Humans are fascinated by other humans, and that means that the stories people tell of their own lives are enduringly popular. Memoirs in the religion and spirituality category tell stories of faith found, changed, or regained, and of struggle, suffering, and loss overcome through faith. Along with classic subjects such as illness or the death of a loved one, many new and forthcoming memoirs focus on difficult contemporary problems, such as sexual identity, addiction, racism, incarceration, and politics in the Middle East.
Battling for Life
Conquering addiction is the subject of several new memoirs, such as On Pills and Needles: The Relentless Fight to Save My Son from Opioid Addiction by Rick Van Warner (Baker Books, Jan. 2018). Brian Thomasson, a Baker Books senior acquisitions editor, notes, “The opiate epidemic is truly the open wound in our nation, draining away the life and vitality of so many suburban communities,” making it a crucial topic for many readers. Van Warner describes an ultimately successful but tough battle to save his son from a deadly dependence. Along with his own story and his son’s, Thomasson says, Van Warner examines “the scale of the opioid epidemic, the blight of pill mills, and the dark side of the recovery industry.”
Another parent struggles to help a son escape addiction in The Only Life I Could Save by Katherine Ketcham (Sounds True, Apr. 2018). Although Ketcham has spent 30 years writing and teaching about addiction, she found facing her son’s addiction as daunting as any other parent would. “This book is about the big know-it-all who realizes she doesn’t know a damn thing,” Ketcham writes, describing the impact of addiction on her own and other families and the role of spirituality in recovery.
Addiction’s destructive power also is depicted in Goin’ Down to the River by Doug Seegers and Steve Eubanks (Nelson, Jan. 2018). Singer-songwriter Seegers was an alcoholic living on the streets of Nashville when a Swedish musician and documentarian heard him play and aired his story on Swedish television. That led to a hit record and to Seegers’s embrace of Christianity and sobriety.
Struggling with illness is another classic theme for memoirists. In Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament by Douglas Groothuis (IVP, Nov.), the philosophy professor confronts his once-brilliant wife’s dementia by relying on God. In This Is How I Save My Life (North Star Way, Apr. 2018), Amy Scher searches for treatment for advanced Lyme disease. Scher, a secular Jew, finds a risky experimental treatment in India, and taps into a higher power for the first time.
Soccer player Steve Zakuani was a first-round draft pick and played for the Seattle Sounders until an accident almost ended his career. During a lengthy recovery, he returned to the Christian faith of his childhood, a story he tells in Rise Above (Lexham, Oct.). Zakuani urges readers to confront their own ordeals with the help of God.
Physician Sarah Bamford Seidelmann became disillusioned with Western medicine and searched for a better way to help her patients, not only physically but spiritually. She found it in shamanism and tells the tale in Swimming with Elephants: My Unexpected Pilgrimage from Physician to Healer (Conari, Oct.). As the title suggests, the book recounts the time Seidelmann took a group of patients to Thailand, where they swam with elephants to affirm a return to health.
Love makes life better and love heals, Scott Stabile writes in Big Love: The Power of Living with a Wide-Open Heart (New World Library, Sept.). His parents were murdered, his brother died of a heroin overdose, and he had to extricate himself from a cult. He writes that, in every situation, “it was love that carried me back to my center.”
In Good Night, I Love You (FaithWords, Sept.), motivational speaker Jene’ Ray Barranco writes of mothering three grieving teenagers after the sudden death of her husband and being comforted and supported by her Christian faith. In The Healing: From Poverty to Inner Riches (Parallax, June), Saeeda Hifiz tells of confronting the damage caused by domestic violence, addiction, and poverty, and finding physical and spiritual health, through yoga.
For a humorous take on life as a Buddhist monk, there’s Single White Monk: Tales of Death, Failure, and Bad Sex (Although Not Necessarily in that Order) by Shozan Jack Haubner (Shambhala, Oct.), the pen name of a former screenwriter and stand-up comic who became head monk at a Zen monastery. Haubner writes that the book is “the fever dream of a man wrestling with his memory, his teacher, his lovers, his peers, and himself,” adding, “Let’s just say that this book is based on a true story—as if there were such a thing.”
Another monk, Paul Quenon, tells his tale in what has been tentatively titled In Praise of the Useless Life (Ave Maria, Apr. 2018). A Trappist brother for 60 years, Quenon has hardly led a cloistered life—his visitors have included Joan Baez, the Dalai Lama, Seamus Heaney, poet Czeslaw Milosz, and Pico Iyer, who wrote the book’s foreword.
If You Only Knew: My Unlikely, Unavoidable Story of Becoming Free (B&H, Jan. 2018) is Jamie Ivey’s story of finding the courage to reveal her true self, faults and all, and rely on God’s grace.
