On any given week, three to five biographies make The New York Times best-seller list for non-fiction. Though historical biographies have changed with time, human interest in the genre is long-standing. The first known biographies were commissioned by ancient rulers to assure records of their accomplishments. The Old Testament writings, detailing the lives of patriarchs, prophets, and kings, are also some of the earliest biographies in existence. Throughout the Middle Ages, biographical histories were largely in the hands of monks; lives of martyrs and church fathers were recorded with the intention of edifying readers for years to come. Over time and with the invention of the printing press, biographies became increasingly influential and widely read, portraying a larger array of lives and their stories.
The popularity of the genre is understandable. As writer Thomas Carlyle once said, “Biography is the most universally pleasant and profitable of all reading.” Such books are pleasant because in reading the accounts of men and women in history, we find ourselves living in many places. They are profitable because in doing so, we hear fragments of our own stories. The questions and thoughts we considered our own suddenly appear before us in the life of another. The afflictions we find wearying are given meaning in the story of one who overcame much or the life of one who found hope in the midst of loss. Perhaps we move toward biography because we seem to know that life is too short to learn only by our own experience.
Christianity embraces a similar thought. The most direct attempt in Scripture to define faith is done so by the writer of Hebrews. The eleventh chapter begins, “Now faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.” To be honest, it is a definition that has always somewhat eluded me, and I was thankful to read I am not alone. John Wesley once observed of the same words, “There appears to be a depth in them, which I am in no wise able to fathom.” Perhaps recognizing the weight and mystery of faith and the difficulty of defining it, the writer of Hebrews immediately moves from this definition to descriptions of men and women who have lived “sure of hope” and “certain of the unseen.” From Noah and Abraham, to Rahab and saints left unnamed, we find faith moving across the pages of history, the gift of God sparkling in the eyes of the faithful, the hope by which countless lives were guided. In this brief gathering of biographies, the writer seems to tell us that faith is understood practically as much as philosophically, and that our own faith is more fully understood by looking at lives God has changed long before ours. For in between the lives that describe any faithful man or woman is the vicarious humanity of the Son of God who makes faith possible in the first place.
At the end of his compelling list, the writer of Hebrews thus concludes: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” The lives of those who followed Christ before us urge one other onward, strengthening hearts with stories of faith, stirring lives at the thought of Christ’s real invitation, reminding us that God moves in our biographies and yet beyond them.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.