The Power of Story: Memoirs for Pre-Evangelism, Spiritual Insight and Enjoyment, too ON SALE from Hearts & Minds

In my previous column offering resources for apologetics and
sharing the gospel, I mentioned that we might use memoirs for what some call

That is, as we try
to help people construe meaning and find their way, books of others doing that
can be both reassuring and helpful. Religious seeking, even confusion, is not uncommon — and, yet, as Echoes of a Voice: We Are Not Alone, the
James Sire book mentioned yesterday indicates — many people have what might be
called epiphanies, or acute awareness of what might be called signals of
transcendence.  Some memoirs helps us appreciate that.


Of course we read memoirs, like we do novels, also for the
pleasure, for the joy ride of immersing ourselves in a well-told story. I adore this genre and have bunches of
favorites (not all about the profound search for meaning or spiritual
experience.) Some of these books I cherish. There are more than I can mention…

I think of the luminescent story about grief, The Tender Land: A Family Love Story by
Kathleen Finneran (one of the most beautiful, well constructed and moving books
I’ve ever read) or the beautifully
told journey of Andrew Krivak preparing to become a priest, A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious
I loved Wild: From Lost to
Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
by Cheryl Strayed, who can write like
nobody’s business; the memoirs of Elizabeth Gilbert are nicely done, and I
adored Mary Karr’s must-read trilogy (and will say more about one of them,

The down-home, rural writer Michael Perry from Wisconson is a writer who’d I read no
matter what he’s describing; Beth, too, and her favorite is his wonderful book Truck while I favor Coop, although they are each splendid examples of what he calls “roughneck grace.” Perhaps you’ve tasted the foodie memoirs of Ruth Reichl like Comfort Me With Apples (who now has a
novel out, too, but I digress.) And how about those memoirs about homesteading, farming, or living more sanely —  any number are so nice.

Years ago I wrote a review about The Cliff Walk: A Memoir
of a Job Lost and a Life Found,
a stunning story about a literature prof
named Don Snyder who got laid off, lied about his shameful unemployment, but eventually
found a sense of calling to a new vocation as construction worker.  Someday I will re-read that magical
book. Terry Tempest Williams is a truly magnificent writer, and I am better for
having read her work.  Start with Refuge and then Red which are about her loves for the deserts of Utah, and her departure
from the conservatism of her Latter Day Saints family. Which reminds me of a
cult-classic that I’ve read twice: Desert
by the indomitably crusty Edward Abbey. I really do love this genre!

Recently Beth and I discovered by serendipity the great,
great writer, Catherine Gildiner whose story of her girlhood near Niagara Falls
Too Close to the Falls and her coming of age in the crazy late 60s, After the Falls, defy being put down –
they are so entertaining and nicely written, funny, even.  These were just so fun to read, and we
both were struck not only by her writerly skill, but were amazed how authors
can tell their life story this way. 
Do order them from us if you’d like, but be prepared to stay up late,
following her escapades.

Some biographies carry this
same theme — telling how somebody pieced their life together, finding hope, or
not.  I hope you’ve read the
excellently written, unforgettable Unbroken:
A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
, by Laura
Hillenbrand, about Louis Zamperini (which, finally, was just released in paperback.) Even those of us not drawn to extreme sports have been
thrilled, and moved, by books like Into
Thin Air
which aren’t memoirs per se, but have that feel. Krakauer’s account of the tragic story Into the Wild gives us all pause, and makes us ponder. Although not
a memoir, the sports biography of Joe Ehrmann, a Baltimore Colt football star
who went to seminary and learned to coach inner city kids, ­­­­­Season of Life: A Football Star, A Boy, A Journey to Manhood written
by Jeffrey Marx, is beautifully done.

I don’t know if Jonathan Kozol’s poignant pieces about urban kids in
failingstride.png schools count as memoir, but they are nearly that, and movingly written
– with titles like Amazing Grace and Ordinary Resurrections you pick up that
something important is going on. Stride
Towards Freedom
by Martin Luther King Jr. I think, counts as memoir; in retrospect it is a very large story, set as
it is in the days of the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott. It is one of my all-time
favorite reads, and it chronicles Dr. Kings faith, his doubts, his intellectual/theological
struggles, his prayers, and, finally, his trajectory to becoming the
leader he became, all set in the blazing history being made in that famous city.

Some of these stories address important issues, and some are
about faith, but many are not.  Still,
I love reading the delightful and moving ways people tell their stories and
think, at the least, that helps us have greater understanding of others, and perhaps empathy towards their search for meaning.

