Who doesn’t like a great story about a great life? Well, almost no one. That is why biographies and autobiographies have always been and continue to be big sellers. I have read many bios over the years, but my first one was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. I read it for a book report in grammar school. Years later I saw the movie with Cicely Tyson and that as one of the earliest moments of my life when I was aware of the snobbish feeling of having read a book that lesser people will only experience through the lesser medium of film. If that feeling is a sin, I apologize for it, but it is still something I enjoy, for one of my favorite lines ever is, “But in the book . . .”
Sadly for Ernest J. Gaines, his history of Jane Pittman does not make my list of top biographies because I later tragically learned that there is no real Jane Pittman, so there is no autobiography. The whole thing was a novel under the guise of false pretenses, which is very clever way to fool a 5th grader.
You can be sure, though, that my top three biographies are legitimate.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Eric Metaxas
Metaxas is simply one of the better writers in the world right now, Christian or otherwise. This exhaustive biography of the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer brings the background of a familiar story to life. It is inspiring, convicting, and deeply moving. Bonhoeffer’s story itself is great, but Metaxas gentle and slowly growing drumbeat to rising action accentuates the tragedy of Bonhoeffer’s death.
Of all the biographies I’ve read, this is probably the thinnest. The truth is we don’t have a lot of information about Crazy Horse, the famed Sioux warrior, but that doesn’t stop McMurtry from making the most of what we do know. He lays out the lies and betrayal of the United States, the diabolical conundrum before the Sioux and other native peoples, and the inevitable sacrfices of culture that come with the passage of time.
I have another reason for loving this book. McMurtry relates the devastating toll of relying upon white people with the example of fishing hooks. For generations past, Native Americans made fishhooks from bone. When they started trading with white people, they began to use metal fishing hooks. A generation later, and only a generation later, when conflict arose between the two, the Sioux went hungry because they had already forgotten how to make fishing hooks from bone. All it takes is one generation for institutional memory and competency to vanish.
I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This, Bob Newart
Memoir would be a better word for this than biography. Since I will not be having a memoir section, this will have to do. Celebrities have memoirs, and Bob Newhart is a celebrity.
Shouldn’t is a very funny book, but that is not the only reason I love it. I love it because it illustrates that success isn’t always instant and doesn’t always happen when we are young. In this memoir Newhart details how it was relatively late in life before he had any real success at all in entertainment. That is encouraging to us all, but especially those of us who are over forty and wondering if the best is not already behind us.
So these are my three top biographies. What three biographies do you recommend as the best?
Evangelical Culture and the Rise of Anti-Intellectualism
The willingness to allow novices in vital positions such as teaching has largely been the result of the anti-intellectual bias which set up household in the church beginning in the 1870’s. The slide toward anti-intellectualism has manifested itself in several ways. First, it has had a detrimental effect on the ability of evangelicals to look clearly and reflectively at the world around us. In fact, it has nearly destroyed the desire of evangelicals to engage in responsible intellectual discussion with the secular world—engaging it on its own terms. This desire appears to have been virtually eradicated among the varied fundamentalist movements within American evangelicalism. All this has evolved to the bewilderment of devout Christian scholars (including Jamie and I) whose commitment to Christian orthodoxy is strong, but find the anti-intellectual modus operandi among conservative evangelicals to be problematic for the health of the church.
This movement is in stark contrast to Paul’s willingness to engage the world on its own terms in the first century, Origen’s engagement with the secular polemics of Celsus in the third century (248 C.E.), and Augustine’s in the fifth century. In fact, Origen wrote eight such books, taking on the pagan philosopher on an intellectually respectable playing field, demonstrating the reasonable nature of faith. In the modern church, many of those who attempt to do this have been relegated to the margins of modern evangelicalism to the point where the most reflective among us keep their mouths closed while being expected to continue writing their tithe checks.
There is some irony in this process. The push toward anti-intellectualism in many churches has been legitimated largely because American universities (secular universities and even many within the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities) have been branded as “too secular” to be trusted with our young people. The irony lies in the fact that this has only served to perpetuate the secularization of the academy and to make Christian scholars more marginalized. If the academy is off limits to the devout believer, what will become of the academy? What would we expect? The world of academe will continue down the path of secularization if believers are encouraged to abandon the field. Is that what we do? Do we really desire to discourage believers from engaging certain groups of people with the gospel, only to complain later about how secular they are?
