The Art and Utility of Christian Biography

Over at the Gospel Coalition, A. Donald MacLeod, an eminent Christian historian, has penned a piece entitled “The Joys and Frustrations of a Christian Biographer.”  The piece is a slightly edited version of the commencement message he delivered at Westminster East in the spring of 2011.  I read it then and have read it again and find it a highly profitable essay.  In my doctoral work on the re-enchantment of the evangelical mind, I have used MacLeod’s text on C. Stacey Woods, a notable Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship leader, and commend it to you.

Here is a little snatch from the essay:

Note my title: I write as a Christian biographer. And that distinction, that qualifier, is bound to be regarded by many as prejudice, as demonstrating a lack of professionalism, a limitation on objectivity, an inhibition of open-minded examination of the facts. The presumption is that Christian biographers have an agenda: through the recounting of a person’s life to instruct, to defend, and perhaps even to warn, the reader.

This is fodder for thought for young Christian scholars and historians.  MacLeod also contemplates the need for a balance of truth-telling and fairness to one’s subjects.  Sometimes, we Christians veer into hagiography out of a desire to honor those who have gone before.  Better to be truthful yet gracious:

I remember the shock I received when researching in the United Church of Canada archives a biographical piece about Jonathan Goforth, whose wife’s hagiographic Goforth of China also became a missionary classic. In reading the correspondence from 1889, setting up the Canadian Presbyterian north Honan field, I met a very different Hudson Taylor than that portrayed in his daughter-in-law’s two-volume biography: irascible, dictatorial, and arbitrary when fighting over territorial comity agreements. You do not have to go as far as Fighting Angel, Pearl Buck’s 1936 cruel parody of her southern Presbyterian missionary father, Absalom Seidenstricker, to discover more realistic accounts of missionary life. Frank Houghton’s beautifully written Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur is cautious but truthful, though you have to read between the lines.

MacLeod’s conclusion is inspiring.  He spells out the very serious need for the study of the Christian past.  There is so much–too much!–to learn from it, and I agree wholeheartedly with the piece in general and this conclusion, upon which I cannot improve.

It was Cicero who stated: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” In theological curricula today church history has too often been sidelined or ignored. Perhaps that is why the church can appear immature and ill-informed, repeating past mistakes and failures: so soon we forget. Biographies are a way of incarnating the historical, bringing it alive, making it intensely personal and authentic. Well-crafted biographies, written with integrity and honesty, can serve the people of God well. In spite of the occasional frustration, and recognizing the awesome responsibility involved, my work as a Christian biographer has given me joy and fulfillment. Soli Deo gloria.

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