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Elisabeth Elliot and the Mystery of Divine Providence

(Image credit: B&H Publishing Group)

Bestselling author Ellen Vaughn (The Jesus Revolution) has just brought out the second volume of an authorized biography of Elisabeth Elliot, who was, and remains, an inspiration to evangelical Christians around the world.

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With over 24 books to her credit, renowned biographer and New York Times bestselling author Ellen Vaughn is out with her second volume on the life and work of Elisabeth Elliot, the noted Christian author, speaker, and philosopher who died in 2015 after a 10-year struggle with dementia. Being Elisabeth Elliot is the follow-up to Vaughn’s 2020 Becoming Elisabeth Elliot.

The first volume of this authorized biography focused on Elliot’s incredible story of survival. While on a mission trip to Ecuador, her husband, Jim, and four other missionaries were speared to death. Amazingly, Elisabeth Elliot and her toddler daughter stayed in Ecuador, spending time among the very tribal people responsible for the bloodshed. Her saintly forgiveness reportedly brought many of them to faith in Jesus. Elliot went on to write several books, host a long-running radio show, and become a sought-after speaker around the world.

Vaughn’s second biography delves into Elliot’s later years as she deeply pondered what she called the “impenetrable mystery” of the interplay between God’s will and human choices.

JWK: Why do you find Elisabeth Elliot so fascinating that you wrote two books about her?

Ellen Vaughn: People of my age are familiar with Elisabeth Elliot because she was sort of an evangelical hero when we were growing up. I knew of her for many years. I admired her story, her grittiness, her courage as a missionary in Ecuador living among the tribal people who had killed her husband. So, many, many years later when I was approached by her family about writing the authorized biography, I thought, yeah, this is an intriguing character. I discovered that Elisabeth wasn’t just this icon that we can look up to, to admire, but in fact (is) really a relatable hero. I explore that a lot more in volume 2 than I did in the first volume.

Did you ever meet her?

I did meet her at different gatherings. Many years ago, she’d occasionally worship at my church when she was in the Washington, D.C., area. So, yes, I heard her speak (and) I met her in groups of people, but I never sat down with her one-on-one.

What was your impression of her from seeing her in person?

Well, I think my impression is shared by many. I saw Elisabeth as someone who was sort of tall and didn’t smile a whole lot, and was rather remote, formidable, austere, and severe. She seemed like someone whose teaching was very straight, very rigorous, and very Biblerooted. I didn’t see her as a person who I would necessarily want to sit with and have tea.

Why do you think her story is one that speaks to our time?

Well, I think Elisabeth spoke to an earlier time. It think it’s relevant today—when I think about Millennials or Gen Zs or people like myself, Boomers—especially volume 2. I wrote that with a sense of here’s someone who was really looking at what is the difference between just religion—or Christianity with sort of pat answers, platitudes, never-doubts, (and) that kind of religiosity—and a real authentic faith with in Christ. I think that’s the journey that we can all relate to regardless of our age or life experiences because, if our faith is real, in fractured times like these we need to have a sense of what is Christianity the way Jesus founded it and what is just cultural overlay. Elisabeth was an early explorer of that question.

So what is the answer to that question?

(laughs) That’s why readers will have to read the book.

You say that she was a rebel, but not in a way people might think. What do mean by that?

This book starts with the sixties. I’m fascinated by the 1960s. That’s what I studied when I wrote with Greg Laurie a few years ago the book Jesus Revolution that became a movie. It was such a turbulent time of rebellion against authority in America. Elisabeth Elliot, believe me, was not a hippie marching in the streets against the Vietnam War, but she was more of a rebel against this unquestioning acceptance of platitudes that she had heard all of her life. She grew up in a rather legalistic Christian home. So she was really exploring—kind of like the hippies of her day—what is truth really? So that’s why I call her a rebel. You would never think that, looking at her and her conservative plaid skirts and her pearls, but she was, perhaps, a bit of a Christian rebel back in her day.

I went through several of her quotes. One I found interesting was “Fear arises when we imagine that everything depends on us.” What do you think she meant by that?

I think, like many of us, she struggled with issues of control. She was high achiever, a high performer, very intellectually brilliant. (She thought) “If I could just figure it all out, then I’ll reach certain outcomes—all to the glory of God,” (but) in her life she came up against outcomes that were … disastrous. What’s up with that? You can’t control it! How do I respond to God being present in the midst of the mess? She struggled a lot with that—as we all do—and she came to a point (of epiphany). One of her favorite quotes from one of her heroes, Amy Carmichael, was “In acceptance lies peace.” When we accept that which we cannot explain, we are free to have a sense of liberty and of peace.

What does that say about pushing back against some of the negative things that happen to you? Is that OK? When you say “accept,” does that mean whatever happens to you just go with it?

