2012 Sanders Family Portrait   Photo by http://brianapetersen.comFred Sanders, a theologian who teaches the Great Books in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University and is the author most recently of Wesley on the Christian Life, offers his five recommended biographies (with a few runner ups).

1. Richard Heitzenrater, The Elusive Mr. Wesley (2nd edition). 

In a feat of editorial bravura, Heitzenrater gives the reader first John Wesley in Wesley’s own words, then Wesley as reported by diverse contemporaries, and finally Wesley as reported by previous biographers (hagiographers and haters alike). There are a lot of good Wesley biographies, some more comprehensive, more theologically alert, or more narratively compelling than this one. But Heitzenrater uniquely accomplishes his goal of making you feel like you’ve encountered John Wesley himself.

2. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (2nd edition).

Exquisitely well written, Brown’s book rises above merely reporting the stages along the way of Augustine’s life—though it narrates them well, so readers who need the basic facts can use this as an introduction—and somehow lets the reader empathize with Augustine at each of his different ages. They’re all here: the wild youth who wanted “chastity . . . but not yet,” the ladder-climbing young professor of rhetoric, the idealistic convert, the pastor who had to adapt his theology to the needs of the masses, the celebrity bishop pushed into more and more responsibility, and the consolidator of Christian orthodoxy as the lights of Rome were winking out.

3. Handley Moule, Charles Simeon

Reading Moule on Simeon is a double dose of spiritual insight. Moule was the great evangelical bishop of Durham and a Cambridge don. His telling of the life of Charles Simeon is deeply sympathetic, yielding wonderful insights into the character and spirituality of the preacher whose fifty-year pastorate transformed the ministry of preaching among British evangelicals and beyond. I admit, Moule can occasionally wander a bit and let the timeline become obscure. But I pretend I’m listening to a conspicuously saintly grandfather, and let him ramble. A better biography wouldn’t be able to impart what Moule can, so it wouldn’t be better.

4. Rudolph Nelson, The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind: The Case of Edward Carnell

This is an example of a biography that imposes a strong interpretive agenda on its subject: the author, Nelson, has apparently seen right through conservative evangelicalism and come out the other side into a space that may be minimal faith or no faith at all. He views the life and tragic death of Fuller Seminary president Edward Carnell  as a case study in how evangelical thinkers are forced to engage in high-stakes “cognitive bargaining” with the massive plausibility structures of modernity, and are doomed to defeat. Why would I recommend a book that starts from all the wrong premises and risks distorting its subject so much? Because I can’t remember a biography I’ve argued more vigorously with, and the argument, perhaps despite itself, forces the reader to confront what were after all the main issues Carnell set himself to address.

5. Genevieve Foster, Augustus Caesar’s World

This is a book for young people, and yes, it’s illustrated. Foster focuses on the life of Augustus, but she also looks all over the world and describes what’s happening elsewhere during the years that Augustus is rising and ruling Rome. Foster emphasizes interconnections and simultaneity, and may have been a believer in synchronicity. But what you get in all her history books is an accessible, entertaining, and informative presentation of the things you vaguely feel you should have learned in high school.

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mention goes to the massive, exhaustive, definitive biographies that are too easy to get lost in the details of: Bethge on BonhoefferTorrell on AquinasMacCulloch on Cranmer. They tell more than I wanted to know!

Approaching but not crossing that line are the exhaustive-but-readable Marsden on Edwards and Busch on Barth.