Kathleen Norris has written three books about her personal journey of faith. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1992) described her move from New York City to a small town in South Dakota, where she began to rediscover her religious roots by attending her grandmother’s church.
While trying to deal with a personal crisis, Norris went on a retreat to a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota. After several periods of residency there, she described the experience of living in a community of monks and nuns in The Cloister Walk (1996, paperback edition 1997). This book received highly favorable reviews from literary critics and was on The New York Times best-seller list for four months.
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith is Norris’s third book in this series. It contains some eighty short essays, meditations, anecdotes, and historical vignettes. She believes that words such as “salvation,” “grace,” “evangelism,” and “Trinity” can be stumbling blocks for people when they attend a church service. She wants to share her personal insights into the sometimes forbidding vocabulary of religion.
Several essays in Amazing Grace are entitled “Conversion,” describing various stages in Norris’s growing sense of belonging within a church community. Conversion for her is not a single event but a lifelong journey. A similar theme is found in the book by former president Jimmy Carter Living Faith (1996). Both Carter and Norris are frank in admitting to times of doubt and uncertainty in their religious quest. They do not claim to have all the answers, so the reader can identify with them as struggling human beings.
One of the essays in Amazing Grace is entitled “Bible.” Before looking at what Norris says about it, readers might think through for themselves what is likely to be discussed in such an article. Could it be on evolution versus creationism? Would it tell about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Is it about a literal versus symbolic interpretation of biblical miracles? Norris bypasses such intellectual matters. Instead she relates a conversation with an elderly man who had been given a leather-bound Bible by his grandfather as a wedding present. The Bible was put on a shelf, unread for many years. Eventually the man developed cancer, started reading the Bible, and was amazed to find that his grandfather had placed a twenty-dollar bill at the beginning of every book from Genesis to Revelation, totaling more than thirteen hundred dollars. The impact of Norris’s anecdote is a reminder that people too seldom take time for Bible reading and meditation.
For some Christians the concept of Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) can be a stumbling block. How can there be “one God in three persons”? Norris provides a helpful, picturesque metaphor from the early days of the church, “an image of the Trinity as a plant, with the Father as a deep root, the Son as the shoot that breaks forth into the world, the Spirit as that which spreads beauty and fragrance.” Such a poetic interpretation of the Trinity is more significant to Norris than an intellectual explanation.
In the essay “Creeds,” Norris reveals her mental reservations about this aspect of communal worship. She says, “In working my way back to church, I found that even when the hymns, scripture texts, and sermons served to welcome me, the Creed that we recited each week often seemed a barrier, reminding me that I was still struggling with the feeling that I did not belong. . . . [The creeds] can seem like a grocery list of beliefs that one has to comprehend and assent to fully before one dare show one’s face in church.” Eventually she resolves this difficulty by viewing the creeds as a form of speaking in tongues, in which the literal meaning of the words is less important than their devotional content.
What images does a Pentecostal church bring to mind for the reader? Enthusiastic singing, uplifted arms, “Amen” responses during the sermon, personal testimonies. Norris is saddened by sectarian differences that have created an unfortunate schism between Pentecostals and the mainstream Protestant churches. The latter tend to view Pentecostals as anti-intellectual in theology and overemotional in worship, while many Pentecostals are conservative Christians who have low regard for their more liberal brethren. Norris reminds her readers of the original meaning of Pentecost, as described in the Book of Acts, when tongues of fire came down from heaven and people began to speak in many languages. She has a vision that Christian unity can be restored when people recognize the great variety of gifts that are all a part of ministry. Someone may have a special talent for preaching, for teaching, for healing the sick, for showing compassion, for writing, or for music. The...