Thursday, August 9, 2012

Book Review: Letters from the Front, Edited by Barry Waugh

It's a struggle for me to review Letters from the Front in a lot of ways. J. Gresham Machen is a hero of mine, and as a theologian I have the highest regard for him. When I came to this book, I had decided that in some ways, all he was was a theologian, and so my expectations for this book were skewed from the very beginning. Instead of a mere theologian, what I found in these pages was a more robust picture of a man, and I felt chided for seeing my heroes as being so two-dimensional.

First of all, it must be acknowledge that what Barry Waugh has done in giving us this book is nothing short of a feat. This book is the result of literally years of Dr. Waugh sitting down one letter at a time and copying them from the correspondence which Machen had saved for posterity's sake. As is explained in the introduction, it was not always the easiest thing for Waugh to do this, in terms of transcription of difficult words and the complexities of the whole process. In terms of the work put into this, we should all be grateful. These documents indeed provide a fuller picture of the life of Machen during World War I when he served in France as part of the YMCA. Readers will find much of interest in these letters. There are also interesting photographs of Machen, his family, and YMCA facilities similar to those Machen would have been living in and around during the penning of these letters.

Readers may perceive that there is a "but" coming. And indeed it is true. BUT if you are reading this book expecting to see a tremendous amount of theological reflection, of struggling over the problem of evil, reflecting upon the practicalities of his theology, you will be disappointed for the most part. At best you will find that Machen was a very caring person and that he cared for the spiritual well-beign of the men around him. This is important - Machen was not just a detached observer in the war, but a prayerful, thoughtful, and pastoral individual. When tempering our expectations, it is helpful to recall that these letters were written for Machen's family (most of them are written to his mother) so that they could understand what he was going through, who he was meeting, and simply what was going on. You get a fascinating look of what it was like for him to live near the frontlines. We hear the occasional discussion of hearing gunfire in the distance and talk about his frustrations with some of the people he meets on a day-to-day basis, but this is not a theology book. It is more a document which later historians will find of great assistance when they come to fully sketch out the life of Machen. I have nothing bad to say about the book, I just wish I had gone into it with different expectations.

[Full Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review purposes. However, I was not required by them to give the book a good review.]

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