Since Augustine’s Confessions, religious and spiritual memoirs have attracted readers in search of inspiration. The memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies that are a staple of the category include testimonies of conversion (from no faith to faith, or from one faith to another), of spiritual triumph through suffering, and of social activism spurred by religious beliefs.
Conversion comes from a Latin root for turning, and in religion, that means turning from one spiritual path to another. Conversion can come at a price: Leaving Buddha: A Tibetan Monk’s Encounter with the Living God by Tenzin Lahkpa, with Eugene Bach (Whitaker House, Feb. 2019), tells how Lahkpa (a pseudonym) converts to Christianity and is rejected by friends and family, abducted, stoned, and imprisoned. He escapes to become one of very few Christians in Tibet, where he now evangelizes for the faith. Bach has written and coauthored a number of books about the persecution of Christians in regions where the religion is officially outlawed or taboo.
Sohrab Ahmari—a writer for Commentary magazine and former opinion columnist and editor at the Wall Street Journal—grew up in a Muslim family in Tehran but became an atheist. Now he has embraced Catholicism, a transformation he recounts in Ten Awakenings: My Reasons for Becoming Catholic (Ignatius, Mar. 2019). Some have seized upon his conversion as a rejection of Islam, but, Ahmari writes, “I became Catholic after concluding that Catholicism is true.... It wasn’t as if I had been praying to Allah one day and the next day accepted Christ as my personal savior.... I had come to the Catholic faith from unbelief.”
Linda Curtis was knocking on doors by age nine, living in the world of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, where she was discouraged from pursuing higher education or a career, making friends outside the Witnesses, or even voting. In Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself (Sparkpoint Studios, out now), Curtis tells how she became disillusioned and decided to leave the Witnesses—a decision that resulted in her losing her family, friends, and a community. PW’s review called the book “a moving portrait of one woman’s life as a Jehovah’s Witness and her painful but liberating realization that she must give up her faith.” Curtis is now a mindfulness teacher in the Bay Area.
In Bow First, Ask Questions Later (Wisdom, out now), Gesshin Claire Greenwood describes rejecting American culture when she was 19 and going to Japan to enter a Zen monastery. “I went [to Japan] because, like most young people, I was in search of answers,” she writes. “Of course, I didn’t find answers. I just found more and more questions and doubts.” She remains a Buddhist but left monastic life to return to the U.S. for college and graduate school. “If my six years in Japan was like being a seed planted deeply into very dense soil, a soil in which I couldn’t grow but could absorb nutrients, moving to America was like being transferred to a greenhouse,” she writes.
Some memoirs intersect with the issues of our time, such as Rob Schenck’s Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love (HarperCollins, out now). Once a prominent figure in the religious right, Schenck writes of his own turning away from conservative politics and of his regret for the role he played in bringing politics into evangelical churches: “I espoused and embodied the type of ‘born-again’ evangelical Christianity that had become almost synonymous with a right-wing and increasingly aggressive Republican Party. What was once a simple, gratifying spiritual community defined by Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor... had been nearly lost and certainly compromised by the political posturing and sparring of the last decades.”
Urging a return to the simple teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, Schenck has adopted a more expansive Christianity. “I no longer believe you’re excluded if you’re homosexual, or if you’ve had an abortion, or if you perform them,” he writes. “I no longer believe Muslims are dangerous marauders, or that Democrats and liberals are apostates. I no longer believe Jesus is a Republican or that Ronald Reagan spoke for God and Jimmy Carter didn’t.” Today, Schenck campaigns for stricter gun laws.
From Faith to Action
Religious beliefs often spur social activism, and that is the subject of several new and forthcoming memoirs and biographies. The epidemic of suicides in America is a growing concern, and in The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention (Chalice, out now), pastor and suicide survivor Rachael Keefe shows that Christians are not exempt. “There’s so much suicide in the church that it’s literally killing us,” she writes in a book that is both a memoir and a call to action.
Many Christians avoid talking about suicide, believing faith should be enough to banish despair, but, writing about her own attempt, Keefe says congregations must confront the reality. “As an adolescent, I needed the new life about which Jesus spoke to Nicodemus that dark night,” she writes of the night she attempted suicide. “Not even God seemed big enough to overcome what I perceived as a thick and heavy fog that separated me from everyone and everything.”
In Black and Pro-life in America: The Incarceration and Exoneration of Walter B. Hoye II by Robert W. Artigo (Ignatius, Oct.), an investigative journalist and screenwriter recounts Baptist minister Walter B. Hoye II’s opposition to abortion and the civil disobedience that landed him in jail when he refused to stop standing on the sidewalk outside an abortion clinic holding up a sign saying, “God loves you and your baby. Let us help you.” According to Artigo, Hoye says that some African-Americans suspect abortion providers target black women and that few anti-abortion activists are black. Artigo quotes Hoye in the book: “For a black man, when you set out to do this, you lose your family, you lose your community, you lose your church,” he adds.
