In the New College at Edinburgh in 1934, young divinity students stimulated themselves by turning over old and new ideas: Calvinism, Barthianism, the role of the body of Christ in the world, the form of the liturgy, the purpose of missions—in other words, the same issues that, mutatis mutandis, have sparked theological discussions since the Church became Resh. At the same time that these earnest young ministers to be were absorbing themselves in the finer point of good Scots Presbyterian doctrine, another group of youths seek ing to found a new order based on less ancient assumptions were playing lurid pranks on some of their countrymen and singing drinking songs which, how ever similar musically to those of their fathers, contained lyrics proclaiming a bright future in which “Jewish blood would run in the gutters.” These two groups, so symbolic of the clash of ideas in the 20th century, have at least one common denominator: David H. C. Read, now pastor of Madison- Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, witnessed both. He has recorded his impressions of the surrounding events in his autobiographical This Grace Given.

One of the problems with contemporary religious books is that their authors frequently yield to the temptation to make inspirational mountains out of molehills. Because our communion with God involves the highest faculty of the soul, writings concerning that relationship ought to record nothing less than our sublimest thoughts and greatest wisdom. They rarely do. Show me a man who has perused more good than bad “inspirational” biographies, and I’ll show you a man without discernment.

Happily, This Grace Given avoids the pitfalls that make unreadable so many of the equally sincere but inferior efforts of other writers. One reason is Read himself. As a man, he emerges from these pages wise, modest, and all in all delightful. It may be true that a saint cannot hope to compete with a sinner in the memoirs market (Xaviera Hollander sells better than St. Francis Xavier); yet Read is still impressive and, well, readable.

Second, Read’s experiences are interesting. The book begins pleasantly enough with the author chronicling his Scottish ancestry and his only occasion ally fitful pilgrimage towards the faith of his fathers. These are lovely chapters depicting a happier world than ours in which one senses Read would have been content to spend his days uninterrupted.

That was not to be. After his theological studies at Marburg and other Euro pean universities and a brief tenure as minister of the Kirk at Coldstream and Edinburgh, Read joined the army as a chaplain and took part in the disastrous retreat at Dunkirk. Not among the quarter of a million who escaped, he was captured on the beach near St. Valery and spent the next five years in a series of prisoner-of-war camps.

It would be difficult to convey here the richness of Read’s account of these years in confinement. Yet for me, certain incidents—some comic, others tragic, all poignant—stand out and reveal both the times and the nature of the men who lived through them. One involves an English officer who, be cause he contemptuously threw away a dish of baked beans served for breakfast the morning before his capture, was doomed to hungrily contemplate them for the duration—a minor crucifixion. Many passages tell of the humanity of those among the enemy who shared Read’s faith. One of the most memorable is of a young German soldier laconically telling Read after his capture, “Your days are over. The Church is finished. We are in a new world.” (How many times throughout the centuries have “progressives” said this?) These are events the court historians overlook or discard as trivial but which tell more about the men who make history than more notable occurrences.

What emerges most from this short, unpretentious, yet remarkably wise little book is that men stripped of every thing can either surrender to despair or rise out of their anguish and boredom to discover “the unfathomable riches of Christ.” That so many men, often in spite of themselves, come away from such experiences spiritually richer in stead of poorer suggests something that the saints have always known: that all “new worlds” must sooner or later weaken and crumble in the face of God. 


[This Grace Given, by David H. C. Read; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans]