Monday, 9 September 2013

The Danger in Reading Good Biographies

Heroes inspire us.  Stories and experiences are captivating.  The Old and New Testaments are chock full of inspiring stories, and they are there for us to learn from.  While our family loves reading biographies, and have recently been reading some good ones, here are some things to keep in mind while reading a good biography.

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Danger #1 - Using the historical account as the measuring line for truth or practice

We should not formulate our theology or philosophy based on stories or experiences of famous or godly people.  Some in the modern Christian church have based new methods and new theology on experience or expedience; possibly best illustrated by the "New Methods" of C.G. Finney (1) that have almost universally influenced the western church today.  We, however, must always turn to the principles and precepts in Scripture to measure the truth in what we have read.  Relying on our own (or others') interpretation of the experiences of famous people in order to determine what is right vs. wrong and how we should live will almost always lead to error.  We are fallible, and we cannot even rely on our interpretation of our own experience.

Danger #2 - Comparing ourselves with the subject 

Secondly, if biographies or records of experience become our measuring line, we are in danger of despondency.  Henry Venn warns against using others as models:

'Again: in reading the life of a Christian, when his spirit and manner of life are highly to be admired, we are often tempted to despond. We compare ourselves with his shining attainments; and feeling at so great a distance, we grow dissatisfied, and can scarcely think that what God has done for us deserves any consideration, or believe that we are in a state of grace and salvation. Our pride (though we do not perceive it) is hurt, and self love is mortified, to see we are so outdone. The good hope we were willing to entertain of our faith in Christ, and union with Him, is ready to fail, because we are no better. The spiritual riches, in which the saint seems so to abound, makes our own poverty apparent and undeniable. Consequently, we feel much uneasiness and vexation; and are apt to conclude we are unfit to die, and ought not even to be called Christians, till we are exactly or nearly, such as the blessed saint whose history is before us.  ... Yet why should this disquiet our souls? We are not accepted or beloved for our own excellencies, but for Christ's sake, from the goodness of God; and two no less than ten talents may be used, and will be most amply and gloriously rewarded. We ought to be comforted and animated from the consideration, that whatever the most eminent saints possess, it is received from the same inexhaustible Fountain, of which all the Children of God partake; and that there is in reality, though in miniature, every feature in the least and lowest Child of God, which is so prominent and beautiful in the fairest of the saints.' (2)

Danger #3 - Forgetting reality

How we discharge our daily duties is more important than being fixated on a great hero.  This principle is stated well in the introduction to the book Great Achievements of Military Men, Statesmen, and Others:
'It is probably allotted to few to achieve great things in an average lifetime; the common duties of every day bounding and filling up the horizon, and giving no opportunity for the performance of any great deeds, or any displays of talent or heroism, which might challenge the admiration of the world. Perhaps the best kind of heroism is that which displays itself in the cheerful and right performance of daily duty, of which the world shall hear little or nothing.  Doing right and guiding one's own life wisely and prudently may be considered as no mean performance, and a task in which some of those blessed with great talent and genius have not always succeeded. ... It is nonetheless interesting and important, however, to keep great examples and the heroic deeds of of the world's greatest ones before the mind.  These examples have a stimulating and invigorating effect on character.' (3)

In conclusion...

We love a good biography and are so thankful for the Christians and other men and women who have set an example before us, and the care others have taken in chronicling their lives, complete with achievements and struggles.  However, it is important to remember when reading biographies on your own, or with your children, that the subjects of these books were sinners too, who should serve as encouragements to live our days with fortitude and joy, always looking to God's Word as the measure for how we should live.

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1. The "New Methods" of C.G. Finny will be discussed in a future post.
2. The Life and a Selection of Letters of Henry Venn (1835, repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993), p. 581. Iain H. Murray also quotes material from the same section in Pentacost Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), pp 126-7.  Murray's book is an exceptional read.
3. Great Achievements of Military Men, Statesmen, and Others, Edinburgh, W.P. Nimmo, Hay, and Mitchell.  No date. We picked our copy up at an antique shop.


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