The Power of Biography

The Power of Biography January 16, 2014

From the Anxious Bench archives:

Especially because my colleague Thomas Kidd and I both like the genre of biography, we’ve touched on that topic periodically on this blog. A while back, he blogged about five compelling 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 may or may not 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 an enduring 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, Erskine Clarke’s The Dwelling Place (and I can’t read to read his latest), and Matthew Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson. Although it’s a novel, I also remain moved by Russell Banks’s interpretation of John Brown in Cloudsplitter.

What all of the above books 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.

Now, the reason for the reissue of this post. I’m trying to make myself aware of notable forthcoming biographies (defined as released in 2014) that at least have religion as a significant component:

– Thomas Kidd’s George Whitefield biography

– Joan Barthel, American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton

What else is on the horizon?



Browse Our Archives