Archive | Biography

Unstoppable | Maria Sharapova

The cover of Sharapova's UnstoppableMaria Sharapova is a Juggernaut of the tennis world. She has been in fifty-nine career WTA finals, winning thirty-six titles (and counting—by the time this post is published, the 2018 Australian Open will be complete). She has an ability to finish on the biggest stages. At seventeen years of age she beat Serena Williams at Wimbledon. In 2012 she won her first French Open title, completing the career grand slam—a task only ten women have achieved.

Of course, she is also known for her meldonium suspension. Despite being cleared of any intentional wrongdoing (“under no circumstances, therefore, can the Player be considered an ‘intentional doper'” (Court of Arbitration for Sport verdict, 288)), many people only remember the initial news headline.

Her fifteen month meldonium suspension is not the only challenge she has faced in life. Her parents fled their home in the shadow of Chernobyl to Siberia and later to Sochi where Sharapova first picked up a tennis racket. As a young child her Father took her to America hoping her raw talent would open doors (it did). Her crushing serve has led to shoulder surgery and a new style of game-play. Serena William’s record against her is 19-2, despite that initial Wimbledon victory. Every time there is a setback, Sharapova’s drive to beat her opponents motivates her return.

The title, Unstoppable, perfectly fits a life that refuses to quit.

Sharapova, Maria with Rich Cohen. Unstoppable: My Life So Far. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2017.

A Guide to St. Symeon the New Theologian | Hannah Hunt

The cover of Hannah Hunt's A Guide to St Symeon the New TheologianDon’t be fooled by the icon—Symeon the New Theologian is one fascinating saint!

Following the inspiration of the Spirit he charted his own course against the grain of the imperial court. When the official theologian of the day challenged his view of the Trinity, he answered quickly and counterattacked personally. When the court ordered him to quit venerating his spiritual father, he left his monastery in exile. (He even refused to return after the exile was lifted!)

Hunt’s Guide in the Cascade Companion series is an excellent introduction to Symeon. She clearly explains the politico-religious background of tenth century Byzantium, situating the saint firmly in his context.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition has many resources to offer the Western church. St. Symeon is a good place to start.

Hunt, Hannah. A Guide to St. Symeon the New Theologian. Cascade Companions. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015.

On the Mystical Life | Alexander Golitzin

The cover of Golitzin's On the Mystical LifeSaint Symeon the New Theologian lived in and around Constantinople in the tenth and eleventh centuries. In the Popular Patristics Series volumes 14-15 Alexander Golitzin translates Symeon’s Ethical Discourses. In this sixteenth volume, Golitzin delivers a biography of the Saint.

It is difficult to write about the life of Symeon because we only have two sources to go by:

  1. The Vita his prodigee wrote. This is a hagiography, or biography of a saint, intended to praise the subject.
  2. The autobiographical details in Symeon’s own writing.

Golitzin does a good job at sorting out the inherent biases in the sources. He outlines Symeon’s life before diving into his theology. This is where the book really shines. Golitzin uses his thorough understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy to situate Symeon in the Orthodox tradition. Despite controversy over his epistemology (he believed that alongside scripture and tradition, the Holy Spirit was a source of inspiration), Golitzin demonstrates how Symeon’s theology was thoroughly orthodox.

On the Mystical Life is a good biography and an excellent study of the theology of Saint Symeon the New Theologian.

Golitzin, Alexander. On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses / St. Symeon the New Theologian. Vol. 3: Life, Times, and Theology. Popular Patristics Series 16. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.

Buber | Vermes

The cover of Vermes' BuberTo man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.

The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks.

The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words.

The one primary word is the combination I-Thou.

The other primary word is the combination I-It; wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.

These sentences launch Buber’s most famous work of philosophy, I and Thou. In his small book, Theistic flavoured existentialism reaches poetic heights never before explored.

I and Thou is the pinnacle of Buber’s written output, but his life consists of much more. This is what makes Pamela Vermes’ biography of Buber for the Jewish Thinkers series so fascinating. Vermes explores Buber’s passion for Hasidism which begins his career and culminates in his later books, Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters and Late Masters.

Buber was passionate about the Hebrew Bible, which he spent decades translating into German. He wrote other works of Biblical interpretation—Moses and The Prophetic Faith—which explore the characters of the Bible with philosophical acuity.

As a biographer, Vermes excels in summarizing the major works of this literary and philosophical giant without over-simplifying. Like Buber himself, Vermes’ writing requires attentive reading.

This biography has inspired me to go beyond I and Thou and continue exploring the works and mind of Martin Buber.

—Pamela Vermes, Buber (New York: Grove Press, 1988).

