The Danger of Hagiography as Hero-Worship

An Uncritical Appraisal of Your Heroes Is Unfair to Them, to You, and to God

It always seems like such a good idea at the time. You have a hero. Maybe it is someone who you know personally. Maybe it is someone whom you have only observed from afar. Hero worship is a natural human inclination. Everyone does it. There is a certain kind of praise that moves beyond healthy celebration of another’s achievements to self-defeating obliviousness.

The following is not a critique of hagiography as a genre of writing per se. If anything, it is a critique of my original manuscript about Mother Basilea Schlink. It was rejected for publication for being “too hagiographical” and “not critical enough.” During the revision process, I agreed, begrudgingly at first but ultimately definitively. Non-critical spiritual biography (which is what I had written) is not good scholarship.

In the words of medievalist and historical theologian Jim Ginther, “hagiography is a literary category, a form of narrative theology, and a heuristic device.” Good hagiography, good recounting of the lives of the saints should serve those functions. However, to the extent that discussions of heroes  of the faith become unidimensional — that dimension being praise and praise only — there are distinct pitfalls.

The problem is two-fold. First, only God deserves our worship. When we praise the saints, what we should be doing is praising God’s work in their lives. I accept this as self-evident in the context of monotheistic theological discourse. (If anyone would care to take me take me to task on that count, feel free to do so in the comments below.) To be fair, when most people celebrate their heroes, including their heroes of the faith, they aren’t really praising those people in the same way that they would be praising God, so this aspect of the problem may be less of an issue.

Second, the real problem is that hero worship is a kind of blindness. By elevating another human, we blind ourselves to our own spiritual potential. By remaining oblivious to the weaknesses of the so-called greatest among us, we fail to see our own weaknesses as opportunities for God’s grace. We forget that Pope Francis, Mother Theresa, and whoever you look up to are people with ordinary struggles, just like the rest of us. The writings of the saints about themselves bear this out. I’m especially thinking of the Theresas here (of Avila and of Lisieux). Their sins loomed large in their exaltation of God.

We are in danger of forgetting that those who are truly great in the eyes of God are often nothing in the eyes of the world. We all know them, when we remember them, though few of us know them by name. These are the countless martyrs-to-self who every day thanklessly (for now) lay down their lives for the sake of God and others: the single mother who works two jobs to support her kids and somehow still finds time to help them on their homework late into the night; the bus driver who remains patient and joyful in a transportation system that is largely devoid of both; the cleaning lady who has a word of encouragement ready for the discouraged students she encounters on the campus where she works, even though such students rarely give her the time of day; the least among us in the eyes of society who, nonetheless, are rich in faith, mercy, wisdom, and the other gifts and fruit of the Spirit.

I believe in saints. But they are f’ed up just like the rest of us. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills when my many of my Catholic freshmen blankly stare back at me every fall after I insist that, yes, saints sin. The difference between saints and other sinners is that the saints do not let their sin hold them back. Rather, they embrace redemption as a way of life.

The danger of hagiography is that, if its authors are not careful, in place of what was it can give us what ought to have been, as dictated by a false sense of unattainable perfection that is not merely unrealistic – it is inhuman. When we forget the sins of the saints, we deprive ourselves of hope of becoming saints ourselves.

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