Talking with Stuart yesterday about our mutual interest in biography as theology. McClendon's book, Biography as Theology, may not be the first use of the phrase- there's a chapter title in the William Stringfellow anthology that uses the same phrase, possibly earlier. No matter. My own interest in biography as theology was quite unintentional and for years I was unaware that was what I was doing. I've read biographies all my life. Hundreds of them. From Rowan Williamsto Yehudi Menuhin, Mahatma Gandhi to Vincent Van Gogh, George Macleod of Iona to Einstein, Dorothy Sayers to Thomas Aquinas, Emily Dickinson to Marilyn Monroe, Baron Friedrich Von Hugel to Martin Luther King, George Eliot to Elie Wiesel, Shirley Williams to Rembrandt, Katherine Hepburn to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Diana Princess of Wales to Sir Alec Guinness, Dorothy Day to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Beethoven to Bernstein to U2, and so on. Poets and trade unionists, artists and politicians, inventors and theologians, novelists and engineers, celebrities and explorers, travellers and stay at homers, doers and thinkers, the nice and the not nice, historical and contemporary.
Biographies can be hagiography or muckraking, tragic lives (a whole new genre) and blessed lives, authorised and thus sanitised, or unauthorised and sometimes destructive. Not all biographies are good - by which I mean accurate, fair, dealing with significant experience, contributing to our understanding of human life by examining and telling the story of a particular human life. And then there are the autobiographies, written to self advertise, or as catharsis, or as serious life evaluation, or as either perpetuating self-importance, or genuinely offering experience that is reflected on, assimilated into a new and mature self-awareness, with lessons learned and gratitude not absent.
Biography as theology is a way of reflecting with critical sympathy, believing that in the living of a human life, there is the raw material that helps us understand what it means to encounter God, and for life to be changed by that experience. The underlying premise is simple - how we live is the demonstration of what we hold as our convictions. If we don't practise it we don't believe it; our practice exposes the convictions that move us to such actions. The life we live is the expression of those convictions that do indeed, practically and decisively, shape and form us. Not what I say; not what I think; not what I believe - well, all of these, but all of these translated into human practice in that performance of daily life that is the final, convincing evidence of what it is we actually do, when it comes down to it, believe.
More about this later. Here's McClendon:
"Undertaken in Christian community, biography can be a mode of communal self-scrutiny...the exercise in which the community holds a mirror to those it finds its finest in rder to discover what God has been doing in its midst...- if such communal self scrutiny is undertaken under the eyes and in the light of God, then it may be a prime example of what we prioperly call theology. This is biography as theology."