Total Abandon – Book Review

Total Abandon
Author:  Gary Witherall with Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse
Publisher:  Tyndale House Publishers
ISBN 13:  9780842388993

Book Review by Tim Davy, Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Mission, Redcliffe College, and an editor of Encounters.

In 2002 Bonnie Witherall, an American missionary working in Sidon, Lebanon, was killed by a gunman. Total Abandon is an autobiographical account of this tragic event told by her husband, Gary.

The book acts as a testimony of Gary’s life up to that point, including his upbringing in England, his conversion, his training for ministry in America (where he met Bonnie), and their subsequent move to Lebanon. In moving detail it deals also with the aftermath of Bonnie’s death and how Gary slowly came to terms with it.

While Total Abandon does deal with some extraordinary circumstances, there is also much to consider in relation to the ‘ordinariness’ of missionary life. One example is the way Gary talks about their need for patience as they worked in the US, waiting for some clear guidance about their future ministry. He also shares in a very honest way about some of the practical frustrations of cross-cultural living:

it’s easy to romanticize the missionary life… And it isn’t always heroic. You go to a country where no one cares about you, no one is interested in you. You feel almost silly walking around the streets trying out the new words in the new language you’ve learned: “I like my blue cup.” There is a certain amount of frustration because it takes time before you can interact deeply in conversation with the people you are trying to reach because of the language barrier.

How refreshing to read about the nitty-gritty! But of course it is the horror of his wife’s death that provides the focus of Gary’s story. And yet, in the midst of his pain and grief, Gary comes across as an imperfect and broken man who clings onto the grace of God, able even to forgive Bonnie’s killer (though he never finds out who it was).

The readers is struck, too, by the role the people of God play in Gary’s story. Throughout the book he refers to a wide range of people from whom he received advice, wisdom, comfort and fellowship in the midst of darkness.

Total Abandon is readable, upsetting and challenging, both in relation to the potential costs of discipleship but also in how we as a Christian community walk with those who are experiencing loss and grief. It is a very worthwhile read.

Buy Total Abandon from St Andrew’s Bookshop.

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