Friday, August 1, 2008

How to read Christian biography?

As you know in August we'll be reading Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God. I've always LOVED reading a good biography. I'm very interested in people and what 'makes them tick', so that makes this genre right up my alley. I also think that biography is important to us as Christians in learning from the lives of others who have served Jesus in their lives.

At the same time, though, I've often struggled to know what to do with biography. The lives of the people I am reading about are often very different from my own, so can I really emulate them? What do I with the different attitudes and assumptions that they had, as Christians from a different time and place?

With those two tensions in mind, at the beginning of this month, I wanted to think through the question of how to read biographies. Here are the two traps I think I have been tempted to fall into when reading biography. Both come down to a kind of perfectionism - they are both driven in different ways by the common assumption that the lives of the people I read about are only of any use to me if they are perfect:

Trap Number 1 - Worship them as heroes

The first trap is to make the person I am reading about some sort of hero. In this situation, I'm tempted to ignore any flaws and bad decisions the subject of the biography made and put them on a pedestal. The problem with this, of course, is that no one is perfect and only God is to be worshiped! It also goes with a tendency to value only the spectacular and the extraordinary, and to undervalue the importance of faithfulness to God in the small things of life.

Trap Number 2 - Write them off because of their flaws

On other occasions I've been tempted to 'write off' the person off if I see a few flaws or discern some ways that I think differently from the person being written about. Sadly, I think in this situation, it means I don't learn anything - I lose the opportunity to see God's work in another person's life, and to learn from the aspects of their life that I do need to be convicted about.

A good example of this was when I read a biography of Amy Carmichael a few years ago. I found that her piety and view of God's guidance grated against my view of the Christian life, and the way I think God reveals his plans for us. Unfortunately, this meant I was blinded to anything I could be challenged by and learn from in her story.

(I wonder sometimes whether the self-righteousness in this posture - finding the flaw in the person I am reading about and using it to protect me from feeling criticised or challenged at the points where her life exposes my blind spots - also carries across to the way I relate to Christians of other backgrounds and different generations whom I know in the flesh.)

A better model

So, as we start reading biography together this month, I need to decide to read with a knowledge of these traps I can so easily fall into, and adopt a different model of reading biography. It's a model that allows us to learn from saints who have gone before us - and indeed to allow the possibility of 'heroes' - without worshiping them and pretending they were without their flaws. By adopting this model, I can learn from the way God has worked in them, and pray that God will use me to achieve his purposes.

John Piper writes:
The lives of our flawed Christian heroes are inspiring for two reasons: because they were flawed (like us) and because they were great (unlike us). Their flaws give us hope that maybe God could use us too. Their greatness inspires us to venture beyond the ordinary.
(You can also read a longer version of these comments, with reflections on some of the particular, and very serious, flaws of Augustine, Luther and Calvin, in the first chapter of this book.)

Pic from Dreamstime.


Anna Gellatly said...

Thanks Nicole - this is a very helpful perspective.

I have read 'Faithful Women' before, but it was quite some time ago and I am keen to delve into it again, with the chance to discuss and reflect with other book-clubbers.

I attended the seminar Judith presented at Equip this year, and was greatly encouraged and challenged. I'm looking forward to enjoying the benefit of her wisdom again in a different context.


Anonymous said...


I've noticed there can be a tendency to get overwhelmed when I read biographies because the "compressed, over-view" of someone's life can highlight all their personal and spiritual achievements, yet speak little of the day to day struggles. I can find myself feeling condemned and thinking "I'll never be that strong/spiritual/wise or whatever." The first time I noticed it was as a fairly young christian reading a biography of Hudson Taylor. It could be that the authors have the *hero* mentality for that person and communicate a one-sided view. Or it could just be that in the whole scheme of the person's life, the triumphs seem to outweigh the every day nitty gritty reality.

There is a similar temptation for me when I get a glimpse into the lives of real families who seem to "have it all together" but I need to remember that I can't see behind closed doors into the fears, unbelief, worries and struggles which must also be a part of their lives.

So (while perhaps presenting another trap we can fall into) I agree with your paragraph "A Better Model". Let's go!