It’s not a passive sort of acceptance, like “Whatever, I’ll just roll over and take a nap regardless of the stuff coming down.” No. I think hers was a kind of vigorous acceptance, if you will. This book, for example, covers the period when she unexpectedly, dramatically, head-over-heels fell in love at midlife. She was stunned to find true love. She married and was blissfully joyous. Then that second husband slowly, inexorably, develops cancer, and she is faced again with a sense of loss and that lack of control we all feel when a loved one gets that diagnosis … I think as Elisabeth walked through that journey of losing her much loved second husband, I saw a lot I could relate with in the losses that we all face. Certainly, you pray earnestly … for the outcomes you desire, but at the same time you pray like Jesus in the garden: “Let not our will but Yours be done.” Sometimes God’s will is hard and absolutely mystifying—and that’s what she experienced.

I find it sad that she died with dementia. How did she cope with that?

Oh, gosh. She was such a superb linguist and communicator and writer. Words were her trade, right? For her to gradually begin losing words, losing language, (be) unable to remember things with her formerly rather photographic memory, it was a diminishment that she absolutely hated and was terrified by. She knew it was a coming, and so, again, she practiced that hard sense of acceptance. Then, as her disease continued to encroach upon her, she eventually lost language altogether. She suffered with dementia for longer, I think, than is recognized. Even at the tail end of her speaking life, she was not herself. Probably the last 15 (to) 18 years of her life were marked by increasing limitation of her mind, which had been so fine.

What do you hope people take from this book?

I hope people will have a good read and will laugh and cry and relate. Someone said we read books so we know we’re not alone. I love that. I think a good book engages you with the story of a fellow human who experiences the same things we all do. She walked through her own pilgrimage during times that were wonderful (and) times that were horrible. I also hope that it will be something that stirs up conversations about real faith, not just religiosity/churchianity, but real Christianity. What does that look like? That was the question Elisabeth was always seeking after.

You mentioned your book Jesus Revolution, which also became a successful movie earlier this year.

Yes! Yes! How fun to have a movie made!

What was that experience like?

I was minding my own business working on other projects. I knew that (director) Jon Erwin was interested in making a film. He and Greg (Laurie) are great friends, and we had met and talked about that early on. He bought the film rights, but then COVID happened and I kind of forgot about it. So it was quite fun that the PR about it began to surface. I was sent an early link of it, not really fully edited yet. I had to watch that alone in my house with my hands over my eyes just because I wasn’t sure how it was gonna turn out. Really pleased! I think Jon did a great job with the narrative arc of the story, the dialogue, and the actors. It’s different from the book, of course, but I think the response showed that people really engaged with the story.

Do you think Elisabeth Elliot’s story would make a good movie?

Yeah, I do … I think there really could be a great character study that would combine the drama of the jungle years with some of the poignancy of the later years and some of the twists and turns that her story takes that were surprising to me.

You also gained notoriety years ago by collaborating on some books with the late Chuck Colson of Watergate fame. What was that experience like?

I started working with Chuck many decades ago when I just out of grad school and (the ministry he founded), Prison Fellowship, was just a couple of years old. He was such as powerful personality, such a person who had had a dramatic conversion (and was) wanting to do everything he could to serve Christ. He was kind enough to really serve as a mentor for me. So I spent many years visiting prisons all over the U.S. and abroad, interviewing people and getting the stories to write for the books that I worked on with Chuck Colson. I’ll always be really grateful to him for that early exposure to the writing life that I knew I loved, but it was interesting that God provided that as the way for my entree into the writing/publishing world.

You’ve written several books over the years, including at least one novel, maybe more.

Chuck and I did a novel, and then I did a novel on my own a long time ago now.

You’ve also collaborated with other authors and wrote other books on your own. How are all these forms of writing different and what do you prefer?

I think I’ve always been a person fascinated by stories. Researching stories to write them—I love doing that. I’m also very curious about what in the world is it like to be another human being? What’s it like to be you? So, in the collaborative writing I’ve done with different people, that has been the exercise, trying to get into their skin, whether it’s a Mary Beth Chapman and Steven Curtis Chapman (or) Denise Jackson and Alan Jackson or some of these other people who are well known with whom I’ve collaborated. It’s trying to get into their skin. That fascinates me. I think it’s easier to write those types of books because the story is kind of predetermined, if you will. It’s harder to write books where you’re making it up yourself. (laughs)

What’s next for you after this? Do you have anything on the drawing board?

I do … I serve on the board of an international ministry and so I’m writing a book about what God is doing through indigenous Christian leaders around the world. I just came back from Rwanda, South Africa, Nepal, and India. I’ve been interviewing Christian leaders in those areas and have some more trips coming up. So I love that. Then, after that, I may well do an authorized biography of an unnamed evangelical hero.

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy writes the Faith, Media & Culture blog at Beliefnet.