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date: 28 March 2017

Autobiography, Biography, and Theological Questioning

Summary and Keywords

Autobiography and biography (which together will be called “life writing”) raise theological questions in ways different from systematic or constructive theology. These forms of life writing tell a story that may or may not be correlated with traditional doctrines. They integrate the first order discourse of symbol and narrative with secondary hermeneutical reflections that interpret and analyze the meaning and truth of religious language. The probing and disturbing questioning in a profound autobiography such as Augustine’s contrasts with the assurances and settled answers expected of theology by religious institutions and communities. Particular religious questions shape specific genres of life writing such as Puritan discourses, nature writing, or African American autobiographies. The theology in autobiography may be either explicit or implicit and involves both questioning and affirmation, as may be seen in works as different as Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. Conversion has been a central theme and shaping influence on Christian texts, even when authors challenge this focus and create alternative forms. A central theological question posed by autobiography concerns the authority of individual experience when it contrasts or conflicts with traditional norms asserted by orthodox believers and ecclesiastical hierarchy. In spiritual autobiographies by contemporary writers, we see serious attention given to communal norms for life stories and a search for a distinctive personal apprehension of what is sacred. Autobiographical writing has been stronger in the history of some religious traditions than in others. Yet in the modern world, almost every culture has produced life writing that questions or challenges established patterns of thought and practice. In contrast with autobiography, sacred biography has been an important part of every religious tradition, usually describing an exemplar to be revered and imitated. Its strong didactic interests often curb theological questioning of established norms. While modern scholarly biographies often mute theological questions, some writers raise normative issues and argue for why the subject’s life should be valued. As well as the theology explored within life writing, many works reveal a theology of life writing, that is, beliefs about how this kind of writing may bring the author or readers better understanding of God or deeper faith.

Keywords: autobiography, biography, theology, Augustine, conversion, life writing, narrative, genre

How Is Autobiography Theological?

Among many ways in which Augustine’s Confessions shaped the development of autobiography is this profound and vivid example of a life and a literary work deeply engaged in theological questioning. After beginning with an affirmation of the human desire to praise God, Augustine immediately turns to several urgent questions about how it is possible to know God. “Grant me, O Lord, to know which is the soul’s first movement toward Thee—to implore Thy aid or to utter its praise of Thee; and whether it must know Thee before it can implore.”1 It would seem that one must first understand God, or one might be turning not to God, but instead to an idol or false conception. Yet how can one know God unless one has first yearned for and sought God with all one’s heart? This initial question about the roles of intellect, passions, and the will in theological understanding is pursued throughout the Confessions as Augustine explores their interconnected relationships in his search for faith and a life that lives out that faith. Some of the theological questions posed throughout the Confessions find answers, and in other cases Augustine must learn to live with uncertainty and wonder at the mysteries of God, creation, and the human soul. What is most striking and engaging about Augustine’s writing is its quality of active searching as he delves into matters that still puzzle his intellect and disturb his conscience a decade after his conversion. In tension with the calm and confidence that come with Christian faith and belief—the “rest” attained after much restlessness—Augustine portrays continued questioning and searching as crucial parts of Christian life.

A similar quest for theological understanding lies at the heart of the most vital works of religious autobiography through the ages, engaging the reader in questions about the human relationship to God. Autobiography dramatizes “faith seeking understanding,” to use Anselm’s formulation, as well as a particular mind seeking faith. This form of discourse shows the interactions between many components of theology: certainty, doubt, reasoning, analysis of experience, revision of old ideas, appeals to various forms of authority, testing of established norms, and coming to new convictions. Given limitations of space, this essay focuses on the Christian tradition of autobiography and its influence on more secular authors concerned with theological questions. Selected comparisons with other religious traditions as well as certain generalizations across traditions are also proposed. What makes an autobiography theological is the author’s attempt to describe and evaluate his or her life in terms of convictions about God or—to extend our topic beyond monotheistic traditions—what is believed to be ultimate or sacred.

