LES: Kevin, what did you learn from the process of writing Miraculous?
KB: There are so many things, but one recurring theme keeps coming back in all the interviews I’ve had about the book. It’s this: somehow or other, we seem to have the notion that miracles are far removed from our daily experience. And perhaps the great temptation here is to think only of one-time partings of the Red Sea, miracles of the Cecil B. DeMille, Technicolor, Ten Commandments variety.
But we need to step back from that kind of thinking, for miracles are far closer than we think. Consider, for example, those who are Christians, those who are in the family of faith. Every time we meet another believer, we meet someone who has experienced a transformation of heart that only God can bring about.
Warren Wiersbe has put it this way: “the miracle of salvation has to be the greatest miracle of all, for it meets the greatest need, brings the greatest results (and they last forever), and cost the greatest price.” Look at the writings of other great saints, people like William Wilberforce and John Newton. Both men use the same language—speaking of a conversion, or coming to faith, as a “miracle of mercy.”
If these things are true, and they are, then every time believers meet, they’re in the presence of miracles—divinely wrought transformations of heart.
Stop for a minute, and connect those dots. It’s really rather staggering. And suffice it to say, reflecting on this for even a few moments brings the reality of miracles much closer to our daily lives.
KB: The chapter on D.L. Moody has a special place for me. Were it not for a miraculous deliverance from a near disaster at sea in November 1892, millions would not have heard the gospel during the great The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. D.L. Moody and 700 other souls would have perished, and no one would have been there in Chicago to spearhead that great mission to the heart of a city.
What’s more, just a few weeks ago I was visiting with Dave Powell, Mr. Moody’s great-grandson. He reminded me that his Irish grandfather, A.P. Fitt, came to America and married Mr. Moody’s daughter, Emma, because of the World’s Fair. A.P. Fitt was then Mr. Moody’s travelling secretary and personal assistant.
As Dave spoke, it dawned on me that if Moody had died at sea in 1892, A.P. Fitt would never have come over in 1893. I wouldn’t have been sitting there talking to Dave Powell were it not for a miracle arising from Moody’s prayer for deliverance. I said as much to Dave, and we were quiet for several moments, marveling over that. A miracle had suddenly come very near.
KB: So many, myself included, know and cherish C.S. Lewis’s book, Miracles. But I’ve often thought that perhaps the miracle most dear to him was the one that took place in his wife Joy’s healing of cancer.
Many know the book Miracles well. I thought that readers might like to know Joy’s story better. She was such a remarkable woman, and the story of how God drew her to Himself, from atheism to vibrant faith, is one I find myself returning to again and again. As I wrote that chapter, I kept hearing the words of George Matheson’s beautiful hymn. I used lines from that hymn for the epigraph for the chapter. It seemed so appropriate, in so many ways—
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
LES: One of the moments that lingers in my heart from our experiences at Oxbridge in 2011 is when you went up and sang Amazing Grace with Steve Bell. That moment so beautifully captured some of the power and wonder that is created with that extraordinary gathering. I have written recently about the remarkable collaboration between Malcolm Guite and Steve Bell and the friendship that emerged from their meeting at Oxbridge. You and Steve also have an interesting tale to tell about your meeting there and Steve penned one of the testimonials on the book jacket for Miraculous. Would you tell us about how you two became acquainted and what has developed from that?
KB: Singing with Steve was a highlight of Oxbridge for me, the more so, because it wasn’t originally part of what was planned for the night when I was slated to give my keynote talk about William Wilberforce and my work as lead script and historical consultant for the film, “Amazing Grace.”
As originally planned, I was to be a co-presenter with my cherished friend Mike Flaherty, the President of Walden Media. Mike and I had worked very closely throughout the making of the film, especially in reviewing and suggesting revisions for the script. The idea was for us to talk about the creation of the film, the power of great stories, and the making of films based upon them more generally. And if that had indeed taken place, I know the evening would have been a very special one. Mike and I had selected clips from the film, and we would have talked about them–and what went into them. I was really looking forward to that.
But, as is so often the case, things don’t always go as planned. Mike sustained a very painful back injury just prior to flying over from the US to be a part of that evening at Great St. Mary’s in Cambridge. So, with little more than a few hours’ notice, a Plan B had to be organized. A program had to be created in Mike’s absence.
Straightaway, I thought of Steve, whom I’d already met and shared a breakfast with one morning. I can still remember seeking him out, then asking him: “Can I call in a favor?” I quickly told him of Mike’s accident, and how we needed to find something special to do in his absence. I told Steve about Chris Tomlin’s stirring new arrangement of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” and the role I’d played in that song being brought to Chris to record as part of the album, “Music Inspired by the Motion Picture, Amazing Grace,” which has songs from other noted artists like Steven Curtis Chapman, Nicole Nordeman, and Martina McBride, among others.
Right away, Steve showed his ever-present kindness by saying he’d do all he could to help. Yes, he said, he’d be happy to sing a new song to make the evening of my talk special.
So there, in his hotel room, we downloaded the song from iTunes, and I began singing the song with Steve to help him learn it. After the first the time through, he said, “You’ve got a great voice–you really should sing this with me.”
So we sang “Amazing Grace” together, before and after my talk, which included the film clips, and Q & A. So many people were kind to say afterwards how much those moments of singing meant to them. And that, I think, is a powerful instance of grace meeting us at our point of need. No one wished more than me for Mike Flaherty to have been there. But he couldn’t be, God did something very special in Mike’s absence.
From where Steve and I stood, hearing everyone sing, knowing the joy of performing together–it was something I’ll always treasure. And, as I say, it speaks volumes for kind of generous, incredibly thoughtful friend Steve is.
