VINTAGE SAINTS ANDSINNERS: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith. By Karen Wright Marsh. Foreword by Lauren Winner. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2017. 215 pages.
If you were to write down twenty-five figures in Christian History who have impacted or transformed your faith, who would you put down on your list? They could be famous, but they needn’t be famous. You might consider them saints, but they don’t have to be perfect. In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh tells who she would put on her list, as well as telling us why she did this. Her list includes some big names, like St. Augustine and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But there are other people on the list who might not be as famous, but who have lived lives that exemplify what it means to be Christian, people like Sophie Scholl and Mary Paik Lee. While not offering us complete biographies of her choices, she tells us why these figures have transformed her faith.
Marsh is the executive director and cofounder with her husband Charles of Theological Horizons. This is a university ministry focused on connecting advanced scholarship and faith. Founded in 1991, it is now centered at the University of Virginia, where Charles is a professor. There they founded Bonhoeffer House as a place for faculty and students to gather for meals, study, and conversation. This book is, in a sense, an expression of the vision of this ministry.
Marsh tells the stories of these people in their full humanity. As she drew close to them through her reading of their works and the stories about their lives, she discovered each figure to be both sinner and saint. This fact is important, because it makes them more accessible to us. She writes that "when they speak across the centuries, their lives turn out to be just as messy as (and sometimes much messier than) mine." (p. 7). Rather than being "inaccessible super-saints" she has found them to be "perfect companions for a real-life pilgrimage." (p. 7). She tells their stories, not because we should imitate their lives, but because they give us a lens through which to view the life of faith. By engaging with their stories, she found them speaking to her, offering wisdom for life. She shares their stories with us, in part to share that wisdom with us, so that the stories that have shaped her life might help shape ours. But, I think she would like us to name and reflect on figures who have influenced our lives.
The book is divided into two parts. Part One is titled "Asking." The scripture text that undergirds this section is Jeremiah 6:16, which invites us to “stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths.” Some of the twelve figures highlighted in this section are Augustine, Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Brother Lawrence. She shares her admiration for Therese of Lisieux, for instance, for having the courage as a nine-year-old, to go up to the Pope and demand admittance to the convent, and experiences with Flannery O'Connor the "strangeness of God." There is the story of Amanda Berry Smith, born into slavery in 1837, with little education, she would become an evangelist who preached in nations across the globe.
In part two, titled "Walking," she again appeals to that statement from Jeremiah 6:16— “ask where the good way is, and walk in it.” With this call to walk in the good paths, we meet the remaining thirteen figures. This section includes figures as famous as John Wesley and Ignatius of Loyola, as well as figures who might be unknown to most, including young Sophie Scholl. Scholl was executed, together with her brother, for having the temerity as a twenty-one-year-old student to stand up against the tyranny of Hitler. We know the story of Bonhoeffer, but hers is equally compelling. I found her telling of the story of Mary Paik Lee powerful as well. Lee immigrated with her parents from Korea in 1906, and faced unbelievable racism and discrimination, including the church. Although her family had been leaders in their Presbyterian Church in Korea, even helping support missionaries (and protecting them against the Japanese occupiers), she was barred from attending a Presbyterian church with her high school classmate. The minister barred her entrance, telling her that "I don't want dirty Japs in my church," and then telling them to "God to Hell!" (p. 150) Yet, she remained faithful to God. There is also Howard Thurman, who spoke into a segregated nation marked by racism a message of inclusive love that he learned from Jesus.
Although Marsh does not intend to provide biographies of these people she invokes, she does offer helpful introductions to their lives, inviting us to dive deeper into their stories. She brings out the wisdom that she took from her engagements with these people’s lives. She reminds us that they are sinners as well as saints, and thus they are approachable.
Marsh offers us a thoughtful and accessible book that can serve as a welcome addition to one’s devotional life. There is great encouragement here. May we not only read her reflections, but follow her example and explore other lives, lives of people whom we have encountered, people who are saints but also sinners. For these vintage saints and sinners are “like confident, experienced older brothers and sisters” who beckon us “into the proven trails they have blazed ahead” (p. 186). We can give thanks to Karen Wright Marsh for introducing us to these wise guides to the spiritual life, the ones who have taken the trail, who know the way, and who beckon us to follow. May we join her on this path she has laid out for us.