Spiritual/Theological Memoirs–and Theological Biographies
I love to read spiritual or theological memoirs. This type of literature has been around almost since the beginning of Christianity (although found in some other faiths, too). One of the great classics is St. Augustine’s Confessions which also includes his theological concept of time. Others include St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by Herself, John Woolman’s Journal, George Fox’s Journal, and so many others. The Baptist tinkerer-turned-preacher, John Bunyan, wrote two, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and the allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress.
I got hooked on spiritual/theological memoirs in college. I was attending a conservative evangelical college (now university) in South Florida and I didn’t really fit in–my style of faith and spirituality (not to mention my politics) went against the stream of the cookie-cutter conservatism that was the official ideology. (I really should have transferred to another college.) The major target was “liberalism.” I was a political liberal, but not a theological one. One day I came across Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Living of These Days. I loved it. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t just adopt Fosdick’s theology as my own. That’s not the value of spiritual or theological memoirs. They help you get past the stereotypes and see the other’s struggles and God’s presence in the person’s life. You get to wrestle with their questions and your own and find your own answers. So, I have found help in theological memoirs from many places in the theological spectrum, including those far more conservative and far more liberal than I am. Here are a few of the contemporary spiritual/theological memoirs that I have found especially fascinating. Please, tell me your list.
- Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days. Harper, 1967.
- F. F. Bruce, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past. (Posthumous Edition). Baker Book House, 1980, 1993. I read the posthumous edition right after finishing my dissertation–as a break. Wow. Bruce is so chock full of pastoral wisdom that I wish was more widely shared by his fellow evangelicals.
- Ray S. Anderson, Soul of God: A Memoir. Wipf and Stock, 2004.
- Frederick Beuchner, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days. Harper, 1991.
- Frederick Beuchner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir. Harper, 1992.
- Frederick Beuchner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. Harper, 1993.
- James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back. Abingdon Press, 1982.
- Lesslie Newbingin, Unfinished Agenda: An Updated Autobiography. Wipf and Stock, 2009. This Anglican missionary bishop has had one of the largest impacts on the shape of Christian missions and interfaith dialogue. A truly amazing life.
- Carter Heyward, A Priest Forever: One Woman’s Controversial Ordination in the Episcopal Church. Pilgrim Press, 1999. Originally published in 1976, two years after the ordination, with a new forward by Heyward, now an out lesbian and a famous theologian, and an afterward by one of the other 11 women ordained that day in 1974.
- Lewis B. Smedes, My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir. Eerdmans, 2003.
- Samuel D. Proctor, My Moral Odyssey Judson Press, 1989. A major memoir from one of the most important African-American pastors and educators in post-WWII America, a one time president of the Peace Corps, president of two historic black colleges, and of Rutgers University. I have ordered his second volume, finished just before his untimely death, The Substance of Things Hoped For: A Memoir of African-American Faith (Judson Press, 1999).
- Hans Kung, My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs. Eerdmans, 2003. Just finished this. Very powerful.
- Hans Kung, Disputed Truth: Memoirs II. Eerdmans, 2005. Looking forward to this, which is on order.
- Jurgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography. Fortress Press, 2009. Halfway done. One of my biggest theological influences.
- Cornel West, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir. Smiley Books, 2009. On order. Cornel West is one of my favorite Christian public philosophers.
- William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning. Wipf and Stock, 2005. In some ways all of Stringfellow’s writings were autobiographical, but this is expressly a memoir from this brilliant lawyer and Episcopal lay theologian who was a guide for many in the ’60s and ’70s.
- Henlee H. Barnette, A Pilgrimage of Faith: My Story. Mercer University Press, 2006. Yes, Barnette was my teacher, but this incredibly moving memoir would touch many others who never knew this gentle saint who died only weeks before its publication. One of the best saints Southern Baptists ever produced–and the kind of life the current SBC CANNOT produce without changing what the SBC has become.
- Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. Harper & Row, 1970. Repr. HarperOne, 1996. The deeply honest story of the conversion of the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
- John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down. 1976. Repr., Wipf and Stock, 2006. The memoir of one of the most amazing African-American Christians. His brother shot down in his arms by a racist white sheriff in the Civil Rights era, Rev. Perkins never stopped believing in the humanity of white people and the triumph of gospel grace. Founder of Voice of Calvary ministries in Mississippi, which combines evangelism with community development–a pioneer in faith-based (no government aid) anti-poverty efforts.
- Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Speech, Silence, Action: The Cycle of Faith. Abingdon Press, 1980.
Of course, many important Christian leaders are far too shy or modest to write personal memoirs or autobiographies. Sometimes outside biographers have shed important light or have created a classic that is almost as helpful as the author’s own writings–a major example is Peter Brown’s biography on St. Augustine, which is a major companion to Augustine’s own Confessions. Another is Roland Bainton’s unforgettable biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand! The kind of biographer that is especially helpful to people of faith is sympathetic with the object of the biography (one doubts seriously that Brown could have written so helpful a biography of Augustine’s nemesis, Pelagius!), but has enough critical distance to show the warts and feet of clay. Hagiography, uncritical “lives of the saints,” that make the subject seem like plastic statues, are really not helpful, but nor are vicious attacks. Here are a few theological biographies I have found especially helpful:
- Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Eerdmans, 1975. Repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005.
- Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Eerdmans, 1970. Revised and Supplemented, Fortress Press, 2000.
- David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004.
- William D. Miller, Dorothy Day: A Biography. Harper & Row, 1982.
- Mark Theissen Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions. Cascadia, 2000. A revision of the author’s dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary, the opening chapter is the most complete biography available to date of JHY, whose writings are still being published posthumously.
- John Allen, Desmond Tutu: Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography. The Free Press, 2006. Authorized biographies can be “tame,” but they also usually have greater access to private sources. This is the best biography we have to date of Tutu.
- Christopher Evans, The Kingdom is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch. Eerdmans, 2004. This is a great supplement to the earlier work by Paul M. Minus, Walter Rauschenbusch: American Reformer. Macmillan, 1988.
- Daniel P. Fuller, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: The Story of Charles E. Fuller. Fuller Seminary Press, 2004. Reprint of an earlier edition by Eerdmans. This is an intimate but fair biography of the radio evangelist who founded Fuller Theological Seminary by his son, Daniel–who changed its original shape and reshaped it to the “progressive evangelical seminary” it has become.
- R. Alan Culpepper, Eternity as Sunrise: The Life of Hugo H. Culpepper. Mercer University Press, 2002. In similar fashion, New Testament scholar (and founding dean of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology), Alan Culpepper has written a sympathetic-but-fair biography of the amazing life of his father, Hugo. Hugo Culpepper, NT scholar and missionary to the Philippines, captured by the Japanese during WWII and held for 4 years, and later professor of Greek and Missiology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
- Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbingin: A Theological Life. Eerdmans, 2000. An excellent complement to Newbingin’s own memoir.
Please, Gentle Readers, share your favorite spiritual memoirs and theological biographies.
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