It just occurred to me this morning that three of the books I am currently reading consist largely in telling other people’s stories. David Brooks’ The Road to Character focuses chapter by chapter on individuals as different as Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, Bayard Rustin, and Augustine. None are perfect by any means but Brooks teases out the growth of their characters as they struggled with the conflict between noble aspirations and fallen nature that besets each of us.
The Religion of Democracy by Amy Kittelstrom focuses on seven classically liberal figures in American religious history and the beliefs and dispositions that shaped their lives. She covers figures as diverse as John Adams and William Ellery Channing (a key figure in the development of the Unitarian movement), to William James and Jane Addams, showing the development of an American liberal creed that was less doctrinal than focused around personal judgment and moral effort that included the benefit of one’s fellow human beings, encouraged within intellectual communities of the like-minded.
The last is Miriam Adeney’s Kingdom without Borders which narrates the stories of Christians on every continent past and present who have developed Christian movements through compassionate character, personal sacrifice, and in some cases, martyrdom. For example, she narrates the life of Sadhu Sundar Singh, one of the most profound of India’s Christians.
You can look for full reviews of these books in weeks ahead, but I’m struck by the choice of each of these writers to develop the central themes of their books around telling other people’s stories. In each of these, the writers put flesh and blood on abstract ideas like compassion, moral restraint, or liberal notions of moral improvement. Often abstractions leave us cold, but when we see the stories of people who attempt to embody these commitments and shape their lives around them, it helps makes sense of these both as we relate to our own experiences past, and the life choices before us.
What also strikes me as I read these three books is that they present differently grounded moral visions, sometimes within the pages as in Brooks’s book, although it centers around classic Judeo-Christian ideas. Kittelstrom’s and Adeney’s book give a sharper contrast, between the American Transcendalist tradition, and a global evangelical Christian one. One begins to see how different moral groundings sometimes lead to similar, and sometimes divergent ends. And since all of us in some way, either explicitly or implicitly, live toward some vision of a life well-lived, these narratives all help us assess both the beliefs and moral ends toward which we are living.
Is this not why we also read great fiction (if we do)? Whether it is Jane Austen, or Anthony Doerr, or even an Elizabeth Peters mystery, are we not immersing ourselves in a world where convictions, circumstances, and moral choices, and human impulse all come together, for better or worse? Yes, we can read just to be amused, and yet the truth is that the most profound works also hold a mirror up to us quietly posing the question, “how then will you live?”