Written by: Howard Mumma Published by: Paraclete Press
Albert Camus and the Minister is a fascinating look at the period of Camus’ life in the early 1950s when he corresponded with a new friend, Methodist minister Howard Mumma. They met when Camus visited the American Church in Paris to hear the music of a renowned organist; Mumma, an American from Ohio, became a valued friend who answered Camus’ questions about theology and the idea of faith. Over the next several years, their unusual and unexpected friendship grew as Camus explored Christianity.
Mumma’s own recollections of his letters and discussions with Camus comprise roughly the first half of the book. The final half of the book is a look a Mumma’s own spiritual life, including discussions of the various people who impacted his spirituality and personal philosophies in turn, just as he impacted Camus. These recollections not only enabled him to understand Camus’ dilemmas, but gave him the tools to deal with the many questions that Camus posed.
One of the most poignant parts of the book is how the author deals with Camus’ eventual death, which Mumma terms a suicide. In believing that he had failed Camus, he overlooks the central point of the book–that before he died, Camus had found faith in a higher power. Camus may have still been struggling with more personal demons and his own trademark angst, but the minister had answered many of the questions that most plagued Camus–issues of God. But only Camus could have answered for himself the issues of humanity still plaguing him at the time of his death.
There have been readers who have questioned the central veracity of this book, given that major biographies of Camus do not mention Mumma. However, I find it less difficult to believe that a discussion Camus wished kept private and that only happened between the two of them would have remained unknown.
A few readers might find Mumma a bit pedantic and overly eager for Camus’ conversion. However, if you read with the understanding that it is very human for people to want others to agree with them, Mumma’s personality is a bit less overbearing and Camus’ questions all the more touching.
One of the most valuable things about this book is the opportunity to see the human side of Camus. While his novels deal with very human issues and struggles, there is less known about the man himself, and any insight is to be treasured. This book is also interesting in its explorations of new faith, and that fragile time in any individual’s spiritual life when he must decide what he is or is not going to believe, to feel–not unlike C.S. Lewis’ book Surprised by Joy. It would have been nice if the first half of the book, the bits with Camus, had been more like three-fourths of the book, but without texts of the actual letters, we got what we could out of Mumma.
It is not unusual for a writer to come to some kind of faith relatively late in life, after having spent years, even decades, as an atheist or agnostic–T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis both come to mind here. However, it is good for fans of that author’s work to be able to understand how issues of faith and personal philosophical struggles may have informed the writers’ works. Albert Camus and the Minister is a particularly fascinating example of this journey given that Camus’ atheism had been seen as an inviolable part of his character. Regardless of your final decision about the veracity of this work, or the feelings you may have about Mumma’s rather shallow understanding of a difficult and complex man, this book is highly recommended for anyone interested in Camus’ work (and that should be all people!), as well as for anyone interested in faith or issues of conversion and personal philosophies.