Wednesday, May 13, 2020

“Vintage Saints and Sinners” by Karen Wright Marsh

Most of us in the Christian faith can point to a number of people who have directly been significant contributors and influences on our faith journeys. It might be parents, other relatives, friends, pastors, teachers, missionaries, or others. And then there are the once- or twice-removed influences, people we have never met but whose words and writings have had major impacts on our faith. For myself, I can name pastors, missionaries, and writers like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.I. Packer, and more. The people and influences remind us we are part of a larger community of saints, past and present, and we have been shaped by many people and many Christian streams of thought.

In Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My FaithKaren Wright Marsh tells the stories of Christians across the centuries who have shaped her faith. Part biography, part memoir, and even part devotional, the book stands as a solid introduction to both well-known and lesser-known Christians as well as a testament to the impact Christians can have on fellow believers separated by both time and geography.

As she points out in the introduction, all of can remember the stories we heard in Sunday School – stories of both Biblical characters and Christians who are rightly known as heroes of the faith. But as she grew and matured, Marsh discovered distraction, fear, and doubt. And here, too, she found examples from across Christian history.

Many of the people whose story she tells as she tells her own story are well known – St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther, Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, John Wesley, and St. Francis of Assisi. She also includes the lesser-known but just as meaningful – Amanda Berry Smith. Fannie Lou Hamer, Mark Paik Lee, Aelred of Rievaulx, and Sophie Scholl. 

The narrative for each individual is roughly the same. Marsh begins with a personal story, moves quickly to the character, provides a brief biography or general background, explains how each came to faith and the impact each had, and then moves back to the personal, applying the lessons of the individual’s life to her own circumstances and faith. Many of the stories I had heard or read before, but I was unfamiliar with many of them except by name only. 

Karen Wright Marsh
But I learned things even about the better known, like why Mother Teresa believed God had stopped speaking to her for decades; the role Fannie Lou Hamer played in the Civil Rights struggle; and how Brother Lawrence came to wash up on the shores of faith – blocked from his chosen calling of being a soldier because of a crippling injury.

Marsh is the cofounder and executive director of Theological Horizons, a university ministry focused on theological scholarship “at the intersection of faith, thought, and life.” She teaches students in programs and classes, writes curriculum, and speaks at a wide array of meetings, seminars, and retreats. She received degrees in philosophy and linguistics from Wheaton College and the University of Virginia. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her family.

Vintage Saints and Sinners offers history, biography, theology, understanding, and faith, but its stories offer one thing above all – encouragement. People from the past have experienced what you are going through; they knew doubt, despair, and fear. Their stories tell you to have courage and take heart.

Top illustration: a depiction of Brother Lawrence in his kitchen.

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