We all have been there before: We walk out of the movie theater with a sense of elation and challenge. Could our life change to reflect something of the life that was just portrayed?

We've all been here too: We are reading up on John Wesley and learn of his accomplishments: 250,000 miles traveled on horseback, 30,000 pounds sterling given away to the poor, more than 40,000 sermons preached. And we are not only flabbergasted but deflated: Why have we been unwilling to make such extreme sacrifices of our time and comfort? How can we ever hope to measure up to such a giant?

Perhaps we've been here as well: Reading about an outstanding figure in our own field of work or ministry, we begin to think prideful thoughts: I could do what she's done! I could even surpass her! And then they'll be writing my biography!

Biographies have the power to move us in many ways: to challenge and inspire, to depress and deflate, to puff up and tempt us with questionable goals and grandiose self-imaginings. But when the right biographies (see "The Mushroom Hunt," page 52) are approached with the right spirit, they can be powerful agents of spiritual transformation.

A Very Evangelical Practice

A Christian understanding of the power of biography goes back a long way. In the middle of the 4th century A.D., the orthodox bishop Athanasius, exiled from his beloved Alexandria by an Arian-sympathizing emperor, fulfilled his longtime dream of traveling to the desert to live among the hermits. During his long ascetic pilgrimage, he wrote what historian Derwas Chitty correctly calls "the first great manifesto of the monastic ideal." This was not some tidy, orderly rule, but rather a biography of the most gripping sort: the life story of the best-known early monk ...

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