There are several biographies of Christian people that for me are definitive of the genre - and I mean the genre of Christian biography. Not hagiography. Not over devotionalised life stories projected as exemplars to make the rest of us feel guilty, inadequate or spiritual amateurs. Not propaganda for Christian projects, lifestyles, or personalities.
I mean the telling of a life in such a way that we can see how far what the person believed and what they lived coincided, and where they had more than a little resemblance in practice and values to the life and person of Jesus of Nazareth.
I mean the skilled unfolding of the delicate parchment of a person's lived experience, with such care and comprehension that those of us reading over the biographer's shoulder can appreciate the living text of a human life given in its own way to God.
I mean the quite rare ability to be both appreciative and critical, honest but understanding, imaginative yet without making things up for effect, open to the disappointments that are part of every life and alert to the gifts that are easily hidden.
I mean a reading of a life that is both theological and biographical, so that the experience and convictions of faith are allowed to inform the flow of the narrative, while the story provides a plausible framework for a portrait of a life given Christianly, both complex and living.
On my own shelves, as a select biographical bibliography there are a dozen or so books that are treasured for such reasons.
Helen Waddell, by Dame Felicitias Corrigan; R. W. Dale, by his son A. W. Dale; Temple Gairdner of Cairo, by C E Padwick; The Selected Letters of Baron Friedrich Von Hugel; Jonathan Edwards, by George Marsden; Michael Ramsey, by Owen Chadwick; H. R. L. Sheppard. Life and Letters, by R. Ellis Roberts; George Macleod, by Ronald Ferguson; Dorothy Sayers, by Barbara Reynolds; Thomas Chalmers, by Stewart (Jay) Brown; Cicely Saunders, by Shirley Du Boulay. And a few more.
But I suspect most (?) readers of this blog will wonder who H R L Sheppard is or was. He was one of God's fragile, flawed, earthen vessels who so contained the Gospel in its intensity that its light radiated from the cracks. One of those rare and magnificent pastors of the people that the Church of England produces, and critics of Anglicanism far too easily overlook and underrate.
I read the volume in 1976, again in 1986, and once more since. Then I lent it to someone who later couldn't find it to return it. A pity - it was a marked copy, and marked by me when I was in my first pastorate, and as receptive of heart as I've ever been since, I reckon. Last week I remembered a passage from my lost book - and no I didn't then find that by a miracle of providential circumstance or awakened conscience it turned up.
No miracle, just Amazon. I went looking for it and found a crisp clean copy which has now arrived. I've browsed in it off and on since it arrived - and now decided more people need to know about this pastor whose missiological methodology was love embodied, enacted, exemplified and enmeshed in the lives of others. So I'll read it again - and post on it again. Here's a sampler:
The biographer speaks of Dick Sheppard who for "snatched and precious moments in the early morning, came ardently, humbly to Jesus in prayer, remembering his friends, remembering his family, remembering himself, wrestling with God for Dick, desiring passionately to understand God enough to be able to proclaim him to all people as the Love he knew Him to be."
One of the most complex and vulnerable personalities of his generation, Dick Sheppard was no emotionally overwrought pietist - he was an emotionally engaged human being whose compassion and drive was traceable to an intense love for God, understood as the One exhibited in the ministry and passion of Jesus. I can think of only two or three Christians as attractive and available as a human being to those who knew him and found Christ through him. I wish I'd met him.