Three thoughts converged in a mellow mood…
Strand one found me talking with someone who runs a Christian bookshop. She commented that so many Christians aren’t familiar with the great missionary biographies that Christians of a previous generation were—the stories of Corrie ten Boom, Jim Elliot, Hudson Taylor, James Fraser, Amy Carmichael, John Paton, etc. Of course every generation needs its new heroes in a sense, but as she saw it, there was a general lack of reading biography.
Strand two came via email alerts of discounted Christian ebooks. Sometimes there are bargains on great books—but I’ve been surprised at the vast amount of Christian fiction out there. The genre isn’t new to me, but seeing wave after wave of titles is.
Strand three came while I was working on a sermon on Nehemiah 2 about daring faith, and was pondering why we see so little by way of daring faith—people engaged in what missionary David Sitton calls 'Reckless Abandon', and what David Platt calls ‘radical Christian living’.
For me, one of the great catalysts to faith-filled living is the reading of the faith-filled lives of God’s people in the past—i.e. Christian biography. And so three strands converged…
Now I’m not going to hang the problem of ‘playing it safe Christianity’ on the single hook of Christian fiction but it struck me as symptomatic of a wider problem—do we read enough Christian biography?
There can’t be anything wrong with Christian fiction as a concept—after all Jesus told parables. John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, the second greatest selling book of all time according to some sources. And over Easter I read the excellent The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz—a fictional account of three Scandinavian ministers coming to grasp the reality of the power of grace—a wonderful teaching tool.
But in a brief survey of the history of Christian fiction, as far as I can see, there wasn’t much from _Pilgrim’s Progress _in 1670 until 1898 with the publication of In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. But since the 1950’s there has been a veritable flood for adults. Where once the staple diet of adult Christians was biography, I wonder if for the decreasing minority who read, has that staple diet shifted to fiction?
I understand that fiction can provide a gateway opportunity for the gospel, and that it can provide learning opportunities for Christians. But here’s where it falls short:
God is absent.
Even when the book is about God—in a profound way God is absent. It’s not about something God actually did in real time and history. It’s not about what a real flesh and blood Christian did in response to God’s real grace in their lives. And because the real God isn’t acting in real lives, it lacks the inspiring power of a true story.
Biography in particular is a must for every Christian—we are to be students of God’s word and works. When we read biography we see the ongoing work of the unchanging God. We all know fiction is fiction—and it doesn’t fire our faith in the same way that Jim Elliot’s story does, or James Fraser’s, or John & Betty Stam’s.
Christians will not get up and go reach the Idu of north-east India, or the Pahari of Nepal, because they read of the actions of a daring fictional Christian fireman. Will Christian faith be fed, and shine the more brightly in the midst of tragedy through reading about the trials of some fictional heroine, or the reading of Helen Roseveare’s God-enabled response to brutality?
A Griffith John or a Helen Roseveare lets us see what God does through the actions of ordinary men and women like us. Biography shows the real struggles, as well as the glorious triumphs, of faith. At least it should do—and if Christian readers are to be challenged to read biography, Christian writers need to be challenged to avoid hagiography—give us no plaster saints; show us something we can be by God’s grace.
So really this is an extended plea for the reading of biography—read Christian fiction if you wish, as some sort of guilty pleasure, but for every one you read, read something true. And if you don’t read Christian fiction—nevertheless, what was the last biography you read, and what is the next?
And you may find that the road less travelled makes all the difference...