Like my subjects I became a believer as an adult, and from the moment my spiritual journey began I have been intrigued with other lives as parables—which is another way of saying I’m drawn to how biography and history connect.
Because everyone—people of deep faith and people of no faith—should reasonably ask, “Does becoming a follower of Jesus have any discernible impact on our world?,” I’ve invited eight believers from the past to brief us on this very question, which I encounter all the time from the students I teach to the writers I read and the pundits I encounter in the media. In all these places and all too often I come across the view that our beliefs about human rights and human dignity, about social justice and freedom somehow just happened. Those who think that way appear unaware of how their own worldviews are profoundly connected to historical individuals whose Christian convictions followed up belief with action and in doing so revolutionized opinions in the past.
My hope in taking on this matter was that a critical historian’s rather than a philosopher’s or theologian’s understanding might help readers understand whether Christian belief has had an impact more good than evil, because that issue too is much talked about today. Thinking in terms of the cast of characters readers will encounter in Mere Believers, here are some questions: Did their Christianity change their country? Did reorienting their hearts and minds result in any measureable consequences for their culture? Was the world better or worse because of them?
In previous scholarly research and publications for a popular audience I had come across each of these characters and in almost every instance felt dissatisfied. Most of the Christian work on them lacks critical analysis of the evidence. Where it existed I remained underwhelmed by much of the scholarly work on my subjects, for too often they were made to serve another agenda. In response, my approach was to make them neither better nor worse than the story told by the surviving documents. Throughout the research for Mere Believers I have used the same scholarly approach I did in my academic work—reading original sources and the best and most recent scholarship on the subjects.
A teacher of Jewish law heard Jesus give a particularly profound answer in a debate, and so asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important? ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these’” Mere Believers demonstrates how faithful lives—lives evidencing hearts and minds at work—offer poignant models for spiritual formation. Mere Believers is also an attempt on my part to love my neighbor as myself.