American novelist Henry Adams once wrote, “Everyone must bear his own universe, and most persons are moderately interested in learning how their neighbors have managed to carry theirs.”
This line, written in 1918, would be an understatement for modern readers who are consuming the published memoir as fast as it can be printed. The memoir, as a published form of self-narrative, has successfully climbed the literary ladder, claiming equal standing with the traditional novel and receiving recognition by literary scholars as a genre revolution. Within the past thirty years, the memoir has asserted itself as a rising trend in the writing world.
Yet public responses are mixed: skeptics claim that the memoir indulges in syrupy solipsism, the theory that the self is the only reality, while enthusiasts praise it for the value of self-discovery through story. With an emerging cultural impulse to chronicle the self and such conflicting estimations of this trend, the church must join the conversation. The church must recognize the rise of the self-narrative as a signpost for the human longing for transcendence and affirm storytelling as a sacrament in the high art of illuminating divine grace.
The memoir is a personal narrative that provides the author with a verbal processing of the self’s “becoming.” This kind of literature has charmed millions of readers with this human interest appeal in bestsellers such as The Color of Water by James McBride, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. The voice of memoir offers its readers an occasion for personal identification so that a reader can find him or herself within the story of another and perhaps borrow the wisdom, healing or insight from similar life threads.
Henry Adams’ idea of the private universe of men is being born into memoir, as the individual universe of motherhood experience, healing from the trauma of abuse, or growing up in a racially mixed family is translated into print. The private universe of the writer, then, opens up a new world to the reader in which a common human spirit is realized, introducing the memoir as a catalyst for community.
The Church’s Response: Stories as Sacrament
The church is no stranger to self-narrative, understood in Christian circles as spiritual testimony, and Augustine’s Confessions is just one example. Beginning with the gospels and later patterned in martyology, hagiography, confession and conversion testimony, the story paradigm is rooted in ancient church tradition. The church has an evangelistic responsibility to engage the rising confessional characteristic of culture for kingdom purposes rather than dismissing it as a narcissistic endeavor. The church need not be suspicious of the collective cultural cry for self-understanding, having its own so satisfied in the Person of Christ. Instead, the church must bridle the technique of self-narrative for Christian testimony, and affirm the art of life story as a powerful witness for grace.
The pattern for spiritual testimony finds its structure in the grand drama of redemption, as the unfolding story of a believer’s sanctification is only understood in the identification with the rhythms of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The storyteller must then recognize the tension between the cosmic Story of redemption and the echoing story of personal redemption. By telling personal story within the framework of God’s Story, we can engage the cultural trend of self-narrative while adding the new, redemptive element of pointing beyond the self to the Savior.
The cultural rise in the self-narrative affords the church a powerful opportunity to channel the very same confessional trait into spiritual testimony. The church can enter the social scene of life-writing by affirming it in theology as sacrament and encouraging it in practice as testimony. The church is already a credible voice in the self-narrative genre not only because of its tradition of testimony, but also in its sacramental ability to transcend the very story it tells by praising the grace of the Divine Author, something no secular memoir can claim. The art of testimony, then, trades a religion of solipsism, characterized by self-devotion, for a religion of sacrament, marked by the surpassing of the self to point to the Savior.
Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at www.stephaniessmith.com. After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She is a member of the Young Professionals of the Southern Tier and blogs for Moody Publishers at www.insidepages.net.