History: Reading Biography

When I was in elementary school, I discovered the joy of reading biographies. In my mind's eye, I can still see the shelf containing a series about important figures in American history. I loved the stories and was disappointed when I finished the last book. First impressions leave a mark, so I retained a rather idealistic view of these people, which was probably the goal of the series. Thus, when I was required to read a biography of George Washington in my first (and only) college history class, I was exposed to much more than the cherry tree and the crossing of the Delaware. The text was in-depth and well researched, but the iconic figure was not the larger-than-life hero I remembered. He was human and quite fallible, and I was a bit disillusioned. But perhaps the humanity of the subject is one of the benefits of reading biographies.

This may be an obvious statement, but biographies are about real people. They are not about fictional characters, superheroes, or even super-saints. Their subjects are also not just producers of output that I value, mere channels for great works of theology, literature, music, art, science, and statecraft. These people have bodies and souls and suffer adversity and physical and mental illness. Sometimes these struggles are overcome, but oftentimes they remain. Acknowledging this aspect of their lives respects their humanity and gives me a greater appreciation of what they were able to accomplish. For example, I am always encouraged by the works of Charles Spurgeon, and yet he suffered intense depression. Knowing this makes the encouragement sweeter because it came at a cost.

Reading about the human side of those I admire, and of bygone saints in particular, also keeps me from putting them on a pedestal. If I am only willing to hear the good but no critique, I probably do not have a very accurate picture of the person in question. After all, the Bible does not gloss over the sins and struggles of faithful men and women. It is honest in its assessment of people, and I should do likewise. The figures in the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 had their share of serious faults and failings. The apostle Paul wrote, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ,” (1 Cor. 11:1) but he did not hide the fact that he was formerly a persecutor of the church. The only perfect human to walk this earth was Jesus Christ, and yet God is gracious to save sinners. He is faithful to transform them for kingdom service in his providence, and recognizing this faithful providence may be the most important benefit of reading biographies.

While I can't lose sight that real people are the subjects, there is also a real God involved in every aspect of history. Just the fact that the human race has survived thus far and not destroyed itself through our own folly and sin is a testimony to his kindness. From headline-making incidents down to boring every day life, there are no random events; there are no random people. And when it comes to the history of the church, the fact that Christianity continues to exist and even thrive in the most unlikely places is proof that his hand is quite active. How many times have you read the story of the person who “just happened” to be in the right place at the right time to hear the gospel? The tract, book, or open Bible that “by chance” was lying within reach? What circumstances were tailor-made to develop the minds, hearts, and characters of faithful brothers and sisters who have stood for truth down through the ages? It is amazing to think of how God has orchestrated these details the half of which has not been told.

So when I open the pages of a biography, this is the story of a real person with gifts, accomplishments, strengths, and weaknesses. But the real hero behind the scenes is God himself who works all things in human history according to the counsel of his will.

Persis Lorenti is member of Grace Baptist Chapel in Hampton, VA where she serves as bookkeeper and deacon of library/resources. She has a M.S. in computer science from Virginia Commonwealth University. She blogs at triedbyfire.blogspot.com and out-of-theordinary.blogspot.com. You can follow her on Twitter @triedwfire.

Persis Lorenti