All in all, this trend has increased the acrimony between Christianity and the life of the mind and made the conservative evangelical environment less accepting of Christian intellectuals as well. Many academics, including me, have been shouted to the margins of a church culture that rules out reflection, dialogue, and questioning as if they were sure pathways to theological liberalism. Since higher education promotes these habits associated with the life of the mind, to be highly educated is often seen as synonymous with “liberal,” and liberal is viewed as unmitigated evil. The noisy reactions of an anti-intellectual crowd have made it much more difficult to hear the softer, more reasoned voices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer , C.S. Lewis, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, John Polkinhorne, and Gerd Theissen.
I wonder if even the great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, who believed in a great partnership between the Christian faith and the life of the mind, would be welcome in most modern American evangelical congregations.
As a result, when modern evangelicals are in need of their own intellectual resources to meet the challenges posed by modernity, secularism, postmodernism, or other faith traditions, as Noll says, they find that “the cupboard is nearly bare.” Why is it so bare? This war on expertise has created a church culture in which everyone with common sense is an expert. Well, in a setting where everyone is a so-called “expert,” the worst thing one can be is a true expert.
Back to the Bible Study Class
The several group members who began our discussion suggested that we should rely on a so called common-sense tack (often deceptively referred to as “plain” or “normal”) sought by many anti-intellectual approaches, which suggest that meaning in the scriptures is always readily apparent without disciplined study. The assumption here is that the Bible is written in common sense language, and anyone with a modicum of common sense will be able to comprehend its meaning. However, this “anyone with common sense should know” approach neglects the reality that our current definition of what is common sensical is a twenty-first century (it really began in the nineteenth century), Western definition. Applying this definition to a first century, Mediterranean text will hardly yield meaning which is self-evident. The confusion caused by this has led, even among churches employing a literalist approach to the scriptures, to studies in which various members sit and discuss what a passage means to them. This often results in a meaning that is chimerical at best, having little relation to the author’s intent.
What Should We Do?
1) The church must reclaim its place in Biblical and theological education. There was a time when solid doctrinal education was available at the local church. Those days are now behind us. At one time, Sunday morning Bible study consisted of expository journeys in the scriptures, while Sunday evenings offered training in topically based doctrinal studies. Those have been abandoned in favor of a de-skilled curriculum. The church has all but abandoned Biblical/theological education to the seminaries.
2) The church must re-evaluate the theological nature of its worship. As a result of our decline in Biblical and theological literacy, our worship has devolved into a ritual where we express our affection for God rather than reasoned consideration of God’s character. Thus, worship has focused on emotional catharsis rather than the dependable work of the one true God. Can this be emotional at times? Absolutely. However, our emotional response to God’s work must not take the focus away from the character of God himself. This more theologically sophisticated worship will not occur again until the church reclaims its intention to think about God in a more disciplined way.
3) The church needs intellectually prepared leaders. In order to accomplish the two previous prescriptions, the church must move toward placing leaders in key positions of teaching and worship who possess the intellectual and spiritual preparation to think about these priorities in more nuanced and mature ways. We will never have a church who thinks clearly about the scriptures until we have teachers who have done the thinking beforehand as well. We will never have more theologically informed worship until we have worship leaders who are more intentional regarding the theology behind the worship they lead.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.
John Polkinghorne, Faith, Science, and Understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Gerd Theissen, Biblical Faith: An Evolutionary Approach. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985, and Gerd Theissen, A Critical Faith: A Case for Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.
Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Charles Pierce. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. New York: Anchor Books, 2010.
This is the last re-posting I’ll make during the week of “Hallows Eve.” Next week I will return with original content; assuming I can come up with something. A bit of sadness marks this particular re-posting as the only living member of the “heroes on the wall club” died a couple of months ago.
I’ve spent some time this morning reflecting on the nature of All Saints Day and what it might mean for me; a Protestant who rejects using the word saint for anything other than a description of any Christ-follower; which is how the New Testament uses it. The problem is I completely understand the human impulse to want to emulate other human beings. I just think that perhaps the best word is not saint but maybe hero. So on this All Heroes Day I am thinking about those who have served as heroes for me. Their pictures hang in my study, just over the door. They hang high so they can watch me do my work. There are four of them.
C. S. Lewis. Lewis was not only a great writer but a great thinker. He reminds me of two things. One, he teaches me to be creative in my writing and in my preaching. The imagination is a powerful tool in doing the work of ministry. Second, his brilliant mind encourages me to think through things logically and critically; particularly issues of how the Christian faith interacts with the world around me.
Ernest Hemingway.Hemingway could never be characterized as Christian, but he still teaches me something that relates to my work. Hemingway wrote what he knew and he wrote it precisely and concisely. His stories, though fictional, are always anchored to his real world experiences. This gives him credibility in his subject matter that comes through on the page. I need to keep that in mind if I am to keep credibility in my daily life and my ministry. I must stick to what I know and not pretend to be an expert on things I don’t know about. When I write, I should center my stories in a setting about which I am conversant.
C. H. Spurgeon. Spurgeon is still the Prince of Preachers even though he’s been dead a very long time. Like Lewis, Spurgeon teaches me multiple lessons about my ministry. One, he encourages me that being a Baptist is not a bad thing. Second, he affirms that controversy is not bad either. Most of Spurgeon’s ministry was bathed in one controversy or another and whenever there was a lull, he invented it! Spurgeon was a very complicated man whom the Lord used to do wonderful things. May I be as blessed.
Calvin Miller. I’d never heard of this great leader until I attended Southwestern Seminary. It was hearing him preach in chapel one day that I realized I could be me—who I was—and not a cookie cutter product of a bland seminary. But as I learned from him at Southwestern and later at Beeson he opened my eyes to a fundamental truth that informs my sermonizing: The sermon has work to do, and as the preacher my job is to accomplish the work which the text demands. A non-preacher might not understand that, but it is easy to get sidetracked in the preaching task and lose sight of the fundamental work of the text, which must be accomplished in the sermon.
Photos of these four people hang in my study and watch me. I will probably add Bonhoeffer sometime this year, and who knows the great cloud of witnesses may grow over the years. These heroes keep me focused; and provide a path for me to travel.
O Almighty God, who has knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou has prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (BCP–Collect for All Saints Day)
Yesterday I finished reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. I had read selections in the past, but never had I read the whole book. My methodology was steady. I began reading it back in February and I read small snippets every day as a part of my regular devotion plan. That is why it took me so long to read it. For me this was very difficult because my instinct was to devour it.
The book is a compilation from Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment by the Nazi’s from 1943 to 1945. The letters are primarily between him and his parents, his fiance, and Eberhard Bethge. The letters to his parents reveal the portrait of a devoted son who is annoyed that his parents are living in such troubled and violent times. His writings to Maria, his fiance, are harder to follow, at least for me. They lack the emotional zeal one might expect for unrequited love. Don’t get me wrong, he clearly loves her, but he doesn’t speak of it in the emotive way.
The letters to Eberhard Bethge, however, which are the most numerous and the longest, are fascinating. Bonhoeffer speaks more of his soul and heart to Bethge than anyone. Bethge was a student of his at the illegal seminary in Finkenwalde and later married his niece Renate. It is to Bethge that he discusses theology, philosophy, and his view of where the world was, is and is going.
The letters humanize Bonhoeffer for me in a way that Life Together or Cost of Discipleship, or even Metaxas wonderful biography do not. He is constantly asking for his family to bring writing paper, tobacco, and in one letter he even asks for a laxative. In letter after letter he insists that his family not send him food; that they should eat it and he gives instructions on what to do with his things or even, most frequently, which books he’d like them to bring for him to read.
The coded spy language also stood out to me. The edition of the book I have has great notes at the end of each section that detailed what was really meant. Some of the letters were smuggled illegally, and you can tell which those were by the tone, but many went through the hand of censor and Bonhoeffer and Bethge used careful allusions and codes to refer to their secret work of trying to assassinate Hitler. I also found clever, especially early on, how his letters were written more to the censor than to others, hoping to convince his captors that it was all a mistake that he was imprisoned. However, by later all of this pretense is dropped as Bonhoeffer knows the end is coming.
In his theological reflections Bonhoeffer was working on a hypothesis that the human race was “growing up” out of adolescence and into a spiritual and intellectual adulthood. He seemed to view the war, the Nazi’s and the present evil he lived in as the last gasp of teenage type angst. The adulthood would be a Christian community which was more mature and that had grown past the trappings of “religion.” Because he never had time to properly work through his ideas it is hard to know exactly what he had in mind, but to me it seemed he thought Christ-followers had come to a place where “religion” and “church” had become so co-opted by people not interested in following Christ at all that something new was needed–something that was “religion-less”.
There were several times that I broke down and wept while reading, or that I would find myself praying backwards–“Lord, comfort this man in his imprisonment and in his affliction.” On April 9, 1945 at the concentration camp in Flossenburg he was executed.