STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/14/2015

An Examined Faith

“Perhaps it’s fair to suggest that lurking beneath the surface of our writing is a conviction that the unexamined faith is not worth believing.” 
—Rudy Nelson ’48B

By Wendy Murray

Rudy and Shirley Nelson have been telling stories of spiritual struggle for decades, in books and films that have earned literary acclaim in mainstream as well as evangelical publishing. They have produced solo and joint projects over the 67 years since their graduation from Providence Bible Institute, which later became Barrington College. Both taught at Barrington from 1957 to 1967: Rudy built and chaired the English Department, and Shirley taught creative writing and freshman composition. Their most recent collaboration, the 2014 novel The Risk of Returning (Wipf and Stock), explores what happens when a 40-year-old former missionary kid returns to Guatemala in 1987, hoping to solve the mystery of his father’s disappearance.

Rudy, inspired by his first visit to Central America, began the book alone. While teaching English at the University at Albany, he completed a draft. But he felt unsatisfied, and invited Shirley into the process. “My intention was not to change the story, which in my eyes had tremendous worth,” she says. “I figured I would just fiddle around with it a little—maybe change the point of view, and see what happened, then hand it back. But he didn’t want it back. So I adopted it, though in my mind it remained fully his as much as mine.”

An early project for Rudy was his stint on the production staff of the 1958 horror classic The Blob, in which Steve McQueen made his acting debut. Before joining the faculty at Barrington, the Nelsons worked for Valley Forge Films in Pennsylvania and lived where the movie was being shot. “Our memories of that summer have been playful,” Rudy says. “If our kids felt the need to boost their status among peers in the ’hood, they would let it be known that their father worked on The Blob and their mother bawled out Steve McQueen for waking up children with his motorcycle between the takes of night-time scenes.”

More sober theological reflections are evident in Rudy’s 1987 “intellectual biography,” The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind: The Case of Edward Carnell (Cambridge University Press). Carnell was a major figure in the mid-20th century “New Evangelicalism” with which Rudy’s own life resonates. Carnell’s life trajectory began in the context of evangelical convention, as the son of a Midwestern fundamentalist pastor. He studied at Wheaton College and Westminster Theological Seminary. But in time, Carnell moved into a different intellectual sphere, getting a Th.D.from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Boston University in successive years. (He taught for a time at Gordon while in graduate school in Boston.) Carnell was ultimately hired by the fledgling Fuller Theological Seminary, where he enjoyed a successful career as a teacher and scholar, and eventually became Fuller’s president.

Rudy found that writing about Carnell’s move away from fundamentalism gave expression to his own faith struggles.“Writing The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind liberated me from the tyranny of theological concerns and opened a wider sense of what Christianfaith means and makes possible.” He likens his faith journey to psychologist Ernest Schachtel’s statement that “to be human is to be forever on the road between embeddedness and emergence from embeddedness.” Part of growing up, says Rudy, is to emerge from embeddedness. “I’ve found it to be a life-long process.”

Shirley’s faith journey found its own literary expression, but from an altogether different starting point. Her parents grew up at the beginning of the 20th century as members of an apocalyptic religious community in southern Maine called Shiloh, run by the evangelist Frank Weston Sandford. They defected (independently), perceiving the cult to be a manifestation of “controlling religious extremism.” While Shirley never lived in the cult, her childhood was colored by its impact on her parents’ lives and sensibilities. “From the earliest time I can remember, Shiloh was talked about in our house both with anger and humor, and also with affection for many of the other defectors, whose names I heard repeatedly.” Shirley’s father lived out his days trying to write about the experience, and self-published his writing at the age of 89, six months before he passed away. 

The Last Year of the War (Harper and Row, 1978), Shirley’s first book, is a novel about a young woman’s dark night of the soul at a fictionalized Moody Bible Institute in 1944–45. According to the Virginia Quarterly Review, “Though the topic [fundamentalism] has always fascinated American writers, such recent novels as Joyce Carol Oates’ Son of the Morning and Shirley Nelson’s The Last Year of the War give it a serious rather than a merely satirical place in American religious life.” 

Last Year contains some oblique references to a Shiloh-like place, themes that Shirley developed more fully a decade later in her nonfiction book about Shiloh: Fair Clear and Terrible: The Story of Shiloh, Maine (British American Publishing, 1989). Notre Dame historian Mark Noll was among the reviewers who praised it; he deemed the book “as compelling a narrative as it is instructive in faith.”

In recent decades the Nelsons have turned their attention to Central America. In 2003 they completed a full-length documentary on the church’s role in war and peace in Guatemala, a project funded in large part by the U.S. Institute of Peace. In the novel they published last year, The Risk of Returning, they explore those political and moral concerns.

Clearly, the Nelsons have summoned various literary frameworks for exploring the problems of living out a faith in today’s ever-changing world. Fiction, they agree, is the trickiest genre. While they believe fiction in its various forms can be a powerful vehicle for carrying the weight of religious faith, they know it can be easily cheapened by shallow romanticism, burdened with theological lingo, or climaxed by a pro forma conversion. They long ago rejected the notion of a “Christian novel” or any “Christian” form of art. They prefer what the poet Christian Wyman has said in his book Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet: “Indeed, life shatters all abstractions . . . including words such as faith or belief.”

The Nelsons continue to develop projects and are part of the Chrysostom Society of Writers, among the ranks of Madeleine L’Engle, Luci Shaw and Richard Foster, writers whose work is faith oriented but “distinguished by honesty about the human condition, not mere religiosity.”

In addition to their writing, they enjoy the presence of their three children, and their grandchildren, all of whom live within a 100-mile radius of Shirley and Rudy’s home in Massachusetts. 

Editor's noteThe Last Year of the WarFair Clear and Terrible: The Story of Shiloh, Maine; and The Risk of Returning are available at or The Risk of Returning is also available at the Gordon College Bookstore. 


Wendy Murray, whose work has appeared in periodicals including Time, The Christian Century and Books & Culture, is the author of 10 nonfiction books and a novel. She is a former Gordon College writer-in-residence. She also blogs at Poets & Lunatics.