My wife and I have been reading together at night. First we read Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage, which was for us like a marriage retreat in book form. After that shared experience that enriched our relationship, we decided to keep up the reading. The book we chose was Jim Belcher’s In Search of Deep Faith: A Pilgrimage into the Beauty, Goodness and Heart of Christianity. We were not disappointed. Belcher’s first-hand account of his family’s extended pilgrimage-sabbatical to England and Europe, and of the spiritual lessons they learned, ended up being the most refreshing book I’ve read in a long time. And my wife agreed. Bonus!
In Search of Deep Faith is a melding of travel memoir, church history, parenting confessions, theology of pilgrimage, devotional, and biography. The format Belcher follows is a narrative that alternates between the story of a particular hero of the faith and the story of his family’s quest to learn history via field trip. The effect on the reader is to bring the history of Christianity in Europe alive in such a way as to discover relevance for the Christian life today.
So who are Belcher’s heroes of the faith and the places where he went on pilgrimage? They (with places simplified) are each given one chapter:
- Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer (Oxford, England)
- Sheldon Vanauken (Oxford)
- Robert Lewis Stevenson (Oxford)
- C.S. Lewis (Oxford)
- William Wilberforce (Oxford)
- Vincent Van Gogh (Paris, France)
- André Trocmé (Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France)
- Corrie Ten Boom (Haarlem, Holland)
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Berlin, Germany)
- Maria von Trapp (Salzburg, Austria)
- Zacharias Ursinus (Heidelberg, Germany) and D-Day soldiers (Normandy, France)
Each of these heroes and the places they left their mark can teach us something today. Belcher and his family organized their pilgrimage into three parts: (1) Rediscovering Our Roots (chapters 1-5); (2) Life as a Journey and the Need for a Map (chapters 6-8); and (3) Seeing Our Destination (chapters 9-11). These closely correspond to the worldview questions people must answer when searching for meaning in life.
- Who am I and where did I come from?
- What is my purpose in life and how do I fulfill it?
- What is my hope and where am I going?
Such were the foundational questions Belcher sought answers. Such are the questions his quest seeks to help us answer. What did he learn and seek to pass on to us? In Oxford, we learn that some things are worth dying for, and the strength to live by (and perhaps die for) our convictions cannot be found in the shallow religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the most prevalent faith of the typical American teenager. The strength to live and die well comes from a sense of pilgrimage, in “having a clear glimpse of our destination, which in turn helps us hold on to faith” (p. 40). We learn that meaning in life cannot be found in the worship of anything in this world, no matter how lovely or beautiful it appears. Meaning only comes from having our desires ignited by something outside of this world, something transcendent. Only the Creator and Redeemer of this world is substantial enough to sustain our deepest desire for transcendence. We learn that the human heart is a battleground of desire, so that our experience of wanting to live and love rightly is wrought with a struggle akin to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We learn that only the weight of glory that is found in Christ who is in God is able ultimately to set us free from this inward struggle. We learn that having a sense of purpose and calling that is outside ourselves, yet intimately fitted to ourselves, and supported by a close network of friends and co-laborers prepares us for use in the world, and perhaps if the time is right to change history.
In Europe and in searching for the right map to guide us, we learn that the beauty in the world is only authentically expressed as a “broken beauty.” This is not a bad thing, because beautiful things that are broken remind us of a pristine beauty that we’ve lost in a fallen world, and point us forward to a redeemed and restored beauty coming in the recreation of all things. How beautiful that day will be! We learn the power of real community—the power of a people who have been shaped by the message of Christ and the gospel of grace, to sacrifice for the good of the oppressed and needy. We learn of the redemptive power of suffering with and for others, as we learn to walk in the footsteps of Christ in obedience to him. Suffering, if viewed through the lens of a Christian map, ought to produce perseverance, and perseverance character, and character a hope that does not disappoint (Rom 5:3-5).
While still in Europe but in searching for the source of hope and the eternal destination, we learn how to die well. Not merely how to give up our spirit as we take our turn to breathe our last breath, but how to die in peace, loving our enemies, working for justice, keeping our faith, and hoping in the God who justifies sinners. We learn where true confidence comes from. Not from trusting our abilities, our intellect, or our will-power, but in giving up trusting in ourselves and relying on the God who is willing and able to work through us to accomplishes his purposes. And we learn that our only comfort in life and death is that every Christian can confidently confess,
That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him. (Heidelberg Catechism 1)
These lessons may be learned from a book in propositional form, but Belcher aims to show us how he learned them afresh through the crucible of life. Sometimes life is the best teacher. I usually appreciate the various things I learn from books. Most I choose to read are worthy of recommending, but In Search of Deep Faith I would put near the top of my list. Go on pilgrimage with Belcher and his family and find a renewed desire to possess a deeper faith.
Here is a video about the book: