It's not about you." So begins Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life (Zondervan), a motivational book that hit the bestseller lists in 2003 and has been breaking sales records ever since. It's Not About Me is the title of CBA guru Max Lucado's newest book (Integrity, Mar.). In the semi-autobiographical novel Children of God Go Bowling (Penguin, Jan.), Shannon Olson's therapist keeps trying to get her to repeat, "It's not always about me." Is self-absorption on the wane? And if so, does memoir have a future?

"In both the ABA and the CBA marketplace, the word memoir and all variations trigger knee-jerk sighs from editors," said Michelle Rapkin, Doubleday's director of religious publishing. "Since 1996, when Angela's Ashes was published, the avalanche of memoirs has just about exhausted the genre."

Indeed there has been a shift since PW last surveyed spiritual memoirs. A year and a half ago, the interior-journey category predominated: writers seemed to be migrating in droves from the faith of their fathers to the faith of somebody else's ancestors or, sometimes, to a spirituality uniquely their own, examining their feelings at every step of the way. By contrast, current memoirs are nearly all about something beyond the author's inner experience, be it theology, war, illness, social justice or Italian opera. Even most of the life-story and spiritual-journey memoirists locate their personal stories firmly within the larger story of a religious tradition.

The Destination Matters

Until recently, evangelical memoirs were hard to find: the only literary memoir from a CBA publisher in early 2003 was Wendy Murray Zoba's Facing Forward (Tyndale). John Wilson, editor of the Christian journal Books & Culture, noted a "shocking deficit" in evangelical self-revelation, even as he predicted that the CBA memoir's time would come.

The time, apparently, is now. When Murray Zoba's new memoir—On Broken Legs: A Shattered Life, a Search for God, a Miracle That Met Me in a Cave in Assisi (NavPress)— is released in September, it will have plenty of company. Of the nearly 40 memoirs reviewed here, more than a third come from CBA houses or are of primarily evangelical interest. Another third have Catholic roots. Open-ended seekers are passé; today's readers want their journeys to end at a destination, and many of today's writers are making sure that the signposts are clear.

In fact, memoir and advocacy are so often intertwined that it can be hard to say if a book should be classified as memoir or apologetics—the defense of a doctrine or position. For example, Asma Hasan gives a winsome defense of her faith and account of her life in Why I Am a Muslim: An American Odyssey (Thorsons/Element, Mar.). Good Morning America medical editor Dr. Timothy Johnson examines his evangelical beliefs and reveals just a bit of his own story in Finding God in the Questions: A Personal Journey (InterVarsity, May). Robert P. Lockwood, by contrast, is full of stories in A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation About What Really Matters (Loyola, May), but he also includes a lot of theology for adult Catholics who wonder what their church really teaches.

Professionals and Celebrities

It's only fair that memoirists should give so much attention to religion—it was, after all, a bishop who invented the genre. St. Augustine's Confessions, written in 397 C.E. , regularly reappears in new forms. A September release is planned for William Griffin's lively translation of selected passages, Love and Lust: A Brief Confession in Augustine of Hippo's Own Words (Paraclete).

This year's memoirists focusing on religion professionals include:

  • Three Catholic priests: Rod Damico, Mercy Flows: Reflections of a Married Priest (Resurrection, Apr.); Michael P. Enright, Diary of a Barrio Priest (Loyola, Apr.); M. Owen Lee, A Book of Hours: Music, Literature, and Life (Continuum, Apr.)

  • Three evangelical preachers: R.T. Kendall, In Pursuit of His Glory (Charisma, May); J. Alfred Smith Sr. and Harry Louis Williams II, On the Jericho Road: A Memoir of Racial Justice, Social Action and Prophetic Ministry (InterVarsity, June); John Stott, People My Teachers: Around the World in Eighty Years (Kregel, June)

  • A Hindu beggar-saint: N.S. Subramanian, A Man and His Master: My Years with Yogi Ramsuratkumar (Hohm, Feb.)

  • Two widely read theologians: Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness (Knopf, Mar.); Bernard Bangley, ed., Radiance: A Spiritual Memoir of Evelyn Underhill (Paraclete, Mar.)

  • A nun who frequently speaks to journalists and a journalist who talks to nuns: Joan Chittister, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir (Sheed & Ward, May); Cheryl L. Reed, Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns (Berkley, Mar.)

