Pastor John, you’re known for writing biographies, 27 of them to date, and those biographies are all very popular downloads at desiringGod.org. They have been published in what is now a 7-volume series called “The Swans Are Not Silent,” published by Crossway. In light of that project, here’s a question: “Dear Pastor John, my name is Christian Lee and the biographies you have done in the past have been some of the most life-changing experiences for me. I was wondering how do you do your research and how do you go about getting your resources? Also, will you be writing any more bios in the future?”
I really would like to encourage others to do what I have done in those little biographical talks that I give; namely, tell the life story of some Christian in a way that inspires others to love Christ and gives them insight into perplexing aspects of the Christian life and motivates them to follow Jesus no matter what the cost. That’s what I would like to encourage others to do even now as I’m answering this question.
“Watching someone live a lifetime with Jesus is incredibly inspiring and enriching.”
One of my reasons for doing those biographies for about 26 years or so at the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors is to model for pastors how they could do the same thing for their own people, like on a Sunday evening service or on a Wednesday night or in a youth group or at a retreat setting or something like that. I would be eager to answer this question with the same aim. I’d like to motivate people to do it. I hope others will do these kinds of talks.
It does take a lot of work, and so I think people need to be persuaded. If you’re going to be motivated to do a lot of work, you need to be persuaded it’s biblical to do it, it’s profitable to do it and, it’s enjoyable to do it. Let me take those one at a time.
1. It’s biblical. Hebrews 13:7, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Wow. What a mandate for reading Christian biography.
Hebrew 6:12, “[Do] not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Have you ever seen anybody live the Christian life all the way to the end and triumph over all the sins in their lives and make it to the end? Well, be like that. Study that life.
Philippians 3:17, I love this because it has four generations of imitation in it, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Four generations: 1. Jesus, 2. Paul imitating Jesus, 3. those who walked like Paul, and 4. us watching those who walk like Paul. That’s four generations of imitation. Wow. This is really biblical.
2. The Bible gives us encouragement to look at the lives of believers and imitate their faith and patience. The assumption is that it’s profitable. I don’t think the Bible would encourage us to do it if it weren’t profitable. It really is profitable. Watching someone live a lifetime with Jesus is incredibly inspiring and enriching.
Biography is such an efficient way of study. It’s got history. It’s got theology. It’s got psychology. It’s got counseling. It’s got politics. It’s got economics. It’s got geography. It’s got devotion and piety all wrapped into one good book, so it’s really valuable to our faith and life and thinking.
“Studying and telling of the lives of other Christians is biblical, profitable, and enjoyable.”
3. Thirdly, yes, it is enjoyable. Who doesn’t love real-life stories? And so, a good biography is enjoyable.
How do I go about it? Please know now, in the rest of what I’m saying, this all really reflects my weaknesses. Really? Weaknesses? Everybody does things to compensate for their weaknesses, right? That’s what we do. We figure out how to live with our weaknesses. What I’m going to describe is what I do. You can do it differently maybe.
First, pray like crazy for help. You can’t do anything without God, and so pray, pray, pray. Pray while you’re doing it. Otherwise, you will just spin your wheels and waste your time. Nobody will get help. They’ll just have their imaginations titillated, and you won’t do anybody any good if you don’t pray.
Then I choose one or two biographies to read, not five or ten. That’s a weakness. If I had time, I would read ten. I’d love to read ten, but I can’t. So, I’m going to read one or two. I begin that reading, or I used to begin it, on vacation in July before I was going to give the talk in January. I would give the lecture then at the Pastors Conference in January.
I tried to read at least a scholarly biography if one existed and an inspirational biography, because, frankly, neither of those has any corner on the market. The scholarly biography often misses things, because they’re so bent on being scholarly. The inspirational one, while seeing some glorious things, misses other things that the scholarly biography, precisely because he’s so focused on facts and cultural relationships, that he spots things. I think it’s great if you can find a great biography of a scholarly type and one that’s more inspirational.
