What is a critical biography?

This blog has been quiet for quite a while – for the most part because my writing time has been focused on my new book, Bavinck: A Critical Biography. This book has been many years in the making, and is now due for release this September with Baker Academic. (The cover art is an original portrait by the multitalented Oliver Crisp.)

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In recent times, I have been asked by a few people, ‘What’s a critical biography?’ Here’s my attempt at an answer. A biography, of course, is the story of someone’s life. Why would you try to recount a life story? A biographer might do so for commemorative reasons: to tell the world about a great human spirit, to bolster a community or a tradition by telling them noble tales of their particular hero, and so on. That kind of biographical writing tends to present its human subject in the most flattering light: think of old school hagiography, or the more recent sort of glossy ‘authorised’ biography. Commemorative biography is essentially a written exercise in reputation management, and usually handles its subject with velveteen gloves.

Another biographer might tell a life story for a different set of reasons: to understand the relationship of someone’s context to their intellectual or personal development, to explore how someone’s public and private personae were related, or to produce a book that guides the reader through the complexities of the subject’s interwoven life and work. That kind of biographical writing is necessarily critical, rather than commemorative, in nature. It asks a different set of questions, and takes into account the subject’s failures and successes. As a writing task, it is more complicated than commemorative biography because the outcome has not been decided from the beginning: a critical biographer needs to pursue deep immersion in a lifetime of sources (diaries, letters, newspapers, manuscripts, published materials) without knowing from the outset what he or she will find or have to report on.

In describing the difference between commemorative and critical biography, Hans Renders has written that,

The nature of the research that is conducted beforehand marks the real difference between the commemorative and critical biography. The author of a commemorative biography cannot derive any benefit from sources that dispute the good reputation of his hero, and therefore will not work exhaustively to unearth those sources. These two research traditions result in two types of biographies, the ‘low’ and ‘high’ biography… in biographical research, ‘low’ refers to the kind of research that has been conducted… High biography is almost by definition critical biography, while low biography may include the old-fashioned commemorative biography.

– Hans Renders, ‘Roots of Biography: From Journalism to Pulp to Scholarly Based Non-Fiction,’ in Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, eds., Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 29.

My biography of Bavinck is critical in that sense (or in Renders’ definition, it is a high biography). Its intention is not simply to reinforce for those who already like Bavinck just how great he was – although he certainly was a remarkable polymath and public figure in his day. Rather, the book was driven by research on his published and unpublished writings, historical period, significant friendships, ambitions frustrated as well as realised, and the lives and writings of his contemporaries. I have tried to offer an interpretation of his life and thought on micro and macro levels. As a critical biographer, my goal was to guide the reader through the complexities of Bavinck’s (fascinating) life and work, and hopefully to leave them with a clear understanding of it.

 

Journal of Reformed Theology special issue: on neo-Calvinism and race

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The most recent edition of the Journal of Reformed Theology includes six articles that first saw the light of day as papers at the 2015 Kuyper Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary on neo-Calvinism and race. Continue reading “Journal of Reformed Theology special issue: on neo-Calvinism and race”

Abraham Kuyper and the Brexistential Crisis

 

This article was published in Pro Ministerio, a Dutch magazine for Reformed ministers, in a special issue on Abraham Kuyper – who is undergoing something of a renaissance in (at least some) Dutch Reformed circles. I was asked to write a piece on Kuyper from a Scottish perspective, particularly with a view to how Kuyper might be interesting within Scottish culture.

In summary: the article is about how Brexit, and especially the phenomenon of Brexistential crisis, changed the way I thought about Kuyper in a Scottish context. The article sets out that this crisis has to be viewed in relation to the modern self – which is driven to create its own identity and environment, and which, for most Scots, has been severely frustrated by Brexit. It views the experience of Brexistential crisis as another example of a world experienced by its inhabitants as a kind of postmodern chaos, and against that backdrop, it tries to bring Kuyper’s view of the Lordship of Christ to bear on how Scottish Reformed Christians might think about their place in a frustrated and frustrating culture.

Thanks to Pro Ministerio‘s editor Mark Veurink, for granting permission to reproduce the article here.

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Herman Bavinck’s ‘My Journey to America’

My translation of Herman Bavinck’s (short) book, Mijne reis naar Amerika, is now available in Dutch Crossing: Journal for Low Countries Studies (Taylor and Francis).

‘Herman Bavinck’s ‘My Journey to America’

Bavinck travelled to North America in 1892. Although travel journals were relatively commonplace in late nineteenth century Europe (Bavinck’s colleague Abraham Kuyper also published a book, Varia Americana, on his own travels around America), Bavinck’s observations on American culture are fascinating for three reasons. Continue reading “Herman Bavinck’s ‘My Journey to America’”

Steve Bishop’s Mind-maps of Trinity and Organism

It’s very nice if you write a detailed (and in places complex) academic work, and later find someone who has actually read it, who has done so with care, and has made a serious effort to take in its flow of ideas: how do the contents progress? How do its ideas develop, and in what order? Who are the key figures? What are the important dates in understanding the context?

One blogger, Steve Bishop, has gone further than most in producing mind-maps for each chapter of Trinity and Organism.

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Thanks Steve! These are fantastic. They look more like neurons than maps, which fits perfectly with the point made in the book (that Bavinck’s thought is profoundly marked by the organic nature of his ideas and their interrelationships).

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Trinity and Organism reviewed by Allkirk Network, and Derek Rishmawy

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Over the last year (or so) my first monograph, Trinity and Organism (New York and London: T&T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2012), has been reviewed on a couple of blogs. It featured on the Allkirk Network, and has also been covered by Derek Rishmawy. In Rishmawy’s review, I particularly appreciated that he used the review to explore why detailed historical theology is worthwhile to the church: as communities committed to the importance of truth (and the corresponding duty not to bear false witness of one’s neighbour, even if that neighbour lived in the past), and that strive for right doctrine, churches benefit from historical theology. To that, Rishmawy adds (and I agree!):

Beyond avoiding error, studies in historical theology prove that our Fathers and Mothers in the faith may still have something to new to say to us. Corrective studies like Eglinton’s have the possibility of opening up theological vistas or impasses in current theological and churchly debate because it comes from another time that’s not caught up in the assumptions we share. This is true whether it’s simply reminding ourselves of older sources we merely forgot or by gaining an understanding of their answers that weren’t properly heard the first time around. In this way, historical theology can become a timely word from another time.

Neo-Calvinism and the French Revolution, in Reviews in Religion & Theology

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Our book Neo-Calvinism and the French Revolution (T&T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2014) was recently reviewed in Reviews in Religion & Theology by Elissa Cutter (Loyola Marymount University). It was great to see particular praise for Matthew Kaemingk‘s excellent essay, ‘French Secularity and the Islamic Headscarf: A Theological Deconstruction,’ which used Kuyper to critique Laïcité (a distinctly French approach to secularism) as a de facto religion.

[Kaemingk] describes his essay as a ‘theological experiment’ (p. 159) where he applies Kuyper’s method of interpreting the French Revolution to the French response to Islam today. He argues, following Kuyper, that laïcité (secularity) in France has achieved the status as a religion so the conflict over Muslim headscarves in France should be seen as a clash between two religious worldviews. Because of this approach, I found this essay to be the most unique and interesting of the whole collection.