Ice-Ax to the Frozen Sea

A former student, now a PhD scholar in his 30’s, asked me to send him ideas for biographies to read.  After reminiscing, I had written four single spaced pages on books about people that had moved me.  I ended my self-imposed assignment by telling the story of my reading Ernest Gordon’s To End All Wars on a plane flight from Chicago to southern California while a professor at Moody Bible Institute.  It was impossible to hide the tears that flowed while sitting among two hundred passengers in the fall of 2002.  No other book in the last twenty years of my life has so impacted my person.

Alastair Gordon recounts his life-changing experiences that began with fellow captives practicing John 15:13.  Australian, English, Dutch, Scottish and other allies suffered deprivation and death in the Wampo, Thailand, Japanese prisoner of war camp.  It was the “no greater love” of Jesus which began a chain reaction among the POW’s who were being forced to build the Burma—Thailand railroad.

Our regeneration, sparked by conspicuous acts of self-sacrifice, had begun . . . it might be thought that, this [was a] change in atmosphere . . . it was dawning on us all—officers and other ranks alike—that the law of the jungle is not the law for man.  We had seen for ourselves how quickly it could strip most of us of our humanity and reduce us to levels lower than       the beasts . . . we were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between the forces that made for life and those that made for death . . . love, heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity and creative faith . . . were the essence of life.[1]

Hope found exclusively in the Christian lifestyle of self-sacrifice changes people.  Alastair Gordon reminds us,

Through our readings and discussions we gradually came to know Jesus.  He was one of us.  We understood that the love expressed so supremely in Jesus was . . . other-centred rather than self-centred, greater than all the laws of men.”[2]

“Heart surgery” in the biography of Alistair Gordon moved me.  I want to read books that open my chest, operating on my affections.  George Steiner agrees: “To read great literature as if it had upon us no urgent design . . . is to do little more than make entries in a librarian’s catalog.”  He then quotes a letter from Franz Kafka at twenty years of age:

If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? . . . What we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love . . . A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.[3]

Reading ice-ax books should bust soul-ice.  At some point, a book should knock our socks off.  Tears should flow.  Assumptions must be reexamined; trite thinking trumped by tight thinking.  Discoveries from facets of the diamond of true Truth are obliged to dazzle.  Excitement then prompts others with the call, “Listen to what I just read!”

“Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”[4] Jeremiah 23:23-32 concerns prophets who do not tell the truth.  God says His Book shatters leadership lies which steer His people astray.[5] The indictment reaches a climax: “the burden is every man’s own word, and you pervert the words of the living God.”[6] God says His word, the hammer, will fall.[7]

The Book that breaks rock should break us.  John Stevens, director of the Great Books Program at East Carolina University, wrote a response to some faculty objections against time-honored tomes from Greece and Rome.  His comments about virtue as internal change—“moral education”—are not possible without true Truth from The Book:

One ancient argument suggested that if virtue were easy and pleasant, everyone would be virtuous. Virtue is something that requires effort both to understand and to begin to desire. Moral education seems to come about better from books that require active attention, close comparison of patterns of action, and repeated application of critical judgment; that is, engaged reading and re-reading.[8]

I cannot think of a statement that more resembles a Christian in earnest study of Scripture anxious for its application to life.  Thomas Aquinas implores me from “A Prayer Before Study” under the glass on my desk

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness
into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul
the twofold darkness
into which I was born:
sin and ignorance.

Books worth our attention should be a pick-axe to the frozen sea, our internal sin.  But books that move us are impossible without God’s Book, His Word.  Scripture shattered the culture of a prison camp with the love of Jesus.  That story made me weep to see The Word in action.  If Jesus was astonished to hear the story of one who acted on the authority of His Word,[9] how much more should I read books that swing The Hammer.

Mark owns quite a few books considering how often he needs ax against ice.  Mark Eckel is Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Crossroads Bible College.


[1] Ernest Gordon. 2002. To End All Wars.(Reprint, Zondervan): 103-106.

[2] Ibid. 117-118.  I would plead with Warp and Woof readers to read the book, which explains the interpersonal changes that occurred within the culture of the camp, not well expressed by the film of the same title.

[3] George Steiner. 1984. George Steiner: A Reader. (Oxford): 36.

[4] Jeremiah 23:29.

[5] One of my great concerns for The Church is that we have succumbed to the fallacy that business principles are easily transferred to Christian ministry contexts.  While there are pieces of truth everywhere in creation, imposition of naturalistic business principles to govern Christian thinking is a leadership lie.

[6] Jeremiah 23:36. “My word” is compared to false teaching, 23:16, 17, 18, 22, 28, 29, 30, 36, 38.

[7] Isaiah 9:8.

[8] John Stevens. “Great Ideas Do Not Oppress, They Enlighten.” Clarion Call 10 February 2009. http://www.popecenter.org/clarion_call/article.html?id=2131

[9] Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10.

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  1. I love this for the distinct description it gives concerning the physical affect of God’s Word! Each paragraph shares word images of Scripture changing us emotionally and mentally as well. A beautiful reminder of the depth of God’s love in sending His Spirit to touch our “frozen hearts”.

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