Subscribe to Christianity Today
By Harry S. Stout
Biography as Battleground
If we look at Scripture we can see virtually every type of history-writing. There is political and military history, the history of religions, and social history. As well there is the history of populations and migration. Legal and economic history abounds. But most of all, there is biography. At its most basic, Scripture is a massive stringing together of the lives of faithful (and faithless) human beings from Adam and Eve through Jesus Christ, Judas Iscariot, and the founding generation of the Christian church.
This biographical focus is not surprising. While it is true that history is about great impersonal forces and movements, institutions and events, short-term "triggers" and long-term evolutions, it is first and foremost about human beings responding to the world they inherit in irreducibly personal and idiosyncratic ways. History is most authentic and personal at the individual level. What better way for Scripture to communicate the personal dimensions of saving faith than through biography? And what better way for subsequent generations of Christian historians communicating the progress of faith over time to serve their readers than through biography?
Yet precisely because religious biography is so personal it is also the most contested form of history-writing. Biographers claim their subjects as their own--and so do readers. When different groups with different agendas claim the same subject--as has happened, for example, with a number of recent books and films about Malcolm X--there is inevitably a contest to control memories in ways that reinforce one constituency or another.
Such tensions can also reside within the soul of the individual historian. It is, I think, one of the more striking facts about Christians writing history that until this generation the vast majority of Christian historians wrote biographies of the faithful. But this generation of professional Christian historians has not been drawn to biography. I'm not sure of all the reasons for this, ...