Why Read Biographies?

You would think a post like this would come at the beginning of a series titled 31 Days of Inspirational Biography rather than the end. That would have been more logical – but I didn’t think of it then beyond the few remarks in my introductory post. However, having been steeped in biographies all this month, I have been reminded of several good reasons to pursue them.

I’ve always been interested in people’s stories, in what makes them tick. The very first book I remember checking out at my school library in first or second grade was a biography of Martin Luther (that may not have been the first book I ever actually checked out, but it is the first I remember). I’m sure I read more through my school years, but it was at college that an older woman spoke to a group of us involved in praying for missionaries about her years of reading missionary biographies and the benefit they were to her. That got me started reading Christian and missionary biographies, and that practice was reinforced at the first church we attended after we were married, where a part of the monthly ladies’ meetings included a book report by one of the officers from one of the books in the group’s lending library. So I have been purposefully reading biographies for some 35+ years.

The first benefits that come to mind from reading biographies are the same first benefits gained from reading anything: learning about other places, times, cultures, people, gaining empathy for the people in the story, and understanding how other people think and react.

While you can derive these benefits even from fiction (I have another post in the works about the benefit of reading fiction), biographies and “true life” stories have the advantage of being real. Though spiritual truth can be conveyed even in fiction, in a biography there is no arguing with how the story should have ended or what directions the plot should have taken. If you believe in God, as I do, part of reading a biography is tracing His hand in people’s lives, even, perhaps especially, when the circumstances are different from what we would have thought they would or should be. Though I primarily read Christian biographies, I enjoy some secular ones, and it is interesting to see not only what has influenced them, but they also often have some brush with spiritual truth (Robert Burns‘ story, for example).

We learn history for a number of reasons, among them: to better understand our current times, to appreciate our heritage, to avoid repeating mistakes. There are heroes in our national history who inspire us to a love of country and duty and courage. There are heroes of our spiritual heritage who inspire us in love and dedication to God and to greater faith in remembering that the God they served and loved and Who provided for and used them is the very same God we love and serve today and Who will provide for and use us. Though times and culture change, human nature at its core doesn’t change much, and God never changes.

For me the primary  reason for reading Christian biographies is to follow others as they follow Christ, as Paul said. No, they won’t be perfect, but we can learn from their mistakes just as we learn from David’s or Peter’s in the Bible. Missionaries would never want to be thought of as super-Christians or a step above anyone spiritually, but by and large there usually is a seriousness and maturity in their walk with the Lord, some wrestlings and overcomings, if they have gone through everything they need to in order to get to a mission field. Even though I am not called to “the” mission field (it’s my belief that every Christian is called to “a” mission field, whether on foreign soil or in their own homes and neighborhoods), I can still learn much from what Christians who have gone before me have learned and experienced.

Some people, including a former pastor of mine, don’t like to read older biographies because they made the subjects seem almost too good to be true. Even Isobel Kuhn, whose writing I love, put Amy Carmichael’s books, which I also love, back on the shelf because she thought she was too high and unattainable (I think Amy would either be highly dismayed or would laugh that anyone thought such about her). Admittedly some older Christian biographies can seem unrealistically perfect. I think there are several reasons for this: I think a “warts and all” type of biography was not the fashion in older times like it is today, even in secular biographies, and since Christians are generally instructed to give each other the benefit of the doubt, love each other, overlook each other’s faults, and not gossip or “backbite,” I think that would come into play in writing a biography as well. Yet the Bible shares people’s faults and sins in a realistic and not malicious way. I think we relate to people better when we can see that they are as human as we are, but they acknowledge their faults and are growing in sanctification. I think many of them would probably blush to read the glowing reports people wrote after their deaths.

Let me share, as well, some points to keep in mind when reading Christian biographies.

When reading any book, of course we filter everything through our own frame of reference. But an author can’t possibly know what every reader’s frame of reference will be even in her own time, much less hundreds of years later. So it is the reader’s responsibility to try to figure out the author’s frame of reference or at least to give the benefit of the doubt.

Different times and cultures will yield different practices. It’s fairly common in older missionary biographies for them to speak of servants. That doesn’t mean they were living upper class Western lifestyles while ministering to more primitive people. In more primitive cultures especially, sometimes they would hire help in the kitchen or for certain household tasks so the couple, particularly the wife, could teach or minister in other ways. (Even in modern times I had a missionary friend who mourned over having to spend so much time in the kitchen instead of  in ministerial pursuits: if that is so today, imagine what it would have been like 100+ years ago). Too, in some cultures where becoming a Christian could cost someone their job or family standing, sometimes missionaries would hire them in order to help them out.  Today they might say they hired help or employed someone; likely no one would use the word “servant” today. Another example would be schooling situations. In a lot of older biographies, missionaries sent their kids off to a mission school at a fairly young age because there was no appropriate school available and home schooling as it is known today was unheard of.  Often it was agonizing for both parents and children, and some stories share how God gave grace for the parents to cope. We can’t really hold it against parents then for sending their kids off if that’s all they knew to do at the time. I think the hardships involved as well as the realization that educating and raising their kids was a part of their ministry and testimony led to the changes we see today, where most missionaries home school and some send their kids to public schools in town. But we can understand that God could give grace to people who sent their kids away to school even while that is not a choice most of us would make today.