Matteo Pistono introduces a Thai Buddhist activist, critic, and advocate for the poor in the biography Roar: Sulak Siviraksa and the Path of Socially Engaged Buddhism (North Atlantic, Feb. 2019). Largely unknown outside Thailand, Siviraksa has been jailed, harassed, prosecuted, and exiled for defaming the Thai monarchy. Articulating a socially active Buddhism, Siviraksa founded the International Network of Engaged Buddhists to marshal nonviolent resistance to injustice. Pistono is the author of Meditation: Coming to Know Your Mind and In the Shadow of the Buddha: One Man’s Journey of Discovery in Tibet.
Five missionary nuns were murdered during the 1992 civil war in Liberia, a story told in The Cost of Compassion: 5 Women Who Paid the Ultimate Price by Barbara Pawlikowski (Acta, out now). “If we look for real heroes in this world, we will discover a bold few who possess a certain restlessness of spirit and an expansive worldview,” Pawlikowski writes. “They are drawn by their faith to follow one of Jesus of Nazareth’s central teachings: to minister to the least among us.”
Out of Adversity
Another staple topic of the genre is clinging to faith for help through illness, loss, and grief. Renowned writing teacher and author Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) tells of grappling with cancer in Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home: A Memoir (Shambhala, out now). A long-time Zen practitioner, Goldberg uses Zen principles to embrace her suffering in order to overcome it, and, of course, she also writes about it: “A writer gets to live twice. First we live, and then we write about what we have lived. Like a cow that brings up its feed and chews it again, a writer has a second chance to digest experience.”
Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows by Ella Wall Prichard (1845, Sept.) is both a memoir and a guide for widows, who, like her, must navigate grief and rebuild their lives. Prichard writes that she turned to the Bible for help: “Again and again, I read the Apostle Paul’s letter to the poor, discouraged congregation at Philippi—a letter full of love, encouragement, and joy. It became my primer for widowhood.” She wants to encourage other widows. “You are not the first woman to start on this journey,” she notes. “You will emerge from the overwhelming cloud of grief. Life is not over. Make the years ahead good ones.”
Community activist Jason Wilson had a traumatic childhood: his grandfather was lynched, his two older brothers were murdered, his father was remote, and his mother was lost to depression. In Cry Like a Man: Fighting for Freedom from Emotional Incarceration (David C. Cook, Jan. 2019), Wilson describes how he learned to suppress his feelings and act tough—to be a “real man.” But through his Christian faith, he says that he came to realize that freedom and real manhood come from having the courage to face difficult emotions. He writes that he founded the Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy in Detroit to teach boys about true manhood: “My passion and pursuit... is to help boys and men find their strength to become courageously transparent about their own brokenness, and to shed light on the symptoms, causes, and effects of childhood trauma and ‘father wounds.’ To free them from emotional incarceration—to see their minds renewed, souls weaned, and relationships restored.”
Casey Gerald was raised in his grandfather’s black evangelical church in Dallas but entered a new world when he attended Yale on a football scholarship. In There Will Be No Miracles Here (Riverhead, Oct.), Gerald writes of learning how different life is for the privileged, who he believes have perpetuated salvation stories that keep others from rising. Gerald received an MBA from Harvard Business School and cofounded MBAs Across America, an organization that helps people who have become MBAs get involved with community activism and supporting entrepreneurs.
During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Roman Catholic priest Ubald Rugirangoga lost more than 80 members of his family and more than 45,000 of his parishioners to the violence—a story he tells in Forgiveness Makes You Free: Five Keys to Forgiveness and Healing: A Story of Survival and Reconciliation from the Rwandan Genocide, with Heidi Hess Saxton (Ave Maria, Mar. 2019). Escaping on foot through the jungles to the Congo, Rugirangoga says that he returned to Rwanda after the genocide to bring healing and reconciliation, founding the Center for the Secret of Peace near Lake Kivu, where his services regularly draw crowds of up to 30,000.
“As a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi people, I have witnessed the power of forgiveness to heal and restore beyond the confessional,” Rugirangoga writes. “I have witnessed countless thousands of people who, having encountered Jesus in the Eucharist, have laid down their burdens of hate and revenge, and opened their hearts to receive healing and peace. These men and women have discovered, just as I have, that forgiveness makes us free. It heals us. I have seen it. And I have lived it.” In 2017, Rugirangoga’s story was the subject of the documentary Forgiveness: The Secret of Peace.
These books offer a sprawling range of experiences and engaging real-life stories that can provide guidance, companionship, and encouragement to seekers of every stripe looking for their own spiritual growth and change.
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