Of course, this is nothing new:  just think of the popularity, even in the mainstream press,
of classics like Seven Story Mountain by
Thomas Merton or The Long Loneliness
by Dorothyyou converted me.jpgcon.jpg Day or Surprised by Joy by
C.S. Lewis. Even Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love,
which took the country by storm and then was made into a movie with Julie
Robertsit is about her search for
meaning, and even God, is it not?

you remember the first time you read The
Autobiography of Anne Frank
, or, say,
The Hiding Place
by Corrie Ten Boom? Or
the quartet of autobiographies by Frederick Buechner? Or Kathleen Norris? (Surely if you are a Hearts & Minds
fan, you’ve read Buechner and Norris!)  

Did you know that the first person in history, or so they
say, to do a self-conscious spiritual autobiography is one former African
Bishop, Augustine of Hippo, whose Confessions
we carry in any number of editions? Talk about an enduring story — sexy party
boy turned sober Christian leader!

Here I will list a fabulous batch of books that are, mostly, about
the search for religious truth, the journey towards the Divine, and, in some
cases, towards Christian discipleship of one sort or another. Leaning over the
shoulders of some of these writers as they reflect on their pilgrimages is a
good way to help others think through their own lives, and a good way to help
people see how it is done.  Perhaps
you could share them with seekers and skeptics, friends and loved ones. Or
maybe you yourself might enjoy following along the trek some of these writers make, and
their ruminations offered for us all.

Again: while few of these end up with the sort of
distinctive, historic Christian faith I might endorse, their reporting about
their quests are certainly well worth reading. These are mostly not
classic conversion narratives (although a few are) and none are simple; their
allusive and artful telling about their sometimes disappointing struggles and
their epiphanies and joys is the point.  Perhaps these books can be used in the kinds of conversation
where simple conversion testimonies wouldn’t typically work; it is why I
sometimes suggest that these are pre-evangelistic.
(Lewis, you know, had his “imagination baptized” by reading a fairy tale,
before he committed himself to Christ.) These books may not necessarily bring
the gospel clearly (some do) but they all offer us the language of story,
coherence, plot and searching, and the vocabulary of self-aware consideration.

recommending them, we are aware that some are not presenting a
Biblically-shaped worldview, and their use of language may be more R-rated then
many readers of Christian books are comfortable.

story.jpgSo, there. Hope that helps. All are on sale, too, if you are a BookNotes reader. Just use the order link, below, or click the “order” tab at the top of the website. It leads you to a secure order form page and you can just tell us what you want.

Ppilgrim.jpgilgrim: Risking the Life I Have to Find the Faith I Seek Lee
Kravitz (Hudson Street Press) $25.95 
What a delightful, plainly told story of a baby boomer raised Jewish, who experimented (rather unsuccessfully) with Transcendental Meditation in the ’60s (the Beatles, ya know) and who always had a desire for deeper spirituality. Living now in (post 9/11) New York, with teenagers and a successful career, he is knowingly seeking spiritual depth.  Kravitz moves from very liberal Judaism to hosting an interest in Protestantism, joins a
Quaker meeting, eventually trying Zen. As Hope
Edelman writes, “Lee’s Kravitz’s journey of spiritual renewal leads him right
into the heart of what matters most: family, community, and love.”  StoryCorp founder David Isay says it is
“a courageous work filled with wisdom and life lessons.”

Lilit.jpgt: A Memoir Mary Karr (Harper) $14.99  Her searing story of growing up in a
rough family in hard-scrapple East Texas, The
Liar’s Club
, and her next book further reporting on her descent into some
very, very crazy stuff, Cherry, are
legendary, both used in writing classes, and cited as examples of the
renaissance in quality memoir in our time.  In this one, Ms Karr pursues her literary career even as she
remains an alcoholic, so the title itself is a punchy double entendre. How she
lives into her eventual sobriety, her literary career, her hunger for God, her ongoing
family problems — recall that stuff in her earlier books; that doesn’t go away
easily, you know — and her new found faith is extraordinary, wonderfully
written and exceptionally compelling. What a life. What a read. Superb.

Ssurprised by ox.jpgurprised by Oxford: A Memoir Carolyn Weber (Nelson) $15.99 I
have reviewed this fast-paced, intellectual conversion story before, and raved,
also, about her follow-up memoir of being a busy Christian professor and mom,
seeking spiritual guidance for each day (Holy
Is the Day
– so good.)  Surprised
by Oxford
is a major autobiography, focusing on her year of study
in England, and her conversion there to reasonable, heart-felt, evangelical
faith.  The allusion in the title,
of course, is to the more famous Oxford conversion story, Surprised by Joy. This really is a marvelous book, for anyone who
is in academia, a serious student, or who has studied abroad (or, more
importantly, wondered about great literature and the Christian vision of life.)
Lyle Dorsett says that Weber is “an unconventional thinker whose engagingly
told faith journey will speak to folks who still believe that thoughtful people
cannot be Christian.”

