In choosing biographies, I tend to pick people from two categories: 1) People who I admire for certain characteristics but who I ultimately do not want to be like. They influence and inspire me by way of negative example. 2) People who I admire for certain characteristics and who I ultimately want to be like. These people influence and inspire me by way of positive example.
This year I've read two biographies, one for each category of person I just described. The first was the book Edward Sapir: Linguist, Anthropologist, Humanist by Regna Darnell. Sapir is a famous American linguist who was among the first to apply Indo-European research methods to the many languages of North America. He is also known for a brilliant combination of ethnography and linguistics: studying culture through the lens of language and vice versa. By all accounts, Sapir had a stunning intellect and was called a 'genius' by some. He was a leader and innovator in his field.
Sapir was born into a family of European Jews who immigrated to the USA. His parents were devoutly religious, and their whole family was very musical. In addition to his scientific and philosophical acumen, Sapir was also somewhat of a musical savant. He composed his own music and had a refined appreciation for high musical and literary culture. In sum, Sapir was a gifted and cultured giant in the fields of anthropology and linguistics. These things I admire in him. I too aspire to being an excellent linguist, a well-rounded and creative intellectual, and a pioneer and innovator in my field of East African linguistics and holistic people-centered development.
But when it comes to Sapir as a person, with a character, the picture is less dazzling. The general impression I got from Darnell's biography of him was that he was not a very nice nor happy person. He was extremely critical of other people's thoughts and projected an air of superiority over other people. He often put his work over his family, spending his evenings and late nights on his own intellectual pursuits. He was hard on his kids, insisting they attain his standards of high culture. Although he was widely claimed to be a good teacher, one that interacted with students, one gets the impression that it was all still self-centered and self-aggrandizing. To me, much of Sapir's personal life as recounted by Darnell just seemed miserable. And although I still admire and appreciate his intellectual achievements, Sapir is not someone I'd really like to be around. His narrow vision for life seemed to consist primarily in a) following his scholarly pursuits, b) besting his academic opponents, and c) securing fame in fortune through both. I don't deny his considerable and valuable contributions to science, but his life legacy rings hollow because he seemed to be living mostly for the fulfillment of himself. In the end, such a story is frankly...boring.
Contrast this with the biography I just finished this week: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. Like Sapir, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into a highly cultured European family. Both his parents were devout Lutheran Christians and well-respected leaders in their fields. Bonhoeffer grew up on a steady, meaty diet of music, literature, science, theology, and politics---all incorporated in a Christian worldview. To his parents' surprise, the young Bonhoeffer chose theology as his intellectual pursuit, and he earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin in his early 20s. He amazed people with his powerful and free mind. He was guaranteed and often tempted by a life of upward mobility in a cushy, comfortable, self-fulfilling career in academic theology.
But on the brink of World War II, as his beloved Germany was being destroyed inside out by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer chose a different way. He consciously moved away from academic theologizing and threw himself into pastoring, mentoring, teaching, and trying to strengthen the parts of the German church that were resisting the Nazis and facing persecution. On numerous occasions, he was offered professorships in foreign countries where he would have gained much prestige, not to mention safety from Nazi persecution. But each time, he chose to return to Germany, to continue in the fight against the evil engulfing his nation. He sacrificed a lucrative and secure career to identify with those who didn't have his freedoms and opportunities. He sacrificed his personal safety to be with his Christian brothers and sisters who were in danger of concentration camps and death.
During the early part of the war, Bonhoeffer made the ultimate self-sacrifice: He joined a series of conspiracies to kill Adolf Hitler knowing full well that if he was caught and convicted, it would mean his death. But he joyfully, whole-heartedly, and single-mindedly gave all of himself and in the vicious struggle against what they called 'evil incarnate' (Hitler, the SS, and the Gestapo). Eventually Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and killed by hanging, just two weeks before the Allies defeated Hitler and the Nazis. Metaxas paints a beautiful and winsome picture of a man who, even during those long months of prison and interrogation, ministered to his fellow men and women, radiating peace, joy, and hope. Like Christ, Bonhoeffer went to his death---climbed the steps to the gallows---with resolute and absolute trust in Him to whom he was committing his spirit.
Why does the life legacy of Sapir ring so hollow, while that of Bonhoeffer echos in our souls with such life-changing power? I suggest that it is because the God who made you and me and all that exists is a God whose character is defined most centrally by self-sacrifical love. Bonhoeffer knew, loved, and obeyed this same God, and therefore his life took on the particular shape---a cruciform shape---that we recognize in someone else's short life on earth: Jesus Christ. As Andrew M. Davis writes, "Christ's willful act of denying himself for the glory of God and the salvation of his sheep [people] was the most courageous act in history, the ultimate paradigm for the proper exercise of the human will at any moment." That is why Bonhoeffer's life appeals so much to us: It conformed to the pattern in which God himself relates to his beloved world (as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ). Davis says further, "'Not my will, but yours be done.' This is the pattern for the free exercise of a healed human will for the rest of time."
Like Sapir and Bonhoeffer, I too was born into a cultured and devoutly religious (in our case, Christian, Mennonite) family. My family too appreciated good music and great literature. I too have had nearly unlimited opportunities for education, and by God's grace, have an active mind. I too am often tempted by a career in academics where self-aggrandizement and self-promotion are tools for survival. But here is where I want to part with Sapir and follow Bonhoeffer instead. I want to double-back from the path of upward mobility and hit the crooked road to the cross hard. I want to invest my life energies on behalf of those who never had the same freedoms and opportunities I did.
One reviewer of Bonhoeffer's biography summed the book up as "An electrifying account of one man's stand against tyranny." I too want to stand against the tyranny that has the Ik people in its grip. Unlike Bonhoeffer, I may never have to get involved in conspiracies against a dictator, but I can get deeply and personally involved in the fight against deception, addiction, and oppression that are keeping the Ik people from becoming who God wants them to be.
The closer we get to Christ, the more our lives---like Bonhoeffer's---will take on a cross-shaped form, a 'cruciform'. Such a life is characterized by the following moments:
-The Gethsemane Moment, where you suddenly become aware of what God is asking you to do, and it most likely will be something your flesh shrinks back from, something that causes you to want to fear and resist, even though you know it's necessary for New Life.
-The Golgotha Moment, after you've given your 'yes' to God in your personal Gethsemane, you enter the trials, difficulties, and sufferings that necessarily accompany the choice you've made to obey.
-The Resurrection Moment, after you've died a series of painful and sometimes lonely self-deaths, you begin to see the new life that your sacrifice has engendered, the new joy, the new peace, the new hope, both in your own life and in the lives of many others.
This, my friends, is what we are called to. Let me close by asking you: Is your life becoming more or less cruciform as the years pass? How might God be asking you to sacrifice yourself in the struggle against the tyranny of evil in your life and the lives of others? Are willing to say 'yes'? If you are, you will leave a lasting life legacy that will continue to change lives long after you are gone.