(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 910 words.)