Texact place.jpghe Exact Place: A Memoir Margie L. Haack  (Kalos Press) $16.95   I did a long, rave review of this when it first came out, and
we declared it truly one of the best books we had read in 2013. Margie is a
fine writer (look for a collection of essays coming later this year) and
her style is intelligent, honest, poignant at times, but not sentimental. She
writes here about growing up poor in a shotgun shack in rural Minnesota, and,
evoking a strong sense of place, wonders if she was at “the exact place” she
needed to be all along, the place where God could draw her to Himself in divine
mercy.  This is not the least bit
preachy, and in the beautiful closing she offers up that take-away
insight.  Anybody who starts their
book with a line from Wendell Berry, and then makes us laugh right out loud
with antics, and causes us to get a lump in our throat reading about her afflictions, so that we finally
come away with insight and wonder, well — this is that kind of amazing sort of book.  Highly recommended, written by a friend
of Hearts & Minds, and an artful, good storyteller.

Tlittle way of ruthie l.jpghe Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the
Secret of a Good Life
Rod Dreher (Grand Central Publishing) $16.00  This really is a spectacular book, very
moving and sad (it is about the sickness and death of the author’s
sister.)  But it is also a look at
a caring community, offering a serious sense of place, and the discovery of a
slower-paced, more humane pace of life in small town. 
The New York Times calls it “illuminating.”
Ann Voskamp has a gorgeously crafted rave review. The epigram in the front is
from St. Therese of Lisieux, “What matters in life and not great deeds, but
great love.”  Tell me this wouldn’t
create good conversations for seekers, skeptics, or those sensing a hunger for
a sustainable, flourishing life. Watch this short Youtube clip by the author to get a sense of how good this book really is.

FFalling into Place- A Memoir of Overcoming.jpgalling into Place: A Memoir of Overcoming Hattie Kauffman
(Baker) $17.99  This handsome book
is well written — the author is an Emmy Award winning broadcast journalist, so she is wonderful with words. Hattie Kauffman
is, in fact, one of the only Native American’s working at this level in this
profession. She is determined, focused, and knows how to get to the heart of a
story, and her story is very much worth telling.  A veteran CBS/NBC colleague
notes how many good stories she has covered and says, “Now she shares her own
heart.  And that’s the best story
yet.”  This is a true story both
heartbreaking and redemptive, pointing to what is faithful and true.  Very moving, very nicely done.

Ggirl meets god.jpgirl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life Lauren Winner (Waterbrook)
$14.99 This is the book that catapulted Lauren to considerable fame and those
who love good memoir will certainly see why. Few contemporary conversion
narratives have captured the angst of Gen X young adults, and her particular
journey – into conservative Orthodox Judaism and then into Episcopalian faith –
is so well told that it is often used as an example in classes on writing
spiritual autobiography.  Beth and
I love her writing, and care for her very much. This is one of the great
memoirs of our generation. You should have an extra to share  — it is that good.

Fflirting with faith.jpglirting With Faith: My Spiritual Journey from Atheism to a
Faith-Filled Life
Joan Ball (Howard Books) $14.99  There are many books in this genre, and
this one is told with verve and what Len Sweet in his rave review calls her “attitude” which he compares to Anne Lamott. Sweet also says, “her splendor of
rendering life in the spirit is unmatched.”  Wow.

Becky Garrison, an Episcopalian
writer who has some attitude herself, has a blurb on the back: she says, “Joan
Ball reveals the scarred soul of an avowed atheist who found herself
unexpectedly God-smacked. In Ball’s story, readers will find another broken
believer who walked a crooked spiritual path that eventually wound its way to

Ffinding calcutta.jpginding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work
and Service
Mary Poplin (IVP) $16.00  Speaking of academia, this is a very nice story, the journey
of a non-Christian, liberal feminist college professor who takes a year to
serve alongside Mother Teresa, trying to make sense of her life, and finds a
deep relationship with God. In wondering what to do next, Poplin is told by
Mother T to “find your own Calcutta” in higher education. There are plenty of
hurting young adults and colleagues in modern universities, and she should
serve there, she was told.  This is
the story of her time in Calcutta, her religious awakening, and, then, her
moving efforts to live her new life as a Christian college teacher. Very, very nicely

Ssunday in america.jpgundays in America: A Year Long Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith Suzanne
Strempek Shea (Beacon) $16.00  When
Pope John Paul II died, Suzanne Shea, who had not been an active member of a
church community for some years, recognized in his mourners a faith-filled
passion that she longed to recapture in her own life. So she set out on a
pilgrimage to visit a different church every Sunday for one year – a journey
that would take her through the broad spectrum of contemporary Protestant
Christianity practiced all over this country.  Want to sit in the pews with dozens of different
congregations, getting to know all manner of spiritual experience and
congregational life? Humor and grace abound as she allows us to join her in
this year-long road trip through 30 states, and 52 different churches.

