Today’s post is brought to you by the letter
M is for Memoir.
A memoir is a narrative composed from personal experience. Often memoirs are confused with autobiographies, but memoirs do not tell a person’s whole life story, but recount a specific part of their experience. My blog post yesterday is an example of a short memoir, a narrative based on personal experience. I’ve been collecting conversion memoirs lately, stories people have published about their conversion to Christian faith.
The first conversion memoir I remember reading was Born Again by Charles Colson. I usually don’t tell people that one of the reasons I decided to study theology was reading Colson. I’m not an American, but if I was, I wouldn’t be a republican. Colson is, of course, a notorious republican. I remember Born Again appearing on my father’s shelves shortly after it was published. My 10-year-old self was disconcerted by this. I recall wondering what political benefit would come from Colson’s book. I didn’t say those things out loud. I remember being suspicious of the whole thing, though, certain that this conversion could not be real. I didn’t actually read the book until about 15 years later. By then Colson had also written many other books, one of which, Loving God, got me further along the studying theology path.
Other conversion memoirs that I’ve read include: Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis, Girl Meets God, by Lauren F. Winner, Take this Bread, by Sara Miles, and Surprised by Oxford by Caroline Webber. Lewis, Winner, and Miles I unreservedly recommend. Webber I wanted to like, but found her narrative under-edited and over-written. Some people I know absolutely love it, though, so you might as well.
Colson wrote another memoir about living the Christian life called Life Sentence. I’ve found that many people who write conversion narratives often write this sort of follow-up memoir. Some new follow-up memoirs (by Lauren F. Winner and Sara Miles) have very recently appeared. I’m looking forward to reading them.
Why read Conversion Memoirs or Christian Life Memoirs at all? Why should someone else’s reflection on their own life, their navel-gazing, have any interest to me? I’ve been reading a collection of essays called Why Narrative? on theology and stories. In one of these essays, Nicolas Lash argues that the paradigmatic form of Jewish and Christian religious discourse is autobiography. Testimony, our own testimony of God’s work in our lives, is the paradigmatic form of Jewish and Christian religious discourse, beginning with the confession that “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5). As we listen to the testimony of other people, we learn to live our own story. This is what makes these memoirs important for me to read. From them I’m learning to better live my own story.