Religious biographies sometimes explore questions about God. Yet in traditional sacred biography, the author is usually most concerned not to raise questions, but to show that the subject of the biography reveals the workings of grace and the virtues affirmed by a religious community. In modern scholarly or critical biography, normative theological questions are often muted by the biographer’s commitment to academic standards and historiographic method.

In this essay, “life writing” is used as an umbrella term for generalizations about both autobiography and biography. The theology in life writing is different than systematic, constructive, or doctrinal theology. Especially as it has come to be practiced in the academic world, Christian theology is supposed to be an orderly, systematic, and comprehensive analysis of ideas. It considers doctrines in relation to each other, explaining their meaning and evaluating their truth as understandings of God. Life writing, in contrast, tells a story. It describes a particular life that both illuminates certain religious ideas and is interpreted in their light. To assess and raise questions about ideas, the life writer relies less on logic and formal argument than on the devices of fiction, constructing a narrative that is intended to disclose something about God. The insights suggested by the story may or may not be explicitly correlated with historic Christian doctrines. The metaphors for the author’s relationship to God are sometimes unconventional, as when, in Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis compares his lengthy conversion process to a game of chess with God.2 The theology in life writing may seem occasional, accidental, or random rather than the conclusion of a formal method of investigation and argument. Yet it is theology: thinking about God, usually with a normative evaluation of alternative conceptions of God.

Christian autobiographies focus on particular aspects of theology, especially theological anthropology, the understanding of human nature as created by God. Other doctrines may receive little attention. Augustine’s Confessions is especially concerned with providence, God’s guidance of history, and with the proper understanding of sin, which is closely connected to questions about creation and human agency. Augustine says comparatively little in this work about Christology, the Holy Spirit, or eschatology, although these ideas play a background role.

Systematic theology is a secondary and hermeneutic discipline that interprets the meaning of primary religious utterances and practices such as scripture, hymns, prayer, and confession; it explains their meaning and truth and formulates doctrines, creeds, and arguments, usually drawing upon philosophical concepts. In biography and autobiography, “first order” discourse that is highly metaphoric or symbolic exists alongside of, or rather takes turns with, the more analytical and interpretive modes of thought characteristic of the “second order” discourse of systematic theology. In this way the theological dimensions of autobiography are different from what counts as theology in the contemporary academic world. The probing and disturbing quality of questioning in the most profound autobiographies also contrasts with what is expected of theology by most religious institutions and adherents of various orthodoxies. Yet life writing resembles and continues many of the ways theology has been practiced in such venerable forms of discourse as sermons, accounts of visions, dialogues, and histories of the Church and its saints, martyrs, and prophets. These forms of discourse, too, may rely heavily on narrative, raise more questions than they settle, situate the thinker in a specific time and location, and, like contemporary “practical theology,” focus on what difference religious beliefs make in life. Life writing is a rich source of theological questions and insights, and its distinctive contributions should be welcomed and brought into dialogue with other ways of thinking about God and religion.

Genres of Life Writing and Their Shaping Questions

Many genres of autobiography focus on particular religious questions and themes. Medieval mystics such as Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, and Margery Kempe wrote accounts of visions and meditations that reflect an intense search for union or intimacy with Christ or God. How can a humble individual have a personal connection with the divine? For these writers, certainty about this question comes from experiences of prayer and visions bringing convincing insights and intuitions. Personal experiences can serve as a warrant or evidence for theological conclusions at odds with official doctrines or ecclesiastical authority.

