In the Fall of 2011 I read what turned out to be one of my favorite books: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. The book is a gripping account of Louie Zamperini’s life, which at times borders on being in-credible. The events and circumstances would be unreal, except that they truly happened. I often read the book shaking my head and thinking “you cannot make this stuff up.”
The book has received popular and critical acclaim, including:
- #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
- Top nonfiction book of the year by Time magazine
- Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography
- Indies Choice Adult Nonfiction Book of the Year award
Here is the description from Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption on Amazon.com:
“From Laura Hillenbrand, the bestselling author of Seabiscuit, comes Unbroken, the inspiring true story of a man who lived through a series of catastrophes almost too incredible to be believed. In evocative, immediate descriptions, Hillenbrand unfurls the story of Louie Zamperini–a juvenile delinquent-turned-Olympic runner-turned-Army hero. During a routine search mission over the Pacific, Louie’s plane crashed into the ocean, and what happened to him over the next three years of his life is a story that will keep you glued to the pages, eagerly awaiting the next turn in the story and fearing it at the same time. You’ll cheer for the man who somehow maintained his selfhood and humanity despite the monumental degradations he suffered, and you’ll want to share this book with everyone you know.” –Juliet Disparte
The subtitle, “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” captures the main essence of the book, while still underselling the contents. Labeling Zamperini resilient is akin to calling a Purple Heart recipient brave. Words fall short. Zamperini isn’t so much resilient as he’s elastic, bending to the forces around him, while somehow never breaking. He’s über-resilient to the 3rd power. He refuses to quit, die, or accept defeat.
The book became a film, directed by Angelina Jolie and was released in 2014. I recommend the film, especially if it is accompanied by reading the book, as they both help each other. Though the movie seems to downplay the suffering of some episodes, it also highlights some aspects that assisted my imagination once I saw the film.
Issues raised in the biography include: brotherhood and camaraderie, survival, the importance of human dignity, torture and the treatment of prisoners, theodicy, the role of hope and faith, and both the depths of despair and the heights of mercy and grace.
As you’ll realize once you read the book or watch the movie, it’s apparent that the motive for, and context of, Paul’s various “troubles” is vastly different from Louie Zamperini, but while reading Unbroken, again and again I referred to these words from Paul:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked” (2 Cor 11.23b-27)
Imagine three years filled with experiences like Paul’s and you’ll be close to the pain and suffering Zamperini faced.
While the book would be worth reading just for the absurd account of his captivity, it moves up near the top of reading lists because of the redemptive aspects involved. It’s not sugary, sappy sentimentality; the book outlines clearly a story of redemption in its human pain and less-than-perfect ending.
In different ways his life has impressed upon me the role of loving one’s neighbor and one’s enemy, made me re-think issues related to torture, and given me a renewed respect for the generation that lived through WWII.
Read this book; go see this movie. I am convinced that the impression it leaves will be deep, profound, and long-term.
*An earlier version of this post was published in September 2011.
Luke’s portrayal of the Advent emphasizes a striking juxtaposition: the high comes down to meet the low, and the low are lifted to meet the high. A king greater than Caesar is born, but laid in a manger. A heavenly host fills the sky to announce the birth, but appears to shepherds. Yet, the high-low dynamic comes into play even before these culminating, climactic events.
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28).
We’re conditioned to think that Gabriel’s words came as good news to Mary, but she wasn’t sure. She was “greatly troubled” at the saying, and tried to discern its meaning. Mary knew her Bible, so her fear stemmed not from ignorance but from knowledge. She knew what we might ignore—God’s presence can be as precarious as it is precious.
The great passage in Isaiah 7 promises that a child would be the sign of Immanuel—God’s presence. And, a child was born in Isaiah’s day who was that sign, but it wasn’t an altogether comforting concept. God was with his people to rescue them from their enemies but, because the people were unfaithful for so long, He was also with them to deliver them to their enemies in judgment! Mary wanted to know what God’s presence with her would mean. If God did the sort of thing with her that he did in Isaiah’s day, on what side of God’s presence would she fall?
What about you? The Messiah who came to save the world will return to judge the world. This is why the call to salvation is a call of faith and repentance—faith toward Christ who saves and repentance away from the sin that condemns, because Christ will return as Judge.
But Mary found favor. Grace. Gabriel reassured her, reminding her that nothing is impossible with God. Mary made a hasty trip, some 80 miles, to see Elizabeth. When Mary, carrying the Son of God in her womb, approached Elizabeth, who was carrying John the Baptist in hers—little John kicked Elizabeth in the ribs. Preparing the way for the Lord, he was! That was all Mary needed. God was making history, and He was doing it with two obscure women in two impossible situations—one old and barren, one young and virginal. Mary was so moved by this vision of God, the lover of the lowly, the God of the impossible, that she broke out in song.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy if for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever (Luke 1:46-55).
