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Professor Howdy said...

Reading Between the Lines

On any given week, three to five biographies make The New York Times best-sellers 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. Ancient Hebrew Scriptures, 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 Thomas Carlyle writes, "Biography is the most universally pleasant and profitable of all
reading." These 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 struggle we find wearying is given meaning in the story of one who overcame much or the account of one who lived beautifully 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.

The Christian worldview embraces a similar idea. 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" (11:1). 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 are given an image of faith moving across the pages of history, the gift of God in the strange stories 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 functionally as much as philosophically, and that faith itself is more fully understood by looking at the lives of the faithful. For in between the lines that describe faithful men and women is the God who makes faith possible in the first place.

At the end of his compelling list, the writer of Hebrews concludes that since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we are likewise invited to run with the thought of God's enduring influence, confident that God is moving 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.

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