Some 2,000 or 3,000 years ago, a writer of religious memoir who called himself Koheleth said, "The making of many books is without limit." Koheleth, who wrote the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, is the same guy who observed, "There is nothing new beneath the sun."
Certainly there seems to be no limit to today's profusion of personal writing, whether biography, autobiography, memoir, or first-person narrative interjected into other genres. "Memoir, Inc." is John Wilson's term for the phenomenon, and yet, noted Wilson, co-editor of Harper San Francisco's Best Christian Writing series: "A lot of today's best nonfiction is centered on lives. There's nothing better than getting into the head of someone whose life is very different from mine."
Difference is a hallmark of this season's offerings, ranging from oversized scholarly biographies to inspirational personal essays, representing major world religions and idiosyncratic spiritualities, and covering the gamut of human experience from faith and joy to—more often—struggle, illness, violence, grief and death.
Memoirs are as varied as the people who write them, but if you are deliriously happy, memoir is probably not your genre. Memoirs of formation describe the perils and humiliations of growing up, growing babies, or growing old. Spiritual journey memoirs relate painful transitions and misunderstandings. Wartime memoirs are full of terror, cruelty, and deprivation. Darkest of all are personal trauma memoirs, drenched in heartbreaking loss and grief. Why does anyone want to read these things?
"Memoir makes the divine real and personal in a way that other genres can't, by getting to the heart of how faith is actually lived," says Mark Kerr, editor for the Religion-in-Practice series at Jossey-Bass. This year, two Jossey-Bass memoirs received PW starred reviews: Diana Butler Bass's Strength for the Journey (Feb.) and Chris Rice's Grace Matters (Aug.) Both were also among PW's Best Religion Books of 2002 (Nov. 11). Six more such titles, according to Kerr, are in the pipeline.
Keeping the Faith
Kerr believes that memoirs, though often critical of organized religion, actually strengthen it: "Our publishing mission isn't about throwing out religious traditions and structures, but renewing them. Publishing memoirs is one of our most important contributions to the institutions of faith."
Many current memoirs are, in fact, by keepers of the faith: priests, ministers and rabbis. Stephen Fried's The New Rabbi (Bantam, Aug.) could be called a third-person memoir, since Rabbi Wolpe's recollections are the basis for much of Fried's story. Quite different is Mark Gruber's Journey Back to Eden (Orbis, Sept.), a first-person account that reveals more about contemporary Egyptian monasteries than about the narrator.
Keeping the faith requires extreme measures in Trudi Alexy's The Marrano Legacy (Univ. of New Mexico, Mar. 2003), correspondence between the author and a Catholic priest in Latin America who provides protection to Jews living as Catholics. Breaking Free (Eakin, Dec.) details Jann Aldredge-Clanton's struggle as a feminist Baptist minister in Texas, while Grace (Crown, Mar. 2003) tells the edgier story of Mary Cartledgehayes's ministry in a United Methodist church in South Carolina.
Ronald N. Eberley struggles to become a Roman Catholic priest in The Unnatural Law of Celibacy (Continuum, Oct.), while Peter Dinter, a former priest, condemns the Roman Catholic church's stance on celibacy in his account of his years in the priesthood, The Other Side of the Altar (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Mar. 2003). Meanwhile, Gary Smith, a Jesuit, finds Christ in his ministry to Portland's poor in Radical Compassion (Jesuit Way, Oct.).
Keeping the faith is important not only to clergy but also to a growing number of young conservative Christians, according to Colleen Carroll, author of The New Faithful (Loyola, Sept.). "Many of the young adults I interviewed say their conversion began when they heard the witness of another young believer whose personal story punctured their prejudices about Christianity," Carroll told PW. "They are attracted to story and mystery, and I think spiritual testimonies and memoirs often satisfy those cravings."
Not that they appreciate the same books as their Boomer parents. "For these young adults, religious autobiographies like G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy or Augustine of Hippo's Confessions are much more powerful and exciting than the self-help books and indulgent memoirs that litter the new arrivals section of most bookstores," Carroll says, citing Patrick Madrid's Surprised by Truth series (Sophia, Oct.) as an example of contemporary memoir that attracts young traditionalists.
