Friday, January 18, 2008
Review of John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace
Author: Jonathan Aitken
Pages: 400 pages
Price: 21.99 USD
It is somewhat difficult to write a review on a biography when it is the first one on the subject that you have read. My exposure to Newton has been somewhat limited. I know him as the man that wrote Amazing Grace. I have heard of his conversion. Recently I have been exposed to some of his letters and a brief biography by John Piper. All of this created a stirring in me to know more about this man that said, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior”. Would Aitken's biography serve to fittingly tell the life of John Newton?
Aitken does a marvelous job of outlining the life of John Newton. He begins his biography not on the open sea but at Newton’s mother’s side. Sadly, Newton’s time at his mother’s side was cut short; as she was taken by tuberculosis at a young age. This left young John solely in his father’s care, and by the age of 10 Newton was off to sea. It seems that seafaring began Newton’s downward spiral into debauchery. Aitken follows the life of Newton for some 8 chapters into debauchery. The only bright spot in Newton’s story was his unrelenting love for his later-to- become wife Polly. Even after his conversion Newton continued the deplorable practice of slave trading. It is here that we are exposed to some of Newton’s most vile sinning, for now it appears he is doing so in light of the gospel. At this point in the book I remember commenting to my wife that I was growing to greatly dislike John Newton.
But my dislike for Newton would soon change. It seems as soon as Newton’s seafaring career ended his spiritual journey became stronger. At this point in the biography the life of Newton shifts gears. For the rest of the biography we follow Newton in his pursuit of ordination, his ministry at Olney, his creativity, his contribution to the corpus of Christian literature and hymns, his involvement in the abolition movement, and his ministry at London. These Aitken follows quite well until Newton’s demise and death.
Also, weaved throughout this story is Newton’s love for his wife Polly. Thus this biography becomes an exciting sea tale, a spiritual journey, a pastoral guide, and a romance all in one.
What I Enjoyed:
Aitken does a wonderful job of putting together the life of Newton into a beautifully weaved story. One of the literary features that makes this work shine is the inclusion of Newton’s letters. Sometimes it feels as if Newton is writing his own biography. One of the temptations in writing a biography is to portray the subject without many flaws and often times almost above human status. Part of the beauty of Newton’s story is that he was such a great sinner. The more that we can see Newton as a great sinner the more it points to Christ as a great Savior. Aitken keeps Newton human.
What I Disliked:
In as much as Aitken shines on displaying Newton as a great sinner, I felt that in expressing latter half of Newton’s statement (“…Christ is a great Savior”) Aitken dropped the ball. Newton would be disappointed to find that a biography on himself did not have at its center the magnificent work of Jesus Christ. One standard I apply in reading biographies is this: after reading the biography, do I want to learn more about the man or am I driven to know Christ more. After reading this, I want to know more about John Newton. That is not altogether bad but a very important part of the story played a flat role. Newton was the main character when it should have been Jesus. Because of this we miss discovering what it was that made Newton tick.
Should You But It:
Nonetheless, it is a great work on John Newton and will serve the reader well. My hope is that it only introduces the reader to Newton and inspires you to pursue more of his work, because therein one might see and savor Jesus Christ. Should you buy it? Yes. Should it be the only Newton book in your collection? No.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.