I am a bit slow. The book was published fourteen years ago. I have heard so many people speak so enthusiastically about it. Finally, on a return trip to the UK (and with my first training visit to Cambodia with Langham Preaching later this month), I worked my way through Don Cormack's Killing Fields, Living Fields (Monarch, 1997). I see here that there is a 2009 edition published by Christian Focus. Kinda wish I knew that before I started. Learn from my mistake!
While my first visit to the departure area at Phnom Penh airport in October 2009 alerted me to just how much has been written on recent Cambodian history, I am glad I started my journey with Cormack's book. This is one book that every comfortable Christian should read.
It is a contemporary example of ancient principles easily forgotten. Persecution is real. Believers who live distinctively with distinction in any society should expect this persecution. And persecution is the means by which God spreads the gospel. It happened in the first century in the Mediterranean. It happened in the twentieth century in the Mekong. As the subtitle expresses it, the Cambodian church is "the church that would not die". Never very numerous under extreme persecution it just would not give up. When a man called Sophiep is locked up, the writer acknowledges "But as many other Christians have discovered in such circumstances, he was profoundly aware of God's presence with him ... He was filled not with fear but courage and joy" (375).
The facts and figures are extreme. While Pol Pot's regime lasted five years (when the entire country became something of a concentration camp), the time of intense suffering for the church numbered at least twenty years. "30% of the people and 90% of the church" (182) perished during the Pol Pot years of 1975-1979. In the five years immediately prior to those years - at the start of the 'twenty' - the "three leading churches in Phnom Penh exploded into thirty major centres of worship (126) ... with people turning to Christ at the rate of almost one hundred per week by the end of 1974" (144) - and this in a country where the total number of believers was always measured in dozens and hundreds, not thousands and millions.
A pair of features in the life of the Cambodian church as it became established caught my eye. While often put in opposition with each other, here they worked in unison. One is the prevalence of the miraculous. God demonstrates a penchant for using the miraculous as a means of helping establish the gospel in a new setting. People can long for more and more of this - to the point where life takes on a 'not by faith, but by sight' quality as demonstrations of God's power need to be seen in order to sustain their faith. It might be more advisable to pour energy into the second feature: the priority given to establishing a Bible School where young leaders could go and be taught in the Word and enabled to live by faith and in obedience to God.
My favourite story is on pp214-216 when, during the Pol Pot years, young Radha is forced to marry someone. As a believer he was alarmed at the possibility of being 'yoked to an unbeliever' - but he had no choice. After the ceremony and on their own, Radha mumbles, by habit, a grace before a meal and his new bride cries out "you are a Christian" - as she was. At a time when believers numbered hundreds (at best) out of millions, God had arranged the marriage and what was intended to harm, God used for good in a Genesis 50.20 kind of way.
There is an agricultural image which pervades the book. Fields. Fallow Ground. Seed. Late Rains. Thinning. Wheat and Tares... Each time the author makes comparisons between what is happening in the earth in Cambodia and what is happening in the church in Cambodia. It is nicely done. [I have a sermon series on Nehemiah using the same metaphor and it made me want to preach a series where there is a sustained and dual opening of the text of Nehemiah and the context of Cambodia...]
While Cormack is a skilled writer ("Knotted veins coursed down his bare sinewy legs to muddied feet from which hung a pair of worn-out rubber thongs" - 401), I did find that the book lacked a little of the page-turner quality associated with compelling story-telling. He jumps a bit out of the single, linear plot-line approach which may have made the story more suspense-full. But that is just a personal opinion. I loved the "we passages" (as found in the Book of Acts!) where he enters the story himself (for example, p267f) to create a sense of immediacy and personal testimony.
He helps us understand the complexities of the political-religious context in Cambodia. Those readers enamoured with Buddhism will come away with a more sane and sober perspective. It was intriguing to discover that Pol Pot and his mates studied together in Paris under French philosophers at a seminal time in their lives - probably the same philosophers so instrumental in shaping this postmodernism which has so gripped people's worldviews in the West. Now there is an observation to ponder further!
The age of reading is not over. I read the final page as my plane touched down in Auckland yesterday and found myself wondering what the impact on the people of God would be if each person read one biography of a person, or a country, of this ilk in each year. I know the answer. It would lift our eyes, break our hearts, deepen our faith, and renew our hope. It would be transformative. So what is stopping us?!
PS: If you are a pray-er, I invite you to pray. As the global church's gaze descends on Cape Town and Lausanne III, spare a prayer for us as we start the Langham Preaching training over the same days with 50 pastors from 8 church groups in Cambodia. I am hopeful that God can be at work in two places at the same time.