Several months ago I impulsively stopped at an estate sale I happened to be driving past. Among the books I rescued was REINHOLD NIEBUHR: A BIOGRAPHY by Richard Wrightman Fox. The name rung a bell, but faintly. Despite attending Christian schools for three-quarters of my educational career, America’s pre-eminent 20th century preacher and theologian had escaped me. As is my custom, I embraced my ignorance and chose to enjoy the book spoiler-free.

Aside: I confess it’s been a while since I read a book this size. It’s actually quite irritating to physically hold the thing for any length of time, to be beholden to an external light source, to forego the easy digital access of Kindle and iPhone and iPad. Anyway, I labored through it, asking myself more than once: who even reads this stuff? Judging by the $0.01 price tag on Amazon, I suspect I am in rare company indeed.

How many books will you read in your life? 1,000? 100? Should a dry recapitulation of a man you’ve never heard of make the cut? It’s certainly hard to argue it should. And yet, every biography has at least one redeeming characteristic in common. A man’s life compressed into the span of a few hours is a fearful thing. To watch a person live and strive and grow old and die in a week is, well, utterly disquieting.

Niebuhr was a giant, a restless, inconsistent, grasping giant. The gospel he preached as a young man bears almost no resemblance to the message of his later years. He was not unintelligent. He worked harder, certainly, than any man I’ve ever known personally. Yet in the end… in the end I almost pitied him. His body fell apart, his mind betrayed him. He began to be forgotten even before he died. Today, he may as well not have existed.

I say almost, however, for Niebuhr’s life was exquisitely Eccliastical. Mighty exertions, mixed results, ultimate accountability to God alone.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever … All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.