How sweet the sound

Kathleen Norris redefines Christianity, word by word, in 'Amazing Grace.'

In her astonishing new bookAmazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, poet and Christian Kathleen Norris recalls a reading she once gave at a college. "I can be a good person without belonging to a church," an audience member informed Norris afterward. An English professor added that he had nothing against "personal spirituality"; it was organized religion he couldn't stand. "'Ah,' I said, 'if you think that religion is organized, you don't know the Benedictines,'" Norris writes, referring to the religious order she has studied with as a lay associate for 15 years. "But my attempt at humor fell flat, and a silence fell on us that we seemed helpless to dispel."

Amazing Grace

by Kathleen Norris (Putnam, $24.95)

It is that silence, the chasm of skepticism and mistrust that yawns between her baby boom generation and her community of fellow believers, that Norris counters with Amazing Grace. She speaks both languages: Twenty years ago Norris, then an agnostic denizen of literary Manhattan, moved to South Dakota and confronted the starchy Protestantism of her youth. Revisiting her grandmother's church and falling in with an order of Benedictine monks, Norris converted as a poet might—through language. "For reasons I did not comprehend, church seemed a place I needed to be," she writes. "But in order to inhabit it, to claim it as mine, I had to rebuild my religious vocabulary."

Norris grappled with the "word bombardment" of theologically loaded terms she encountered in church—"scary" words like repentance, Bible study, Antichrist, Christian. "My book might be seen as a search for lower consciousness," she writes. "An attempt to remove the patina of abstraction or glassy-eyed piety from religious words, by telling stories about them, by grounding them in the world we live in as mortal and often comically fallible human beings."

On a promotional pass through Seattle last week, Norris explained that brooding on the most difficult religious words gave new meaning to the Christian notion of word made flesh. "I always used to hate the word 'righteous,' because I understood it as 'self-righteous,'" she said. "But reading the prophets, it's clear that the righteous are the ones who are doing justice and looking out for the underdog. I began to love that word."

In essay after perfect, polished essay, Norris blows a breeze of linguistic precision and profound theological thoughtfulness across words like Hell and "Virgin Birth," for which she calls on the broader meaning of virgin—innocent, receptive, ready—to indicate a metaphorical significance the literal phrase is too narrow to render.

One term frightens her the most. "That's 'conversion,' a term that particularly scares my Jewish editor," Norris wryly observes. "The Benedictines have sensitized me to the word; they're the only order that actually vows to be open to change." Norris' essays on the subject reveal that for her, conversion isn't about leaving our mutable selves behind toward strict allegiance to some new religious certainty. Rather, conversion is about seeing ourselves anew, which usually requires shedding certainties. "Conversion is no more spectacular," she writes, "than learning to love the people we live with and work among."

This down-to-earth sensibility permeates both the prose and the demeanor of Kathleen Norris, a poet who toiled in relative obscurity until her 1993 "spiritual geography" Dakota vaulted her to The New York Times best-seller list. Last year's The Cloister Walk cemented her reputation as a dazzling writer and independent spiritual thinker. But she's rarely reminded of her newfound celebrity in the Plains town of Lemmon, South Dakota, "where the high school basketball team is considered much more impressive than anything I could do."

Norris' earthbound sensibility reflects a faith grounded in everyday community life. The $50 word for this is Incarnational Theology—the idea that in becoming man through Jesus, God ascribed goodness to profane, fallible, ordinary humanity—but Norris' measured tone of forbearance, detachment, and arch wit (her monk tutors come across as a regular bunch of Johnny Carsons) lend the concept a suitably humble gloss.

It is with this humility that Norris affects Amazing Grace'ssignal achievement: pricking the easy pieties of her baby boomer audience. To feminists who crusade for gender-neutral language she offers the story of a woman whose prayer relationship with God the Father healed her relationship with her own father. To those in thrall to the romance and mystery of the spiritual quest, she proffers this bucket of cold water: "To admit to being no more, no less than an ordinary sinner is not comforting, it does not shine with the glamour of despondency; above all, it does nothing to foster my self-esteem."

"I didn't have any agenda to hit a group over the head; it's just what came out," Norris explained last week, projecting both innocence and clear contrarian delight. "Maybe because the boomers are a defined generation, we've allowed ourselves to take ourselves so seriously. We live in an incredibly self-righteous age. I think the New Age excesses of my generation are every bit as self-righteous as the Christian Right. And I don't like any of it." The prophet softens. "I've tried to look into the heart of a very traditional religion, an ancient religion, and find something in it that I'd missed before."

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