why You Believe, one of Christianity Today's fifty books that have influenced evangelicals the most. He would also help to shape the Western church's approach to missions and evangelism through Urbana student mission conferences and the Lausanne Conference, and to teach evangelism to budding pastors and ministers at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Marie was no slouch herself, having spent four years in China in the midst of its Communist upheaval, having started a campus Christian fellowship under the skeptical supervision of a dubious university president, having sought out and nurtured international students as they struggled to make a home in an alien environment. Nor has she been a slouch in the thirty-plus years since Paul's death, both in her writing and revising, and in her ministry to laypeople and leaders at her church and neighbors at her retirement home.
I had four questions to ask Marie during the interview, three of which I dumped in favor of more fascinating topics. The question I kept was this: What is the ongoing task of Christian publishing? She responded with a heartfelt appeal to keep the Word of God central as a point of magnificent connection: the Bible reminds us throughout, and centrally in Christ, that
The LORD your God is with you,
Lately I've found myself in a lot of direct interactions with the elderly, and it's only when I'm particularly alert--and even then at best midway through the conversation and more often long after the encounter--that I realize how much history is contained in a single person: how much each set of eyes, however weak, has seen; how much each set of ears, however compromised, has heard. I tend to make much of the up and comers, those authors and thinkers and doers who will define the church out in front of us. But today at least I was reawakened to a healthy respect for those who came before me and whose sweat and anguish contributed to the faith that's been handed down to me.