Murray Joseph Thompson
Christian Faith Publishing Inc., 168 pages
“Should a Christian in good conscience serve in the military … knowing that killing” may be necessary? In Shepherds of God in Wolves’ Clothing, Murray Joseph Thompson poses this question before simultaneously defending the role of Christian military chaplains and acknowledging the morally and spiritually complex issues they face. Despite the reference in its subtitle to “random reflections,” this is not a random discussion; the book is well-organized, first describing the role of chaplains in the history of the U.S. military, then telling experiences of those who served in Desert Storm and concluding with an explanation of how to understand Islamic extremism and respond to terrorism from a Christian perspective.
Thompson combines the history of military chaplaincy with a memoir of his time as a chaplain during Operation Desert Storm. The book’s greatest strengths are vivid storytelling and descriptions of battle scenes as well as day-to-day military life. The most gripping chapter re-enacts the story of four American chaplains serving in World War II who sacrificed themselves when their ship, the S.S. Dorchester, was torpedoed by a German submarine. Thompson graphically portrays the physical carnage and emotional anguish of those in the sinking ship who found the strength to survive only due to the inspiration of the chaplains, whose actions included giving away their own life jackets to other men.
Thompson also succeeds at bringing to life some of the hardships faced by U.S. troops in Iraq. He exposes the tedium of slow days, made worse by the desert location. “In the desert,” he writes, “Sand was the world. Standing in its oceanic immensity, a person could turn slowly, keeping his eyes on the horizon, and see nothing but sand. … Just keeping the sand out of things was a battle in and of itself … it got into everything.” He helps us gain awareness of the trouble soldiers faced even outside of combat.
The book’s weakness is the section focused on the history of chaplaincy, which too often reads like a collection of facts and figures, even though Thompson later acknowledges that facts and figures “cannot possibly tell the chaplain story.” The vividness of the other sections is missing, as is the emotional intensity that Thompson conveys when he shares his own experiences. Additionally, some of the writing is sloppy. Thompson uses way too many exclamation marks and in one instance, misspells Norman Schwarzkopf’s name. The book would have benefited from the editing services of a genuine professional.
Any chaplain, in or out of the military, would likely appreciate this book because it describes a world that no one outside the armed forces can truly understand. It is educational and insightful in that respect, but it would have been improved by more of Thompson’s own recollections and descriptions. He offers facts but leaves out the feelings that would have brought the stories more to life. Still, this is well worth reading as an account of a part of life that most readers will never experience.
Presbyterian Outlook supports local bookstores. Join us! Click on the link below to purchase Shepherds of God in Wolves’ Clothing from BookShop, an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. As an affiliate, Outlook will also earn a commission from your purchase.
Elizabeth B. Dickey serves as staff chaplain at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, a hospital specializing in physical and occupational therapy in Chicago.