biographies and brands

This is a fascinating essay by my friend Charles Marsh. For me, there are two major elements of fascination, and I want to take them one at a time.

One: The experience Charles describes – mainly in the central section of his essay – of responses to his book Strange Glory from certain other Bonhoeffer scholars is eerily familiar to me as a biographer of C. S. Lewis. When my biography came out, a number of Lewis scholars wrote reviews, or wrote to me personally, to tell me that I had made terrible factual errors. My skin crawled when I heard those charges; I feared exposure of my inadequacies and subsequent humiliation; but then when with trembling fingers I grabbed my books and checked to see whether I had indeed failed so badly, I discovered that in almost every case I had not. Most of what they called factual errors on my part were simply differences of opinion or interpretation; they were so wedded to their view of Lewis that they could not see disagreement with it as anything but falsehood. In other cases they confidently corrected statements I made, but obviously did so from memory, without checking the relevant sources. From one person I got a twenty-page printout listing errors I had made, which in panic I went over with a fine-toothed comb and discovered that not one accusation of error in the entire twenty pages was accurate. (My book does of course contain errors, some of them embarrassing to me; but oddly enough, my confident critic tended to miss those.) 

After a period of receiving these letters and reviews with decreasing panic, I finally came to realize that while the responses claimed to be identiying errors, they really had nothing at all to do with truth or falsehood in scholarship. They were statements by people who perceived themselves to be the faithful custodians of the C. S. Lewis brand — note the title of Charles’s essay — and to them I was an outsider to that custodianship. When they said that Jacobs makes many factual errors, they weren’t even really making a truth claim, they were uttering a spell to ward off the stranger. They were placing me outside their Inner Ring. Once I understood that this was no scholarly endeavor but rather a ritual for maintaining group purity, I stopped worrying about what they said about me.

It seems to me that Charles is in a similar situation, especially with regard to Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, whose criticisms of Strange Glory are inconsistent – he can’t seem to decide whether the flaw of Charles’s book is that it’s too creative or not creative enough – when they aren’t extravagantly petty. From my distance I can’t be sure, of course, but Schlingensiepen certainly looks like a Guardian of the Brand. Charles is outside that Inner Ring. Again and again Charles shows that the accusations of major error are incorrect – of course he made some minor ones, as we all do – but to Guardians of the Brand that will not matter. They have uttered their spell. I think Charles will simply have to content himself with having written an outstanding biography that engages with constant critical sympathy one of the major theological figures of the 20th century, and tells a fascinating story to boot.

Two: The second theme, and one I want to keep thinking about, is Charles’s observation that there are very few good biographies of theologians. This strikes me as being absolutely true, and somewhat worrisome. Too many theological biographies are, as Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer was, mere chronicles: useful, informative, but neither illuminating nor inspiring. I can think of a couple of others, which I shall not name here, that aspire to be something more but are dragged down by a turgid prose style. The great theologians need and deserve vivid narratives, but vividness in storytelling is not a virtue that many theologians possess. So perhaps the biographies of theologians will need to be written by non-theologians, except in those rare cases when someone like Charles can be found: learned in his field but also with writerly gifts.  

There is another potential issue, related to the matter of Brands: the great theologians tend to be controversial figures — founders of schools and therefore, indirectly, of counter-schools. In relation to the inevitable disputes, the biographer must offer a mere chronicle, as noted above; or take sides (explicitly or implicitly); or find a way to fend off readers who might think that he or she is taking sides. Navigating such obstacles doesn’t often make for a well-told tale, which is why Guardians of the Brand never write good biographies. But: disputes occur in other fields too. There aren’t many philosophers more controversial than Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, and yet Ray Monk’s biographies of them are absolutely masterful. How wonderful it would be if Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Webster and Robert Jenson all found their Ray Monk. 

All this makes me want to write a biography of a theologian. Unfortunately I don’t know much about theologians.