Tuesday, August 09, 2005


"The Crucible of Disgrace" ...A book review of "Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed" by Jonathon Aitkin

A new biography of Charles Colson shows a flawed and gifted man.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby

Charles W. Colson

Charles W. Colson:
A Life Redeemed

by Jonathan Aitken
WaterBrook Press
CAN or U.S.

"Almost 30 years after Watergate, former FBI official Mark Felt (aka "Deep Throat") brought the story back to the headlines. In June he admitted he leaked information that instigated the downfall of President Richard Nixon and members of Nixon's executive team. Among these men was special counsel to the President, Charles Colson. This bodes well for the July book release Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed.

"Most biographies penned about evangelical church leaders tend toward hagiography; critics found fault with John Perry's generous portrait in Charles Colson (2003) for this very reason. However, in Jonathan Aitken's surprisingly frank, richly detailed offering, Colson (a Christianity Today columnist) is portrayed both pre- and post-conversion as a gifted but flawed man.

"As a study in contrasts, Colson's story makes for an absorbing read. By turns Aitken describes Colson before his conversion as hard-drinking, chain-smoking, loyal, ruthless, heavy-handed, smart, dirty-dealing, an advocate for the underdog, anxious, aggressive, shy, cocky, impatient, micromanaging, driven, and the purveyor of practical jokes. Aitken's research included more than 200 hours of interviews and access to personal letters, papers, and taped conversations. The prose is vivid, and Aitken avoids becoming bogged down in minutiae. His is a very readable narrative.

"To understand Colson's polarized characteristics, Aitken looks at Colson's parents, two opposite personalities. Colson's father, Wendell, was a hard-working lawyer who modeled diligence, academic achievement, and patriotism—and a love for practical jokes. He also found time to do pro bono legal work on behalf of Massachusetts prisoners. Colson's aptly named mother, Dizzy, was a prolific spender who had a flair for the eccentric (once she arrived at the White House clad in only her underwear and a slip under a light overcoat). Aitken attributes the absence of motherly praise and longing for recognition as possible explanations for Colson's early ambition.

"Almost half the book is devoted to Colson's pre-conversion years. His restlessness comes through, a sense that nothing is quite big enough of a challenge—whether it's seizing control of his high-school newspaper using strong-arm tactics or later climbing the proverbial ladder of success. Those familiar with Colson's autobiography, Born Again, will experience some déjà vu. Aitken writes with the raw language of the Nixon inner circle as he details how Colson masterminded dirty deals and smeared opponents. Colson is described as second only to Nixon as the object of political hatred in the early 1970s: "His reputation, as much as his actions, led to his indictment in 1973 on Watergate-related criminal charges." This led to a short prison term for Colson.

"Aitken characterizes Colson's Watergate involvement as "major in terms of its political immorality, but minor in terms of its criminal illegality" (which some readers may dispute).

By this point in the story, it's evident that Colson's choice of biographer is a brilliant one. Aitken, the author of seven books, including Nixon: A Life, was a Parliament member and cabinet minister in Great Britain. A perjury conviction ended his political career in 1999, and Aitken served a seven-month prison sentence. Few biographers are so empathetically credentialed! (Aitken notes that Colson gave him complete editorial control over the content.)

"Aitken painstakingly unfolds Colson's maturation—his coming to faith, his time in prison, his mania for control (still a problem, Aitken shows), a few relapses into the "old Colson," his early flirtation with becoming a Christian celebrity. Aitken even tells of a dubious maneuver in which Colson plants supporters in an awards program, resulting in a standing ovation for himself. Perhaps the most poignant contrast in the book is seeing the impatient, controlling Colson grow through a tender relationship with his autistic grandson, Max, who forces Colson to slow down and make someone else's timetable a priority.

"Colson's track record as husband and father is another study in contrasts. After his single-minded pursuit, loyal courtship, and marriage to his first wife, Nancy Billings, Aitken chronicles how Colson later left her and three small children to marry Patty Hughes, his wife of now more than 40 years. Aitken writes that Colson now is firmly against divorce, and sees his divorce as one of the worst sins he committed as an unbeliever, calling it "the unhappiest and least attractive part of my life." As a father, Colson's workaholism kept him mostly absent from his young children's lives. He tried to compensate by spending time with them during their teen years.

"Aitken doesn't sidestep Colson's ministry clashes. He includes a near disaster with prison chaplains in 1976, the departure of CEO Gordon Loux, and the unflatteringly portrayed role coauthor Nancy Pearcey played in the dissolution of her and Colson's writing partnership several years ago.

"Despite these troubles and others, Aitken notes Colson's considerable accomplishments. He founded Prison Fellowship in 1976 and has visited more than 800 prisons in 40 countries. Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree ministry distributes 600,000 Christmas gifts a year to the children of prisoners. Operation Starting Line aims to bring the gospel to all prison inmates in America over the next decade. The "Centurions" educate handpicked leaders on worldview issues (a relatively new Colson passion). BreakPoint, Colson's 15-year-old daily radio program, is carried by more than 1,000 radio stations, and he's penned 23 books with sales of 10 million copies worldwide. In 1993, Colson won the Templeton Prize for progress in religion. He's also made ecumenical strides, helping launch the controversial theological discussion group Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which Aitken maintains may be one of Colson's "most enduring achievements."

"It's an impressive list. But perhaps the biggest contrast in Colson's life is that, like so many great leaders, these successes were forged in the crucible of disgrace, difficulty, and defeat. As Colson says, "Without being stripped and broken, I could not have gone out and served Christ in the way that happened." Aitken's account of Colson's journey will remind readers of Christ's transforming, life-changing power—a contrast of his grace in light of our sinfulness. Good news for us all."

Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today.

Cindy Crosby is an author and book reviewer for Publishers Weekly.

This article first appeared in the August 2005 issue of "Christianity Today" (Vol. 49, No. 8, Page 69) as reported in "CT Direct" a publication of sister organization "ChristianityToday.com". Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188.

It sounds like this new book will be a terrific read. I'm waiting for it now.

Now It's Your Turn!: If you already have read the book or choose to do so , please let me know what you think and how you feel about it. (My 'Comment Section', in which you can share anonymously, will open to you when you click on "Comments" immediately below this post.)

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