Mman seeks god.jpgangeography of bliss.jpg Seeks God: My Flirtation with the Divine Eric Weiner (Twelve) $26.99  Of course this is not the only book one should read if one wants to know about comparative religions, and it obviously does not bring a uniquely Christian, or Biblical framework to the project, but still — what a fun read! But what a curious project it is. Perhaps something like Bruce Fieler (Walking the Bible, The Year of Living Biblically, etc.) Weiner, who calls himself a “spiritual voyeur” and inveterate traveler, wants to actually experience what various religions have to offer, so he actually tries to adopt them the best he can. From practicing with Hindus and Buddahists, to serving with Franciscans, to some lesser known outfits, he tries to see what is good about them all. It is a clever read, and one really does show at least some of how these faiths are practiced on the ground. 

By the way, I really, really enjoyed his previous one, where he visits the countries that have been measured to be the happiest on the planet, to see what they do right. That one is called The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World (Twelve; $14.00.) Fascinating and fun, and a bit instructional, too, about what really makes us happy.

Ssalvation on sand.jpgalvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern
Dennis Covington (DeCapo) $14.95 I have often said this is
one of my all time favorite books, a high octane, powerhouse story by a great
writer, a gutsy, wounded journalist who is assigned to do a serious story on
the snake-handling sub-culture in rural, very Southern West Virginia. I will
not spoil the story, but you should know this is beautifully written,
energetic, fascinating, and very surprising, even as this author ponders some
of the biggest stuff we can ask about religion in America, and faith in our own
lives.  What a book! By the way, I
was blown away by the story he wrote with his wife, novelist and essayist,
Vicki Covington, about their troubled marriage, movingly called Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage. What

Ddemon camp.jpgemon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism Jennifer Percy (Scribner)
$26.00  I heard about this from an Episcopal
friend and then on NPR and it made me think a bit of Salvation on Sand Mountain. This exploration of demons and exorcism
didn’t come from Oral Roberts or super-charismatic Pentecostals, but from a
mainstream, secular writer (of the literary caliber who gets reviewed on NPR.)
This is one helluva book — is about post traumatic stress, telling the story
of an emotionally wounded vet who is convinced he is being haunted by demons.
He finds help (or does he?) from an almost spooky exorcist ministry in very
rural Alabama. This brilliantly told story traces not only the surreal narrative
of the demon-haunted vet, but of the journalist herself, as she accompanies him
into the memories of the horror of the battlefields in Afghanistan and the
horror of serious spiritual warfare. I am left wondering what to think about
this, and you might as well. Whew.

Bblood brothers.jpglood Brothers Elias Chacour (Baker) $12.99 I have wanted to
remind our friends about this since an updated second edition came out a year
ago.  This is the dramatic story of
a Palestinian Christian working for peace in Israel. The late James Baker III
wrote a moving afterward. Father Chacour, known to be a delightful and generous
man, is an Archbishop of the Middle Eastern Melkite Church and founder of the
Mar Elias University in Galilee. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace
Prize three times, by the way – and his story here is a stunning example of
Christian advocacy for justice, for reconciliation, and for Biblical
nonviolence.  It is a riveting life
story and a beautiful vision of the hope for peace amidst the Arab-Israeli

Iin the wilderness coming of age.jpgn the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country Kim
Barnes (Anchor) $15.00  I found
this to be one of the most moving books I’ve read in a long, long time, and
continue to ponder it, even though I read it several years ago. It was a
finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, in fact. Barnes, now a novelist, was raised in
rural Idaho, born into a rustic family of nearly migrant loggers.  When her isolated extended family
became involved in nearly cult-like fundamentalism, her life changed – as did
her family’s relationship with the land, with others, with everything from
sexuality to politics to work and education.  Her rugged journey out of this worldview, and away from her
formerly close-knit family, is riveting reading.  Here is how the back cover described it: “Into the Wilderness is the poet’s own account of a journey toward
adulthood against an interior landscape every bit as awesome, as beautiful, and
as fraught with hidden peril as the great forest itself. It is a story of how
both faith and geography can shape the heart and soul, and of the uncharted
territory we all must enter to face our demons. Above all, it is the clear-eyed
and moving account of a young woman’s coming of terms with her family, her
homeland, her spirituality, and herself.”

Thungry for the world.jpghe subsequent sequel by Ms Barnes, Hungry for the World: A Memoir (Anchor;
$15.00) is passionate and well worth pondering, again, wonderfully
written with intelligence and grace, although it has some sexual stuff that may
trigger painful memories for some readers. This is literate, never gratuitous,
describing her profound exploration of the meaning of it all, and her search
for a healthy, sane life.  

