John Piper once wrote, “Christian biography is the means by which the body life of the church cuts across the centuries.” There is nothing worse than reading a bad biography. Poorly written biographies are like sitting at lunch with your grandpa as he painfully regales you with every excruciating detail about how he moved three houses down the street when he was ten years-old. You can’t seem to keep your head from plunging into your soup, but you keep focusing in because you know between the boring details there may just be some nuggets of wisdom to hold onto.
Good biographers are masters at toeing the line between excessive details and generic storytelling. It is interesting to learn intimate, specific details, so long as they don’t become cumbersome. One can only handle so many, “There was this one time” sentences. But there is nothing like getting caught up in looking back on the many providences in the life of an individual. Some biographies are so interesting that they feel novel-ish. If you didn’t realize they were true, you would find yourself praising the author’s ingenious creativity.
While style, subject matter, and author skill all play a role in the success or failure of a biography, we can safely say that biographies are healthy for the growth of any person. This is especially true for Christians. When I recommend books to Christians who hungry for the gospel, I always include in that list at least one good biography. Though the stories of grandparents can be dry at times, the benefit of sitting under their years of experience and insight is invaluable. I believe there are three major reasons we should fellowship with saints of old through their biographies.
1. For the Biblical Pattern
There is frequent reference to biography in the Old Testament. The ancient Israelite community was encouraged to tell their children of how the Lord has provided for his people in the past. God is very concerned about the passing of the faith on to the next generation. One means of telling of the glory of the Lord was for his people to tell the stories of the Lord, particularly how they experienced his grace in the midst of their sin. They told of his faithfulness despite their faithlessness. Parents sat with their children and told them of the Lord and his glory in Egypt; how he rescued his people and delivered them from slavery.
There is also a specific example of Christian biography in the New Testament. Hebrews 11 is one of the ways the author seeks to encourage his readers in the faith and spur them on to greater obedience. It is like a cup of water handed to a marathon runner as he pushes on toward the finish line. In this running collection of mini-biographies, the author gives example after example of God’s grace in the lives of people who could not be more different. This variated list shows the malleability of God’s grace in its dispensation in the lives of messed up people.
This is good news for Christians and reason enough to dive into great Christian biographies. Seeing how God worked in the lives of other messed up people gives us hope that God will work in our messed up lives. The Bible is a witness to the importance of biography for increase of faith an good works.
2. For the Prevention of “Chronological Snobbery”
C.S. Lewis learned from his friend Owen Barfield that “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” This is what he calls “chronological snobbery.” He continues in his Surprised by Joy,
Christian biography forces us to look back. It prevents us from the pride of modernity. The Naturalist cultural narrative of progress is either ignorant of history or arrogant of time. Reading biographies forces us to see the timelessness of God.
3. For the Thrill of the Ride
Yes, poorly written biographies are a snooze fest. But most well-written biographies are adventures. Journey into the lives of some of the most interesting men and women in history. There is nothing like reading about Calvin’s painstaking commitment to preach the Word sometimes close to ten times per week. Who isn’t riveted by the thousands of prayers answered in the life of George Mueller? As Piper has said, “Good biographies of great Christians make for remarkably efficient reading.” Pick up a good biography just for the joy of spending time with Christians of old.
4. For the Good of Your Soul
Ultimately, reading Christian biography is a healthy treat for your soul. I have especially found this true in pastoral ministry. There are so many emotions that fill the heart of a pastor. Each day brings new emotions, and with it the prospect of responding with wisdom or folly to them. Spending time in the lives of great Christians helps pastors gain much needed perspective. When we become overwhelmed with the amount of work we have for the coming week, it is helpful to know that Calvin performed over 270 weddings in nine years while preaching close to ten times each week in the same time frame while ministering in a hostile political and disease-ridden context. Fresh perspective is a refreshing plunge into cool waters of grace for the weary pastor.
Whether you have read many biographies or not a single one, do your soul a favor by spending time in the lives of some dead guys. They still have something to contribute to your life and ministry.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He lives in Tupelo with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.