Kathleen Norris on the vocabulary of faith

Kathleen Norris on the vocabulary of faith
Source: Reusableart.com.

In my search for more Words Worth Defending, I’ve gone back to one of my Sustaining Books,  “Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith” by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead Book, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998).

It’s a vocabulary book with a difference. Maybe more than one difference, in fact — it isn’t in alphabetical order. The table of contents, after the preface, lists “Eschatology, Antichrist, Silence” as the first three “vocabulary words.”

The contents page also lists italicized, longer titles, essays which (generally) start their titles with “Inheritance” or “Conversion.”

Norris, a working poet, writes poetically about these theological words and matters. She defends words well.

Grace itself shows up as a vocabulary word, but not until page 150. Here’s how Norris starts to describe it:

Jacob’s theophany, his dream of angels on a stairway to heaven, strikes me as an appealing tale of unmerited grace. Here’s a  man who has just deceived his father and cheated his brother out of an inheritance. But God’s response to finding Jacob vulnerable, sleeping all alone in open country, is not to strike him down for his sins but to give him a blessing.”

More serious words are in the book, such as the three-for-one chapter on “Sinner, Wretch and Reprobate.” In the case of “sinner,” Norris writes,

“I am a sinner, and the Presbyterian church offers me a chance to come clean, and to pray, along with others, what is termed a prayer of confession. But pastors can be so reluctant to use the word ‘sin’ that we end up confessing nothing except our highly developed capacity for denial. One week, for example, the confession began, ‘Our communication with Jesus tends to be too infrequent to experience the transformation in our lives You want us to have,’ which seems less a prayer than a memo from one professional to another. At such times I picture God as a wily writing teacher who leans across a table and says, not at all gently, ‘Could you possibly be troubled to say what you mean?’ It would be refreshing to answer, simply, ‘I have sinned.’ ”

This is the plain-spoken beauty of Norris’ prose, which keeps several of her books on my Sustaining Books list. The definitions are stories, not dry translations, but they’re still accurate and useful.

Even if you don’t need the theological definitions in Norris’ books immediately, you can still enjoy her rich, precise writing.

For more fun with words, stop by the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.

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