Thursday, October 16, 2008

God's Words - The (unnecessary) Rise of the Spiritual Memoir

God's Words
The (unnecessary) rise of the spiritual memoir.

We live in an age of autobiography, one in which young writers cannot even bother to change people’s names to create a novel, in which a story being true is a greater virtue than being well written, or insightful, or interesting.

I have a few unyielding standards for a memoir: Either your book must be exceptionally written (a trait hard to find in memoirs these days) or you must have done something exceptional. You must have traveled to the underground or the heavens and come back with fire or golden apples or at least a little wisdom. It can’t just be, “Daddy hit me, mommy got cancer” — everyone has a sad story, and it is possible to go through a trauma or experience something significant without gaining any insight.

You would think that the spiritual memoir would be a stand out division — after all, if the writer has seen the face of God, he or she should probably get a good story out of that. For centuries, people have been telling stories about spiritual experiences, listing out their sins, telling tales of redemption and light at the end of a very dark tunnel. These past few years, however, have seen a crazy rush on the subject matter, with everyone who has ever thought about religion feeling the need to write about it. Approximately half the United States population will convert or adapt their religious beliefs at some point in their lifetime, which equals a lot of potential memoirists.

I suppose the thought process behind publishing these books is that since it’s in the air of our culture, those who are seeking will want to hear other people’s stories. But the same rules from other memoirs apply — just because you lived through something, that doesn’t mean you have anything interesting to say about it. Perhaps the bar is set too high by the original spiritual memoirist, St. Augustine. In his book, he had a great hook — "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet" — and managed to invent the concept of original sin. It’s not like a recent convert to, say, Judaism is going to top that.

Danya Ruttenberg never really fell from grace, she just sort of shrugged it off. She declared herself an atheist at 13, but not because a trauma shook the foundations of her life. She just found temple boring. “The bearded man at the front of the enormous room put his hands out, palms up, and raised them. We all stood on cue, like well-trained dogs… It was very irritating, having to keep standing up and sitting down like that. By the end of service, I could barely contain my contempt.” Ah, the teenage years. Rather than being embarrassed, Ruttenberg lays it all out for us — the social isolation, the Ayn Rand books, the revelations she experienced dancing at Goth clubs.

She builds herself up intellectually, feasting on philosophy, becoming involved in feminist matters, taking college level courses in high school. But when her mother dies, she finds solace in tradition and ritual. She begins to pray, and the concerns she had with religion begin to fall away. Suddenly the patriarchal tone isn’t stultifying; it instead evokes “the feeling of a small child looking to a parent for comfort and safety.” The question of who wrote the Torah — and the meanings behind the rules laid down — suddenly matter less and less. “God was in this book.” That is enough for her.

Read the whole article.

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