In Mary’s song, we find ourselves in the great tension between the high and the low, reiterating this one thing: God lifts the lowly.
Mary modeled her song after the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2. Hannah was lowly—about as low as it gets. She was childless and ridiculed by her own family. When the priest, Eli, saw her crying to Lord, he accused her of being drunk—total disrespect. But God heard her cry and gave her a son–Samuel–a son dedicated to the Lord. Hannah said, “My heart exults in the Lord.” Mary repeated nearly the same thing, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Mary used Hannah’s situation as a lens to interpret her own. God regards the lowly.
It’s simply undeniable in Scripture that God chooses the nobodies—the least likely. Abraham was a nomad, Jacob a liar, Moses a slave’s child, David an afterthought. The disciples were fishermen & tax collectors. Paul considered himself the least of the apostles, and said this to the Corinthian church: “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:26-29).
You might find yourself thinking, “I don’t have much to offer. I have a checkered past. I don’t have a seminary degree. I’ve never led a Bible study. I’m not a preacher’s kid. I wasn’t raised in church, and I don’t have a ton of money.” PERFECT. The problem isn’t with those who think they have nothing to offer, but with those who think they do.
Mary’s song has an interesting structure. At the beginning, it’s as if the camera zooms in on Mary and her situation, but then it pans out toward the bigger picture, and identifies two groups. On the one hand, there are the proud, the powerful, and the rich. It’s not merely that they are wealthy or influential (a strictly socioeconomic reading is much too narrow), it’s that they are prideful. They want to rub shoulders with the elite and feel important. They want to be noticed, liked, and popular. These are the attention-craving, head-turning types, but God brings them down. This is a warning for us.
On the other hand, we have the humble and the hungry. Again, it’s not merely that they’ve experienced misfortune, it’s that they are lowly. After all, it can be difficult to crave attention when you’re really craving a meal. But, God lifts them up.
With God, the high go low and the low go high. The theme recurs throughout Luke’s gospel. Jesus says as much himself in Luke 6: “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” In Luke 9, Jesus says that following him means taking up your cross daily—losing your life in order to find it. Again in Luke 9 and later in Luke 22, the disciples fuss over who is the greatest. Jesus responds: “He who is least among you shall be great,” and “let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” If you want to go high, you must first get low. The loftiest place in the universe is a lowly position before God. Loftiness is lowliness.
Frankly, it ought to be really hard to look at the King of the universe lying in a dirty manger and remain stuck on yourself. This is especially dangerous during the time of year when we celebrate this very event! We set about buying perfect gifts and creating perfect experiences. Our minds are on nice things, but we just might miss the lowliness of it all.
The last time Christmas fell on Sunday, we were with my parents in Kentucky. We went to church that morning, didn’t make plans to cook a big meal, couldn’t decide what to do for lunch, but two children were hungry, so we went to–yes–McDonald’s. I’ll never forget the experience of eating a greasy burger and spongy fries on Christmas Day. It was so strange, yet so perfect. What if our celebration of the Incarnation actually looked more like the Incarnation itself? What would that look like?
The gospel turns everything upside down and completely rearranges our sense of status. Mary ended her song by panning out further to see God’s cosmic plan. Whatever was happening to her—however crazy and upside down it seemed—it was the way God would remember His mercy and fulfill his promise. And, this fulfillment happened upside down—the humble pattern of the Incarnation in a dirty manger continued all the way to utter humiliation on a bloody cross. The High came low, to the lowest, so that we, the lowest, might go high.
In this tense, awkward reversal of the high and the low, Mary’s story shouts some implications.
STOOP DOWN. View yourself with the truest lens—the gospel. The gospel is good news, but it’s brutally honest news. Before we see the cross as something that saves us, we must see it as something that indicts us, condemns us. When you see the God-man bloody, naked, and nailed, you must see your sin he’s bearing, your shame he’s carrying, your abandonment he’s experiencing, your atonement he’s accomplishing. You are the condemned rebel for whom He’s dying. Let that roll you over. The highest of the high went to the lowest of the low, for you. The gospel is the truth.
REACH DOWN. The Incarnation implies that we ought to continue the pattern. The high reached down for us. We reach down for others. Serving imitates Jesus. It’s hard to imagine that you could stoop down before God and not reach down to others. What will you do to show the low ones that God has stooped for them?
LOOK UP. Never lose your sense of wonder at what God has done for you. Let your song always be as Mary’s: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . He who is mighty has done great things for me.” For me! This is a battle in our hearts. The culture of entitlement tempts us to think that others should do more for us. “My spouse should do more for my. My parents should do more for me. My employer should do more for me.” Beware. It’s a thief that steals your gratitude for what God has already done for you in Jesus. If you want to recapture the wonder of life with God in Christ, remember what Mary knew: God regards the lowly, and the lowly is you.