The Joy of Meaty Christian Biographies

A picture of thick, old books stacked and piled on a bookshelf.

It is counter cultural, anti-twitteral, and to many people simply a colossal waste of time.  But not to wise people.  For them it’s a joy and sometimes a feast!  I am talking about reading meaty biographies.

Do you read?  Do you read biographies?  Do you ever read meaty biographies, where you literally immerse yourself in someone’s life?

A few years ago, the fourth installment of Robert  Caro’s, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson came out.  Then there was the final volume of the series started by William Manchester on the life of Winston Churchill.  I’ll take Churchill over LBJ any day.

I love biographies.  I’ve recently read biographies of Augustine, Mozart, and C.S. Lewis.

Meaty Christian biographies can be a feast.  The two volume biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the 20th century pastor-preacher by Iain Murray  was a spiritual treat.  The two volume biography of 18th century evangelist George Whitefield, by Arnold Dallimore, sparked revival in my life.   And the two volume Biography of John Stott, by Timothy Dudley-Smith re-aquainted me with 20th century evangelical history.

Why read a good biography and especially Christian biography?  I can think of lots of reasons.  Here’s what a good biography does for me.

First, biographies are a great way to relax.  Like picking up a good novel, you can escape and go somewhere else.  Martin Lloyd-Jones once said, “when I need a vacation, I go to the 18th century!”  He would go there by reading the lives of other Christians during the Great Awakening.  Entering another world, is way to wind down.

Second, biographies help you get to know a significant person and their times. Certain people cast long shadows and  are worth getting to know.  Scripture sometimes slows down to highlight certain lives.  It does this with Abraham, Moses, David, Paul and Peter.   Some of its biographical sketches are long.  Some of them are bite-size—as is Hebrews 11.

Besides that, a biography is a slice of history.  Good ones are written with a wide angle lens.  Read on Whitfield and you will learn about colonial America before the Revolution.  Read about Spurgeon, and you will get a better understanding of Victorian England.  Read on Lewis and you travel to mid 20th century Oxford.  Biographies help you see how God uses broader movements to influence individuals, who then influence their age.

Fourth, great biographies inspire.  I recently read the biography of RTS’s founding president Sam Patterson, who was an evangelist, and I came away convicted about the importance of sharing my faith.  I read the biography of missionary Jim Elliot and was challenged to be more courageous for Christ.  Reading on Mozart, challenged me with the power of beauty.  Reading about Steve Jobs challenged me about the importance (and hazards) of single minded passion.

Fifth, the best biographies do more than inspire, they push me towards godliness.

Reading Augustine’s life, showed me his driving ambition and joy quest early in life.  It reminded me that nothing satisfies but God alone.  Dallimore’s description of Whitefield showed me someone who served Christ relentlessly to the very end of his life.  It inspires me to want to do the same.

Biographies help us see that we are not the first to deal with certain things.  Others have been there.  Others have dealt with criticism, received persecution, wrestled with depression.  Biographies reminds me that God uses flawed saints to do his work.  In fact, he uses  all kinds of leaders to build his church– introverts like Calvin, extroverts like Moody, depressed people like Spurgeon, hypochondriacs like Billy Graham, and people who flunk math like C.S. Lewis.

That gives me hope!

I remember having a conversation with Larry Crabb about what fends off discouragement in ministry.  Both of us discovered that God uses Christian biographies to save us from discouragement and pride.

Finally, great biographies provide friends for ministry.  Some of the giants become FFL (friends for life).   Calvin had Augustine, and Luther had Bucer.  Spurgeon admired Whitefield.  Alexander Whyte had Puritan Thomas Goodwin. John Piper had Jonathan Edwards.  Keller had Martyn Lloyd Jones.  Packer had John Owen, B.B. Warfield and John Calvin. All of these guys were encouraged by becoming deeply acquainted with saints who had gone before them.

The goal, of course, is not mimic them, but to be who God created you to be, yet draw on theirwisdom and encouragement.

One of my former pastors while growing up, Warren Wiersbe, simply called this—“walking with the giants.”   Great biographies bring many blessings to us, but walking with and standing on the shoulders of giants, so we can see further, is surely one of the best benefits of all.

Categories: Books, Christian Leadership, History