Karen Wright Marsh
InterVarsity Press, 224 pages
Reviewed by Jeff J. Meyers
Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, once quipped: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Karen Wright Marsh’s new book, “Vintage Saints and Sinners,” prevents us from dismissing saints like Day. By portraying them against the backdrop of her own life and ministry, Marsh draws wisdom, encouragement and inspiration from the lives of 25 Christians.
And Marsh knows Christians. As the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Marsh grew up in church – Sunday morning worship, evening youth group, Wednesday fellowship – and now ministers to college students at the University of Virginia as the director of Theological Horizons, the campus ministry community. Her background and ministry uniquely equip her to appreciate the lives of these saints and to translate their experiences for the modern reader. With breezy and conversational prose, Marsh uses humor, confession and personal anecdotes to bring the saints to life. It is no surprise that this book grew out of weekly lunch conversations with undergrads.
Marsh demonstrates an impressive familiarity with a wide range of Christian figures (you probably know of Augustine and Mother Teresa, but have you heard of Aelred of Rievaulx and Juana Ines De La Cruz?), but her real gift is vivifying each. The saints leap off the page as Marsh deftly avoids the one-dimensional Sunday school portrayals of saints too holy and otherworldly to be much earthly good.
The rhythm of Marsh’s book has a devotional quality. Just like the fifth century twins Benedict and Scholastica who fled to the desert to escape the decadence of Rome, we can retreat from the constant din of beeps and buzzing to consider the insights in each vignette. If you’re intimidated at the mention of Benedict’s Rule, Marsh textures her reflection by confessing that she once sneaked out of a monastery retreat to check her phone in the parking lot. Marsh doesn’t want to be dismissed as a saint either.
Moreover, Marsh reminds us that these saints are sinners too. For instance, in her chapter on the popular writer and preacher A.W. Tozer, she celebrates his whole-hearted dedication to pursuing God. But she also shows how singular commitment to one’s personal cause – no matter how “holy” – can lead to unintended suffering for others. Even though he sold millions of books, Tozer left his family in poverty when he died, having donated all the royalties to charity. Marsh’s message is not missed: All saints are sinners as well.
It’s hard to imagine a person reading “Vintage Saints and Sinners” and not resonating with a number of figures in the book (including Marsh herself). Social justice advocates will be drawn to Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton; prayer warriors will find guidance from Soren Kierkegaard and Brother Lawrence; and those who suffer will be encouraged by Amanda Berry Smith and Mary Paik Lee. Each vignette packs enough spiritual insight to keep readers engaged long after they put the book down.
Marsh honors the beauty and goodness of these saints’ lives without allowing us to dismiss them too easily. In so doing, we can appreciate that they are simultaneously saints and sinners – just like us.
Jeff J. Meyers is senior pastor of Roswell Presbyterian Church in Roswell, Georgia.