Friday, September 08, 2006

Review: Albert Camus and the Minister

"Albert Camus & the Minister" by Howard Mumma (ISBN: 1557252467)

I'm no stranger to reviewing books. I normally find it easy to write a brief one or two assesment of a book. But my feelings about "Albert Camus and the Minister" by Howard Mumma are very complex and I struggle to write a descent review of this book.

The first 90 pages which cover a growing friendship between Camus and Mumma is clearly the most interesting part of the book. The rest is a collection of life experiences that were meaningful to Mumma. These experiences are not dull, but I found them to be a bit disconnected from the first 90 pages. One of the most entertaining points of this book is where Camus asks for baptism, but Mumma rejects it on the grounds that (A) Camus had already been baptised as an infant and (B) he wasn't willing to join the church or make it a public event. He ends up regreting that stand a bit, especially on reflecting on the fact that it was his final meeting with Camus. It was also neat to read about Camus' enthusiasm in studying the Bible.

Mumma holds a view of the Bible which relegates The Fall to allegorical tale and he certainly doesn't have an evangelical view of the inspiration of scripture. While coming from that platform might have made agreement with Camus a bit easier, I believe Mumma would have had some more meaningful answers to Camus' questions if he actually had a view of the Bible which validates using it as an authorative source. In some senses, from a thoroughly evangelical Christian prespective, Mumma wasn't offering Camus something much better than he already had. Sure, Mumma presented some God talk, but did he present the gospel to Camus as something that is "true truth" not just "religious truth"?

I sympathise with the views of other reviewers on Amazon who are quite critical of this book. While I hope and trust Mumma has recorded things accurately, there are a few things which make me wonder. First, some of his recollections (he admits plainly that they are recollections and may not be 100% accurate) portray the conversations as rather simplistic--with most of the dialogs turning out to be more "gentle" and successful from Mumma's perspective than one would expect when an Existentialist and a Christian minister would get together. Second, I don't know enough about Camus to verify it, but some other reviewers bring up interesting comments that Mumma seems to have gotten some of Camus' biographical details wrong. Third, Camus seeking truth is quite believable, but requesting adult baptism? That seems a bit far fetched. As another reviewer noted, it is notable that the accuracy of first 90 pages of the books can not be verified. This problem is further compounded by the fact that Mumma shares that Camus was secretive about it--he requested specifically that his inquiries be kept secret (this make this book a betrayal of sorts).

I will not go to the length to say I think Mumma invented the dialogs (as some reviewers have suggested), but I think I reader should approach it with some caution and be prepared to accept that at the very least some of the dialogs may not have been recorded completely accurately.

So, if you have been following me so far, you should find that my response to this book is both positive and negative. I don't regret having read it, though. The first 90 pages are interesting even if we are to suppose that they are totally fictional. This book might be worth getting if the reviews so far intruige you. I'll just advise you that you shouldn't expect Mumma to be an evangelical nor should you expect any of the recollections in this book to be easily verifiable.

I'm left wondering what would be the outcome if Camus had spent this time with an evangelical (such as Francis Schaeffer or OS Guinness) instead of one who has accepted most of the doctrinal positions of the "liberal" movement.

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