We can never get enough of biography these days. For the last several decades, authors and readers have been drawn to it more than any other literary genre. In an era of psychotherapy, we long to know the inner life of those who preceded us; living in a mass culture, we seek to make sense of our own lives by seeing those of others writ large; seeing our own evils with Freudian eyes, we crave "biopathologies" of the rich and famous; attempting to live bountifully given the social constructions of our own situation (in race, in gender, in vocation), we look to others to emulate their adjustments to the constrictions we too experience. Thus the motives for undertaking biographies--whether to read them or to write them--are multiple. Whereas the reader may leap into a biography without clarifying to herself just why she is so interested, today's writer works in a highly self-conscious climate of literary expression. As such scholars of biography as Bruce Nadel have suggested (in Biography: Fiction, Fact, and Form, New York, 1984), these questions include: Why do I want to write this life? What point of view about the person's life will I take? What do I hope to find out or to propose that no one else has done before me? Who are my readers? What do I want them to take away from my biography?
Are these questions as important in writing and reading the life of a saint as of a ordinary person? I have wrestled with this question in reading and thinking about Freda Mary Oben's The Life and Thought of St. Edith Stein. This short book idealizes Stein as a woman, a theologian, a mystic, and a philosopher; it is a brief for the rightness of her beautification and sainthood and, although Oben does it gently, an explication of the wrongness of Jewish objections to the canonization. The book takes its place in a literature on Stein that is vast and growing, much of it in German. Some contributors to this literature have written of their personal experience with Stein; others have explicated her philosophical position; still others have considered her in the tradition of Carmelite mysticism. With few exceptions, these studies have offered readers a statement of the author's point of view and proposed contribution to the scholarship. Oben, on the other hand, has not written this kind of biography. In The Life and Thought of St. Edith Stein she provides no introduction to her investment and hopes in telling Stein's story, her choices about sources, and her awareness of what others have written. The work would seem to be the climax to articles, short books, and a series of tapes (for which the book under review seems to be the text), that Oben has produced on Stein over the years. The only clue to Oben's awareness of her position as author is the dedicatory page, "In Loving Memory of My Jewish Family." We learn in the "About the Author" blurb that Oben, like Stein, is a convert from Judaism. In telling Stein's story, then, Oben would seem to be telling aspects of her own. What is her engagement with her readers? In writing of Stein as "God's mouthpiece" (p. 21), surely she directs her work to those who are looking to St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Stein's name as a Carmelite) as a spiritual model. We might say, then, that this devotional biography--a "hagiography"--is a genre of which we do not ask the same questions as we do of a critical biography. This understood, the book has much to recommend it. As a tribute to Stein's life and thought it is short, concise, and clearly written. Oben covers every well-known aspect of Stein's life, dividing her book into three parts. In "Part One: A Holy Life," she discusses Stein's Jewishness; Stein as a new convert, in which phenomenology is crucial; and Stein's spirituality. In "Part Two: Writings in Christian Philosophy," Oben devotes separate chapters to Stein's philosophy of the woman; her philosophy of the person; and her understanding of the person in society. "Part Three: Ecumenism and Edith Stein" considers Stein's beatification and the problems associated with it; Oben argues that Stein's canonization can help ecumenism. Throughout the book Oben efficiently defines philosophical terms such as phenomenology and personhood, introducing the general reader to positions of Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Scheler, with fluidity and grace. Although I missed the involvement with a community of interpretation and the nuancing of human decisions that bring the subject of a biography to life for me, I would recommend Oben's book to admirers of Stein who want a clear introduction to the facts of her life, her comments about her awareness of God, and the philosophical contexts to which she contributed.