Another species of theological questioning lies at the heart of the introspective writing of Puritans, Quakers, and other Protestants in the 17th and 18th centuries. John Bunyan, Thomas Shepard, Cotton Mather, Mary Rowlandson, Elizabeth Ashbridge, George Fox, Jonathan Edwards, and John Woolman tried to discern God’s providential design for their lives, using various literary forms including captivity narratives, diaries, conversion accounts, and community histories. They took biblical figures as metaphors for their experience, so that a period of wandering in the wilderness, an episode of being a prodigal son, or entrance into a promised land became a lens for interpreting their own life. These writers worry about whether they are among the elect and watch closely for temptations, backsliding, and doubts. The most famous and influential of these works, John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (like his prose allegory Pilgrim’s Progress), shows the cycles of despair and reassurance that result from his fluctuating views about the possibility of salvation. Conflicting biblical passages that pop into his mind produce wild swings of emotion: “My peace would be in and out sometimes twenty times a day: comfort now, and trouble presently; peace now, and before I could go a furlong, as full of fear and guilt as ever heart could hold; and this was not only now and then, but my whole seven weeks’ experience; for this about the sufficiency of grace, and that of Esau’s parting with his birthright, would be like a pair of scales within my mind.”3 Unlike Augustine’s Confessions, Grace Abounding does not portray a climactic scene that finally resolves the author’s doubts. Rather, Bunyan’s anxiety continually reasserts itself in a series of episodes, each of which dramatizes a cycle of doubting and reassurance linked to the question of whether he can know and trust that God will save him.

The African American literary tradition, beginning with slave narratives, has often challenged the use of Christianity to uphold a racist social system, and writers have sought a biblical justification for liberation from oppression, for instance by using the Exodus story to frame the narrator’s quest for freedom. Even in works that seem to be moving away from Christianity, such as The Narrative of Frederick Douglass (Boston, Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), we see the strong influence of Christian tradition in the questioning of contemporary practices, including those of the Church. In the final scene of this work, Douglass feels impelled to stand up in a Nantucket abolitionist meeting and tell his own story, resembling the call to preach the gospel that forms the climax of many Christian conversion narratives. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York, Grove Press, 1965), too, calls on readers to examine how religion and race have been entangled in destructive ways in American history and to imagine alternatives, including the understanding of Islam that Malcolm X embraced.

Autobiographical writing about the natural world depicts religious experiences of attunement to nature and raises questions about divine immanence and transcendence. In the American tradition of nature writing, authors such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Loren Eiseley, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and Barry Lopez question utilitarian attitudes to the natural world and seek an alternative orientation rooted in religious and ethical values. Sometimes these works culminate in explicit theological questions about how the natural world reveals and hides the Creator. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek reflects her efforts to understand the divinity that brought into being a world with specific attributes: “The Creeks—Tinker’s and Carver’s—are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous Creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.”4 Dillard’s pilgrimage is at once physical and spiritual, geographical and religious, as she wanders around the creeks, mountains, and valleys of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, reflecting on the power that made, wears down, and renews the world. Like a tinker, this mysterious source of being is elusive and unpredictable: it fixes or mends things eventually, but often in a haphazard way, by an experimental, trial-and-error process, and with a lot of suffering along the way. Dillard’s poetic natural theology draws only tentative conclusions about the divine, for she shows the plausibility of a bewildering array of theological views that all seem to find some degree of support in the natural world.

These and other distinctive genres of autobiography employ a great variety of literary strategies and motifs. Works are related to each other not primarily because of formal resemblances, but rather because of their shared concern with particular religious questions. For instance, the author’s search for a calling or vocation is the central theme of many autobiographies, both secular and religious, that explore how one can know with certainty or sufficient confidence that one should express one’s deepest convictions in a particular kind of work. Travel narratives may use pilgrimage, exodus, exile, wilderness wandering, or other religious metaphors to interpret a particular journey as a crucial turning point or an image of all of the author’s life. Conversion and deconversion narratives dramatize and explain the author’s coming to or losing faith in a particular conception of God. Illness narratives explore the question of what is healing or what sustains a person through times of suffering or loss.

In all of these forms of life writing, questions about what is ultimately good and true shape the author’s choices in life and guide his or her written assessment of that life.5 Thus genre, the way we think about affinities and relationships between different works of life writing, is shaped by the questions about the good that they explore and, when the good is transcendent or ultimate, their theologies.

