The One Problem With Christian Biography

If you go to and look at the list of 10 Great Christian Biographies by Al Mohler, you will see some great books. And you will see some of the same great books if you look at John Piper’s list. And a few different ones also. They may differ a little but are so similar as to almost be indistinguishable. And they look like almost anyone else’s. Mainly because they all have one thing in common.

Nearly every Christian biography is of a person in vocational ministry. They are either a pastor, missionary or theologian. The one exception is C.S. Lewis. But he preached and taught on faith. He was not a vocational minister but he is famous for much of he would have done if he were one.

So here is the problem: most recommended christian biographies are about vocational pastors and missionaries even though most Christians are not vocational pastors or missionaries.

I’m trying to connect the dots here.

OK, I don’t blame Mohler and Piper or anyone else for that matter for this. It makes sense they would recommend these books. For two reasons: First, those who recommend are pastors. They will read books about pastors. These are the books they know. It’s natural.  Second,  What else is there?

A college student I follow on Twitter asked once about books on christian missionaries. I told her to read about a Christian banker first. I knew I was asking her to find the impossible (and probably being a little too snarky) but I wanted to make a point. She is not training to be a vocational missionary. She is going to be a teacher, I think.

I want young people like her to learn how to live out the Christian life in vocations that are not full-time ministry.

Often we leave people – particularly the young – the impression Christianity is best lived out in the context of full time ministry. Whether we say it or not, we give the impression, if you want to live out the Christian life the straightest path to that goal is through pastoral fields of ministry. Which is really just a short trip to believing that if you were really spiritual, you would be a minister or missionary.

This has not happened because of some nefarious scheme. We just don’t have the imagination to see the spirituality of banking and waiting tables and landscaping. We cannot see the goodness of accounting, food service and mowing. And so we look past it. Probably assuming God is doing the same.

No wonder most Christians can only think of the Christian life in terms of morality, church attendance and evangelism.

So we celebrate the pastors and the theologians who are doing the important work by reading about them and doing our best to be like them while not being like them. Because Christian biography pretty much equals biography of pastor or missionary in our collective minds and hearts.

I wonder if frustration ever sets in.

Actually I’ve heard the frustration in myself. Back when I was sitting in a cubicle, waiting to go to Seminary, I probably said…certainly thought, “I wish I could go ahead and start doing something extraordinary/important/spiritual instead of this 8-5 mundane routine.” I wanted to move on to the spiritual stuff.

I had no vision for living out the Christian life where I was. I had no imgaintion for a spirituality in the midst of the mundane.

The answer of course is not to stop writing or reading Christian biography. But we do need to work to create a context in which the great majority of the church is not left to thinking their work is business-class spirituality, while the pastor and missionary are first-class. Pastors can do this from the pulpit but also they can do it by telling stories of faithfulness in the marketplace – the world where most of their people are week-in and week-out.

(Next week I’ll try to have a list of biographies of Christians who were not vocational pastors or missionaries. Or athletes. Or musicians. If you know of any, let me know.)

9 thoughts on “The One Problem With Christian Biography

  1. Dudley June 7, 2011 / 9:36 pm

    Truitt Cathy (not sure of spelling) of Chick-fil-a.

  2. Dudley June 8, 2011 / 2:13 am

    Captain Tom Ryman, riverboat captain that build the Ryman Theater (not original name) for evangelist Sam Jones to preach in.

  3. Woody June 8, 2011 / 11:00 am

    R G LeTorneau founder of what became Catepillar if memory serves. And bob briner, Roaring Lambs

  4. Matthew B. Redmond June 8, 2011 / 12:03 pm

    Woody, I know about Roaring Lambs but I'm unfamiliar with the other. I'll check it out.

  5. Woody June 9, 2011 / 2:00 am

    On the lighter side. "Let's roll!" by Lisa Beamer about Todd Beamer from the 9/11 tragedy.

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