A friend of mine is putting together a book of fatherly advice, and asked me to contribute. My first effort was generously described as “a bit cerebral,” so I sent him back something a little broader. The too cerebral effort is below. By way of background, I’ve been listening to a lot of Rich Mullins music recently; I’ve just finished the Urquhart biography of Hammarskjöld, and am now going through Markings again. The last especially has brought back a lot of memories of formative times in my early 20s. So, asked to give some fatherly advice, I naturally gravitated to this subject. (I’ve done nothing with Paton recently, but in those days I read everything of his I could get my hands on.)

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When it comes down to it, each of us is trying to figure out how to be human: how to join in the renewed humanity, which was initiated by Christ in His Incarnation and Resurrection, and which is now being worked out by the Holy Spirit in history. Christ’s example is paradigmatic, but we have a heritage that includes even more: the generations of imperfect people who have gone before us. I therefore recommend biographies to you as a way to learn about the Christian life. Just as I click with particular people we meet in everyday life, I also find that I click with particular people in history. There is some indescribable similarity in personality or perspective, which (following C.S. Lewis) makes me say, “You too?” So in saying a bit below about three people who are important to me, I don’t mean to imply that everyone will find a kindred spirit in these three men. You’ll find your own if you look. A caution: biography can descend into hagiography, an idealized portrayal of an implausibly heroic and holy life. This may have its place in promoting virtue, but I find a warts-and-all portrayal to be more encouraging, because then I see that people make big mistakes in life and still stay faithful to Christ and His work.

Three important people for me have been South African writer and politician Alan Paton (1903-1988), Swedish diplomat and U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961), and American singer-songwriter Rich Mullins (1955-1997). Paton was a South African civil servant who ran a boys’ reformatory, making several humane reforms. He published a beautiful novel in 1948, Cry, The Beloved Country, which was largely a reflection on the racial situation in South Africa. The success of the novel made Paton rich, but within months a political party came to power in the country that began implementing apartheid. Paton gave up his early retirement, and devoted his energies to educating the public about race, through politics. His speeches and his autobiographies reveal an accomplished man, who nevertheless speaks frankly about his own weaknesses. Hammarskjöld became the second Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953, and served as a diligent and energetic diplomat during the height of the Cold War. After his death in a plane crash in 1961, his diary was published as Markings (translated from Swedish into English by W.H. Auden). In it he speaks very honestly about his Christian faith—which formed a sort of infrastructure for everything he did in public life. His insights into his own soul (particularly his own pride), and life and death, are unparalleled. Mullins is a far less imposing public figure: a Christian recording artist popular among evangelical Christians in the 1980s and 1990s. His music, lyrics, and concert transcripts, however, speak to the quality of the man. (There is also a short biography and a few movies.) I value Mullins’ understanding of the depth of his own sin, and the reality of God’s grace. He is an example of a person who cuts through the hypocrisy and posturing that are endemic to Christianity, to embrace and minister to the church.

These three embody the piece of advice that, above all, I endeavor to offer with credibility: be as honest with yourself as you can be. In my years so far in the faith, it strikes me as rare that a person can look Christ full in the face, and at the state his own soul: without turning away, rationalizing, making excuses, or denying what he sees. It is a miracle of grace that we can do this at all, and yet it is only the very first step in repentance. May God bring His work to completion in us.