Four Fantastic Biographies I Read This Year

A dirty little secret about biographies, to me, is that even if the person was remarkable, sometimes their life in written form is not. So I do not take for granted when I find one that takes me along for a memorable ride. And this year, that happened four times. These four accounts of extraordinary Christians infused me with life in a year where discouragement was a constant temptation:

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Lauren Hillenbrand

There were times reading this book I had to put it down and walk away for a while. It was that intense. I mean that as a compliment. Because I couldn’t stay away for long. It was too thrilling a story. The big arcs are that after crashing in the Pacific on a rescue mission with the U.S. Air Force during World War II, Louis Zamperini survived 47 days on a raft with minimal water and essentially no food, and then survived two years as a Japanese Prisoner of War, where he was subjected to unspeakable indignities and suffering.

At one point in one of his several stops in Japan, he and another POW hatched a scheme to escape. And I remember thinking, “If this were a movie, this would be the part of heroic redemption”. But as Red narrates in The Shawshank Redemption, prison is no fairy tale world. Their plot was discovered. They severely castigated his cohort immediately and Zamperini spent many more months continuing to be treated like refuse.

My favorite part of Zamperini’s epic real-world odyssey is when he battled the sharks. While at sea there were times he had to choose between certain death on the raft or jumping into the shark-infested waters. As when a Japanese fighter plane spotted their humble vessel and opened fire. While stationed in Hawaii, Zamperini says a man advised him that if he ever came face to face with sharks, to not panic or swim away. But rather to stand his ground, summon all of his courage, and swat them in the nose. That is exactly what Zamperini did. Multiple times. And it worked. It literally saved his life. I get chill bumps just thinking about it, and I’ve used that as a sermon illustration in my church. Because fear is often a liar.

I’m thankful that Zamperini works Christ into his story because he has every human reason not to. Yet, that is the power of our God, who transcends human reason at every turn.

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas

A couple of years ago I wanted to read about Wilberforce’s life. So I ordered John Piper’s biography of him. And while it was worth a read, it was a bit thin. So the staff of REO recommended Metaxas’s more thorough treatment of his life.

Two facets of Wilberforce’s life in particular impacted me. First, ending the slave trade in England (and beyond) was just one of two major concerns he had after he began following Christ. The other (the reformation of manners, or more accurately in our English, “morals”), is much more daily and mundane. But just as crucial to genuine Christianity. God absolutely cares about the day-to-day and not only about the big, exciting, and earth-shattering.

Secondly, I admire how forthcoming Wilberforce was about his lack of discipline, and how he aimed to repent of it his entire life. And succeeded, no doubt. You do not accomplish what he did without slaying that dragon. But I admire it because it makes me feel like my struggles are normal, as I succumb to the temptation to waste time and energy daily. They are the kind of thing we all battle. Even those who do legendary things to the glory of God.

Hiding In the LIght by Rifqa Bary

This autobiography is an account of Rifqa Bary, a Muslim girl in the U.S. who converted to Christianity and then ran away from home at 16 years old out of fear of her family’s reaction. It is a thrilling page-turner and every chapter it seems ends on a cliffhanger. It reads like well-written fiction at times, and it is mind-boggling how many twists and turns it has. Even if you know the main plot, it will keep you guessing how things end up. And just when you think there cannot be more surprises, another curveball comes out of nowhere. Till the very end.

The fact the story is so modern and local—much of it takes place a mere 10-11 years ago and in Ohio—is part of the draw. A person (especially a Christian) living in 2020 America will feel right at home with the culture of Rifqa’s journey. Mega-churches, abortion protests, youth worship services, social media, cell phones…all of these things speak my language and allow me to easily put myself into the story. After I finished the book, I even found one of the pastors who sacrificed greatly for Rifqa on Twitter and read several of his tweets.

On that note, I can’t help but find this intriguing as well: Rifqa’s family is from Sri Lanka and devoutly Muslim. They grew up speaking Tamil and learning Arabic, to read the Koran. They moved to the Bronx at one point before ending up in Columbus, OH. Rifqa found Christ at 12-years old after a girl in her homeroom at school invited her to a Korean Christian Church’s youth service. The collision of religion, language, and culture—all in Columbus, OH!—that led Rifqa to Christianity blows me away. I’m sure there are other countries where a story like this can happen, but not many. Rifqa’s story is truly made in America.

I feel I must add this disclaimer: As a Christian, I’m inclined to believe Rifqa’s version of the events she describes. I believe she fled from her home as a minor because she feared what her father would do to her. But I also know that there are two sides to every story like this. Her parents deny vehemently that Rifqa would ever have been in danger. And it was never proven, legally at least, that her father had ever hurt her physically. I must acknowledge that.

God’s Double Agent by Bob Fu, With Nancy French

I doubt there’s a better Chinese-American name than Bob Fu. Even if there was, I don’t know if anyone could top his story.

Having grown up under the heavy hand of communism (reading what his mother endured with small kids will wrench your heart), he fought the system early on. Like Wilberforce, he was highly intelligent, had the gift of gab and was a natural leader. However, this got him into trouble with the government and found out how heavy a price comes from standing up to tyranny. People died rebelling.

That should have quelled his revolutionary spirit. Yet something happened that ignited it even more: He found Christ by–of all ways–reading a biography of a Chinese Christian. The simple steps he took as a baby Christian, like looking for a church and understanding basic truths, fascinated me. But it is how he used his giftedness to lead the charge of Christ in his community that sells the book. He learned quickly what Christ meant when he said to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me”. Bob Fu could not play it safe with evangelism. And he, yet again, paid the price.

My favorite chapter is when he tells of going to jail for two months. I read that chapter in one sitting, and the 35 or so pages went by in the blink of an eye. It completely engrossed me. It was tough to read, in another sense, no doubt. Because like Zamperini, the humiliation added and humanity taken in that kind of environment disturbs my soul. But he clearly wrote that chapter to testify to the power and grace of God, who protected him and led him to make an eternal difference in the lives of his fellow inmates.

Fu and his wife eventually fled China and found refuge in the U.S. The things American Christians did for them to get them here and make them feel at home will inspire you. But not quite like Fu’s faith itself. This was a book worth writing and worth reading and re-reading.

So there are my four. Did you read any fantastic biographies this year?

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married nearly seven years and have a 3-year-old son, Liam Erasmus. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

3 thoughts on “Four Fantastic Biographies I Read This Year

  • January 2, 2021 at 10:12 pm

    I’ve really got to read unbreakable. Some of my students have read it and I feel like I need to.

    • January 2, 2021 at 10:14 pm

      Sorry, unbroken.

      • January 5, 2021 at 9:23 am

        I didn’t even catch your title change. It could easily be called “Unbreakable”. I don’t know that I’d ever consider anything other than the Bible ‘Must Read’ but it is a unique story and the storyteller’s ability is Top 1% in my experience. When it talks about him running to the Olympics (which I didn’t even reference) I felt like I was there watching and cheering.


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