“Behold! I make all things new.”
I like to read a fairly wide variety of books, but I do tend to gravitate toward certain genres more than others. Semi-biographical histories fall into this elect, for several reasons.
People love stories, because, because, because. The “becauses” are endless, but I think foremost among them may be such qualities as ordering chaos and ascribing meaning. When the story of an individual’s life is told in its chronological ordering with a sampling of the contextual influences that provided its environment, there is a certain sense of order that is hard to perceive from within. I do not see all of the people around me as a more-or-less objective observer might. I see only the two-dimensional panorama of bodies as they relate to my own body, not the three-dimensional depths of the web of human interactions. And when the life story, thus composed and ordered, is seen within the lenses of hindsight, it becomes meaningful, vindicated: redeemed.
In his book, In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson describes the life and ambassadorial work of historian William Dodd during his time in 1930s Berlin. Dodd was not an ideal candidate for the position according to the standards of the time, but rather more of a warm body to fill an empty space. His ideology and approach to diplomatic life often came under fire, especially from those who would deliberately put out their own eyes rather than see the tumult unfolding within Germany’s borders. He himself began with similar ideas but was gradually forced to accommodate his views to the reality of the world in which he found himself.
Though his greatest critics don’t seem to have ever backed down entirely, Dodd also had his share of praise, as Larson notes in the end of the book. Those who experienced what he experienced saw not a man incompetent and irascible, but a rare, stalwart soul who resisted the moral contamination of playing along with a terrible regime.
Both St. John and Erik Larson’s stories are powerful, though one looks to the past and one to the future, because of a common thread: redemption. In the one case, the redemption of renewal that transforms everything in an immediate, irrevocable sense. In the other case, the redemption of vindication, as uncertain steps taken into an unknown future are proven true and right.
Not all stories are happy stories. I’m currently reading Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and it’s a story with a well-known ending: for his involvement in the Abwehr conspiracies against Hitler, Bonhoeffer is executed at the Flossenbürg Konzentrationslager mere weeks before the Germans surrendered in 1945. But all good stories are stories of redemption, something Metaxas clearly understands since he begins his story with Bonhoeffer’s funeral in London and the humanizing effects of bringing to the public eye, after years of hate, a good German. It’s something we crave, this redemption business, more than happy endings, more even than stories, because it gives us that which is more essential than air, because without it we shouldn’t bother breathing: hope.