CHARLES W. COLSON: A LIFE REDEEMED
By Jonathan Aitken
Doubleday, $24.95, 436 pages
REVIEWED BY WILLIAM MURCHISON
One just might possibly reason that a couple of ex-cons have done pretty well for themselves out of their respective stretches in the Big House: fame and attention, praise and prizes. About all one would miss by reasoning thus is the entire point of this engrossing and emotionally stirring book. That point is nothing less than redemption, as in the pointed subtitle, “A Life Redeemed.” Redeemed; refurbished; lifted from the trash; pounded back into shape through the majesty and grace of God.
Author Jonathan Aitken, who in the 1990s was a British Conservative M.P. of, shall we say, morally flexible outlook, went to prison for perjury in a libel case he had filed against The Guardian. Behind bars he experienced religious awakening of a sort familiar to Americans who over three decades have seen the bounteous good works springing from the ruins of Charles W. Colson’s old life.
If Mr. Aitken’s works as a Christian writer and speaker do not yet approach the feats associated with Mr. Colson’s redemption, that is mostly because those feats, over three decades, have been so stunning. Who’d have thought it from a political operator famous for having pledged, allegedly at least, to walk over his grandmother on behalf of Richard Nixon? Released from prison, he conceives — with divine inspiration, as he understands it — the concept of a Christian ministry to prisoners. The Colson narrative, like the story of Prison Fellowship, is extraordinary in its depth and compass. Who, I am wondering, might have brought it off so well as a fellow ex-con, himself reborn in the spirit after a hard, painful fall from power; an ex-con conversant with the terrors and challenges of imprisonment, the horrors and humiliations?
To write such a book as this you might not want someone who had kept his nose clean amid the manifold temptations made armed and unusually dangerous by the possession of great power. These two men, Mr. Colson and Mr. Aitken — rather like one of Mr. Colson’s heroes, C. S. Lewis — know sin from the inside out. You can’t kid a kidder, or a truly repentant sinner either.
Mr. Aitken’s biography of his friend and inspiration is sheer tonic in an age of, to put it as kindly as possible, moral ambiguity. About Charles Colson, hardest of hardball players during the Nixon administration, ensnared for his less-than-intimate connection to a pre-Watergate dirty trick, there isn’t the slightest taint of ambiguity. He swallowed his medicine — with retrospective, Solzhenitsyn-like gratitude — then heard the call of a God he had barely acknowledged prior to the onset of his miseries. A God who amid those same miseries comforted and inspired him.
The Lord, he found, was telling him to take this understanding, this wisdom, this compassion gained in prison and minister in his name to the offscourings of society. Mr. Colson wrote to his friend “Dusty” Rhodes: “If God chose to come to earth to suffer and know us as brothers, maybe God’s plan for me was to be in prison and to know men in here as a brother.” From which inspiration grew “the beginning of a revelation that I was being given a prison ministry, both inside while serving as a prisoner, and then someday on the outside.”
Thirty years later, in 2005, Prison Fellowship was touching daily the lives of hundreds of thousands of prisoners through the most direct forms of connection available under a system dedicated, understandably, to isolating its clients from the world. National versions of Prison Fellowship also exist in 105 countries. How many prisoners touched by Prison Fellowship could be called well and truly “saved?” For Mr. Colson the point lies elsewhere beyond the head counts beloved of so many ministries. He believes his representatives — none of whom works harder than the boss himself — are changing heads and hearts. The tallying of the harvest— that would be the Lord’s business.
Not the least or lowest of Mr. Colson’s present passions is “worldview” — the persuasive idea that truly effective ministry must concern cultural change. A people living consciously in imitation of Christ would be a society with fewer of the dysfunctions that inspire the witness of Prison Fellowship. Worldview, which targets those outside as well as those inside prison, has in recent years brought the Baptist Colson into alignment with allies — Catholics — he understands as sharing the same spiritual commitment, the same outlook, as himself, for which he has taken some grief from fundamentalists. He has moved ahead, undeflected in purpose.
At the start of the Colson journey, people could scarcely believe their eyes. Chuck Colson? Huh? It has ever been thus with sincere repentance. Various skeptics relentlessly question the authenticity of conversions born of disaster. (As if conversions born of prosperity were somehow more usual and more persuasive.) A new life? Tell me another one. Maybe you don’t have to after 30 years of grimy sacrificial ministry, highlighted by warm testimonies from the ministered-to, attested formally by the Templeton Prize for religion.
The Colson story, as Mr. Aitken relates it, fascinates greatly: Brash, hard-driving, hard-drinking, chain-smoking control freak with I.Q. of 159 pursues power and influence all the way to the top; becomes a son to his boss, Richard Nixon. And, naked to his enemies, tumbles, gropes, rises, without — here is the element in Mr. Aitken’s narrative I find most persuasive — becoming another person. Born again — yes. Remodeled from top to bottom — ah, not entirely.
The Colson-ness of Mr. Colson persists in the midst of regeneration: the genius for organization, the awesome energy, the optimism, the lesser vices like chain-smoking, the propensity to control every project on which he works. And yet at the center, where it counts, everything is new, precisely as Mr. Colson’s savior promised with his offers of refreshment and grace. In the early ‘60s, Chuck Colson had remarked, “Oh, I think religion is fine, provided one has as little of it as possible.” How times change. And the people to whom God calls.
William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.