Evangelicals and Catholics continue to publish celebrity memoirs that tie the subjects' success and happiness to their faith. This spring, inspirational evangelical author Patsy Clairmont's I Grew Up Little: Finding Hope in a Big God (W, Mar.) tells of her struggle for mental health; former football player and coach Danny Abramowicz's Spiritual Workout of a Former Saint (Our Sunday Visitor, Mar.) combines personal anecdotes with practical tips; and former tennis pro Andrea Jaeger's First Service: Following God's Calling and Finding Life's Purpose (HCI, Apr.) describes her years as a children's advocate. In September, Broadman & Holman will release Against All Odds: My Story by Christian actor and martial arts expert Chuck Norris teamed with Ken Abraham.

Finding Faith

Among more literary memoirs, ancient traditions are coming back into favor. Books in the "why I left my faith" category are being supplanted by books telling about rediscovered strength and beauty in familiar places. "The bar has been raised higher for this sort of book," said Doubleday's Rapkin. "While there are far fewer memoirs of any kind, the ones that are published tend to be more powerful in every way, from the depth of insight and narrative to the beauty and clarity of style."

PW contributing editor and raconteur Phyllis Tickle ties family recollections to the church calendar in her three-book series Stories from the Farm in Lucy (Loyola); the third book, The Graces We Remember: Sacred Days of Ordinary Time, was released in April. Jean Colgan Gould, author of Forty Years Since My Last Confession: A Memoir of a Catholic Journey Home (Crossroad, Apr.), writes of her return at age 60 to her father's religion. In Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul (Random House, May), British actor and comic writer Tony Hendra pays tribute to the Benedictine monk who stood by him throughout a turbulent life.

Coming September from Writing Down the Bones author Natalie Goldberg is The Great Failure: A Bartender, a Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth (Harper San Francisco). Goldberg's Zen Buddhist practice and philosophy—"how to sit still in the center of this busy world"—anchor her when her father and her Zen teacher betray her.

Three young writers who debut this fall deftly use their experience as windows through which to see a larger landscape.

Rapkin is enthusiastic about Kerry Egan's Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago (Doubleday, Sept.), an account of faith lost through grief and rediscovered on a road used by pilgrims for more than 1,000 years. Egan, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, writes that "the spiritual and emotional can coincide with the rational and academic in the story, because they coincide in me."

Elisa Fryling Stanford, an editor at Waterbrook, "uses little narratives all through to discuss larger issues of relevance to the reader, not just to herself," said Lil Copan, acquisitions editor at Paraclete, of Ordinary Losses: Naming the Graces that Shape Us (Oct.). With a poet's touch, Stanford writes of absence and longing, hope and expectation: "This book is about recognizing the losses that tear down so that more life might be built."

"I see a lot of memoirs, but very few of them are at the level we'd even try to do," said Sheryl Fullerton, executive editor at Jossey-Bass. "The writing really has to capture me." Jossey-Bass will publish only one memoir this year: My Faith So Far by Patton Dodd, a doctoral student in religion and literature at Boston University and a contributing editor for Killing the Buddha. "Emergent spirituality—reinventing church—is one of the areas we're exploring," Fullerton said. "Dodd is a young guy speaking from his experience of coming back to faith."

Through the Valley of the Shadow

Is faith a casualty of war, or does it grow stronger amidst the ever-present threat of death? Writers from many religious traditions explore the spiritual implications of armed conflict from World War II through the present war in Iraq:

  • Letters from Auschwitz to a daughter living in England: Milena Roth, Lifesaving Letters: A Child's Flight from the Holocaust (Univ. of Washington, Mar.)

  • An Auschwitz survivor who lives among ex-Nazis in South America: Charles Papiernik, Unbroken: From Auschwitz to Buenos Aires (Univ. of New Mexico, May)

  • A USAF pilot during the Vietnam War: Bernard Fisher and Jerry Borrowman, Beyond the Call of Duty: The Story of an American Hero (Deseret, Feb.)

  • A decorated Vietnam veteran and Buddhist monk: Claude Anshin Thomas, At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace (Shambhala, Sept.)

