Amazing Grace:
A Vocabulary of Faith

by Kathleen Norris, Riverhead Books, 1998, 384 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

Having left the faith of her childhood upon graduation from High School, Kathleen Norris spent many years pursuing life without a conscious grounding in religion. In her earlier books like Dakota and The Cloister Walk she chronicles her slow but steady journey back toward faith. Along the way she had to come to grips with the many conflicting notions of spirituality and religious understandings that had been part of her religious upbringing. Not only that, she found herself reaching beyond the Methodist and Presbyterian influences on her as a child to the Benedictine monastic tradition to compliment her renewed appreciation of her own spiritual heritage.

In the process of coming back to faith, Norris found that it was often the language of Christianity that stood in the way of her return. She found that much of this “scary vocabulary” had become so codified and abstract that it was hard to penetrate to the central strands of thought that specific words were meant to convey. In Amazing Grace Norris provides a lexicon of words and concepts central to historic Christianity in which she unpacks their meaning and significance for her as she struggles to make faith relevant once again in mid-life. For those who have followed her journey toward faith in her earlier writings it does not come as a surprise that she often brings new perspectives to old words and concepts as she “wrestles them to the ground.”

Instead of staying within the bounds of standard philosophical structures, Norris uses anecdotes and humor to bring fresh meaning to words and concepts. Always she filters her ideas through real life experiences, bringing down-to-earth perspectives to concepts often partially obscured within the halls of academia. She does not write with a certitude often expected from theologians, but rather in an exploratory fashion – raising questions and at times offering surprising viewpoints. She writes in a forthright manner about her own doubts and fears, offering an example of how we all can live by faith even when we can only “see through a glass darkly.”

Her engaging style will propel some readers to keep reading one short chapter after another – feasting on a seemingly endless smorgasbord of spirituality. Others will prefer to read one or two sections at a time and then meditate on new insights gained in a devotional kind of way. Words picked at random from the 80 sections of the book include: Eschatology, Prayer, Blood, Preaching, Ecstasy, Mystic, Apocalypse, Revelation and Infallibility.

While it is clear that Norris resists being pressed into narrow theological boxes, she is surprisingly generous toward people of faith with whom she disagrees. One reviewer noted that she has the… “ability to befriend and learn from monk, Pentecostal and Presbyterian cowboy alike.” Those looking for standard, easy answers to questions of faith and life will be disappointed with this book. Those willing to be stretched, question their own assumptions, and explore ways of making their faith come alive in a contemporary world will find this book a spiritual treasure trove. All readers will find that Norris has a way of amazing them with grace.

Buy this book and keep it close at hand for regular inspiration and enlightenment.