One terrifying day, Howard Rutledge’s plane was shot down over Vietnam. He managed to parachute out but landed in a village where he was beaten, stripped, and thrown into prison.
Eating rotting soup and animal fat, in the company of spiders
Thus began a brutal incarceration, lasting seven years that can only be described as a living hell: eating rotting soup and animal fat, in the company of spiders the size of a human hand and rats the size of cats. He was cold, alone, and tortured, left in pools of his own waste, chained in agonizing positions and being eaten alive by insects feasting on his open sores. He later wrote a book of his experiences called In the Presence of Mine Enemies, where he describes those years and how he stayed sane through the horror. His words are so telling, I quote him in length:
“Now the sights and sounds and smells of death were all around me. My hunger for spiritual food soon outdid my hunger for a steak. Now I wanted to know about that part of me that will never die. Now I wanted to talk about God and Christ and the church. But in Heartbreak (the name they gave to their prison) solitary confinement there was no pastor, no Sunday-school teacher, no Bible, no hymnbook, no community of believers to guide and sustain me. I had completely neglected the spiritual dimension of my life. It took prison to show me how empty life is without God, and so I had to go back in my memory to those Sunday school days in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If I couldn’t have a Bible and hymnbook, I would try to rebuild them in my mind . . . Most of my fellow prisoners were struggling like me to rediscover faith, to reconstruct workable value systems . . . Everyone knew the Lord’s prayer and the twenty-third Psalm, but the camp favorite verse that everyone recalled first and quoted most often is found in the Gospel of John, third chapter, sixteenth verse (“For God so loved the world that He gave His only son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,) . . . how I struggled to recall those scriptures and hymns . . . The enemy knew that the best way to break a man’s resistance was to crush his spirit in a lonely cell. In other words, some of our POWs, after solitary confinement lay down in a fetal position and died. All this talk of scripture and hymns may seem boring to some, but it was the way we conquered our enemy and overcame the power of death around us.”
The Bible is not just another book. It stands out above Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, or other religious writings. These soldiers were not trying to recall nursery rhymes or even Tolstoy and Blake; instead, they desperately tried to remember the words of the Bible.
The biblical narrative seems to truly have spiritual power behind it
In all the research I’ve done, and having read the Bible extensively, what really strikes me is how the biblical narrative seems to truly have spiritual power behind it. As St. Paul said about the message of the Bible, it “did not come to you in word only, but also in power.”
You can see the transforming power of the Bible in the life of Émile Cailliet. He was born in a small town in France. He grew up agnostic, with no religious instruction of any kind. Until he turned twenty three, he had never even seen a Bible.
He served on the front lines in World War I and witnessed unspeakable atrocities. He reached a point where he truly believed he was destined to perish. As he reflected on the miserable condition he found himself in, he realized how inadequate his views were on the human condition. And he happened to be standing next to his best friend who took a bullet in the chest and died.
Cailliet was later wounded himself and confined for quite some time while recovering in the hospital. After he recovered, he returned to his graduate studies and began to think back on his experiences in the war.
“During long night watches in the foxholes I had in a strange way been longing – I must say it, however queer it may sound – for a book that would understand me. But I knew of no such book.”
He therefore decided to strike out on his own, and write his own book, a book that would explain the human condition. He collected writings and passages that seemed to fit into his book. As time passes, he looked forward with great anticipation for the opportunity to read this precious anthology that would help him understand himself.
She had encountered a minister who handed her a Bible that was written in French
The day arrived; he sat down under a tree and began to read, only to experience a sobering disappointment. He realized that instead of speaking to his true condition, these passages only reminded him of the context in which he had chosen them at various times in the past. His life now was so very different from those younger years. Cailliet realized that “the whole undertaking would not work, simply because it was of my own making.”
That same day, as he returned home, dejected and dispirited, he found that his wife had come into possession of a bible. While strolling their child in a baby carriage, she had encountered a minister who handed her a Bible that was written in French. Though Cailliet had been adamant that religion would be taboo in their home, he eagerly grabbed it from her. He recalls:
“I literally grabbed the book and rushed to my study with it. I opened it and “chanced” upon the Beatitudes. I read, and read, and read – now aloud with indescribable warmth surging within . . . I could not find words to express my awe and wonder. And suddenly the realization dawned upon me. This was the book that would understand me! I needed it so much, yet, unaware, I had attempted to write my own – in vain. I continued to read deeply into the night, mostly from the Gospels. And, lo and behold, as I looked through them, the One of whom they spoke, the One who spoke and acted in them, became alive in me.”
Cailliet eventually became a Christian. He went to seminary and became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the Princeton Theological Seminary.
Scripture is the place where we hear God most definitively
God speaks into people’s lives through the Bible. If you examine church history you will notice that the people who were the most dynamic, vibrant Christians were those people who sought to hear God’s voice in the scriptures.
C.S. Lewis had a foundational belief that “scripture is the place where we hear God most definitively. It is where we receive divine guidance.” Lewis was convinced that God speaking to us through the scriptures was how we experience personal transformation.