  • A Palestinian Arab Christian pastor in occupied Bethlehem: Mitri Raheb, Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble (Fortress, June)

  • A chaplain with the Marines in Iraq: Cary H. Cash, A Table in the Presence: The Dramatic Account of How a U.S. Marine Battalion Experienced God's Presence Amidst the Chaos of the War in Iraq (W, Apr.)

Kelly Hughes, president of DeChant-Hughes Public Relations, notes that the content of memoirs is changing. "So far this year, I've seen fewer straight-up memoirs," she said. "However, the personal continues to seep into books on religious thought and spirituality. Authors are combining the personal—here's what I went through—with the practical—here's how you can apply this lesson to your life."

In the face of violence, illness, and death, these memoirists find lessons for life in their faith traditions:

  • A Unitarian-Universalist minister on her mother's death: Barbara Hamilton-Holway, Who Will Remember Me? A Daughter's Memoir of Grief and Recovery (Skinner, Jan.)

  • LDS Columbine survivors on faith: Liz Carlston, Surviving Columbine: How Faith Helps Us Find Peace When Tragedy Strikes (Deseret, Mar.)

  • The wife of an inner-city minister on illness and marital struggles: Gwen Wilkerson, The Cross and the Scalpel (Chosen, Mar.)

  • A Presbyterian doctor on facing his own death: Steven D. Hsi, Closing the Chart: A Dying Physician Examines Family, Faith and Medicine (Univ. of New Mexico, Apr.)

  • The author of Black Like Me on his blindness: John Howard Griffin, Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision (Orbis, May)

  • Two Christian women on rape, pregnancy, abortion, race, and finding wholeness: Heather Gemmen, Startling Beauty: My Journey from Rape to Restoration (Cook/Life Journey, Feb.); Shellie R. Warren, Inside of Me: My Story of Lust, Love and Redemption (Relevant, June)

  • The widow of a 9/11 pilot on courage in difficult circumstances: Cheryl McGuinness, Beauty Beyond the Ashes (Howard, July)

  • An inner-city minister on being raised in abusive foster homes: John Robinson, Nobody's Child: The Stirring True Story of an Unwanted Boy Who Found Hope (Monarch/Kregel, July)

Biographies Blossom

If "it's not about me," is it perhaps about someone else? Biographies of spiritual and religious figures are thriving. Though most publishers release biographies only sporadically, several houses reliably offer several each season. "We began to aggressively develop this category a year ago, sensing that religious or spiritual biographies was a growing trend," said David Moberg, publisher of the W Publishing Group, an imprint of Thomas Nelson. "We really intend to own this category in the CBA market."

On the more scholarly side, the biography category is dominated by Eerdmans, whose ongoing Library of Religious Biography (edited by scholars Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch and Allen C. Guelzo) now numbers 10 titles. Eerdmans also regularly publishes biographies outside the series, among them Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999)—"our bestselling biography to date," noted sales director Michael Thomson.

Sixteen new biographies profile religious leaders of the first 19 centuries of Christianity:

  • Two New Testament heroes: Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (Doubleday, Aug.); Lesley Hazleton, Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother (Bloomsbury, distributed by St. Martins, Mar.)

  • A 4th-century Irish saint: Philip Freeman, St. Patrick: A Modern Biography (Simon & Schuster, Mar.)

  • A 12th-century Tibetan Buddhist master and an Italian Christian saint: Jampa Mackenzie Stewart, The Life of Gampopa (Snow Lion, July); Lawrence S. Cunningham, Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life (Eerdmans, May)

  • A 13th-century Persian mystic: William Chittick, trans., Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shems-i Tabrizi (Fons Vitae, June)

  • Five leaders of the 16th century Reformation and Counter-Reformation: Erika Rummel, Erasmus (Continuum, Aug.); Martin Marty, Martin Luther (Penguin Lives, Feb.); Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith, eds., A Thomas More Sourcebook (Catholic Univ. of America, Aug.); Shirley du Boulay, Teresa of Avila: An Extraordinary Life (BlueBridge, Sept.); R.A. Herrera, Silent Music: The Life, Work, and Thought of St. John of the Cross (Eerdmans, Apr.)