Theology as Explicit and Implicit, and as Questioning and Affirming

Some autobiographies involve explicit theology, that is, a direct argument about a tradition’s classic doctrines and beliefs. An example is John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), subtitled “a history of his religious opinions.”6 Newman analyzes his thinking over several years, during which he slowly realized the flaws in the Anglican tradition’s claim to represent a via media or compromise between the extremes of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. He documents his conscious adherence to particular doctrines, including Final Perseverance, Eternal Punishment, Baptismal Regeneration, and so forth. He defines the nucleus of his theological beliefs as the Principle of Dogma, the Visible Church, and the Apostolic Succession. His increasing doubts about Anglican theology and his growing understanding of Catholic doctrine lead him at last to join the Catholic Church. Newman presents his personal religious growth as analogous to the history of the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrinal development: a matter of steady growth and natural unfolding that remains true to core principles. His theological doubts, reasoning, and conclusions are the driving force in the plot, as he is saved from heresy and restored to the authentic doctrine of what he believes is the one true faith.

In contrast to Newman’s Apologia, theological beliefs in some autobiographies are implicit: not expressed directly although playing an important role. The crucial ideas at stake may not be formulated in terms of classical Christian doctrines, but rather as the author’s core convictions or beliefs that shape the narrative in many ways. An implicit theology is not stated in propositional form, but rather undergirds the perspective from which an author assesses the changing commitments of his life.

An example of implicit theology may be seen in Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907). This memoir describes the author’s deconversion from the peculiar version of Calvinist theology he learned from his father, Philip Gosse, as well as the complex emotional relationship between father and son. Gosse shows how the beliefs of the Plymouth Brethren undermined his father’s ability to do scientific work. He portrays how the elder Gosse’s rigid adherence to certain dogmas warps his ethical sensibility, harms his relationship to his son, and makes both of them miserable. At the end of the book, Gosse sums up his criticisms of his father’s religion: “Evangelical religion, or any religion in a violent form … divides heart from heart. It sets up a vain, chimerical ideal, in the barren pursuit of which all the tender, indulgent affections, all the genial play of life, all the exquisite pleasures and soft resignations of the body, all that enlarges and calms the soul, are exchanged for what is harsh and void and negative. It encourages a stern and ignorant spirit of condemnation; it throws altogether out of gear the healthy movement of the conscience; it invents virtues which are sterile and cruel; it invents sins which are no sins at all, but which darken the heaven of innocent joy with futile clouds of remorse.”7 An implicit theology that is never stated in positive terms shapes this indictment.

Certain convictions also shape Gosse’s portrayal of scenes showing what brought joy into his life, such as occasions when poetry or art aroused his imagination and times when he was swept away by aesthetic experience or the natural world’s radiant beauty. The values and beliefs Gosse adopted as an adult are not defined in terms of explicit theological ideas, but rather implied in the ways he depicts what gave his life meaning and happiness. Father and Son does not describe Gosse’s later work as a literary critic or explain whether he eventually became an atheist, an agnostic, or a liberal Christian not committed to a literal reading of the Bible, apocalyptic expectations, and sectarian withdrawal from secular culture. Instead, the memoir ends with the author’s loss of faith in evangelical religion and his severance of relationship to his father. The theology at stake in this memoir is not only the Calvinist system Gosse rejects, but also the implicit convictions and values in terms of which he evaluates his father’s faith and his own adolescent struggle to find a better worldview and way to live.

Newman and Gosse portray both religious seeking and finding, and questioning as well as affirmation. Even as he explains his understanding of specific doctrines, Newman virtually defines his autobiography as a history of doubt: “Certitude of course is a point, but doubt is a progress; I was not near certitude yet. Certitude is a reflex action; it is to know that one knows. Of that I believe I was not possessed, till close upon my reception into the Catholic Church.”8 If certitude is a point, a narrative account of a long process of theological development will involve tracing the waxing and waning of doubts. When Newman finally becomes a Roman Catholic, his conversion is “like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.”9 When all his doubts are resolved, there is no more drama to narrate, no more story to tell. In Father and Son, too, Gosse portrays both searching and finding. Along with his doubting, questioning, and debunking of his father’s theological beliefs, the critical perspective from which he assesses evangelical Christianity depends on certain settled convictions and affirmations. One such belief is suggested by the epigraph from Schopenhauer: “Der Glaube ist wie die Liebe: Er lässt sich nicht erzwingen.” Gosse’s indictment of his father’s religious bullying appeals to the individual’s right to freedom of conscience: “Like love, belief cannot be compelled.” His memoir shows how he slowly came to understand this principle, realize its implications, and act according to it, first with halting steps, in relation to his father.

