Tom Gilson

“Faith Seeking Understanding,” edited by David Marshall

Book Review

I’ve just spent hours in the company of outstanding Christian leaders: the late Dr. Paul Brand and Dr. Ralph Winter, to begin with. Not every book conveys such a warm sense of Christian fellowship, but David Marshall’s edited volume Faith Seeking Understanding: Essays in Memory of Paul Brand and Ralph D. Winter definitely does.

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The two honorees of this book were great exemplars of mission and thinking in action. Paul Brand was a missionary surgeon in India, where we gained world renown through breakthrough thinking on leprosy (Hansen’s disease). It was he who first discovered that patients’ loss of limbs and other disfigurements were not directly caused by the disease bacterium directly, but indirectly through the loss of protective pain sensations. He also devised new methods for hand surgery, which are now standard material in surgery textbooks. He went on to become director of the Carville, LA institute for Hansen’s disease, then finally “retired” to life as a writer. His story is told by his one-time co-writer Philip Yancey and former pastor Paul Smith.

I knew Ralph Winter slightly. To be able to say even that much is quite a privilege. He was the professor of record for the course I took on Perspectives on the World Christian Movement in 1982 (I think), and he taught one or two of the sessions. This was at the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena, California, which Dr. Winter founded, and whose current director, Greg Parsons, wrote Dr. Winter’s biographical chapter in Faith Seeking Understanding.

The Perspectives course is still being taught to thousands. around the world. It is but one of Dr. Winter’s many massive contributions to world missions, of which the most significant by far was his leadership in strategically (and biblically) viewing the world according to “people groups.” People groups are essentially cultural pockets defined by language, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic condition (caste, for example), tribes, and sometimes geographical factors. It’s hard to find a mission agency nowadays that doesn’t think in those terms, brought to the fore by Dr. Winter.

Faith Seeking Understanding is an eclectic book. Its seventeen chapters are grouped as “Tutors,” “Christ in Culture,” “Christ in History,” and “Christ in Philosophy and Science.” What held it all together for may be different than it would be for you: it was the sense of being with the authors and with those they were writing about. That includes of course Drs. Brand and Winter, but also others like Miriam Adeney, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, who wrote on one of editor David Marshall’s favorite themes, the truths that can be found in other world religions: beauty in Japanese religion, for example. Neither Adeney nor Marshall doubts that the God of the Bible is the measure of all truth, but both hold that there are bridges to God’s truth that can be found in other religions. It is a fascinating theme.

There was cross-cultural fellowship to be had with Ivan Styavraga and the exiled intellectual Yuan Zhiming, speaking of God’s work in India and China, respectively. David Marshall interviewed missions pioneer Don Richardson, the respected sociologist Rodney Stark, and probably the most groundbreaking Christian philosopher of our day, Alvin Plantinga; and again, for me the sense again was fellowship, an opportunity to meet the men behind their written words.

In putting it that way, I do not mean to downplay the significance of the authors’ and interviewers’ messages, but for me, that information kept receding into the background, behind all these various leaders’ personal stories. They are good stories in the dual sense of being well-told stories of what is good; not to say that they were so good that they seemed unlikely to be real, but that there was refreshing authenticity to be found here along with deep thought, both in the authors and their subjects.

And I kept thinking, if only more people could be in touch with this kind of good: mission, thinking, action, for Christ.

For that reason above all others I recommend this book. It’s almost Christmas: treat yourself, or a friend or family member, to some great fellowship with some great people.

2 thoughts on ““Faith Seeking Understanding,” edited by David Marshall

  1. Thanks for the review, Tom. I’m glad you enjoyed the book, and of course I hope people will take your advice and read it! Of all my books, this is the only one I would dare call a “Universal Christmas Present” — give it to almost any intellectually-curious person, and they can open it almost anywhere, and I believe find something worth reading. At least I know I did, editing the book. Receiving the chapters by e-mail was a bit like opening Christmas presents, and a bit like opening Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.

    Your review helps me to see something about this book more clearly myself. Of course my goal was to make each chapter good reading. But it is the attractive character of those who agreed to contributor, which reflects the character of Brand and Winter, and through them of Jesus Christ, that gives this book the warmth that you seem to recognize, and have helped me to see more clearly. My last four books were all rather quarrelsome. I’m glad to take a break with this book, and just be argumentative, in a cheerful sense.

  2. I see we both posted a few typos. One of yours I should correct, is Ivan Satyavrata’s last name. People are going to break their tongues in two, trying to pronounce “Styavraga.” This is a bad time of year to lose half your taste buds!

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