By Chris Hulshof
I sat staring at the course syllabus. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. One of the reading assignments for the class was to select a biography related to either the course content or our dissertation topic.
I tried to recall the last time I’d read a biography. As best I could remember, it was my 10th grade English class. It had been awhile.
I was writing on theology and disability and selected a biography on Fanny Crosby. Twenty-five pages into Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby, I was hooked.
I couldn’t wait to sit down with my cohort and talk about the personal and theological insights I gleaned from reading about this legendary hymn writer whose life was impacted by disability. Her story was influencing my story many years after hers was complete.
When the course ended, I determined to include more biographies in my reading list. In doing so, I’ve identified four ways that reading biographies can be beneficial for personal and spiritual growth.
Biographies can present you with a different kind of knowledge.
It’s very easy for those in ministry to become one-dimensional readers. We tend to look for books that accentuate either ministerial or theological elements. In other words, we’re often more apt to select books that highlight skills we want to develop or theological insights we want to fine-tune or explore in our reading.
In doing so, we regularly build a certain skill set or theological mindset tied to the exploration of biblical truth within the context of ministry and theology. However, a good biography will expose the reader to biblical truth that’s been experientially learned through the course of life.
It is one thing to read a theological exposition on how God is present in the midst of suffering and quite another thing to read how an individual came to experience the presence of God in the midst of their suffering.
Biographies can be sources for good illustrations.
Every pastor, teacher, or communicator is always on the lookout for good illustrations. We plumb things like movies, current events, and our own personal life for stories that help picturesquely explain the point we’re trying to make.
One underused source for illustrations is the biography. Reading a biography connects you to true stories that left an indelible mark on an individual. These stories often contain life connections that can easily be transmitted from book reader to sermon listener.
Read and reread their stories until you’re able to tell their story in your own voice and your own manner. Then, when you need to you’ll be able to draw on these real-life examples in order to help your audience understand the significance of what you’re saying.
Biographies can help grow your reading tree.
Writer Austin Kleon notes a skill he calls “climbing your own family tree.” For Kleon, this involves identifying a thinker you enjoy reading about and then studying all you can about them. As you’re doing this, single out three people your selected thinker learned from and get to know those three people as well.
Climbing your own family tree is a skill that works well with biographies. As you get to know the person you’re reading about, you’ll certainly come across people who made an influence on that person’s life. Attention to this detail will give you other “branches” to climb and more to learn.
You’ll be surprised at the breadth of your learning and study if you make a concerted effort to explore the personal influencers of those who are currently shaping you through your reading.
Biographies can aid in faith formation as the faith is passed from one generation to the next.
On a number of occasions, Scripture identify the value of passing on the faith from one generation to another. Judges 2:10 points us to the spiritual decay that impacted Israel because a new generation of Israelites rose up that, “did not know the Lord or the works he had done for Israel.” The psalmist declares “One generation will declare your works to the next and will proclaim your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4).
In a sense, a biography on a past hero of the faith can help prevent the problem mentioned in Judges and encourage the testimony proclaimed in Psalms. As we read about how God worked in the life of an individual, what a person learned about God as they walked with God, or the sustaining power of God’s grace in difficult circumstances, we take part in the faith handed down (Jude 3).
I’ve made a conscious decision to read more biographies. Consequently, I’ve been able to communicate truths I’ve learned from those who’ve gone before me to those who currently sit in my classroom. In so doing, not only am I receiving the faith handed down, but I’m also continuing to hand down the faith to others.
The old adage is that leaders are readers. However, I think it’s more than that. Good leaders are good readers who are mindful of what they’re reading.
To that end, a good leader recognizes the impact a biography can make on their life and their leadership as they seek to incorporate these life stories into their personal reading list.
CHRIS HULSHOF (@US_EH) is an Associate Professor and Department Chair for Liberty University’s School of Divinity where he teaches Old Testament Survey, Inductive Bible Study, as well as a Theology of Suffering and Disability. He also earned an Ed.D from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where his research was at the intersection of Disabilities, Theology, and Church Ministry.