April 1998

Amazing Grace review

By Kathleen Norris
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If you liked Kathleen Norris's previous books, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and The Cloister Walk, you'll love this one. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, an old-fashioned miscellany with dozens of entries, offers honest, personal reflections on matters that are not exactly carpool conversation God, the Bible, idolatry, and eschatology to name but a few. Peppered with hundreds of biblical and literary allusions, Amazing Grace is a long conversation with thinkers and writers, like Emily Dickinson, who have influenced the author's spiritual evolution. Norris wrote this "vocabulary of faith" because she needed to explain, and redefine, church words to herself. As a lover of words, she found those used by the ecclesiastical establishment to be foreign, and often intimidating. In writing this book, she befriended the church's vocabulary, her way.

Norris, who for years distanced herself from orgainzied religion and defined her religious affilation as "nothing," now describes herself as a cross between a Roman Catholic and two types of Protestant. One grandmother was Methodist, the other Presbyterian; both, and more, are incorporated in Norris's mature faith. Though she is now more secure in her own faith, Norris does not try to convert the reader. She knows the difference between belief and doubt and sacred ambiguity. Her base may be Christian, but her range is global. Norris draws upon the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, who helps people recognize the value of where they have come from and tells them not to become Buddhist but to go home and become what they were meant to become. Readers will find themselves subtly, not powerfully, transformed.

Whether describing drinking gin gimlets in motels while working as a writer in residence at a North Dakota school or her battles with feminism and its appealing but angry theological residue, Norris is funny and up close and personal. Whether it is humor or wide-ranging, well-lived experience, this writer lives up to her title. She amazes with grace.

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