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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 6.2 (2004) 147-150

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David D. Cooper

Writing about spiritual experience tests the boundaries of narrative possibility like few other subjects. To borrow the title from Nora Gallagher's book, writings about spiritual life and matters of faith encompass "things seen and unseen." They take the writer to thresholds and passages of inner reflection, turbulence, and fulfillment that, by their very nature, often defy—indeed, ridicule—description. At the same time, no writer of spiritual experience and reflection today can avoid the pressing issue of contemporary religion's social witness: the challenge faced by any community of faith, as Philip Turner (former dean at Yale Divinity School) puts it, "to form a moral and political community which is something more than a lonely crowd in pursuit of private ends." Knowing what they're up against, writers like Gallagher, Kathleen Norris, and Thomas Merton approach the challenges, demands, and paradoxes of spiritual memoir (broadly and awkwardly defined) with respect, trepidation, imagination, courage, and, above all, with a precision and a perseverance that are absolute prerequisites for compelling self-exploratory writing. These writers can be read, then, with great profit—even by those who, like me, have a tin ear for theology, little taste for muscular God-Talk, and zero tolerance for the slightest scent of proselytizing. When Thomas Merton says something like "because we love, God is present," that I understand.

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, by Kathleen Norris. Riverhead Books, 1998. 384 pages, paperback, $12.95.

Kathleen Norris uses the lexicon as an organizing template to tell the story of her "coming out," as she puts it, as a Christian. It is a story about the pull [End Page 147] that a religious vocabulary has on her identity and purpose as a poet, teacher, and writer. After she began attending church after a 20-year hiatus, she had to contend with the "scary vocabulary" of the Christian church as well as the astonishment of her poet and academic friends who wondered, How can you believe this stuff? How can you find good where I see only prejudice, sexism, evil, intolerance, oppression? She twines these challenges into a fascinating skein of reflections that bring life and wisdom to such hoary theological contraptions as "Eschatology," "Apostasy," and "Revelation." Meanwhile, she answers her doubting contemporaries that the lived experience of faith is of far more existential relevance and moral value than the politics and ideology of potent religious concepts like "Antichrist."

Norris is at her best when she directly engages the uneasy tension between the prescribed calisthenics of religion and the lived authenticity of spiritual experience—as in her entry on "Idolatry" that turns into a fine meditation on learning to love, or in her section on "Evangelism" (the broccoli of my Spartan theological diet) that becomes a penetrating self-exploration of humility. Her writing springs to life when she takes the most excessive legalisms of Christianity and embeds them in the most ordinary conditions and circumstances of everyday life. In her treatment of "Exorcism," for example, Norris tells us what it was like to be persecuted in the seventh grade by classmates who picked on her because of her weight, her hair, her voice, clothes, and shoes. Elsewhere, a portrait of a tough and taciturn old rancher facing terminal cancer is the center of narrative gravity in an entry on the Bible.

Norris writes out of a "firm conviction," she says, "that human beings are essentially story telling bipeds" who search for sources of reverence in their lives. That's why these reflections on religious life and heritage are all narrative and no homily.

Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith, by Nora Gallagher. Vintage Books, 1998. 241 pages, paperback, $12.00.

For Nora Gallagher, the calendar serves as the narrative axis in her intimate chronicle of a year in the life of her Episcopal congregation in Santa Barbara, California. Like Norris, Gallagher...


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pp. 147-150
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