Nnorth of hope.jpgorth of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey Shannon Huffman
Polson (Zondervan) $16.99  I have
on occasion said that this is perhaps the most literarily rich book every
published by this evangelical publisher. I have met Polson, and know that she
is an extraordinary writing talent, a deep thinker, and a thoughtful Christian
writer.  In this gutsy memoir, she
retraces the steps of an outdoor river adventure through Alaskan wilderness
coming to grips (in the exact journey, at the exact spot) where her parents
were mauled to death by a bear the year previous. Is this a helpful way to
grieve a tragic and gruesome loss? Why is she doing this? How does it
feel?  As she prepares for this
journey, she is also rehearsing her role as singer in a Mozart Requiem, and
these interludes are themselves gloriously written and deeply affecting. What a

Tlife you save may be your own.jpghe Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage Paul
Elie (Farrar Straus Giroux) $17.00 
A renowned book, a labor of love, highly literate and exceptionally well
researched, this was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics
Circle Award. It explores the lives of four great writers who sought to change
lives through their work, and the way their own lives were changed by
books.  In a way, it can be
described as four interlocking biographies, telling us in beautiful prose about
Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.  If one is at all interested in American
literature, the world of intellectual Catholicism, or the impact of the
Catholic left, this is “a perfectly realize work.” For three decades, by the
way, these four read each other’s work, corresponded, and grappled with what
Percy called ” a predicament shared in common” as they strove to bring together
faith and art.

Mmy bright abyss.jpgy Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer Christian
Wiman (Farrar, Straus, Giroux) $13.00 
I have written about this often, and hope you know that Wiman was for a
long time the editor of one of the nation’s most respected poetry journals.
When he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, he wrote not only a poem with
this title, but a piece in The New Yorker, which eventually became this book.
Here, he reevaluates his drift away from Southern fundamentalism – his
description of faith in his Texas boyhood is worth the price of the book – and
wonders if liberal Protestant faith is adequate. This much-discussed book by
this thoughtful professor at Yale (yes, he lived!) is exceptional. Endorsements
on the back are from the likes of Marilynn Robinson and Kathleen Norris and
other intellectuals who long for faith, even if not of the evangelical sort.

DDays of Oblation My Argument with My Mexican .jpgabrown rr.jpgys of Oblation: My Argument with My Mexican Father Richard
Rodriguez (Penguin) $15.00  I hope
you know Rodriguez, a fine, fine Catholic writer, whose memoir Brown and Hunger of Memory have all won awards. One prestigious reviewer
wrote that (it) “looks into American – north and south of the Rio Grande – as
penetratingly and eloquently as Camus did when he compared the mental
landscapes of France and Algiers.” The
Village Voice
said is explores “the grandeur and grief of the American

TThe Color of Water-  Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother .jpghe Color of Water:  Black
Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
James McBride (Riverhead) $16.00  James McBride is a fine wordsmith and a good
novelist, but here he gives us his own story, and that of his remarkable mother, a woman who was worthy of having a book written about her!  This book is certainly one that readers adore, and it remains a popular seller in bookstores everywhere.  It is touching, and informative — as The Washington Post Book World puts it, “As lively as a novel, a
well-written and thoughtful contribution to the literature on race.”  Indeed, this inspiring story is “suffused
with issues of race, religion and identity.”  This is a very eloquent book, finally about family and grace
and goodness. Highly recommended.

Aan american childhood.jpgn American Childhood Annie Dillard (Harper) $13.99  Okay, she’s won a Pulitzer, is a
delightful Presbyterian writer, and there is a scene from her Pittsburgh
hometown painted on the cover.  One
critic said it will “take the reader’s breath away” and another says it is “breathtaking…
a work marked by exquisite insight.” The Philadelphia
reviewer wrote, “The reader who can’t find something to whoop
about is not alive” and went on to say it was one of the very best American
autobiographies. Another critic said it was about “the capacity for joy.” So.
What kind of conversations can you have in a book group with a resource like

Llittle black sheep ashley c.jpgittle Black Sheep: A Memoir Ashley Cleveland (David C. Cook)
$17.99  I hope you know the rowdy,
gravelling voice of rock and roller Ashley Cleveland.  Now you can know her story – raised in a dysfunctional,
hurting family, struggling with her own destructive days of drugs, alcohol and
sex, and her eventual encounter with a forgiving God.  Dan Allender says of it “This book delivers me face-to-face
with a God who just might be good news. To say that I enjoyed the book is far
from the truth.  I devoured it.
Wept. Raged. Swore. And said yes again to Jesus.”  So, yeah: that’s just what a good story can do. You should
give this to somebody who needs to know there is a better way.

