Biography and the study of religion

Last week we (here at the School of Divinity) held a panel discussion on the theme ‘Religious Biographies’. This was an idea that came from the ‘Story and Religion’ network, which was formed last year to bring together colleagues across the School of Divinity with a common interest in narrative. Biography was a key common area, and one that we decided to explore further.

The format worked rather neatly – each of four colleagues presented for 10 minutes on how the theme related to our own research, and this was followed by questions from the floor and discussion of key issues, such as the challenges of biography-writing, the differences between biography and hagiography, and the role of biography in religious traditions across different times and places.

Professor Susan Hardman Moore started us off with an intriguing account of her own work drawing together a ‘collective biography’ of some of the people who went to New England in the 1630s but later returned home again for her 2013 book Abandoning America: Life-stories from early New England. As well as introducing the notion of ‘collective biography’ Susan highlighted the challenges of drawing out lifestories from scanty sources, and the important question of who merits a biography and why.

Dr James Eglinton followed this with some comments on his work towards completing a biography of the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, whom he declared to be “someone who merits a biography”. In particular he discussed the distinction between the supposedly objective art of biography, and the more religiously inclined hagiography, which he described as a lifestory told by sympathisers for sympathisers. He also opened up discussion about the way in which a biography of an individual inevitably exposes something of their broader social and cultural context.

Dr Helen Bond, despite being author of books on Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas and Jesus, began by denying that she writes biography. She explored the problems of the label ‘biography’ in cases where the sources are in fact too limited to allow a real construction of a lifestory, or where sources are unreliable or biased testimony. Instead of writing biographies, she explained, she uses individuals as a way into exploring wider questions and contexts. She also noted the danger of the biographer putting too much of themselves into the biography.

Then it was my turn, and I explained a little of my own research into the generic conventions of lifestories in early Indian religion, the inclusion of past lives, and the concerns of lineage (both karmic and genealogical). Using the Buddha’s lifestory as an example, I explored the mismatch between western generic expectations of biography, and the multi-life and “hagiographical” lifestories we find within the Buddhist tradition. I also mentioned the question of labels, asking whether ‘lifestories’ might be a better term, as well as noting – like Helen and others – the problem of sources.

The discussion that followed was very stimulating, with some really intriguing questions being raised. We spoke about the question of who deserves a biography, and how such decisions have been made. We also discussed again the difference between biography and hagiography, as well as the distinction between biography and “fragments” of a life, a term preferred by Helen Bond. The extent to which generic conventions vary across time and place, differing, for example, in the time of the Gospel writers to now, also came up, as did the modern tendency to write chronologically and the dangers this poses to the biographer. Sources and evidence were a key theme, and we also touched upon the role of visual evidence. However, we didn’t quite get to a convincing conclusion on any of these matters, suggesting there may be room for future events on this theme…


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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One Response to Biography and the study of religion

  1. The description of your panel discussion reminded me of my own religious biography:

    It’s interesting that you discussed the difference between biography and hagiography. As you can see from my chapter titles, that is a question I’ve struggled with myself.

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