  • l Five 18th- and 19th-century American fighters for change: William E. Phipps, Amazing Grace in John Newton: Slave Ship Captain, Hymn Writer, and Abolitionist (Mercer Univ., Mar.); Pamela R. Durso, The Power of Woman: The Life and Writings of Sarah Moore Grimke (Mercer Univ., June); Patrick W. Carey, Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane (Eerdmans, Aug.); J. Steven Wilkins, All Things for Good: The Steadfast Fidelity of Stonewall Jackson (Cumberland, Apr.); Christopher H. Evans, The Kingdom Is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch (Eerdmans, May)

Twentieth-century biographies predictably show more diversity:

  • A Russian esoteric philosopher: Gary Lachman, The Seeker and the Sly Man: Ouspensky's Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff (Quest, July)

  • Two Hindu holy men: Sister Gargi (Marie Louise Burke), A Heart Poured Out: A Story of Swami Ashokananda (Kalpa Tree, June); Regina Sara Ryan, Only God: A Biography of Yogi Ramsuratkumar (Hohm, Sept.)

  • A Tibetan Buddhist teacher: Fabrice Midal, Chögyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision (Shambhala, Aug.)

  • Two prisoners of conscience: Alexandru Popescu, Petre Tutea: Between Sacrifice and Suicide (Ashgate, Feb.); Craig J. Slane, Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment (Brazos, Apr.)

  • Two Catholic novelists: Javan Kienzle, Judged by Love: A Biography of William X. Kienzle (Andrews McMeel, Apr.); Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Eerdmans, Apr.)

  • Four Protestant leaders: John Webster, Karl Barth (Continuum, Aug.); Robert L. Hermann, David M. Robertson, A Passionate Pilgrim: A Biography of Bishop James A. Pike (Knopf, Sep.); Warren Goldstein, William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience (Yale Univ., Mar.); Lyle Dorsett, Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C.S. Lewis (Brazos, Dec.)

Contemporary profiles of living or recently deceased people are often inspirational or journalistic rather than scholarly, frequently featuring lay persons of faith rather than religious professionals.

  • The Israeli astronaut who perished in the Columbia: Devra Newberger Speregen, Ilan Ramon: Jewish Star (JPS, Feb.)

  • Two Republicans at prayer: David Aikman, A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush (W, Apr.); Charles Martin, Healing America: The Life of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and the Issues That Shape Our Times (W, June)

  • A snake-handling pastor serving a life sentence for attempted murder: Thomas Burton, The Serpent and the Spirit: Glenn Summerford's Story (Univ. of Tennessee, May)

  • A woman called "Mother Teresa of Minneapolis": Margaret Nelson and Keri Pickett, Saving Body and Soul: The Mission of Mary Jo Copeland (WaterBrook, Sept.)

  • Johnny Cash: Steve Turner, The Man Called CASH (W, Aug.); Hugh Waddell, I Still Miss Someone: Friends and Family Remember Johnny Cash (Cumberland, Oct.)

Finally, several new titles ranging from academic to popular include short biographies of individuals viewed in the context of a group:

  • Forty gay Catholic writers: Dugan McGinley, Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies as Sacred Texts (Continuum, Mar.)

  • Five Jesuit trailblazers from the 16th through the 20th centuries: Ronald Modras, Ignatian Humanism: A Dynamic Spiritualityfor the 21st Century (Loyola/Jesuit Way, May)

  • Sixteen contemporary feminist religious leaders: Ann Braude, ed., Transforming the Faith of Our Fathers: The Women Who Changed American Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, June)

  • Thirty Muslim women from the sixth through the 19th centuries: Jennifer Heath, The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam (Hidden Spring, May)

  • Forty-seven mostly unsung Catholic heroes: Dick Ryan, "Holy" Human: Stories of Extraordinary Catholics (Resurrection, Apr.)

The End of Navel-Gazing?

With memoirs losing their self-preoccupation and biographies flourishing, is it too soon to suggest that boomer navel-gazing is finally beginning to wane? Joe Durepos, senior acquisitions editor at Loyola Press and himself a boomer, hopes not. "I am so tired of people writing about themselves as if their spiritual experiences were something new, unique, revealing, insightful," he said, "when it's obvious they haven't spent much time reading the great classic memoirs from way back—books like St. Augustine's Confessions, Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle,The Imitation of Christ,The Autobiography of St. Thérèse de Lisieux,The Cloud of Unknowing, Merton's Seven Storey Mountain.... People need to quit writing about themselves and write about something else." This year, at last, it looks like people are doing just that.