Monday, March 15, 2010

Winston Churchill (review)

Booksneeze is a neat little set-up wherein you (or in this case--I) get free books in return for agreeing to review them. This is my first.

Winston Churchill by John Perry is one of a series of biographies from a specific perspective called "Christian Encounters." As per usual, the biographer in question approaches his subject from a direction--in this case, examining Churchill in terms of his faith.

Unfortunately, that proves tricky. Winston Churchill was a mass of contradictions and his piety was almost the least of these. He certainly believed that religion had its place, not least as a source of comfort and inspiration. But he almost never went to church. He memorized whole passages of the Bible, yet quite clearly declared he didn't believe in its truth. Given the way he himself played fast and loose with the facts in his own written histories, this adds another layer to the irony.

One problem with the book is, frankly, its size. Winston Churchill led an extremely full and complex life. This biography of him has less than 175 pages, including a bibliography. Hardly enough to do the subject anything like justice! Still, the author tries. What follows is a quick precis of a long life, with lots of perfectly fascinating (if incomplete and somewhat slanted) details about background and childhood. Yet at the same time, much of Churchill's life simply does not lend itself to such simplicity. The length of the book simply precludes discussion of complexity. Churchill's depression gets a few paragraphs, roughly a third assigned that to Churchill's marriage and about the same as to the lives of his children (their deaths--including one suicide--are mentioned in passing).

Quite a lot gets left out. How could it not? One thing sacrificed is nuance. Another, frankly, is anything like a real understanding of what was going on involving the momentous events through which Churchill lived. Two immediate problems present themselves.

First is that Churchill's faith (at least in the sense of religion) was but one minor facet of a vastly complex personality and life. The author notes some influences upon Churchill as a child and young man, but also cherry picks quotes extensively to give an impression of more-or-less intense if unstated religious belief. It never seems to occur to the author that Churchill's oratory in public (emphasis mine) might represent anything but his own totally candid views. Invoking vastly popular sentiments is the bread and butter of politicians, yet nowhere is this awareness shown--just a taking at face value of any quote than can be interpreted as referred to a theistic idea. Given the (literally) voluminous quantity of Churchill's writing and speaking, one feels a clearer expression of the words Mr. Perry tries to put in his subject's mouth would have been available.

Second, given the focus of this biography, it is remarkably how little serious discussion is given religion, faith or Christianity--much less other religions and their adherents who form part of the narrative of Churchill's life. Other than a vague question of life-after-death and a belief in destiny (the latter pretty clearly an expression of a brilliant man's ego) the ideas of Christianity are left essentially unmentioned. The conflict between Protestants and Catholicsin Ireland is touched upon, but nothing more.

The Muslims Churchill condemned in his early writing as a journalist get more wordage, but (as per usual) their role as an "enemy" and "savage" is never questioned, just as General "Chinese" Gordon's virtue is presumed because he had been a missionary. His death is battle is openly called a murder while the desecration of a Muslim leader's grave is dubbed bad form. If the author meant to simply convey the ideas prevalent at the time, he failed. Too little of that era is brought to life, merely dry if well-composed explanations of a certain surface details. Gandhi and India virtually go unmentioned. Ditto the Holocaust!

Granted, trying to tell a life like that of Winston Churchill in under 175 pages is balking task. Also, I understand the author was using a specific approach to the subject matter. But at the end of the book, I'm left with no more insight--however small--than I had before. Not about faith, about Christianity, nor about Churchill himself.

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