Volume 1 Number 9
On the Tail of a Comet
01 May 1988

Garth Lean's biography of Frank Buchman (1878 - 1961) is an extraordinary achievement. One marvels, for one thing, at the breadth of research that has been undertaken and at the wealth of facts and details now neatly marshalled in the book's 45 chapters, narrated in crisp, precise language.

Garth Lean’s On the Tail of a Comet-The Life of Frank Buchman (Helmers & Howard USA) Frank Buchman: a life (Fount paperbacks, UK)

Garth Lean's biography of Frank Buchman (1878 - 1961) is an extraordinary achievement. One marvels, for one thing, at the breadth of research that has been undertaken and at the wealth of facts and details now neatly marshalled in the book's 45 chapters, narrated in crisp, precise language.

Perhaps even more arresting is the unbending honesty with which this book is written. Biographies usually indulge in some re-touching and beautification - if they are not downright idealizations of their object and thus rather useless. Lean `tells it as it was', to the extent that the reader can even sometimes feel a little alienated from the person depicted. But Lean does this on purpose: `Everything must be told,' Buchman once unwittingly enjoined his future biographer. And in his preface, Lean gives the clue when he makes the distinction between his own `continued and strong belief in the ideas Buchman put forward' and the need to `maintain an open mind about the man himself and his achievement'.

Lean's book competently reflects something of the strong wind of the Spirit of God in the lifework of Buchman. It can be seen in the experience of many who felt that they had, for the first time, encountered the reality of religion where they had only known its textbook before. Buchman helped an astonishingly large number of people to let God become the first authority in their lives.

The author repeatedly emphasizes Frank Buchman's preoccupation with moral and spiritual change in the lives of individuals instead of generally trying to influence the moral and intellectual climate of the day. Although 'Buchman's conviction was that a country, no less than a person, could become Goddirected', he always thought in terms of 'personalization of a vast problem'. He pursued a 'radical reversal of direction from diffusion over the many to deep penetration of the few' and held it to be of the `utmost urgency that everyone face the reality of their sin and find change and forgiveness'.

It was a matter not of lobbying but of lifechanging, not of numbers but of substance.

At this point, though, Buchman proves a master of synthesis. Although he insisted on the necessity of change in lives of individuals, the repercussions were very often far-reaching. One reads the reports of Denmark's battle against unemployment, the united stand of Norway's church against National Socialism, the encouraging first steps towards participation in industry, for example in West Germany. Among other instances there is the peaceful settling of destructive labour disputes in Britain, France and North America, the political reconciliations in Morocco, and the stirring of a hope that the same principles might once more prove fruitful in similar contemporary quandaries.

A further synthesis, rarely achieved, is the balance in Buchman's programme betweenthe general, objective measuring rod of the `four absolute moral standards' of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit which Buchman thought was available to individuals in their given situations. In the history of human thought these two principles have often broken asunder, producing legalism on the one hand, anarchy on the other. Buchman pointed to an ingenious equilibrium of the two, fostering `dedication without vows or rules'.

He matched this with a combination of theory and practice which went beyond book wisdom to the creation of a credible practical demonstration. Indeed the spiritual validity of Buchman's work can be seen in a wave of moral renewal in people, in a remarkable spurt of creativity, artistic and otherwise, and in the many instances of reconciliation between people, individuals as well as groups.

A final synthesis this reviewer is inclined to see (although he may not fully understand its workings) is Buchman's combination of the individual right to divine guidance with an outstanding realization of the principle of teamwork - different people working together in harmony towards the same goal. This principle was basic to Buchman's approach. Perhaps we are here faced with one of the deepest problems of human nature, which tends to arrive at either collectivism or stark individualism, whereas unanimity and personal fulfilment coming together are a rare divine gift. All in all, this book turns out to be a veritable manual of spiritual life and warfare and should be studied by all who are concerned with where humanity is going. Buchman may not have achieved all that he set his mind to, but what was in fact implemented, was - to use the words of a critical German magazine - more than one would have expected to be possible this side of heaven.

`Take it with force'
Exactly 50 years ago, Frank Buchman launched his programme of `moral and spiritual rearmament'. Perhaps we are now in a better position to assess the wisdom and timeliness of his appeal in a century which has since undergone dramatic further disintegration of moral values. We seem to be nearer to understanding Nehru's dictum that if moral and spiritual values fade away, `all the material advancement you may have will lead to nothing worthwhile'. With the insider trading scandal at the New York stock exchange, the several recent moral lapses of political and religious leaders, the predicament of countries deeply divided over the question of abortion, and the deep division between rich and poor nations, many have no difficulty seeing that we need the moral and spiritual recharging which Buchman envisaged.

`On the Tail of a Comet' - the title of the American edition of Garth Lean's biography of Frank Buchman - might induce some to think that all this was but a passing phenomenon, to return only at some unpredictable distant future. Buchman himself thought otherwise: `It was here before I came, I guess it will be here after I am gone.' The reality of God's Kingdom belongs to those, at all times, who `take it with force'.

Klaus Bockmuehl is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Regent College, Vancouver.

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