One of the big influences in my teaching and my theological work has been a passion for life stories, biographies. Jim McClendon’s Biography as Theology has been an inspiration. I’ve found lots of people respond most to life stories as a way of understanding faith, perhaps by relating other peoples’ stories to their own.
Back in 1989 I read a superb article in the journal Expository Times Vol. 100, on ‘The Pastor and Biography’ by G. A. Patrick, which set out how helpful the study of biographies can be for pastors, preachers and theologians.
My notes from that article offer me some gems, which have ‘composted’ with me over the years.
Here are several things:
First, a quotation from Felicitas Corrigan, in a book called Helen Waddell:
‘It takes a long time before one realizes that the interruptions are as much a part of life as the things they interrupt; and I suppose by the time we’ve quite realized it, we’re ready for the last interruption, which is Death.’
Someone remarked that this is true, too, of the Gospels’ representation of Jesus’ life and ministry. Many of his healing encounters were occasions of interruption, and some of his declarations or teachings are set in stories of interruptions, while he was en route to something or somewhere else.
Then the article goes on to list 7 key points about the value of biography for pastors:
1. Emphasis on the principle of incarnation. It is in real life that the truth of our faith is made known (or not at all!).
2. Biographies indicate the power of influence, of one life on another.
3. They also show the value of each individual: ‘biography presupposes an intense interest in and conviction of the worth of individual life.’
4. Biography also emphasizes our common humanity, which can be of real value in assuring people that they are not alone in their difficulties or struggle.
5. Biographies also raise the puzzle of what makes people as they are: the old questions of determinism, ‘nature or nurture’. Many lives tell the story too of the paradox of a twisted or wretched life in which also there was great beauty or talent. There is a mystery in life and in life stories, which can give us all hope.
6. There is also a limitation in biography: this is one life story, or one version of that life, and never completely captures the whole, the person.
7. Through all this, biography provides us with opportunity for growth in self-understanding. As we study other lives, ‘we gain in knowledge of ourselves’, which is ‘necessary for Christian growth in maturity and grace’, Patrick so rightly says.
I like to tell life stories to my students in theology, and I have enjoyed the times when I’ve taught a unit on theology through biography. This is a part of my early formation that has produced much benefit for me. It’s become a part of my life story.