Understanding autobiography as theology requires the reader to ask certain questions. What does the author doubt and what does he affirm? What does the narrator explicitly avow, and what is implicit in authorial choices about how to represent his life? What kinds of meaning does the author seek and find? We can discern the answers to these questions not only in propositional statements and recognizable theological doctrines, but also in all the ways that plot, metaphor, characterization, and rhetorical strategies reflect convictions about what is meaningful, true, and life-giving.

Conversion as Narrative Form and Theme

Luke’s depiction of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 and Augustine’s portrayal of his conversion in his Confessions have had a large impact on Christian life writing as a central theme and adaptable narrative structure.10 Christian writers often portray a climactic scene and turning point that resolves longstanding questions or ends sinful habits. Intense emotion, remorse for sin, supernatural signs, and motifs such as an interlude of solitude and opening a Bible for guidance are some of the elements of the Pauline/Augustinian paradigm. This model has influenced Christian authors including Newman, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, as well as writers somewhat distanced from Christian tradition such as John Stuart Mill, Frederick Douglass, and Malcolm X. It shapes works that describe “recovery” from alcoholism or other addictions, or “coming out” with a new identity based on race or sexual orientation. All these writers describe how their basic convictions changed, usually portraying intense emotions and complex psychological conflicts culminating in a fundamental reorientation of identity. In A Whole New Life, Reynolds Price describes the new sense of identity he came to as he adapted to chronic pain and permanent paralysis, advising others who face a similar situation: “Your chance of rescue from any despair lies, if it lies anywhere, in your eventual decision to abandon the deathwatch by the corpse of your old self and to search out a new inhabitable body.”11 Like Augustine, Price depends on an analogy between religious conversion and recovery from an illness, although in his case there is not physical healing, but rather adaptation to his impaired condition that brings an altered sense of identity and a new sense of God’s presence in his life.

The focus on conversion in so many Christian life narratives has prompted a variety of reactions that contrast with this tradition, as later writers modify, adapt, or reject the paradigm. Conversion can become a rather predictable and formulaic pattern that distorts or falsifies a person’s actual experience, as well as being overly familiar. Although many readers expect or hunger for a story about dramatic transformation, not all lives involve a conversion or sudden change of direction. We may wonder how much of many Christian stories is a matter of conforming to expectations and conventions.

Some contemporary memoirs, such as Kathleen Norris’s Dakota, Sara Miles’s Take this Bread, and Nancy Mairs’s Ordinary Time, propose that the concept of continuous conversion, involving many repeated acts of turning, better grasps the Christian’s ongoing, life-long task of reorienting one’s life to God. These works portray incremental changes and slow development rather than abrupt and radical transformation.12 Other writers do not want to highlight the emotional aspects of the conversion paradigm or the association of conversion with a particular style of evangelistic worship in American tradition. They must therefore find other ways to tell a story of religious development. Such literary and religious creativity reflects questioning of a certain expectation about the normative way a Christian should come to faith.

