(One’s level of piety, whether devotional or practical, depends much on knowledge being either learned or misconceived. In these analyses we have made mention, occasionally, of books that either help or hinder the grand object of piety. It seems natural, consequently, to supplement the analyses, now and again, with correlating book reports.)
GABOURY’S CRITICAL BOOK REPORT
Merlin Carothers, Prison to Praise (Escondido, California: Merlin R. Carothers, 1970), 106 pp.
Tired of waiting to get sent into action during WW2, a cocky young soldier goes AWOL. He steals a car, botches a stick-up, gets a suspended sentence, then finally gets his wish to go into battle overseas. He then serves as a paratrooper, Demolitions Expert, and guard for General Eisenhower. And he gets into all sorts of adventures, perhaps the strangest one involving a training exercise during which paratroopers plunge to their death all around Marlene Dietrich, the actress. After all of that, Merlin Carothers goes back home. A civilian now, he aspires to become a lawyer. While visiting his grandparents, his grandmother makes him an offer he’d like to refuse but can’t, to attend a church meeting in a local barn. There God speaks to him and he gets converted. After making restitution for his faults as best he can, he gets a pardon, in part, on account of his excellent combat record. He sums up his intentions from there, “If God could make a preacher out of an ex-jailbird, paratrooper, gambler, and black-marketeer, that would be a greater adventure into the unknown than anything I’d ever tried before” (p. 21.) Applying himself diligently, he accomplishes four years of college in just two-and-a-half, and crams three years of seminary into two. His first charge is the Methodist church in Claypool, Indiana, where “young people accepted Christ in growing numbers” (p. 23.) In 1953 he responds to an inner pull and becomes an Army chaplain, and adds to this the profession of pilot. Feeling like something’s missing in his spiritual life, he launches upon a search for power: “I began to read everything I could find about psychic phenomena, hypnotism, and spiritism, hoping to find a clue to the secret of letting God’s Spirit work in and through me” (p. 27.) The search heats up when an eye is partially blinded in an accident. Still disabled in the eye after two operations, and on his way to a third one, he receives a communication: “Your eyes are going to be all right” (p. 27.) The eye gradually heals. But his search for power continues. He gets wise to the dangers of hypnosis and other dark phenomena, and goes to Camp Farthest Out where he receives the ‘gift of tongues’ on the authority of a woman. An experience of love, joy, and courage is the outcome, and “everywhere I went, men accepted Christ,” he says (p. 40.) Promoted from the rank of Major even before he is eligible, he goes to Vietnam as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1966. Through his instrumentality, many conversions and healings happen, and the Lord guides him in the decisions he should make, by which he is several times prevented from certain death: “At the last minute I was strongly impressed to cancel the service. At the exact time and place where we would have met, an explosion set off the bombs” (p. 62, 63.) Similar things happen all around him: “Man after man told me how he had been saved from death by a power beyond his understanding” (p. 64.) Thanking God in all circumstances in order to all things working out is the theme that gradually takes over; Merlin gets victory after victory for himself and whoever he can convince to apply the biblical principle; and this theme runs on into an excerpt from his next book, where he leaves us hanging.
There is a current of victory in this book that is definitely above the experience of most Christians. In a bedridden state Mr. Carothers decides to put impure thoughts away for good. After that episode of sickness he seems no more tempted in this area (p. 51.) There are remarkable victories in his ministry to others, especially by the inculcation of that injunction to thank and praise God no matter what and for everything. There is a vision he tells us about, which shows very well how most Christians accept a level of victory that is sub-Christian, while those who persevere by praising God through the darkness eventually come out on top. “Often the prayer of praise is done in sheer teeth-gritting willpower; yet when we persist in it, somehow the power of God is released into us and into the situation” (p. 92.)
But there is another current running through these pages, an unbiblical one that makes me suspicious of all those wonders and victories or at least of the greatness of many of them. (1) His promotion to greater usefulness began when he received the gift of tongues by a woman’s ‘laying on of hands.’ Because of all that’s thoroughly unbiblical in this, it would be foolish not to suspect all the marvels and conquests that follow. Carothers himself was suspicious at first (p. 34.) (2) At one point he prays in tongues to heal someone’s fears (p. 62.) But nowhere in the New Testament is healing transmitted this way. (3) He says that God couldn’t do a thing for the Israelites when they were in unbelief (p. 44.) But if that were true, they had never left Egypt! (4) He thinks it’s a good thing when a brand new convert teaches Sunday School (p. 57.) That doesn’t sound right. (5) Instead of sermon prep, he lets his mind go blank to receive what is impressed upon him to speak (p. 46.) This ‘letting go and letting God,’ as he calls it, is not a valid principle, as he believes. It’s more like Transcendentalism than the Bible (2 Timothy 3.16, 17.) (6) His theory of healing is not as foolproof as he lets on. When symptoms of hay fever persist after he has been ‘healed,’ he rationalizes like this, “Now I knew that the symptoms meant nothing. Faith in God’s promise was all I needed; then Satan could fake all the symptoms he wanted!” (p. 81.) That’s a denial of reality. Then, supposedly, God spoke, “You will never again have even one symptom unless you need it for your good” (p. 82.) I always get a skeptical feeling in my gut when I read stuff like that, especially the kind of talk that slips into a dialogue with God, and there’s lots of that in here.
Some passages seem eerily satanic. After laughing for fifteen minutes in a prayer group (what some nutty churchgoers do for fun), God, he maintains, begins to speak to him like so: “It really makes you glad that they took my Son and drove nails into His hands. It really makes you glad, doesn’t it?” (p. 70) I can’t shake off the feeling that this sounds like Satan or a demon speaking. Carothers too, before he gave in to the spirit, seems to have had doubts: “Everything became very silent. I didn’t know how to answer” (p. 71.) Maybe it’s just the way Carothers records the event that makes it sound like the voice of Satan. I suppose that’s possible. But note: he got this communication while he was in this laughing hysteria. We should be very suspicious of that. Certain of his anecdotes, like the one about him seeing Jesus kneel before him, seem blasphemous: “He was holding my feet and resting His head on my knees. He said: ‘I don’t want to use you. I want you to use Me!’” (p. 52.) The trouble with a bio like Prison to Praise is that you want to believe all the fantastic stories; but because of all the unscriptural paraphernalia, you just can’t.
Content: C (More believable stories of God’s mighty acts are available.)
Style: B (It reads okay.)
Tone: C (Unintentionally irreverent in places.)
Grading Table: A: a keeper: reread it; promote it; share it.
B: an average book: let it go.
C: read only if you have to.