The man who changed my life has died. I never met him and he would not have had the slightest idea that I existed. But he changed my life when I was 19 and I have literally never been the same again.
His name was Chuck Colson, and he was one of President Nixon’s head henchmen. He was nicknamed the Hatchet Man, labelled by colleagues as an evil genuis, and reported to have said he was would “walk over his own grandmother if necessary to get Nixon re-elected”. He was jailed for his role in the Watergate scandal. Not great raw material for a life-changing man.
The story of how Colson changed my life changed actually began with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. I was a cub reporter, fascinated by the scoop to end all scoops – Watergate. I’d watched All the President’s Men more than once. It was, well, complex. Despite the handy catchphrase “follow the money”, I was completely baffled. One Christmas I watched it again and commented to my sister that I still didn’t get it.
“I’ve got a good idea,” she said. “I know a good book about Watergate.” Clever sister.
The book was called Born Again by Charles Colson. It described his journey from crooked ruthless henchman to prison evangelist.
Like many men brought down from glittering height by circumstance or their own folly, Colson despaired. But through conversations with a Christian friend, he embarked on a journey towards faith. OK, so this might have been the political equivalent of there being no atheists in foxholes. If his life hadn’t been disintegrating, perhaps he’d never have written down the simple question “Is there a God?” at the top of a notepad, and never have read CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity. He’d never have been confronted with his own conduct, never have experienced the powerful Hatchet Man being called to account.
As it was, his shattered life turned around. He served his time already a changed man, and devoted the rest of his long life to working with other prisoners.
What I remember most clearly about his book was the description of a God at work, here, now and powerfully. I’d grown up on a wholesome diet of Bible stories, of Jesus doing good stuff, but all of it 2,000 years ago. That wasn’t much use to a teenager trying to change the world in the late 20th century.
Chuck Colson’s book was the first place I read about stuff happening today. To quote the UK’s own dear current Home Secretary Theresa May, he wasn’t making this up. This was real stuff, intelligently told. This was truth, or it was madness. I decided to find out which.
The quest for truth was what had led me into journalism in the first place. At work they still chuckle when I raise the question of whether the facts in a story are true facts. OK, so I know it’s technically tautology, but many statements, plausible and neat, turn out to be only masquerading as facts.
Some truth is very hard to get at. One man’s version of an event will be different from another’s. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, truth is twisted. Truth is a tricky customer.
I became convinced that what Chuck Colson had found was an objective truth. I finally put it to the test, prayed to know this God for myself, and to receive his Holy Spirit. I still remember the overwhelming sense of light exploding in my head, of a life changed, of theoretical objective truth becoming a known fact, and of a theoretical God becoming a known God. I still believe that today, and 30 years of the ebb and flow of life has not changed it.
Here there is truth: central, incontrovertible, objective, embraced by men fallen from high places like Colson and by spotty teenagers like me. I still don’t really get the complexities of Watergate, but I’ve ended up with a much better truth. There may be something about Mary, but there’s something much better about Jesus.