Cross In The Dirt Update
Some loose ends. Chuck Colson's office say they simply don't know where the original source for the Solzhenitsyn story was, and have reviewed notes and manuscript of the book and come up empty. They're still looking into it. But Factcheck.org have uncovered two Billy Graham broadcasts that put the story out there in 1975 and 1976. Here's Billy Graham on September 3, 1975:
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was over here recently, remember? And he toured around the country. And he told a little story that everybody ought to hear, if you didn’t hear it. He said when he was in that prison for so long there came one time, and one time only, when he thought of suicide. He said he was not allowed ever to speak to his cell-mate. For weeks on end, they could not speak to each other. And he said that his cell-mate saw him growing weaker and weaker and more depressed and more discouraged all the time. And he said his cell-mate took a little stick and in the sand, or the dirt, in the cell, he drew a picture of the Cross. And Solzhenitsyn said, “At that moment, the whole purpose of my existence dawned upon me. Because,” he said, “I realized that Jesus Christ shed His blood for me on that Cross.” And he said, “That gave me the courage to live through my imprisonment.
Who knows if Solzhenitsyn told this story to Graham personally, or whether it somehow entered the ether another way, or whether a story simply got embellished or transferred from one prisoner to another? It's nowhere in any of Solzhenitsyn's writings, as far as all the scholars know. It's probably invented, or has some kernel of truth only to be turned into a parable perfect for sermons and inspirational books. For Graham's purposes, it's an evangelizing tool. Some subsequent versions of the story in this vein add details such as this:
"Would you believe, three days later, without any warning, he was released from that prison?"
We're not in the universe of fact-gathering here. It's worth noting, however, that no other story shows up on Google or Nexis with all these elements combined - the prison camp, the prisoner, the cross-in-the-dirt, the moment of redemption - apart from the Graham-Helms-Colson parable and the Mark Salter hagiography.
As Factcheck points out, "in a world where there are hundreds of millions of Christians, we see no reason to believe that both the McCain story and the one attributed to Solzhenitsyn can't both be true." Yes, but it's one hell of a coincidence that there's no story with these elements that can be found before Colson's 1983 book, and none after except the Salter/McCain story.
The difference between the stories, of course, is that McCain shifts the protagonist from a fellow prisoner to a guard. This is quite striking - and transforms the nature of the thing. It becomes a story about the common humanity of oppressor and oppressed, rather than solidarity among the victims. It combines the truth of McCain's 1973 account of the humane prison guard who gave him a respite from long-time standing with the uplift of the Graham parable. Put together, it's a very powerful story.
It's also worth pointing out, however, that Christians throughout the ages have used similar drawings in the sand to identify one another, although almost all these stories involve the drawing of a fish, an early Christian symbol. But here's an anecdote from Sudan in 2002, which also contains a drawing of a cross in the sand:
Reminded of a story I once heard about how early Christians recognized each other, I took the stick from him and drew a fish in the sand at our feet. As I pointed to my drawing and looked into his eyes I saw only confusion. He shook his head--the fish meant nothing to him. I drew a cross in the sand. Instantly a smile lit his face and his eyes came alive. He began to nod his head, took my hand and chanted with excitement, "Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ!"
(Cartoon by the great Tom Toles.)