For the rest of our time there at Oxbridge, we shared meals together, and walks, talking about music, art, and film. Sometimes, we just talked about our families. And at night, during Bag End Cafe we’d hang out, and just enjoy watching all the good things there.
And it was there, at Bag End Cafe on the last night for us all, that Steve and I sang together again. He called it the “second performance of Belmonte and Bell,” and we sang The Beatles’ song, “Yesterday.” Both he and I were blown away by the warmth of everyone’s response, and how everyone just joined right in and sang with us. That makes me think that sometimes, the best friendships can be forged in what seems to be an instant, or a very brief period of time. I bless God for the gift of my friendship with Steve.
Then, making our way home from Oxbridge, Steve and I shared the 2-3 hour bus ride to Heathrow Airport. Again, we hadn’t planned in advance. But since I was going to London to stay with my British book editor for a day or so, I told Steve I’d welcome the company. We road out on the bus, and we had a great time of extended fellowship–all the better for its being unplanned.
Since Oxbridge, we’ve corresponded regularly. I’ve sent him copies of my books, he’s sent me copies of his albums. I listen to his music often when writing and researching my books. His music inspires, and bridges the miles between America and Canada (Steve’s home). And I’m deeply grateful to have recently written a review of Steve fantastic new album, “Keening for the Dawn,” that coincided with its release.
When it comes to the dust jacket commendation that Steve wrote for my new book, “Miraculous,” the story’s as follows. I sent Steve the book in manuscript, and he very kindly read it. I think at the same time he was sending the early demos for “Keening for the Dawn,” so we were writing back and forth about our new projects.
Steve wrote back after reading the book with some wonderful thoughts, really, just exactly what’s there on the back cover of “Miraculous.” I asked him if we could use those thoughts for a commendation, he agreed, and there you have it. It’s a keepsake I treasure, as I do the gift of Steve’s friendship.
LES: Kevin, you have written about several very remarkable historical figures in your writing career. How do you see this book fitting in the family of books that you have already written and how has the writing of it been influenced by those that came before it?
KB: If the other books, on Wilberforce, Chesterton, Moody and Bunyan, might be thought of as a series of single-study portraits, then Miraculous might be likened to a tapestry where many people and events are pictured. All are caught up in the great story God has been telling across all time.
My earlier books have taught me a great deal about the writer’s craft. I hope those things have shaped and enriched Miraculous. I know, for example, that working closely with the screenwriter Steven Knight on Amazing Grace taught me so much about distilling a story down to its essential elements.
And, as I work on each new book, I read other writers, other historians. Their gifts and skills have shaped my journey as a writer. School never lets out. I hope my journey as a writer will always, in the most important ways, be that of a learner.
LES: One of the things I find truly fascinating about you is your connection to so many notable people and how God has moved in such grace-filled ways in your life as He accomplishes His plans for you. One story has particularly lingered with me since we first talked about this last year at Oxbridge. Would you share a bit about the remarkable story of your relationship with Os and Jenny Guinness – particularly Os’ involvement and influence with William Wilberforce: Hero for Humanity? How would you say that experience with your manuscript and Os Guinness’ actions have influenced your writing of Miraculous?
KB: Os and Jenny are very special people, and I treasure the times of fellowship I’ve had with them. Os’s role in my becoming a part of the film, Amazing Grace was absolutely crucial. In the fall of 2000, I’d sent him a manuscript copy of my Wilberforce biography. For many years before that, he’d been a mentor and great encourager of my research into Wilberforce’s life. So I sent him the manuscript with a request for an endorsement.
Os sent along a wonderful commendation, but he did far more. He sent the manuscript I’d given him to Philip Anschutz, CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, the parent company of Walden Media, the firm that produced the Narnia films, and the Oscar-winning film, Ray, among others. Mr. Anschutz read the book, and sent out a letter (that I had no idea was coming), inviting me to become the lead script and historical consultant for a film on the life of William Wilberforce.
That was in early January 2001. One week later, I got another letter, this time from Micheal Flaherty, the President of Walden Media (and now a cherished friend), tendering the same offer. I called Os, wondering where all of this had come from, and he filled me in. So you can see why I owe Os such a great debt, and how God used him in my life.
And it really was extraordinary. Rarely do people have the chance for their book to get published, let alone have a first book result in such an offer from a filmmaking company. But Os’s kindness set in motion a six-year journey for me, and Amazing Grace became a film that’s gone all over the world, telling a deeply important story. I treasure Mr. Anschutz’s dust jacket endorsement for my Wilberforce book. Here’s what he wrote:
“With the power of oratory, the conviction of belief, and the relentless pursuit of that which was noble and right, William Wilberforce helped transform pre-Victorian England and change the world. Kevin Belmonte has captured it all in this wonderfully readable and inspiring work.”
As things relate to Miraculous, Os’s books have had a great influence on me, teaching me, and so many others, what it means to think Christianly about the world. If we would be salt and light in our culture, if we would bring the best things of faith to bear on the lives we live before a watching world, Os’s books are among the best books written about those things.
LES: You are sending out a very real part of yourself and your concerted labours into the wide world. What is your hope for this book?
KB: Christians walk a journey of faith. Others are wondering just what a journey of faith might be, what it might look like. Each day, I pray that seekers will find faith through their reading of this book, and that those already in the family of faith might find their journey is enriched through their reading of Miraculous. Should those things happen, I can’t think of anything better. That’s the hope.
My hearty thanks to Kevin Belmonte for the rich legacy he has already provided his readers in thoughtful, engaging biographies and this wonderful new work.
I look forward to many more. For more information about Kevin Belmonte and his work click here.
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.