The Wounds of Racism
Tyndale House publishes many memoirs, especially those tied to current events and issues. “Our mission is to meet people’s spiritual needs, and we think true stories of personal transformation are an especially powerful way to accomplish that,” says executive publisher Jan Long Harris.
One forthcoming Tyndale book is among those approaching racism through an author’s personal experiences. When Ferguson, Mo., erupted in violence in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown, police captain Ron Johnson was tasked with calming the storm. In 13 Days in Ferguson (Tyndale Momentum, June 2018), Johnson writes that, though he was credited with restoring peace in just 13 days, he paid a price: “Police officers in my own command called me a traitor. People I thought were my friends stopped speaking to me. People blamed me for the violence that occurred after I took charge. The governor said that the whole world would be watching and he was right.” Johnson found solace and support in his Christian faith.
Melba Patillo Beals was one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in 1957, and in I Will Not Fear: My Story of a Lifetime of Building Faith Under Fire (Revell, Jan. 2018), she tells how faith and family have kept her strong in the face of hatred and prejudice. Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down (Zondervan, Feb. 2018) is 102-year-old Ida Keeling’s account of growing up in the Bronx during the Great Depression; becoming a civil rights activist; and, at age 67, after the murders of her two sons, becoming a world record–holding runner in 60- and 100-meter events for her age group. Also from Zondervan is Madison Park (Nov.), Eric Motley’s story of being raised in that freed slaves’ town in Alabama and overcoming racism to become a special assistant to President George W. Bush; he is now executive vice president of the Aspen Institute, a global think tank. Walter Isaacson, Aspen CEO, wrote the foreword to the book.
In 1988, Catholic priest Greg Boyle founded Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program in Los Angeles, a story he told in Tattoos on the Heart (Free Press, 2011), which was hailed by PW as an “astounding literary and spiritual feat.” In his new memoir, Shoulder to Shoulder (S&S, Nov.), Boyle delves into the lives of gang members who were transformed through their embrace of Christianity.
Convicted: A Crooked Cop, an Innocent Man, and an Unlikely Journey of Forgiveness and Friendship by Jameel Zookie McGee, Andrew Collins, and Mark Tabb (WaterBrook, Sept.) tells how Collins, a white narcotics officer, framed McGee for possession of crack cocaine, sending him to federal prison for four years—then ended up there too, for possession with intent to distribute. Both men found a deeper faith in prison, and Collins confessed to falsifying the case against McGee. Says WaterBrook senior editor Bruce Nygren, “Instead of them ending up enemies for life, now they are good friends who jointly speak about what is required to genuinely heal racial tensions.”
Prison minister and activist Jeff Hood weaves memoir and stories of the condemned with biblical interpretation of the issues around the death penalty in The Execution of God: Encountering the Death Penalty (Chalice, Sept.). He notes: “The death penalty helps us to realize that life is a party only for some.... Poor people occupy the spaces of death row.... Persons of color, immigrants, and the mentally disabled are all disproportionately represented.”
Struggles with sexual identity and social acceptance are at the heart of three new memoirs. Refocusing My Family: Coming Out, Being Cast Out, and Discovering the True Love of God (Fortress, Oct.) tells how Amber Cantorna—daughter of an executive at the conservative Christian media organization Focus on the Family—came out to her family and paid a heavy price: “As a little girl,” she writes, “I did not dream that I would be married to a woman and that my dad’s position at Focus would divide me from my family rather than keep us focused on it.” Cantorna has founded Beyond, a nonprofit advocacy organization that helps LGBTQ people.
In Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (IVP, Aug.), Gregory Coles wrestles with same-sex attraction, ponders whether God has called him to celibacy, and eventually decides to come out and live fully. Coles—a contributor to the short story collection Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: Author Quest—assures all people, “You are not a mistake.”
Songwriter and worship leader Vicky Beeching rose in the Christian music industry while concealing she was gay. In Undivided Heart (HarperOne, May 2018), Beeching writes that, when she came out, she was dropped from her music label, blacklisted by conservative Christian churches, and shunned by other Christians. She began to write and speak on religion and LGBTQ issues and is now a commentator for the BBC.
Celebrated and Spiritual
Even the rich and famous suffer and need solace, as Tyler Perry shows in Higher Is Waiting (Random/Spiegel & Grau, Nov.). The actor, author, producer, director, playwright, and songwriter grew up in New Orleans and was regularly beaten by his father and sexually abused by a neighbor. His Christian faith sustained and motivated him: “Ever since I was a little boy I’ve always known there was something greater than myself,” he writes. “This holy force was protecting, loving, and keeping me close. It was helping me live through physical pain and emotional heartache and guiding me to envision and believe in extraordinary possibilities.”