I read these very carefully, slowly and carefully, marking them with pencil as I go, keeping a running index with little, short indexed thoughts in the front flyleaf of the book with page numbers indexed to those thoughts. If you use Logos for reading your books — I know, Tony, you’re a big Logos Bible Software fan — I would do things very differently today. With Logos books available, if you do Logos, the indexing that you’re able to do and the quote-gathering is enormously easier than when I used to do it.
“Original sources are a hundred times more important than secondary sources for seeing the real, true person.”
Then I read as much as I can of what that person himself has written. That’s so important. Letters, sermons, books, essays, autobiography, journals, diaries, anything you can get your hands on, because original sources are a hundred times more important than secondary sources for getting the real, true deal of the person. I mark those up the same way. If I can get paper versions, I mark them up and put the indexes in the front.
By this time, usually some focus or theme or angle has arisen in my mind that I want to focus on. You can’t just tell a life in general. You’ve got to have a point or a focus. It’s just too broad. It would be pointless to try to tell somebody’s story with no point. Literally, people would go away and say, “What was the point of that?” You would just maybe have told a few interesting anecdotes, and everybody would wonder why you did that. For my purposes, anyway, I want a point, so I have zero pretense to being unbiased in my presentation. I am choosing a theme from their life, and I make that the point of the message that I’m going to give. It really is a message, not a lecture.
I saw myself as driving home a biblical point about God or about life with God. I was preaching a biblical truth. Only 95% of my sermon was illustration. It’s called a biography. That’s really what I was doing. I’m unashamed in that. It’s not the way a scholar would do it. I know that, but I’m preaching. I’m trying to make a point about something, like Luther’s love for the Bible or Calvin’s commitment to hard work and his view of the sovereignty of God, or something like that.
Now, with the biographies and some primary writings — and, believe me, it was limited: I was not comprehensive — I began to assemble quotes from all that material. Before Logos existed, I would dictate into my computer with Dragon Dictate for Mac — or, in the earlier days, the PC — I would dictate hundreds of quotations from the biographies and from the works, and I was influenced in which ones I dictated based on my index, my front flyleafs. I was influenced by the point I was going to make. While I was doing this, ideas would come to my mind about the things I was quoting, and I would dictate those ideas as well.
When all of that was in the computer, there would be about maybe three or four hundred entries in different paragraphs. Each one was a paragraph. Then I put that entire document, maybe sixty single-spaced pages, in the cursor of Microsoft Word, and I would click at the top to tell it to number all those paragraphs. It created a list, and every paragraph now had a number. Now, I maybe had sixty pages of single-spaced three hundred-plus quotes and ideas.
"If I wrote another biographical message, I would consider John Wesley, John Knox, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer."
Then I would read through this new document that I created, and I would index those three hundred paragraphs according to topic. I would be able to narrow it down to maybe 60 ideas. For example, one of my little ideas might be Martin Luther on the authority of Scripture. Beside that, I might have ten numbers — 1, 36, 210, 301 — referring to those paragraphs. Now, I’ve clustered all the quotes in all my reading relating to that issue into a new index. Then I would do that one more time and distill my one hundred topics down to a handful, and that more or less became what I started writing with.
Then I wrote and I cut and pasted from those quotes into the document. I printed it out. I marked it up. I prayed like crazy and I went over and I gave my talk. I loved it. I loved all the reading. I loved the composition. I loved the delivery. I recommend it to pastors or anybody else, school teachers or friends.
Question: Will I do more? I still read biography for sure. I’m reading a biography now. We will see whether that or any of my reading finds its way into new biographies. That remains to be seen.
Well, without making any promises here, who are the key figures you have not gotten around to?
Wesley. John Wesley. I think I owe Wesley — even though he’s not a Calvinist, I think I owe him one. John Knox, I never did. I think that’s worthy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’ve never done.