Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

by Kathleen Norris

Paperback, 1999




"Struggling with her return to the Christian church after many years away, Kathleen Norris found it was the language of Christianity that most distanced her from faith. Words like "judgment", "faith", "dogma", "salvation", "sinner" -- even "Christ" -- formed what she called her "scary vocabulary", words that had become so codified or abstract that their meanings were all but impenetrable. She found she had to wrestle with them and make them her own before they could confer their blessings and their grace. Blending history, theology, story-telling, etymology, and memoir, Norris uses these words as a starting point for reflection, and offers a moving account of her own gradual conversion. She evokes a rich spirituality rooted firmly in the chaos of everyday life -- and offers believers and doubters alike an illuminating perspective on how we can embrace ancient traditions and find faith in the contemporary world." -- from back cover.… (more)


Riverhead Books (1999), Edition: Revised ed., 384 pages

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(200 ratings; 4.1)

User reviews

LibraryThing member tututhefirst
This book is going to be one on my "read again and again" shelf.. It is the first book in years (if ever) that I was compelled to mark up. It is delightfully written. The author was raised in mainstream American protestant religion, then left organized church membership during her college years. As
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her career as a poet progressed, and her husband endured some incidents of deep depression, she began to visit Benedictine monasteries close to her home in North Dakota, and discovered the poetry of Judaic/christian scripture. Eventually, she re-joined the Presbyterian church of her grandmother, and was called to preach.

Her book is a series of short, beautifully written essays (none more than 5 pages long) about the 'vocabulary of faith' as she calls it. There are thoughts on there are excerpts on such words as Heresy, Reprobate, Idolatry, Anger, Herod, Hospitality, Orthodoxy, Ecstacy, Trinity, and a host of others.

It is difficult for me to explain how deeply this book affected me, and how personally inspirational I found it. She certainly is well-studied, but it is the poetic insights that she imparts to traditional scriptural and 'doctrinal' terminology that is so gripping. The fact that she manages to weave her personal story into this is almost a cherry on top a huge sundae.

It may not be the book for everyone, but if you are looking for a positive, beautifully written, easy to read book, you will not go wrong with this one.
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LibraryThing member jd234512
Although I love Kathleen Norris, there has yet to be a book of hers I have read (The Cloister Walk, Dakota, and now this) that I could give a full five stars to. She always has many wonderful nuggets of wisdom, but they tend to get buried a little between the vast amount of topics covered and the
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length of her books. This is another example of this. I loved joining her in the process of redeeming these words that had distressed her and trying to make them her own and something palatable. She has a wonderful way of thinking and I really appreciate the diverse background she is in taking on her subjects.
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LibraryThing member sarahlouise
this book was such a life saver--it came out just as I was falling into deep depression and I bought it in hardcover. KN has such a way of explaining faith as only an adult convert can. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak/read poetry at PTS a few years ago.
LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
Taking a cue from Frederick Buechner, Norris, a former New York City poet, has written a religious dictionary of Grace. This is a great book to thumb through, but unlike her other books, it is topical, a series of short essays.
LibraryThing member Tpoi
Another home run by Norris. I need to go back and reread this having read her Cloister Walk and Dakota as the streams of the three works have become con-fused in my recollection.
LibraryThing member uufnn
Other nonfiction books by Kathleen Norris are The Virgin of Bennington, The Cloister Walk, and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. She has also published books of poetry. Elle Magazine said of this book, "It's hard to imagine less off-putting or pious writing about religion than this sublimely
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commensensical lexicon of words and concepts that, as Kathleen Norris explains them, have rarely sounded less frightening--or quite so simple to understand."
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LibraryThing member highlander6022
Great book. I had been hounding my men's bible study group to read it and discuss it as a group (I eventually gave up on that and decided to just read it on my own); after reading it, I believe more than ever that there is a terrific amount of material to discuss, with most chapters only a few
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pages long. Kathleen Norris provides thoughts on many terms associated with the Chritian faith, and many of her comments will provoke some soul-searching, by members of all Christian traditions. Something for everyone. And great for those that are seeking to understand some of the words we Christians seem to throw around believing that everyone else understands what we are saying. A very good read in my opinion.
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LibraryThing member patl
Kathleen Norris writes poetically about Christian spirituality. And she has a gift of connecting with her readers both of faith and of doubt. I constantly find that she is putting words to my feelings, and this book is no different.

Amazing Grace is a collection of short stories arranged by topic,
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and which act as small meditatiions on a theme - grace, incarnation.
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LibraryThing member BDartnall
Another GoodReads member describes this book's appeal (better than I could): "This makes the shortlist of books I would hand to skeptics to show them there might be something to this Christianity nonsense after all. Like Speaking Christian by Marcus Borg, it aims to inject new life into theological
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terms that have become mere jargon; “it is my accommodation of and reconciliation with the vocabulary of Christian faith that has been the measure of my conversion,” Norris writes.

She spent 20 years away from the faith but gradually made her way back, via the simple Presbyterianism of her Dakota relatives but also through becoming an oblate at a Benedictine monastery – two completely different expressions of the same faith. At times liturgy has only been like going through the motions for her, but sometimes dutiful action cuts through her doubts. I especially appreciated how she gives personal weight to the term “salvation,” attributing to Christianity the ability to save her marriage after her husband’s severe depression threatened to crush it.

“My book might be seen as a search for lower consciousness, 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.” And that is exactly what she does: in few-page essays, she gives each word or phrase a rich backstory through anecdote, scripture and lived philosophy. For instance:

Incarnation: “it waits in puzzlement, it hesitates. Coming from Galilee, as it were, from a place of little hope, it reveals the ordinary circumstances of my life to be full of mystery, and gospel, which means ‘good news.’”

Prayer: “is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine. To be made more grateful, more able to see the good in what you have been given instead of always grieving for what might have been. ... I sometimes think of prayer as a certain quality of attention that comes upon me when I’m busy doing something else. When a person—friend or foe—suddenly comes to mind, I take it as a sign to pray for them.”

Church: “When formal worship seems less than worshipful—and it often does—if I am bored by the sheer weight of verbiage in Presbyterian worship—and I often am—I have only to look around at the other people in the pews to remind myself that we are engaged in something important, something that transcends our feeble attempts at worship, let alone my crankiness.”

The book is on the long side, so take it slowly, a few essays at a time. There are too many excellent quotes to copy out here, as my Post-It-strewn paperback attests, so I will simply give this my highest recommendation and say that I mean to read every other book Norris has written (including poetry). She’s the sort of down-to-earth guru I could follow." Rebecca, GoodReads member, @bookishbeck

It took me 6 months, sometimes just snatching a 15 minute devotional read along with my Bible study/prayer time..but I too have my hardback copy strewn with PostIt tags - truly to be savored.
Most especially loved how Norris embraces the mystery of God and His plan through Christ - refreshing to read from one who is so talented with words, so dedicated to understanding, & so humble to be honest enough about her doubts, & her own stumblings. I'm not sure I've met anyone who's pursued the Benedictine (Catholic) cloister practices AND serves as a teacher and longtime member of her prairie town's Presbyterian church?
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