Ttraveling mercies1.jpgraveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith Anne Lamotte (Anchor)
$15.99  How can I not list this?
Anne is a beloved writer, novelist, essayist, and this is her most famous work,
the one in which she gives up her own (drunken) way, and yields to Jesus. If
you have a bohemian, lefty friend who needs a “shot of love” (as Dylan put it)
this crazy story of hard times, wild writing, and earnest faith just might
help. Look for a new anthology of pieces about coping with grief and getting by
amidst great pain, coming later this fall. She is a good, clever writer, and
her story, unorthodox as it may be, is a treasure.  This continues to sell well, and we take it everywhere we

Ddancing through it.jpgancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet Jenifer Ringer (Viking) $27.95  There are so many good autobiographies
of those involved in the arts, and some are truly fascinating, and many illustrate
(for those with the eyes to see, at least) the longing for God of beauty that
often accompanies those with creative spirits. Here is a rare story, written by
a strong Christian and exceptionally talented dancer. Ms Ringer has been the principal
dancer in the New York City Ballet!  
Not only does she draw accolades for her talent, and her story, from
critics, but her friend Kathy Keller (of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan)
says it is “an honest an exhilarating look into the life of a young dancer,
with both the excitement of achievement and the desperate anxiety given proper
treatment. ” She thinks it is good “for any young person passionately following
their dream.  Jenifer was fortunate
to have help in conquering her eating disorder and other demons, and this book
may be a help to those wrestling with their own issues.”

Techo within.jpghe Echo Within: Finding Your True Calling Robert Benson
(Waterbrook) $13.99  I love this
gentle, sensible writer who can speak of very deep spiritual truths on one
page, and tell a self-effacing episode from his own storied life on the next.
Benson’s good books aren’t exactly full memoirs, but they all share so much of
his life, casually told, nothing splashy, that I wanted to suggest them on this
list: he is a master writer, storyteller, with an eye to see the deeper things
behind his daily life. From his early books on learning about contemplative and
liturgical prayer (Between the Dreaming
and the Coming True
and Living Prayer)
to this one on his own discovery of his own sense of calling as a writer, (to
one on caring for his back yard, or the year he had to help his aged mother
move to an assisted living place, or his new one on the craft of writing) he
invites readers into his life, names important stuff, and writes so clearly
that one can’t help but want to reconsider his or her own life patterns,
assumptions, and ways of being in the world. For memoir lovers who are writers,
artists, or anyone seeking a meaningful calling, this book on vocation is a
fun, fascinating glimpse of how it is discerned, and how it can be done.

Wway below the angels.jpgay Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to
Tragic Confessions of a Real Life Mormon Missionary
Craig Harline (Eerdmans)
$22.00  You know this has to be a
good book for the editors of one of the most storied and prestigious religious
publishers in America to offer it as one of their biggest titles of the season.
No, this guy doesn’t covert to Protestantism, and there is no grand conclusion,
but, wow, does he write well – colorfully and creatively (does the subtitle
give you a hint that he’s upbeat about it all?) And this memoir is certainly about his pondering his own faith,
choices, the nature of spiritual experience (including failure) as he ponders the role of religion in his life, and in our culture. And did I mention he’s a good writer?  As Jana Riess
writes of it, “How could a memoir that primarily deals with religion and
rejection be so flippin’ hilarious? Craig Harline’s experience as a Mormon
missionary in Belgium in the mid-70s are ingeniously funny, but they also point
to important issues – how religious people deal with apparent failure and
navigate grown up faith after childish certainties have proven
inadequate.” The demanding Kirkus Reviews said it displays a “fine
mix of pathos and hilarity… a touchingly human memoir.”  Here is a nice, thoughtful interview with him in a 15 minute video clip.

Aa severe mercy.jpg Severe Mercy: A Story of Faith, Tragedy and Triumph Sheldon Vanaukan (HarperOne) $14.99  Do you know this book? It was very popular a few decades ago, and I keep hoping there will be a renaissance of its popularity.  A whole new generation of readers should know this heartbreaking story of romance and intellectual discovery, of tragedy and grief, of loneliness and friendship, of God and grace. Part of the story includes the illness and death of Davy, Sheldon’s young wife, and his grief as he correspondied with and become friends with C.S. Lewis, whose moving letters are enclosed in the book. (Lewis, you know, lost his wife, Joy, shortly after their marriage.) What an amazing, wise, powerful book, about a truly memorable couple and a nearly universal story of love, loss, and hope.

Ffaith and other flat t.gifaith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of
Andrea Palpant Dilley (Zondervan) $14.99   I have written about this before,
partially because it rang so very true, partially because I think this story
needs told as it isn’t uncommon: a girl whose parents are evangelical
missionaries returns home, attends a conservative Christian college, is
attracted to the bohemians and skeptics, ends up nearly losing her faith, laden
with new ideas, moving feely into the world outside of the religious
sub-culture, and yet can’t shake her love for family and church. Through a
faithful older friend, she is enfolded back into the faith, perhaps less sure,
but perhaps more deeply faithful and wiser. This is a fine young adult memoir
that captures the texture of “the critical years” and is an entertaining read, compelling
us to care about the author and her tale of doubt, “flat tires” and set-backs
on the journey towards mature faith.