Even in the more glowing missionary books, you won’t agree with everything. You likely wouldn’t agree with everything even in a biography of your best friend or closest loved one. No two of us is going to agree on every little point of faith and practice. One of the things that stood out to me in 50 People Every Christian Should Know by Warren Wiersbe is that a lot of those people would be on opposite sides of certain fences from each other, yet God used them all. That doesn’t mean the fences and sides don’t matter: each of us is responsible to search out issues and take the stands we feel most faithfully represent Scripture. There are fundamental or foundational issues on which we cannot budge, but there are some beliefs and practices where we can give each other room to differ.

On the other hand, there are those foundational issues to consider. If someone is preaching a false gospel which is going to lead his followers to hell, we need to be aware of that and even warn people about it even though some of what they might say sounds compatible with Scripture, which tells us to “rebuke them sharply,” “mark them and avoid them,” “receive him not. ” Even the devil uses Scripture and appears as an “angel of light.”

I think to sum up what I have been verbosely trying to say in the last few paragraphs, we need to be discerning but not critical.

On the other hand, you might find practices you want to emulate, but don’t feel you necessarily need to change everything with every biography you read. In my early years of reading them, I might be inspired by how one had their time in the Bible, and in the next book I’d see a different way and wonder if I should try that. Feel free to try some of those things and glean what works best for you, but don’t feel tossed about or feel you have to do something just like they did.

Instruction. Encouragement. Inspiration. Illustration of the Christian life in action – overcoming difficulties, growing, seeking God’s wisdom, help and grace. Comfort from that which has comforted others. Warning from their mistakes. These are among the many reasons I enjoy reading Christian biographies.

I’ve often said that reading Christian biographies has been the most influential impact in my Christian life, next to the Word of God itself. I’ve posted this poem before, discovered by an unknown author in the first pages of Rosalind Goforth’s Climbing, but I post it here again as it embodies what Christian biographies have been to me:

Call Back!

If you have gone a little way ahead of me, call back-
It will cheer my heart and help my feet along the stony track;
And if, perchance, Faith’s light is dim, because the oil is low,
Your call will guide my lagging course as wearily I go.

Call back, and tell me that He went with you into the storm;
Call back, and say He kept you when forest’s roots were torn;
That when the heavens thunder and the earthquake shook the hill.
He bore you up and held where the very air was still.

O friend, call back, and tell me for I cannot see your face;
They say it glows with triumph, and your feet bound in the race;
But there are mists between us and my spirit eyes are dim,
And I cannot see the glory, though I long for word of Him.

But if you’ll say He heard you when your prayer was but a cry,
And if you’ll say He saw you through the night’s sin-darkened sky-
If you have gone a little way ahead, O friend, call back-
It will cheer my heart and help my feet along the stony track.

Robert Murray McCheyne said of Jonathan Edwards, “How feeble does my spark of Christianity appear beside such a sun! But even his was a borrowed light, and the same source is still open to enlighten me.” May we learn from these “borrowed lights” to seek the same Light they did.

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For the 31 Days writing challenge, I have been sharing 31 Days of Inspirational Biography. You can find others in this series here.

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8 thoughts on “Why Read Biographies?

  1. Some of the books that have impacted me the most have been biographies. The first was a biography of Jenny Lind I read in grade school. I still remember the lesson – use your gifts for God’s glory.

    Thank you for the post. Biographies are so powerful.

  2. Barbara, I have thoroughly enjoyed your 31 days of sharing on Christian Biographies. A couple of thoughts I had as I read today’s post…

    I understand why some people feel the way they do about the older biographies, but for me personally, those are the biographies that I love to read. I’ve shared with you before how the Lord used the older Christian biographies to prepare my heart for the day that our daughter told us she felt led of the Lord to become a missionary.

    Also, I greatly appreciate these words, ” we need to be discerning but not critical.” That should be our purpose in living out our every day lives, and so that should naturally carry over into our reading of Christian biographies. Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson, Amy Carmichael, Rosalind Goforth (just to name a few) were used greatly of God, whether they did everything the way we would have done it or not. They lived in totally different cultures and did what they felt the Lord was leading them to do. It doesn’t mean that I have to agree with what they did because they are accountable to God and not to me. 😉 Thank you so much for sharing about that.

    You are a blessing to me, Barbara. I’m so thankful the Lord has allowed our paths to cross and form a bond. I still think of your church family in prayer as they go through this time of trial.

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