Rich Mullins | James Bryan Smith

The cover of James Bryan Smith's An Arrow Pointing to HeavenIt was during my honeymoon that Rich Mullins died. I was driving up I-95 from Florida while Rich was driving southbound on I-35 toward Wichita. A random car accident ended the life of a gifted songwriter and unique follower of Jesus.

Rich was different that most people. Like the prophets, his vision was so consumed with the kingdom of God, he lived an odd life significantly out-of-joint with the principalities and powers of this world. A good example of this is when Amy Grant’s people contacted his people to buy the recording rights to his first big hit, “Sing Your Praise to the Lord”. He agreed right away, not realizing that he would be paid for this—the money didn’t factor in his decision.

In this “Devotional Biography,” James Bryan Smith gives us a close picture of Rich’s life that challenges readers to reevaluate our own lives. Rich Mullins was far from perfect—a point he made often, confessing his own sins openly and (at times) uncomfortably. Far from disqualifying him, this humility and openness is refreshing in an age of carefully-crafted Facebook selfies.

Rich was, truly, An Arrow Pointing to Heaven. We would do well to consider his life, then look up.

—James Bryan Smith, Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000).

I’ll Take You There | Greg Kot

The cover of Kot's I'll Take You ThereFull disclosure: I didn’t buy this book for Mavis’ sake. Other than the Jeff Tweedy penned, “You’re Not Alone,” I knew nothing of the Staples cannon. I bought this book because of the biographer.

Greg Kot’s understanding of music is immense. I’ve discovered a lot of music over the years through his “Sound Opinions” podcast (co-hosted with Jim DeRogatis). I’ve also enjoyed his Wilco biography, Learning How to Die and his commentary on the state of the music industry, Ripped.

I’ll Take You There was everything I had expected. Kot’s encyclopedic knowledge of music is on full display as he traces the evolution of Mavis Staples from her father’s early days in the South to the launch of the Staple Singers in Chicago to the later years with Jeff Tweedy.

While music is the main thread of the narrative, Kot dips richly into the history of racial discrimination and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

This biography has inspired me to delve into the music of the Staple Singers. I’ve learned that songs like “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again” just scratch the surface of their ability. In Pops staples, I’ve found the dark tremolo-soaked guitar tone I’ve always been trying to achieve.

The Staple Singers are an important piece of the history of Gospel music. Kot handles their story with grace.

—Greg Kot, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway (New York: Scribner, 2014).

Into the Region of Awe | David C. Downing

The cover of Downing's Into the Region of AweC. S. Lewis was a complex person. On the one hand, he was an intellectual Christian apologist who published Mere ChristianityMiracles, and The Four Loves. On the other hand, he’s probably more famous now for his Chronicles of Narnia and Space Trilogy.

In Into the Region of Awe, Downing traces the mystical influences in Lewis’ writing. Drawing not only on his major published works, but also letters and marginalia from Lewis’ own library, he shows the influence that mystics like John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich had on his Christian life and thought.

Especially interesting for me was the chapter dedicated to Lewis’ Space Trilogy. I read these books in high school but much of the theological and mystical depth was lost on me. Downing’s survey of these books makes me want to return and read them again.

As you might expect from such a rigorous thinker, Lewis didn’t swallow all forms of Christian mysticism uncritically. Fortunately, he was able to avoid the stifling skepticism that so often plagues intellectuals.

If you read C. S. Lewis, you will likely enjoy Downing’s Into the Region of Awe.

—David C. Downing, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

My Father’s Son | Farley Mowat

The cover of Mowat's My Father's SonWhile reading this book, Farley Mowat died. I felt cheated. This book is Farley’s edited collection of letters back and forth between him and his Father during his time in the Second World War. The letters are a testimony that life continues in the darkest circumstances.

When you read Angus Mowat’s letters to his young son Farley, you can see where he gets his trademark wit, irreverence, and (ironically, given his circumstances) rebellious nature. Angus was a veteran of the First World War, so father and son are able to connect on shared ground.

It was interesting to read Mowat’s Canadian perspective on the war. By all accounts, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (the “Hasty P”) along with the rest of Canada’s contribution were outstanding soldiers. It was infuriating to read how the Canadians were ordered to stand back after heavy fighting to let the Americans be the official people to take back Rome!

Also infuriating were the “zombies”—a special class of Canadians who were able to join the military while refusing overseas service. They wore the uniform without the risk.

This collection of letters is a window back to the dark days of the Second World War, as seen through the jaded eyes of a young man who would become a famous writer. When you consider Mowat’s massive written output, we were blessed to have him with us as long as we did.

—Farley Mowat, My Father’s Son: Memories of War and Peace (Toronto: Key Porter, 1992).

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