If, like me, you have seen “Of Gods and Men,” you may be drawn to The Monks of Tibhirine, a work of nonfiction about the Trappist monks martyred in Algeria in 1996 who were the subject of that film. Perhaps like me, you will find the book informative, inspiring, and frustrating, too.
Informative: For me, there was information here, too much, in fact. I was interested in the long background of
France's presence in Algeria and the early life of Christian le Chergé,
the abbot of the Trappist monastery at Tibhirine. But by the midpoint of
the book I had more information than I wanted about the complex
politics of Algeria after the French were forced out in the 1960s, and
by the end of the book, I realized that Kiser simply did not know enough
about the monks themselves. So to make of their story a book, not an
essay, he needed to cram it full of everything else. I skimmed long
portions of the second half.
Inspiring: Still, The Monks of
Tibhirine inspired me by suggesting that the monks’ martyrdom was even
more courageous than its portrayal in the film. “Of Gods and Men” makes
little of other Christian martyrs—White Fathers, women religious, and
others—killed in the run-up to the monks’ 1996 kidnapping. The book
fills these in (some were shot, some had their throats slit) along with
the departures of several Christian communities in Algeria who decided
to get out when they still could. These historic facts, missing from the
film, make the monks of Tibhirine stand even taller in my mind's eye.
Yet, ironically, the courage of the monks portrayed in the film is more
This is because the film dramatizes the monks’
decision to stay by repeatedly giving us chapter meetings in which they
discuss and vote on whether to leave or not. Kiser’s book tells us that
these chapter meetings occurred, but it also suggests that the monks
decided early on that they would remain in Algeria. The movie, then,
gets closer to the (inner) truth of their plight while effectively
misleading the viewer about, or at least stretching the drama of, how
readily the monks accepted their fate. They did accept it readily. The
movie suggests that not all of them did.
frustration I experienced reading the book is only that of someone who
would like to know, really, what happened to the monks after their
capture. More may have been learned about this since the book was
written in 2002, although the film, made in 2010, does not clear up the
I have seen “Of Gods and Men” three times and would see
it again. I skimmed large portions of The Monks of Tibhirine, do not
regret skimming, and will not read it again. Five stars for the film,
three stars for the book, is about right.
A final note: The proofreading of this book by a major New York publishing house, St. Martin’s, is appallingly bad.