CCracking the Pot- Releasing God from the Theologies That Bind Him.jpgracking the Pot: Releasing God from the Theologies That Bind Him Christine
Berghoef (Resource Publications) $22.00 
I know, the subtitle makes this sound like merely another emergent
anti-evangelical manifesto, but it is not; it is an engrossing memoir.  It includes her journey exploring “the
simplicity and complexity of faith” and offering honest, tested hope. Rave,
rave reviews come from Brian McLaren and Cornelius Plantinga.  Phyllis Tickle, who reads more widely
than almost anyone, says “Theological autobiographies are rare, and intriguing
ones are even rarer. Few of us have the candor to construct them, much less the
skill to endow the result with grace. Christine Berghoef has all those things,
however, and the result is this enormously appealing memoir of a questing
Christian mind.”  If Phyllis calls
it “enormously appealing memoir” it’s worth reading. By the way, Berghoef’s husband, Bryan, has a book called Pub Theology: Beer, Conversations and God (Cascade
$15.00.) They are church planters in
urban Washington DC.

Rradical reinvention.jpgadical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church Kaya
Oakes (Counterpoint) $15.95 This book, I’ll say from the start, isn’t for
everyone, but I couldn’t put it down. The indie-girl, radical-punk-anarchist
author will appeal to transgressive readers and socially progressive folks –
and all will be surprising how her deep desire for a meaningful life that makes
sense of the biggest questions and gives motivation to address social concerns
draws her to the historic Irish church of her youth.  She grows to love the Mass, she meets some feisty feminist
nuns, and joins a “pray and bitch” circle with other misfits trying to find
their voice in what they think is an outdated institution. What a story — the
journey from an ex-Catholic punk to an (unconventional) amateur theologian. And
a great writer.

Tgirl in orange.gifhe Girl in an Orange Dress: Searching for a Father That Does Not Fail Margot Starbuck (IVP) $16.00  I continue to tell people they just must read this extraordinary book, this story of a young woman who was adopted, whose adopted dad(s) left her, and her subsequent struggle to discover if God as Father was a viable notion, whether He was really there, and if He truly cared. Is grace real, and does it matter? I simply loved this book about this good woman’s life which is both poignant and full of pathos and yet delightful to read and laugh-out-loud funny at times. This is just a fantastic memoir, a great read, and loaded with very important deep-down insight. We love this writer, and, will say it again: you must read this book!   And then read her others, too.

UUndistorted God Reclaiming.jpgndistorted God: Reclaiming Faith Despite the Cultural Noise Ray
Waddle (Abingdon) $15.99  I just
started this brand new memoir, a faith journey written by a religion writer,
wondering how Christianity might work for him; he had seen plenty of distorted
faith, disconnected and confused. Yet, “people are yearning for connections –
with one another, with God, and with a usable and undistorted faith.”  He “avoids coy or watered-down
spirituality and instead gives breathing room for the “divine patience” in this
“shaggy, swarming, world.” Nora Gallagher, an eloquent writer herself (and Episcopal
priest) says “This book is like a poem, or a room suddenly cleared of clutter
so you can see its fine, clean bones.”

Wwhen we were on fire.jpghen We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and
Starting Over
Addie Zierman  (Convergent) $14.99 
This is not so much a narrative of a conversion to Christian faith, but
the story of one young woman’s near journey out of it, or at least of the fundamentalism
of her youth and her struggles now with clichés big and small.  I have reviewed this before, and found
it hard to put down – she is a feisty writer, and this is good for anyone
wondering if one can maintain faith even if one is no longer confident in the
evangelical subculture and its commercial trappings. Less intense, but very popular,
is Rachel Held Evan’s book about “growing up in Monkey-town” (the town of the
infamous Scopes Trial against Darwinism) recently re-issued as Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the
Answers Learned to Ask Questions
(Nelson; $15.99.)  You really ought to know these, and
ponder their stories, their lives, their new kind of faith. 

FFaith, Interrupted- A Spiritual Journey.jpgaith, Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey Eric Lax (Knopf) $26.00  What a clear, interesting telling of the tale of a boy growing up in the household of an earnest, happy, and thoughtfully traditional Episcopal priest who grew into doubt and confusion in mid-life after a boyhood of piety and conviction. Lax’s description of being a pastor’s kid is remarkable, and his eventual shift — having a “foot in both cultures, dubious as plain believers, equally dubious as plain unbelievers” is how Jack Miles put it in a glowing review–  is told with eloquent honesty. This quiet spiritual autobiography is, for him, a story of discovery (and, perhaps, rediscovery.) Lax has written other books, including  best-selling study of Woody Allen, who makes an appearance or two in this story.  (As does, by the way, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and a host of other figures important within the Anglican communion of those years.) Is it natural for faith to flow and ebb? This is a fascinating story which will appeal especially, I think, to baby boomers raised in, or interested in, high church Protestantism.

