Dramatic conversions happen. F.F. Bruce, the noted New Testament scholar, is not alone in insisting that no one can understand Paul of Tarsus without considering his experience on the road to Damascus. And whether you believe, as Christians do, that he there met the resurrected Christ or not, all admit that he was not the same man afterward: Saul the Pharisee had become Paul the Apostle. He and twelve other men turned the world upside down. In some ways, Colson reminds me of Paul. As one of Nixon’s devious minions, Colson was a Machiavellian power seeker. His only god was getting to the top. Then something happened. His world came crashing down. Conversion, conviction, incarceration. And his witness stood. Since those post- Watergate days, his Prison Fellowship has gone quietly on its way serving the sociopath lepers of our prisons.
Devotional literature is seldom discussed at cocktail parties; nor is it common to find books of Christian exhortation discussed in “official” America. God, after all, is a leper also. One TV interviewer told Colson seconds before airtime: “We’ll talk today only about prisons; it’s against station policy to mention God on the air.” Controversial issues like sex-change operations, bestiality, and the Supreme Being should be left to professionals like Phil Donahue. Colson didn’t listen: He preached Christ.
That is why most leaders of modern culture will regard Who Speaks For God? with indifference, if not hostility. Solzhenitsyn’s pronouncements on Western decadence now elicit similar responses among the chic, while Mother Teresa’s attacks on abortion are tolerated with respectful bemusement. Prophets are fun to listen to at first; then as their relentless truth hammers at our sins, they become an embarrassment. Colson, the ex-Watergater, full of mea culpas, always got press; Colson, the prison minister who preaches sin, redemption, and life in Christ, is a pariah. He has gone beyond entertainment; now he’s “meddlin’.”
Colson is not easily classified. He is a well-educated lawyer, a man whose conversion experience came through reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. His writing style is clear, rational, and theologically comprehensible. His fundamental base of knowledge rests on biblical inerrancy—the Protestant equivalent of papal infallibility, and hardly a liberal position. Yet his level of compassion would match any liberal’s, and his commonsense application of the gospel would please any Fundamentalist. He is the evangelical man for all seasons whose work in word and deed compels us to listen whether he is speaking of AIDS or prison reform, balanced budgets or personal forgiveness.
Colson’s wholesale denunciation of success theology—the Evangelical sellout to the values of the dollar and the tube—is a refreshing sign of spiritual vigor. The older success theology used to count souls; the new one counts votes, mailing lists, Nielson ratings, and war chests. In contrast, Colson champions the orthodox theology of obedience. Success in the Kingdom of Heaven may well require failure in the kingdom of men. Augustine said the same.
[Who Speaks For God?, by Charles Colson; Westchester, IL: Crossway]