May 9, 2020

How Reading About Dead Christians Can Help You Live

The name John D. Woodbridge probably means less to UK readers than it ought to. The veteran research professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago has, for over forty years, produced some of the most insightful and important work in church history.

Read by academics and average-joe’s alike, his bibliography reads like a ‘greatest hits’ of all the major evangelical publishers in the late-twentieth century. And one of his greatest gifts is his ability to read, digest, select, and edit the work of others and present it in a way that is accessible and beneficial for the general reader.

Sketches of Faith (10Publishing) is his newest book. It draws on that great characteristic trait of his and collects, in one definitive volume, some of the best biographical writing in recent times.

Introduction to Church History

If you were privileged enough to take one of Woodbridge’s classes on church history, then those featured in Sketches of Faith would undoubtedly be covered in the course. Billed as an introduction to church history “for those wanting to refresh their knowledge, or those interested in reading about Christians they are broadly aware of but may not be overly familiar with”, the 33 chapters in Sketches of Faith cover individuals from early church history all the way through to the late-twentieth century.

Each chapter opens with a specially commissioned pencil sketch, a short life summary and historical timeline, followed by a detailed biography presented in a two-column format with pull quotes and sub-headings. It’s hard to communicate the exact sensation of this approach, but when the book is in your hand and you read it, it feels a little like a cross between a coffee table book and a magazine; something that you want to share and savour at the same time.

This approach is perhaps a little unusual for 10Publishing, who’ve made a gig out of producing short mass-market paperbacks. But the internal high-design along with the quality product materials give the book a physical heft that makes me think it will be the sort of thing that will sit on my shelf for decades. This is reflected in the cover’s unusual gold foil cover—a geometric design that extends from front to back—which almost warrants the need for sunglasses.

Transformed by Christ’s Power

For many, one of the great things about reading Christian biography is finding out that some of our ‘heroes of the faith’ were really as flawed and sinful as we are. This reminder, rather than puff us up, ought to point us to our commonality: that it is Christ who powerfully transforms and uses us to play a part in His church for His glory. This fact, which is a constant theme running through the centre of each of the biographies featured in Sketches of Faith, is the spur we need as we seek to honour Christ in every aspect of our own lives.

On top of this, because the editorial approach to Sketches of Faith is to collect writings from a broad spectrum of authors, not only do you read about some of the most significant Christian lives in history, but they have been written by some of the most gifted storytellers in recent memory. Running your finger down the contributors page is like reading a ‘who’s who’ of Christian writing in the last 50 years: F. F. Bruce, W. Robert Godfrey, J. I. Packer, John Pollock—to name just a few.

In fact, I would wager that F. F. Bruce’s account of the Apostle Paul’s life in the opening chapter is worth the price of the book. In it, Bruce carefully pieces together a biography based on Paul’s New Testament writings and suggests a legacy that, among other things, provides a valuable summary of Paul’s teaching and theology.

A Book to Return To

In short: this is the sort of book that you return to time and again. You may be a minister or evangelist looking for anecdotal material, a believer fascinated with the lives of saints who have gone before, or a recent convert wanting to learn about those who have faithfully walked the Christian life in the past. No matter who you are, this book will prove a valuable addition to a home bookshelf or coffee table book stack.

Yes, you can read Sketches of Faith cover-to-cover, but it almost rewards the slower reader. Someone who takes it out once a week—on a quiet Sunday afternoon perhaps—and picks up a chapter on a character they don’t yet know, or even a character they thought they knew, only to be struck, once again, by God’s sovereign goodness as they read a true story of a fellow believer, now with the Lord, whose life was used by God to ignite change and bring hope throughout the world. This is a book for encouragement, refreshment, and spurring on.

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