The first question people ask about the new book 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Broadman & Holman) is, "Why 131?" I could try to make up something profound and mysterious, but basically the book began as 13 categorical top-10 lists, then it picked up a straggler along the way. Second question: "How does she know that?" Well, as the book proclaims on the cover, it's "From the Editors of Christian History Magazine."
Yes, those tireless editors of CH (or rather ex-editors, as both Mark Galli and Ted Olsen now work for Christianity Today) have produced, just in time for the holiday shopping season, a handy compilation of short biographies in that journalistic style you all know and love. In fact, you've already read one entry—the July 28 Christian History Corner on J.S. Bach was (as we say in the trade) "repurposed" from (as we say in the office) "the 131 book."
In the book Bach appears in the "Musicians, Artists, and Writers" category along with such varied characters as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and C.S. Lewis. The other categories are: Theologians, Evangelists and Apologists, Pastors and Preachers, Poets, Denominational Founders, Movers and Shakers, Missionaries, Inner Travelers (mystics and devotional writers), Activists, Rulers, Scholars and Scientists, and Martyrs.
With 131 biographies in 363 pages, this book has more breadth than depth. Even so, each bio packs a lot of information: a brief timeline, a quote, a quick narrative with anecdotes, and sometimes a portrait image. The brisk pace also introduces some interesting juxtapositions: Holiness leader Phoebe Palmer next to existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, early church father John Chrysostom followed by Puritan preacher Richard Baxter, astronomer Nicholas Copernicus right before Bible translator William Tyndale.
As with any list, the 131 selections are neither exhaustive nor purely objective. Two men with entire issues of Christian History devoted to them (Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig and Jan Amos Comenius) don't even appear in the book, and neither do most of the people in our "Ten Most Influential Christians of the Twentieth Century" issue. The editors also admit to have championed some personal picks, like John of Damascus and William Miller, even though they are relatively little-known. Furthermore, given the doctrinal persuasions of Christianity Today International and Holman Press, Protestant evangelicals naturally had the inside track.
But the authors never claimed that these were the best, brightest, most godly, or even most important Christians in history. Rather, the authors say, "This is a book about 131 Christians everyone should know because of what they've contributed to history and because of their intrinsic interest—not 131 Christians we should all emulate. Though certainly all have something to teach us."
Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.
131 Christians Everyone Should Know is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:
The Saga of St. Chad | A tale of political maneuvers and positioning. Sound familiar? (Nov. 22, 2000)
Accidental Radical | Jan Hus's ideas seem normal now, but in his age they were revolutionary enough to merit death. (November 17, 2000)
Top 10 Reasons to Read This Book | A list of Christian books that changed the century introduces authors and their impact on evangelicalism. (Nov. 10, 2000)
The Un-Denomination | The Southern Baptist Convention has been historically Un-Conventional. (Nov. 3, 2000)
Soul Crisis at the Conference on Faith and History | Academics gather asking questions like, "What does 'Christian history' actually mean?" (Oct. 27, 2000)
Case of the Missing Relic | A piece of Jesus' cross is stolen from a Toronto cathedral—or is it? (Oct. 20, 2000)
The Politicians' Patron | Is Thomas More a saintly model? (Oct. 13, 2000)
General Revelations | Reconsidering Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. (Oct. 6, 2000)
Olympia Revisited | Christianity and the Olympic Games were once competitors, but at other times have been on the same team. (Sept. 29, 2000)
Weighty Matters | Gwen Shamblin's teachings sound an awful lot like some in the early church—and not in a good way. (Sept. 22, 2000)
In Errancy | Want to know what's wrong with the Western church? Start with a list. (Sept. 15, 2000)
"Kill Them All" | The medieval church was deadly serious about eliminating 'heretical' Cathars. (Sept. 11, 2000)
All Together Now | What qualifies as an ecumenical council anyway? (Sept. 1, 2000)
Soviets, Schism, and Sabotage | How the government manipulated division in the Russian Orthodox Church. (Aug. 18, 2000)
Sacrifice at Sea | The story that wasn't in James Cameron's Titanic. (Aug. 11, 2000)