Ttorn.jpgorn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate Justin
Lee (Jericho Books) $15.00 There is a shift in evangelical literature about the
topics of gender and same sex attractions, and it is not now my point to weigh
in on the many recent books; I list this here because it is a very moving story
of an evangelical boy who came to realize he had homosexual desires, and worked
to bring some sort of dialogue between his evangelical family and friends and
the gay friends he had in college. That is, it works as a spiritual memoir, the story of a life quest. Lee was nick-named “God Boy” as a teen and his
loving family supported him through his coming of age. It is disarming, honest,
and painful, documenting his disillusionment with the “ex-gay” movement and the
courage of his convictions that God would accept him as he ways. Although there
is more here there mere memoir, it is, at heart, a touching story of a guy
trying to figure out his life, his family, his identity, and his faith. Agree
or not with his conclusions, it is a nicely written story and a good example of
the narratives experienced not a few young Christians.

Tatake this bread.jpgke This Bread: A Radical Conversion Sarah Miles (Ballantine) $16.00 I
have read three books by this beautiful writer, astonished and delighted that
one can string together such beautiful lines, good phrases, moving paragraphs
about such heart-breakingly beautiful stuff. By narrating her life in literary
memoir, she brings an intimate detail to view, helping us sense just what her
life is like. And, wow, what a life. As you may know, this first book of hers
narrates her conversion to Christ by simply partaking – for the first time
ever! – the elements of Episcopalian Eucharist. Realizing she encountered the
living Christ in this parish’s open table and profound hospitality to her, a
stranger and outlier, she figured the next step was to “go and do likewise.” Or
almost: she started a food pantry for the poor in the San Francisco
neighborhood in which the church is located.  A sassy, quick, and clever lay theologian, now, she tells us
about not only her interior life, but her struggle to serve the marginalized,
bring gospel news to the broken, and use food and eating as a way to build
human community in the context of her liturgical church.  This is a story well worth reading –
enjoyable for the sheer verve of the writing, and extraordinary for the complex
and beautiful story it narrates.

jesus-freak.jpgI came late to Christianity,” writes Sarah Miles,” knocked
upside down by a mid-life conversion centered around eating a literal chunk of
bread. I hadn’t decided to profess an article of doctrine, but discovered a
force blowing uncontrollably through the world.” The punchy sequel to Take This Bread tells powerfully how she carries
on her new found faith and her life of radical discipleship, serving the poor
and hurting within this progressive, liturgically rich urban faith community —
it is called Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead (Jossey-Bass $21.95.) You most likely
haven’t read anything like it. Wow.

PPastrix.jpgastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint Nadia
Bolz-Weber (Jericho Books) $22.00  I
have said before that I almost didn’t read this as I figured I well understood
the “I’m no longer a straight-laced fundamentalist” arch of this story, and had
read enough of the cool emergent stories celebrating their post-evangelical shtick.  I am so, so glad Beth and I both read
this, and will admit that we found it to be a remarkable book, very well-written,
funny, engaging, surprising, and very thought-provoking. We loved hearing about
her journey out of ultra-fundamentalist faith, her struggles with addictions,
the reconciliation with her alarmed faily, and, despite her foul mouth, her
call to become a Lutheran clergy person who preaches sermons about law and
grace.  Yes, she has part of the
church calendar tattooed across her torso; yes, she sometimes wears a clergy
collar, and yes, many of her community are marginalized from the mainstream;
her artfully emergent Denver mission congregation is called “House of All
Sinners & Saints” and is as culturally-diverse and engaged in transgressive
hipster culture as one can be; it is not for everyone. But it is a sample of a faith
journey that will be a life-line to some. 
I sometimes joke that if Anne Lamotte is too tame or too old, try
Nadia.  Her writing is like Anne on
steroids. And it just might open conversations about the meaning of faith in
our time – even if you don’t agree with her theology or congregation’s style. A truly fascinating, even eccentric, perhaps one might say
postmodern, contemporary memoir.

FFinding God  A Treasury of Conversion Storie.jpginding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories edited by John
Mulder  (Eerdmans) $22.00 With
almost 400 pages, this is a jam-packed, potent collection of some of the most
thoughtful, dramatic, or literate examples of Christian conversion narratives
anywhere in print. There are sixty inspiring stories, here, of life-changing
experiences. Endorsements are from Randall Balmer and Richard Rohr and Joel
Carpenter, very different writers, all interested in the contours of faith and
culture in our time. Here you will find short excerpts from the memoirs of
Martin Luther and John Calvin, Therese of Lesieux and Toyo Kagamwa, but also
Evelyn Underhill and Albert Schweitzer and Bono. You can read about the
surprising Christian conversions of Black Elk and Charles Colson and Dorothy
Day, and the rigorous thoughts of philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and
scientists like Francis Collins. 
This monumental, wonderful, and a very useful resource for anyone not
only needing good examples of authentic faith, but for anyone wanting to share
these stories with others.



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