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What Heroism Reveals

While I was on vacation I did a lot of reading about Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a man I’ve long admired but one I had barely gotten to know. Having returned home, I turned to a biography of his contemporary, Robert E. Lee.

In the foreword to this particular biography, author Emory Thomas has some very useful things to say about writing biography. Though it applies to Lee in particular, I think we can extend it to any historical figure. He warns against the tendency to deify subjects and shows, rightly I think, that heroism tells as much about the society that admires as it tells about the figure himself.

Here is what Thomas says:

Lee, the enigma, seldom if ever revealed himself while he lived. To understand him, it is necessary to look beyond his words and see, for example, the true nature of the lighthouse keeper Lee encountered during his surveying mission in 1835. It is also important to peer beyond Lee’s words and recall what he did as well as what he said. Sometimes the existential Lee contradicted the verbal Lee.

There is a third caveat to understanding Lee. In addition to looking behind and beyond his words, it is well to remember that Lee was once possessed of flesh and blood. This is important because so many have made so much of Lee during the years since he lived that legend, image and myth have supplanted reality. Lee has become a hero essentially smaller than life.

People usually venerate as a hero someone who exemplifies (or who they think exemplifies) virtues which they admire or to which they aspire. Heroism thus reveals more about the society that admires than about the hero. Lee has been several sorts of American hero, and within the American South he has attained the status of demigod. Over time Lee has been a Christ figure, a symbol of national reconciliation, an exalted expression of bourgeois values, and much, much more. In life Lee was both more and less than his legend.

The time has come—indeed, the time is long overdue—to review and rethink Lee alive. History needs Robert E. Lee whole.

Reading these few paragraphs gave me a lot to chew on (to the point that I put the book down for a day and just thought about it). I think Thomas is essentially correct. Looking at this from the perspective of a Christian, I can see that at any time Christians have certain character traits, certain virtues that they value above all. What we tend to do, I think, is to find heroes who displayed these characteristics, and we then describe our heroes as if they were only these characteristics. When we do this, we make our heroes both more and less than what they truly were—we make much of those few strengths and ignore other strengths and inevitable weaknesses. And in this way we miss out on many of the lessons we ought to learn from them. Along the way, we tell a lot about ourselves but not nearly so much about these old heroes.

What do you think? Is Thomas on to something here? Do we, as Christians, tend to fall into this trap, where we create and even desire one-dimension heroes?