Colson’s main testimony is found in Born Again, but there is also a sequel, Life Sentence, which narrates the origins of the international Prison Fellowship ministry.
Colson became well-known and indeed notorious as Richard Nixon’s right-hand man in the period prior to the great Watergate scandal of the early 70’s. Time magazine described him as ‘tough, wily, nasty and tenaciously loyal to Richard Nixon’; he was supposed to have said that he would run over his grandmother if necessary to get Nixon elected. We might suppose from his high office that he was a very competent person, and this competency comes through in his excellent writing.
Colson’s background was that of a very proud American, son of Swedish immigrants. He followed his lawyer father into the legal profession, turning down, in pride, a scholarship to Harvard along the way and then joining the Marines. He had always been involved in politics, learned a lot of dirty tricks along the way, met Nixon and became influential with him, and of course it is here that the story becomes particularly interesting, because Colson details some of the workings of the White House and the personalities of those around the Nixon presidency, Kissinger and Haig among others. There is also a fascinating account of a diplomatic trip to Moscow.
His personal life was less successful, having been divorced and he leaves a lot of question marks over the raising of his children. He was evidently however a disciplined person with an ability to make and keep friends, but there was little to allay the feeling of emptiness that seemed to grip him shortly after the re-election of Nixon in 1972. He had grown tired of the atmosphere around Washington with its dirty dealing and unpleasantness, but he was unprepared for all that began to emerge about Watergate and Nixon’s evident duplicity; he consistently maintains not to have known anything about the events that brought the presidency down, despite his reputation as the ‘hatchet man’. As the scandal unfolded, Colson one evening visited a friend whose life had evidently greatly changed; the explanation was accepting Christ at a Billy Graham crusade; the friend then read from CS Lewis about the one great sin that none of us think we are guilty of – pride. The words ripped into Colson, leaving him defenceless and open to God. First he had an emotional experience then he set to to examine the intellectual underpinning to this experience reading Lewis’ Mere Christianity and emerged a convinced believer. Truly worth reading – this is a very vivid account!
Coming days saw him involved in fellowship with a group of similar men; this was crucial since life suddenly became a lot more difficult as he was now faced with accusations of complicity in Watergate while he also sought to integrate his new faith into his life as a high profile person. Eventually he was charged with a criminal offence which he had not committed, but his faith led him to plead guilty to something he had not been charged with, but of which he was genuinely guilty. The result was a prison term.
The second half of Born Again chronicles events in prison among a panoply of colourful characters and the often severe testing of his faith but tremendous growth, the critical event being the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. This is not an account which is easy to put down.
After release from prison Colson could not keep away from prison ministry. The need for reform that he had experienced first hand (see also the testimony of Mary Forsythe) was more than pressing, it was urgent and with all his contacts and notoriety, Colson was able to establish a ministry which came to reach around the world. The personal side of this is related in Life Sentence; it is the establishment of good relationships, of friendship, which shines through so much of what Colson says.
In conclusion the two books, Born Again and Life Sentence, are very much to be recommended, though I cannot personally say the same for his other books. Their interest lies in part in the context of politics and statesmanship and in part in the vividly described personal experience. Classic testimony and a must read!