All true readers are shaped by the books they read. (Conversely, all non-readers are similarly shaped by the books they haven’t read.) Some books we read to give us information; others to enjoy. The more sublime a book becomes—whether in form or content—the more impact the book has on us; its impression is indelible. Still, of all the kinds of books we can read, few impact us personally more than biography. In biography we are confronted with the image of an other life; we are brought face to face with a portrait, the prolonged gaze into which causes us to reflect on our own lives. Hence, the best biography always prompts self-reflection. Such a book is Paul Glynn’s A Song for Nagasaki: The Story of Takashi Nagai. It is a profound biographical mirror, the reflection from which challenges us to reevaluate our own lives.
The subtitle of Glynn’s book tells much of the story: Nagai was a Scientist, Convert, and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb. As a Scientist, Nagai grew up in Japan in the first half of the 20th century where he trained to become a doctor, then studied radiology, and helped to pioneer radiological research in Nagasaki. As a convert Nagai exemplifies the observation of C.S. Lewis that “Every story of conversion is the story of a blessed defeat.” Nagai, a young atheist, decided to investigate the claims of Christianity—which he viewed as a very foreign and non-Japanese religion—through the study of Nagasaki’s historic Christian community and the reading of Pascal’s Pensées. Over time he became compelled by the testimony of a loving God Who superintends the world, Whose power is made perfect in human weakness. Nagai is also a survivor of the Atomic Bomb, in the wake of which—already riddled with leukemia because of his radiological research—Nagai stayed in Nagasaki to rebuild, interpret, and provide healing for the citizens of his city for the last years of life. Through his public display of Christian faithfulness and patient endurance Nagai is transformed into a hero for the people of Nagasaki.
Nagai’s life story is fascinating on its own. The story of his conversion gives it depth. But the atomic leveling of Nagasaki—which brought about the death of his wife and many colleagues—renders Nagai’s life sublime. It is his response—patient, trusting, encouraging, and indeed deeply mourning—which sets this life above many others, making it a worthy study and example. He has suffered, yet loves God, yet remains confident in the absolute and unfailing love of God. Nagai writes, “Our lives are of great worth if we accept with good grace the situation that Providence and go on living lovingly” (238). His is no simple faith, but one rich and complex.
Nagai writes “if our lives are spent for the glory of God, then life and death are beautiful” (148). Because of this, the story of a faithful life uniquely enhances the power of biography. As we consider a life in which God has worked, profoundly, we are forced to query our own lives: Have I been faithful like Nagai? Is my faith in God secure? Have I sought to communicate the love of God to my family and coworkers as he did? Will I be able to confront suffering as he did? If my world were to crash down around me, would I respond like him? When other suffering people come to me, do I offer them the comfort and grace of God that Nagai did? No sincere reflection on these questions can bring a bad result, and so I encourage you to gaze long and searchingly into the mirror of Takashi Nagai. See who God is for this man, and ask if He might be such a God for you, too.