The Power of Good Biography

The Power of Good Biography February 21, 2013

Especially because my colleague Thomas Kidd and I both like the genre of biography, we’ve touched on that topic periodically on this blog. This past December, he blogged about his five favorite religious biographies.

I was thinking about that subject again while reading my erstwhile University of South Alabama colleague and prolific author Frye Gaillard’s The Books That Mattered, a memoir of that books that have shaped his life. It’s a wonderfully written book and reflects its author’s wit, thoughtfulness, and humane approach to literature, race, and most everything. Frye and his wife took it upon themselves to help initiate Elissa and me into the culture of the Alabama Gulf Coast when we moved to Mobile seven years ago, giving us a ride on Fowl River, taking us to the local seafood restaurant, and getting us to Bellingrath Gardens. Frye also avoided laughing at me when I ordered the chicken at a local barbecue pit. A former journalist, Frye spent his early career covering the civil rights movement in Mobile and is the author of an outstanding account of the struggle for racial justice in Alabama.

The Books That Mattered got me thinking about how books have the power to shape our lives (and whether or not other forms of writing will exercise that power in future decades) and which have shaped mine. Different books shape us in different ways. In high school, I read a book about Christian leadership which suggested that real Christian men never need more than six hours of sleep per night. For some reason, it stuck in my craw. If I’m working at night, I always tell myself I can get by on six hours of sleep. I probably get more done because of that book, but I’m also perpetually tired.

Now in academia, I read so many books for various reasons. I read books to prepare to teach new classes. I read books because I want to learn particular bits of information that might help with a writing project. I read fiction and non-fiction for fun. Rarely do I pick up a book hoping that it will shape or fundamentally instruct me in some fashion. In fact, my normal reading habits probably preclude that sort of transformation. Once in a while, however, books simply burst through any attempt to hedge out their message.

Different sorts of books have done that. It’s probably academically too unsnobby to admit to the influence of self-help books in one’s life. Nevertheless, I found Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits and Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages very helpful in different ways, even if I’m not always effective or loving. There are a host of books I simply love for their language: anything written by Wallace Stegner, for example, Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, and Timothy Tyson’s (Blood Done Sign My Name). It is a great irony of American literature that so many moving and eloquent books take as their subject matter the bloody terrain of race relations in the American South.

When simply searching for something simultaneously education and informative, however, I often turn to biography. It was Roland Bainton’s biography of Martin Luther that first kindled my own interest in the history of Christianity. I’ve also long admired William Martin’s sympathetic but searching biography of Billy Graham. Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine is worth rereading.

I love good biographies on a wide range of subjects, but among my more recent favorites in the field of American religion: Manning Marable’s The Reinvention of Malcolm X, Catherine Brekus’s Sarah Osborn’s World, Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, and Matthew Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson. Although it’s a novel, I also remain stunned by Russell Banks’s interpretation of John Brown in Cloudsplitter.

What all of the books in the preceding paragraph have in common is the detailed portrait of a human subject in all of his or her complexity. Hagiography and exposé are rarely worth the time. Fine biographies hardly ever give me a simple model for emulation, but they nevertheless instruct. For starters, searching biographies always remind me that all human beings are more complex than they seem at first glance. That’s a good thing to keep in mind for colleagues, neighbors, and even family members as well as historical subjects. I find encountering other human beings in all of their complexity encourages me to be humble. Also, I find it instructive to remember how differently Christians have conceptualized Jesus, structured their religious lives, and addressed a whole host of perennial human tasks (from childrearing to being with loved ones on their deathbeds). Biographies always remind me of just how limited my approach to nearly everything is by my own time and place.

Among notable forthcoming religious biographies (American Religion and otherwise):

Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography by Arvind Sharma (Yale University Press)
Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait by Denys Turner (Yale University Press)
The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes by Steven Nadler (Princeton University Press)
C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath (Tyndale House Publishers)
Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat by James Bratt (Eerdmans)

Should be a good summer of reading ahead. Let me know if I should add other forthcoming titles to the above list.

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  • Randy

    Thanks for the list of forthcoming biographies. I always recommend Marsden’s biography of Edwards, which you and most of the readers have already read. It’s just so ridiculously good. If you’re an educated pastor, grad student or academic, I consider it to be an essential part of your library. While I recognize my own bias, objectivity is not neutrality. I also really enjoyed Alan Jacobs biography of C.S. Lewis, which I’ve heard that people in the Lewis guild have some issues with.

    You can see I need some more recent works. As an educated layperson with a non-historical day job, can you recommend a good, balanced biography of John Calvin – I recall there were a few that came out several years ago.

  • johnturner

    Thanks for your comment.
    I read several biographies of Calvin while in graduate school, but that’s now many moons ago, and it’s hard for me to remember them clearly. I have some sense that T.H.L. Parker’s was readable and reasonable (and a paperback came out a number of years back).
    Bruce Gordon wrote a well-received bio (simply titled Calvin) a few years ago, but I haven’t read it.

  • I’m actually taking a quick Twitter break from reading Thomas Kidd’s biography of Patrick Henry as we speak! Both the Kuyper & Lewis biographies have me very, very excited. Another two that I’ve been wanting to read for some time are Iain Murray’s bio on Wesley and Sean Michael Lucas’ bio on R.L. Dabney. The aforementioned bio on Augustine by Peter Brown has been put on temporary hold as well.

    Are there any other “must-reads” in the realm of biography for you? I’d love to update my Amazon wish list a bit…


  • Brian Franklin

    Enger and Stegner – I completely agree. Great post.

    And speaking of great biographies, I’ve started working on “Brigham Young.”

  • johnturner

    Thanks, Brian. Hope you enjoy BY. Feel free to get in touch with any thoughts.

  • johnturner

    Given what you’ve already mentioned, I’d certainly recommend George Marsden on Jonathan Edwards and John Wigger on Francis Asbury.

    I’ve long been meaning to read Thomas Slaughter’s bio of the Quaker abolitionist John Woolman.