In Blessed Life: My Surprising Journey of Joy, Tears, and Tales from Harlem to Hollywood (FaithWords, Nov.), actress, director, and musician Kim Fields—star of The Facts of Life and Living Single—recounts how God helped her as she struggled with weight and body image, the death of a friend in a car accident, career setbacks, broken relationships, and other trials.
Sally Quinn—former Washington Post journalist, D.C. insider, widow of famed Post editor Ben Bradlee, and mother of a disabled child—writes about her spiritual life in Finding Magic (HarperOne, Sept.). Though she grew up in the mainline Presbyterian church, Quinn writes, “If I had to choose one word for where I am spiritually and philosophically at this moment in my life, it would be transcendentalist.... In the end I have my own religion. I made it up, helped along by books.”
An author who likely never wanted to be famous, at least not in the way it happened, is Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-American neuropathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease that afflicts football players and others who have been subjected to head trauma. In The Truth Doesn’t Have a Side (Zondervan, Aug.), Omalu—now the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, Calif.—writes that he drew strength from his faith while facing intense opposition. “Why was I the one who pulled back the curtain on the NFL’s dirty little secret and forced it to deal with questions it sought to hide for many years? [It] came as a direct result of the hand of God leading and directing my life.” Omalu was portrayed by Will Smith in the film Concussion; Smith wrote the foreword to the book.
In Hurt Road: The Music, the Memories, and the Miles Between (Revell, Sept.), Mark Lee, a founding member of Grammy Award–winning Christian rock group Third Day, writes about successes, failures, family tragedies, and how his faith buoyed him: “Coming or going, God’s got us.... There is no right road or wrong road in life. We don’t really get to choose that anyway—we just get to trust God.” Third Day will release a new album in 2017.
In the Holy Land
Several memoirs deal with the complicated politics of the Middle East. Breaking Cover (Tyndale Momentum, Feb. 2018) is Michele Rigby Assad’s account of recommitting to her Christian faith while working as a CIA agent and counterterrorism expert and becoming a target of ISIS. In Abducted in Iraq: A Priest in Baghdad (Notre Dame, Sept.), Saad Sirop Hanna, auxiliary bishop of the Chaldean Patriarchate of Baghdad, writes about how he was abducted by a group associated with al-Qaeda. The kidnappers demanded he convert to Islam, but he held to his faith and eventually escaped.
Annahita Parsan escaped another kind of prison—an abusive marriage in Iran. In Stranger No More (Nelson, Nov.), written with Craig Borlase, she writes of fleeing to Europe, where she converted to Christianity and now leads two congregations in Sweden.
Faith Lost and Found
Themes of faith found, lost, and reignited run through many memoirs, including Alter Girl: Walking Away from Religion into the Heart of Faith (Group, dist. by ACTA, Sept.) by Andrea Syverson, who was raised Catholic and married a non-Catholic. When she could not answer his questions about the faith, she questioned her own, but ultimately reaffirmed her commitment. Craig Cable, director of publishing at LifeTree/Group, says he decided to publish the book because “we are now reaching an unprecedented point in history where there will be as many people who have left the [Catholic] church as there are still in the church, and it’s our belief that millions of people will see their own stories reflected in Andrea’s.”
In Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism (Westminster John Knox, Sept.), Christian ethics professor David P. Gushee writes of his distress at the divisions within American Protestantism and disillusionment with the brand of Christianity in which he was raised. Gushee says he is still a “Jesus follower” and writes, “If you want to look for God outside the boxes the religious wars have tried to put God in, then maybe my journey has something to say about yours.”
Disillusionment also prompted Jamie Wright to tell her story in How Not to Save The World: Tales from the Very Worst Missionary (Convergent, Apr. 2018). Wright moved to Costa Rica with her family to make converts but ended up doubting that mission. She launched her Jamie the Very Worst Missionary blog and found a fellowship with other “failures,” which let her see how her own failures made her the kind of person others will listen to. Apricot Irving, a missionary’s daughter in Haiti, tells her story in The Gospel of Trees (S&S, Feb. 2018), revealing struggles with the demands of Christianity and her perfectionist father.
Finally, some who were raised in a Western religion look for their truth in the East, as in Journeys in the Kali Yuga: A Pilgrimage from Esoteric India to Pagan Europe (Destiny, Dec.), by Finnish writer, musician, and filmmaker Aki Cederberg, and Immortal Self (Sounds True, Apr. 2018), by spiritual teacher Aaravindha Himadra. Both describe searching for spiritual truth they felt lacking in the Western world.