In one of my latest posts, I wrote that children need to know that God is the Hero of history more than they need to know heroes. This is not meant as a depreciation of great men and women of church history, but as a recognition of God’s hand at work in the lives of His children. Heroes could never be so without God.
Appreciation for Heroes
I have a great admiration for the characters of my first three children’s books and I would love to have one tenth of their devotion to God. As I studied their lives, I came to appreciate more than ever their persistence, their love for the church, their wisdom, and many other virtues. Their samples have come to my mind many times.
They have even helped me with my writings – John Calvin, with his clarity, accuracy, and refusal to write about something that was not certain in his mind; Augustine, with his honesty and courage in pursuing difficult questions; and John Owen, with his catholicity, humility, and ability to relate to our nature and communicate God’s glory.
There are, however, dangers in writing about heroes and I pray I can be aware of them in my books.
Biographies as Law
In a recent lecture on Athanasius at Grace Bible Church at Dunmore, PA, Dr. Carl Trueman said that Christian biography tries to answer the question, What is a true Christian? Biographers of different ages replied in different ways. During the first 300 years of church history, a true Christian was a martyr. Martyrdom was exalted to the point that some Christians sought it intentionally (a 4th-century Church Council finally declared that those extreme Christians could not be considered martyrs of the faith).
With the advent of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity, persecution became rare. Who was then a true Christian? According to Trueman, it was someone who went off into the desert to spend time in solitude with God. In an era when politics had infiltrated the church, with all the violence and intrigues they entail, escape to a monastery in the desert seemed the only way to live an unadulterated Christian life. Thus Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, the first full biography of Christendom.
In the 19th century, a true Christian was a missionary to far away lands. Last century? Of the books of his youth, Trueman remembers exciting conversion stories such as that of Nicky Cruz in The Cross and the Switchblade.
These biographies excite us but often leave us discouraged. Most of us never had an exciting conversion story. Most of us will not travel to far away lands. Even the virtues of Christians of the past, magnified through the biographer’s lens, seem out of reach.
My pastor (Rev. Michael Brown) often says that the law without the Gospel can only produce despair or self-righteousness. I think it’s the same for Christian biographies when they focus on men rather than God. By elevating the virtues of some Christians of our past, they preach law and, most of the time, don’t follow it with the soothing hope of the Gospel message.
Who’s the Enemy?
Another challenge in writing biographies is to show internal as well as external enemies. Reading about someone who spent his or her whole life struggling against external opposition is exciting, but detached. In the same lecture, Trueman explained that we relate much more to Augustine’s Confessions, where the enemy is clearly internalized (Augustine vs. Augustine) than to Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, where Anthony appears as a super-hero fending demons and crocodiles. For children, the story of a man or woman who faces tremendous external difficulties is exciting, but relates little to their everyday life, unless they can read of the inner struggle and the true feelings that accompanied those difficulties.
As I mentioned in a previous post about Athanasius, Augustine is generally forgiven even when he used his authority to impose a particular doctrine on other groups of Christians (the Donatists) because he is to us an open book and we relate to his feelings. We understand the times he lived in and his actions in that context. On the other hand, we find it hard to forgive Athanasius’ methods, even when seen in the same historical context, because what little he wrote about himself sounds as an attempt to draw sympathy to himself and to demonize his enemies.
Our kids get a fair share of superheroes today in secular books and movies, which are thrilling and exciting, but the books that make them think are those that dig deeper into the minds and hearts of their characters, like the Narnia or Lord of the Rings series.
Lone Ranger Heroes
Focusing on the accomplishments and the faith of men rather than the God who allowed those accomplishments and preserved that faith can not only present an unreachable goal and appear as law rather than Gospel, but it can give our children a distorted view of Christianity. If our children learn to see church history as a series of great acts by heroes and heroines of the faith, or even just as a flowing of events marked by the strength of those great figures, they will continue to look for important figures in the church today. If the Christian heroes are introduced apart from the church as a whole and the God who is preserving the church through its ordained leadership and its creeds and confessions, they will encourage a type of “Lone Ranger” Christianity rather than biblical humble submission to the church as instituted by God.
What worries me the most is that if the Christian biographies we offer our children don’t accurately portray the person and his or her times, the faulty or simplistic image the children formulate in their minds will be challenged and they will not be equipped to answer. As Eric Ives wrote in his Lady Jane Grey – A Tudor Mystery, “In the West, growing secularization ensures that relatively few people even understand the issues which meant so much to
[Jane].” One of the main issues at that time was the Lord’s Supper vs. the Roman Catholic Mass. That’s something that many brush off today. “So, you believe that the bread and wine really turn into the body and blood of Christ and we don’t. OK.” In Lady Jane’s day, the Mass was called an abomination, an idolatrous and blasphemous act, and condescending to it was often equal to apostasy (depending on the cases, of course). Most people today don’t understand those strong, compelling sentiments and beliefs.
Take John Owen – why would Puritans choose to lose their jobs, possessions, and sometimes lives to worship in a simpler way, without a superimposed Book of Common Prayer? Or Athanasius – from a secular point of view, what’s the big deal between Jesus being God and Jesus being similar to God? Our children need to know.
As I wrote my book on Athanasius, I kept in mind the next Dan Brown who will show up when our children are older (they have been popping up periodically). I would be elated if they remembered my book when someone tells them that the divinity of Jesus was a human invention, that the Council of Nicea was solely motivated by Constantine’s political concerns, and that the books of the New Testament were put together arbitrarily by some mean church leader who wanted to hide the truth.
I don’t know how close I will come to this goal, but at least it’s a constant aim in my mind. I was encouraged by Dr. Robert Letham’s comment on my Athanasius book, “It fills a gap between simplistic (and often erroneous) summaries of Athanasius’ life and monographs that only scholars would read.” He is definitely too kind, but even if I came one step close to do that, it encourages me to continue.
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