In November, Viking published book two of Garry Wills's ongoing translation of Confessions: Saint Augustine's Memory. Arguably the first memoirist ever, Augustine, a North African bishop, wrote around the year 400 as the Roman Empire was crashing and burning. He would no doubt be amazed to discover, 1,600 years later, that his work is considered the gold standard of memoir.
Pain and Roots
Some of the most sensitively written memoirs grow out of experiences of nearly unbearable pain. In Amazing Grace for Those Who Suffer: 10 Life Changing Stories of Hope and Healing, Jeff Cavins and Matthew Pinto have collected the stories of Catholics whose faith has brought them through enormous loss (Ascension, Oct.). Last month, Beacon released the paperback edition of Proverbs of Ashes by theologians Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, in which they relate traditional Christian theology of the atonement to abuse and violence. Despite its theological appearance, this book is memoir from start to finish.
Two mothers reflect on the spiritual implications of losing a child in Amy Kuebelbeck's exquisite Waiting with Gabriel (Loyola, Feb. 2003) on the death of her newborn son, and Margaret Wurtele's heart-rending and perceptive Touching the Edge (Wiley, Mar. 2003) on the death of her young adult son. At the other end of the lifespan, Daphne Simpkins writes about living with Alzheimer's in The Long Good Night (Eerdmans, Apr. 2003).
If this much darkness is frightening, the memoir reader can turn to the light at the beginning of the tunnel—ancestral roots, the family of origin, and childhood experiences. An African-American mother, Barbara Douglas, and her mixed-race son, David Douglas, write about their interracial family in Marriage Beyond Black and White (Baha'i, Dec.); and Steve Kissing describes growing up Catholic in Running from the Devil (Crossroad Carlisle, April 2003).
In January Warner will publish Dexter Scott King's memoir, Growing Up King, about being the son of the martyred civil-rights leader. The book's co-author is Ralph Wiley. Also in January, Doubleday releases the paperback edition of Phyllis Tickle's The Shaping of a Life, published in hardcover last February.
Rick Lewis, owner and manager of the Logos Bookstore in Dallas, has been selling Christian books for 22 years. When PW asked him to cite a good current memoir, he immediately named The Blessed by Sharon McMahon Moffitt (Oct.). "It's along the lines of Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott, but published by Zondervan," Lewis said. Oddly, Zondervan classifies it under Christian Living/Spiritual Growth/Spiritual Formation.
In fact, it is hard to find a straight-up memoir from an evangelical publisher. Nancy Guthrie's Holding On to Hope (Tyndale, July), which describes the deaths of two of her children from a rare disease, and Albert Hsu's Grieving a Suicide (IVP, July), inspired by his father's death, are presented as biblical self-help books.
Lewis, who sells more biographies than memoirs, said, "The customers who want a biography usually want something that's going to encourage somebody, strengthen their faith—more the 'I achieved victory in Christ and you can, too' story. It seems like memoirs are more honest, more open to show the dark side."
John Wilson agreed. Conservative Christians read and write a lot of memoirs, he told PW, but they are not published by CBA houses. "Unfortunately, in Christian publishing the culture of euphemism is still very strong," he said. "When it comes to truth-telling about a person's own life experience, there's a shocking deficit."
Lewis and Wilson both believe the CBA memoir's time will come. "The spiritual autobiography is going to take awhile to grow [in the CBA]," Lewis said, "but it will, when people recognize that the writers have traveled the same path they're traveling and are not afraid to talk about it." An early sign of such growth is Wendy Murray Zoba's Facing Forward (Tyndale, Jan. 2003), a revealing exploration of her emotional neediness as she reaches midlife and her children leave home.
