Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

by Kathleen Norris

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First published: 1998

Edition used:Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. New York: Riverhead Trade, 1999

Genre: Nonfiction

Subgenres: Autobiography; meditation and contemplation; theology

Core issues: Church; conversion; grace; monasticism; self-knowledge


Kathleen Norris has written in detail about her personal quest for a mature religious faith. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1992) described her move from New York City to a small town in South Dakota where she rediscovered her religious roots after attending her grandmother’s church. A personal crisis in her marriage brought Norris to a retreat at a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota. After several periods of residency, she described the eye-opening experience of living in a community of monks and nuns in The Cloister Walk (1996). The third book in this series is Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. It contains short essays, meditations, anecdotes, and historical commentary about the sometimes forbidding vocabulary used in Christian churches. What is meant by “salvation,” the Incarnation, or the Apocalypse? Norris wants to share her personal insights with other people who also may have found such words to be obstacles in their journey of faith.

The Bible is the foundational document for the Christian church. In the essay “Bible,” Norris is not concerned with any intellectual arguments about symbolic versus literal interpretation of the Scriptures. Instead, she tells the story of a South Dakota rancher who had received a Bible from his grandfather as a wedding gift. He had laid it away on a closet shelf while he struggled to make a living. Toward the end of his life, he finally looked into it and discovered that his grandfather had placed a twenty-dollar bill in each book of the Bible. Altogether the money added up to more than a thousand dollars, which could have helped him through some hard times. This anecdote is a simple reminder that the Bible needs to be read. If it is just kept on a shelf, it is of no value. Norris credits her monastery experience with making her aware that the Bible conveys a sacred perspective that is genuinely helpful in dealing with the problems of daily life.

In the essay “Prayer,” Norris recommends the Psalms to readers as a helpful starting point to approach God. She rejects the selfish kind of prayer that asks God for material things or for personal success in some enterprise. From her observation, she says, “Even many Christians seem to regard prayer as a grocery list we hand to God, and when we don’t get what we want, we assume that the prayers didn’t ’work.’” She has come to view prayer as a dialogue in which one needs to listen for God’s voice. The outcome of prayer might well be an unanticipated, surprising change in oneself rather than the elimination of the problem that one is facing.

The word “evangelism” brings to mind an image of someone on a street corner with a Bible in hand, accosting people to ask if they “know the Lord.” Norris rejects the idea of forcing one’s faith on someone else. She expresses appreciation to her local congregation in South Dakota for giving her time to grow in faith without being pressured. It took several years until she was able to make a commitment to join the Christian community. At a later occasion, she had a conversation with a woman who also was attempting to find her way back to the Church. By sharing her personal journey of faith, she was able to help this woman see the way ahead more clearly. Norris was grateful for the opportunity to fulfill the role...

(This entire section contains 1524 words.)

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of evangelist in this situation by friendly discussion rather than confrontation.

In the essay entitled “God-Talk,” Norris expresses exasperation with sermons that stick to biblical language without translating its abstract concepts into concrete human experience. The jargon, or specialized vocabulary used by professionals in a field of study, may be useful within that circle of experts, but it often fails to communicate to the general public. Norris feels strongly that doctrinal language, the jargon of Christian faith, needs a recognizable human interpretation to become meaningful. She identifies with outsiders who are turned off by pastors who talk in generalities about faith and grace without demonstrating how such concepts find application in people’s lives.

The word “Pentecost” refers to an event in the book of Acts, fifty days after Easter, when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples. They received the gift of speaking in foreign languages so that people from many nations miraculously could hear the Gospel message in their native tongue. Norris notes that in modern times, Pentecostal churches are at odds with mainline Protestant denominations because of their apocalyptic theology and their style of worship. Pentecostal worship generally is characterized by personal testimonies, revival hymns, raising one’s arms to God, and sometimes speaking in tongues. Coming from a Presbyterian background, Norris confesses that such emotional displays make her feel uncomfortable. However, after she became friends with an Assembly of God pastor and went to some worship services, she came to admire the diversity of people who attended. A successful businessperson and a person recently released from a mental hospital somehow bonded together in this fellowship. Norris wondered if people who live on the margins of society would feel as welcome in her home congregation as they evidently did here. After recalling how Jesus provided healing and acceptance for a tax collector, a leper, a rich young man, and a prostitute, she developed an enlarged vision of Pentecost, where people with different wounds and a variety of gifts spoke in different languages but were able to be understood.

Christian Themes

Norris gives a personal interpretation of some eighty terms used in Christian worship. Her vocabulary list includes essays on salvation, incarnation, repentance, grace, apocalypse, and the Trinity. One can imagine an adult Sunday school class reading any of these essays to provide a starting point for group discussion. People with diverse backgrounds would be able to contribute different perspectives to bring about a greater appreciation for the wide variety of individual religious experiences.

A major theme to which Norris returns several times in her book is conversion. One of her grandmothers was a “born-again” Christian who had committed her life to Jesus when she responded to the altar call at a revival meeting. Conversion was a one-time, emotional event that she would remember for the rest of her life. Her other grandmother had been brought up by her parents to read the Bible and to memorize and recite important verses. Conversion for her was not a spectacular moment of decision, but a continuation of her inherited faith expressed in kind deeds done for others.

Norris was in her mid-thirties, living in New York as a writer, when she began to feel that she was drifting along rather aimlessly. Her conversion was a very gradual process. She credits her conversion to friends in her small-town congregation, the Benedictine monks and nuns at the monastery, meditative reading in the Bible, and inspiration received from the writings of saints in the early Christian church. She did not follow in the path set by either of her grandmothers. Her story provides readers with reassurance that conversion can take place in a multitude of ways.

Sources for Further Study

  • America. CLXXIX, August 1, 1998, p. 24.
  • Booklist. XCIV, February 1, 1998, p. 875.
  • Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Recounts the author’s journey of faith, from literal acceptance of Bible stories in childhood toward a more mature understanding based on the stories’ historical context and metaphorical meaning.
  • Chicago Tribune. XIV, July 5, 1998, p. 2.
  • The Christian Century. CXV, June 3, 1998, p. 584.
  • Cooper, David D. Review of Amazing Grace. Fourth Genre 6, no. 2 (Fall, 2004): 147-149. Examines how the concept of the lived experience of faith permeates the work.
  • Elle. March, 1998, p. 152.
  • The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 5, 1998, p. 19.
  • Norris, Kathleen. The Cloister Walk. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996. Describes the author’s personal experiences during her extended visits to a monastery, where she learned to appreciate the significance of ritual and liturgy in creating the sense of community for which she had been searching.
  • Norris, Kathleen. Interview by Dick Staub. Christianity Today (July 15, 2002). Transcription of a radio interview in which Norris expresses regret at succumbing to peer pressure during the late 1960’s and experimenting with sex and drugs and describes how she gradually was able to change her lifestyle.
  • Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 9, 1998, p. 92.
  • San Francisco Chronicle. March 29, 1998, p. REV5.
  • Shurr, William H., ed. New Poems of Emily Dickinson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Contains poems, letters, and other writings by Emily Dickinson, whose vivid imagination, unorthodox style, and religious insights are greatly admired by Norris.
  • Taylor, David. The Myth of Certainty: Trusting God, Asking Questions, Taking Risks. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992. A thoughtful analysis of the tension between traditional Christian faith and intellectual inquiry, using an unusual format of essays interspersed with delightful, fictional anecdotes.
  • The Times Literary Supplement. August 14, 1998, p. 32.
  • Women’s Review of Books. XVI, October, 1998, p. 17.