Unbroken: A Review
• Author: Laura Hillenbrand
• Publisher: Random House (2010)
Reviewed By: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., Author of Soul Physicians, Spiritual Friends, Beyond the Suffering, Sacred Friendships, God’s Healing for Life’s Losses, and Equipping Counselors for Your Church. Find all of Bob’s book reviews, blogs, and free resources at RPM Ministries.
Recommended: A compelling tale that brings to life the true story of a forgotten hero. The great storytelling would have been greater had the author captured the true power of grace.
Unbroken tells the true story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner, a WW II veteran, a castaway in the Pacific (for over forty days), a POW (for over two years), and an eventual convert to Christianity (at a 1949 Billy Graham Crusade).
Hillenbrand tells the riveting story in a gripping, page-turning style that is sure to become a movie just as Seabiscuit did. If you want to read a mesmerizing tale of the triumph of the mind over the body, read Unbroken.
Over 90% of the book focuses on Zamperini’s harrowing and almost unbelievable suffering. Very little of the book highlights how, through Christ, Zamperini learned to deal with his past suffering.
For Hillenbrand, Zamperini’s life is a tale of the triumph of the human spirit. However, that’s not how Zamperini himself views it. For his perspective, read his autobiography, Devil at My Heels.
Hillenbrand understands suffering, herself almost totally home-bound due to extreme Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. However, in this book, she does not fully capture the triumph of Christ over sin and suffering, nor the power of regeneration to transform the human soul.
Hillenbrand does depict that although Zamperini endured horrendous physical suffering, upon his return home he was unable to endure the mental anguish. Impotent to handle his past, he turns to alcohol and becomes a bitter, resentful, angry man. Although Hillenbrand shares the account of Zamperini’s encounter with Billy Graham’s preaching, it becomes little more than a “religious revival” rather than a spiritual regeneration.
The human mind may be able to endure inhuman suffering. However, the human spirit cannot overcome the spirit of evil and the dominion of sin. Zamperini’s life is not simply a story of the triumph of the human spirit. It is the story of the triumph of the Holy Spirit.
Martin Luther wrote and counseled about two types of suffering:
• External Suffering: What happens to us—the trials of life.
• Internal Suffering: What happens in us—the trials of our faith.
Internal suffering is the suffering and trial of our faith as we struggle to trust that a good God could allow evil and suffering. Apart from faith in Christ, Louie Zamperini could endure the external suffering, but he was helpless to overcome the internal suffering.
When Hillenbrand recounts Zamperini’s return, decades later, to Japan to meet those who had tortured him, she minimizes and misses the basis, the foundation for Zamperini’s offer of forgiveness. In his account, he preaches a salvation message—noting that he could only forgive because he was forgiven by Christ. He calls his former torturers to come to Christ. In Hillenbrand’s account, it’s little more than a humane offer of forgiveness, rather than a supernatural offer of amazing grace.
Perhaps the more accurate title for the book could have been Broken. Zamperini was broken by the evils he suffered. Even more, he was broken beyond repair by his own sin. He finally came to the realization that he could not fix himself—he did not need repair but regeneration, not self-help but salvation—in Christ alone.
Still, Unbroken is a book well worth reading (along with Devil at My Heels). It remind us of the power of the human spirit, but much more importantly, of the power of the Holy Spirit. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. In Christ, we can overcome sin and suffering.
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