First-person reports by survivors of attack or persecution, by contrast, are a CBA specialty. Tyndale's Let's Roll (Sept.)—the account by Lisa Beamer (with Ken Abraham) of her husband's death on 9/11—shot to the top of the charts this fall. Next May, Tyndale plans to publish In the Presence of My Enemies by Gracia Burnham (with Dean Merrill); Burnham is the former missionary held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, who murdered her husband Martin.
Last June, WaterBrook published Prisoners of Hope by former Afghanistan hostages Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer (with Stacy Mattingly). In September Thomas Nelson published Faith Under Fire, World War II stories from more than 20 men and women's, told by Steve Rabey. Next month, Kregel will publish The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun (with Paul Hattaway), the story of a persecuted Chinese Christian, and in February Warner Faith releases Song of Saigon, the account of Anh Vu Sawyer's 1975 escape from South Vietnam (with Pam Proctor).
Are as-told-to books really memoirs? Like memoirs, they are first-person narratives that include thoughts and feelings as well as plot, and their stories may be gripping. But they rarely offer the literary delights or interior probing that most readers of spiritual memoir crave. One exception—though not from an evangelical publisher—is The Blindfold's Eyes (Orbis, Oct.) by Sister Dianna Ortiz (with Patricia Davis), a nun who was tortured by Guatemalan security forces in 1989.
Dante, the 13th-century author of Divine Comedy, is the classical author most quoted by Boomer memoirists: "Midway in the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost." Except for Winner and Garrett, the current spiritual-journey memoirists are mid-lifers, at least. A brief look at their itineraries may help a reader choose whether to start with a fellow traveler or to take an armchair voyage to exotic ports.
From perpetual seeker and job shifter to stable Benedictine oblate—Carol Bonomo, The Abbey Up the Hill (Morehouse, Aug.)
From married Methodist theologian to hermit Catholic priest—W. Paul Jones, Teaching the Dead Bird to Sing (Paraclete, Sep.)
From Mother Meara devotee to independent anti-guru mystic—Andrew Harvey, Sun at Midnight (Tarcher, Oct.)
From grieving secularist to Celtic initiate—Lyn Webster Wilde, Becoming the Enchanter (Tarcher, Oct.)
From bookish high-schooler to Orthodox Jew to evangelical Christian who is still bookish and Jewish—Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God (Algonquin, Oct.)
From drug addict to Christian inspirational writer and speaker—Stanice Anderson, I Say a Prayer for Me (Warner/Walk Worthy, Nov.)
From Catholic to political activist to Quaker back to Catholic—Irene Lape, Leadings (Brazos, Jan. 2003)
From Old Order Amish to Lutheran and onetime Glamour magazine makeover girl—Ruth Irene Garrett with Rick Farrant, Crossing Over (Harper San Francisco, Feb. 2003)
From childhood convert to adolescent alcoholic to charismatic to liturgical Episcopalian—Marcia Ford, Memoir of a Misfit (Jossey-Bass, Feb. 2003)
From fundamentalist Christian to aficionado of Judaism—Mary Blye Howe, A Baptist Among the Jews (Jossey-Bass, May 2003)
From scrupulous evangelical child looking for acceptance to adult who falls in love with Jesus—Betty Smartt Carter, Home Is Always the Place You Just Left (Paraclete, May 2003)
Readers who believe that the journey is more important than the destination will appreciate John Spalding's observation in his very funny A Pilgrim's Digress (Harmony, Mar. 2003): "I personally draw some hope from the thought that one of literature's most devout and determined pilgrims [Christian in Pilgrim's Progress] actually went in circles."
Alas, it is impossible even to list all recent and forthcoming religion biographies and memoirs in an article of this length, let alone analyze trends and review individual titles in depth. Perhaps that's okay for a genre that emphasizes personal experience: life stories beg to be read, not dissected.
The ancient sage Koheleth noted that there is "a time for every experience under heaven," and it is easy to think a memoir must have been written about each one. If you nevertheless believe the world needs more personal narratives, you're in luck. This past September, Thomas More published just the book for you: Richard B. Patterson's Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography. No doubt a couple of years from now, when you get yours published, "Memoir, Inc." will still be going strong.