Don’t Underestimate the Impact of Christian Biography on Young People

IMG_2032This week I picked up Eric Metaxas’ latest book 7 Women and the Secrets of their Greatness, which provides an introductory overview of the lives of Joan of Arc, Susanna Wesley, Hannah More, Saint Maria of Paris, Corrie Ten Boom, Rosa Parks and Mother Theresa.

I bought it for two reasons. Firstly, because I’ve been lecturing a new undergraduate unit Beyond Sunday: Introduction to Faith, Life and Work and wanted to include a couple of shorter biographical snapshots among the more didactic readings on vocation, cultural renewal and the common good.

But secondly, I also thought they may be interesting for my eldest daughter, who is currently devouring books like potato chips.  As a child, I was enamoured with the lives of various heroes of the Christian faith.

Metaxas’ inclusion of Corrie ten Boom got me looking for my old copy of her autobiography The Hiding Place which my parents gave me sometime between late childhood and my early teens. It was a daring gift on their part, for ten Boom’s story of hiding Jews in her house to escape the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Holland isn’t the usual childhood reading. I found it enthralling.

Soon after, I came across The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson, telling the famous story of his multiple attempts to reach into projects of New York, including the gangs of Harlem, attempting to proclaim the gospel. At church we watched the groovy 70’s film adaptation (see link below). As a kid, I was captivated by the image of urban mission, especially with the gang leader Nicky Cruz, who surprisingly breaks down and gives his life to Jesus in the climax of the film. I read his autobiography Run Baby Run soon after, and was compelled by it, as much by the gritty New York gang life as by the way the gospel changed his life.

Around that time, we also watched a film at church on the missionary Hudson Taylor, following his extraordinary efforts in China through his sensitivity to the culture.

Then I found and read two biographies of Billy Graham, one on his conversion as a young man, and the other which outlined the history of his evangelistic crusades city by city across the world.

As a birthday present, I was also given a biography of the African missionary and explorer David Livingstone, which I found totally exciting,  perhaps because he seemed a little like a Christian Indiana Jones.

I can’t help reflecting that these biographies formed an important part of my young spiritual formation.
They created worlds inside my young mind of costly discipleship and daring mission. Of course I also benefited from regular Sunday School and youth ministry as well – the sermons, mentoring and bible studies – but complimenting the safe suburban examples of faithfulness around me, I also had these other narratives which meant I saw myself as belonging to a movement of embodied faith on profound adventure in the wider world. The ordinary and the extraordinary.

C.S. Lewis points out that while Reason is the natural organ of Truth, “Imagination is the organ of Meaning”, which is to say that we don’t really grasp the meaning of words or concepts until we have a clear image that we can connect with it. Just hearing didactic teaching is often not sufficient for full understanding, and we grasp for illustrations and examples to bring clarity.

The power of biography is that it takes this further by making the abstract more concrete and immediate. It also contextualises information, which builds a mental setting for new information to be framed. Plus it facilitates a relatable emotional experience, which is proven to solidify knowledge and memory. 

Reading Christian biography also furnishes the mind with detailed, embodied examples of the subtle complexity of living the faith. And I think this can shape our default assumptions about what is a ‘normal Christian life’.

For example, reading Corrie ten Boom’s daring story so young meant that I probably absorbed at a very early age the assumption that Christian faith may at times call us to costly resistance against authority. Similarly, reading through her time in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp builds in assumptions that suffering happens to God’s people, and that God is faithful. That is a truth not easily conveyed in a didactic teaching, especially for young people, it must also be caught through experience, or encountered through narrative where it rings richly true, as reason and meaning combine.

I also reflect on the wonderful benefit, as a young man, of learning about such a courageous Christian hero who is female.

Another example: in the film of Hudson Taylor, I distinctly recall a scene where his fellow missionaries mock him for being the first to adopt to wearing the local dress. Yet he is determined to overcome cultural hurdles in his missional work, to incredibly effect. That image has stayed with me, and I wonder what role it played in informing my inclinations as I came to read about incarnation missional as an adult. I wonder how it prepared my assumed worldview on how the church might properly engage her cultural surroundings in being faithful to the proclamation of the gospel?

I wish I’d read more, of Wesley and Wilberforce and others. Although a little later I did I find The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, on a friend’s shelf, which even at age 12 range hilariously true, and perhaps helped realise its healthy to have a sense of humour regarding the idiosyncrasies and some pretensions of some aspects of church life.

The fact that I not only recall the biographies mentioned above, but reflect on them fondly years later is telling. As to the unique way their stories of mission, risk, suffering, and faithfulness can shape and enrich young people’s understanding of Christian faith is worthwhile of consideration.

Don’t underrate the importance of Christian biography for young people.