The conversion narrative carries a lot of intellectual baggage, in terms of both how the story is constructed and how human beings are supposed to be related to God. Many authors wish to discard some of these expectations. A writer may selectively adapt certain elements of the conversion paradigm, perhaps the idea of a calling or the emphasis on intense emotion, while not using others, such as supernatural signs or prolonged introspection about sin. In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis claims that one large effect of his conversion was that it made him less introspective and preoccupied with his own moods. So much so that he asserts that he cannot remember how he moved from theism to Christianity: “One of the first results of my Theistic conversion was a marked decrease (and high time, as all readers of this book will agree) in the fussy attentiveness which I had so long paid to the progress of my own opinions and the states of my own mind. For many healthy extroverts self-examination first begins with conversion. For me it was almost the other way round.”13 Dorothy Day contrasts her conversion with those that result from conviction of sin and turning away from the world: “It was not because I was tired of sex, satiated, disillusioned, that I turned to God. Radical friends used to insinuate this. It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God.”14 Her conversion, recounted in a chapter titled “Love Overflows,” explains how her love of the natural world, above all the experience of giving birth, culminated in love of God. After recounting how Day became a Catholic, The Long Loneliness turns to the story of the community she founded, The Catholic Worker Movement. The book ends with the death of fellow CWM founder Peter Maurin, whom she portrays as a modern saint. Day avoids the intense introspection, even egotism, that persists in many conversion narratives after the author has joined the church. (Like many women writers, Day’s story also reflects the gender expectation that a woman’s life should center on service to others.) The implicit theology of some Christian autobiographies becomes evident when we discern how the author reacts against the conventions of the conversion narrative. This is an example of how literary innovation and creativity sometimes reveal a writer questioning the theology that readers expect and searching for an alternative.

Of course, there are many forms of Christian autobiography that are not conversion narratives, or that combine an account of conversion with elements of other genres. For instance, the apologia, a defense or justification of the author’s convictions, with its roots in Plato’s Apology of Socrates (Oxford: Oxbow, 1997), gives a marked autobiographical character to theological controversy and dispute. As in the case of Newman’s Apologia, such works focus on doctrinal beliefs and leave other aspects of religious experience, including conversion, in the background.

Every autobiography has a narrator, the author at the time of writing, and a “protagonist,” the author as represented in the past. Insofar as the book describes how its protagonist became the narrator, we might consider every autobiography as analogous to a conversion story portraying how a person’s fundamental values and convictions changed. The conversion paradigm is an appealing framework for interpreting human development, both for life writers and for scholars interpreting their work. It suggests comparisons among works and poses questions about which elements of the traditional form an author adapts, rejects, avoids, or transforms. Perhaps every autobiography should be considered as a potential story of conversion. Yet there are many other narrative structures and themes, and no one paradigm fits all life writing. To focus on conversion is to give significance to change in an individual life. Yet some writers are more interested in continuity, both between their past and present selves and among the members of the writer’s community or tradition. Such narratives may be less concerned to portray the author’s singularity—much less his raw emotions or shameful past—than to exemplify a collective sense of identity and the beliefs shared within a community over a long period of time.

The Christian conversion narrative is not always the best lens for understanding life writing in other religious traditions, even though it has had widespread influence in the modern world. An analysis of narratives by Western converts to Islam concludes that these Muslim stories lack a sudden moment of transformation and the total negation of a previous identity, instead portraying a gradual return to what one has always been and criticism of corrupt Western culture rather than individual sin.15 While conversion is not always the most adequate term to use in comparative work, autobiographical accounts are a rich source for understanding personal change and transformation in different religious traditions.16

Individual Experience in Tension with Traditional Theological Norms

From some points of view, religious autobiography is an oxymoron: religious experience should be a matter of transcending the self, while autobiography focuses relentlessly on the self. Many autobiographers have struggled with this paradox. Sensitive to the accusation that they are being proud, arrogant, or narcissistic in writing about their lives, writers have justified their endeavor, usually in terms of the potential benefits to readers. Thus Augustine: “When the confessions of my past sins … are read and heard, they stir up the heart. It no longer lies in the lethargy of despair and says ‘I cannot,’ but keeps wakeful in the love of your mercy and the loveliness of Your grace, by which every weak man is made strong, since by it he is made conscious of his weakness.”17 Augustine hopes that some of his readers, feeling despair akin to his own, may be inspired by the story of his recovered freedom and confidence through faith in God. His own conversion was inspired by others: by Simplicianus’s account of the public declaration of Victorinus, by the Life of Saint Antony (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1950), and by a vision of Continence surrounded by “multitudes of good examples,” people of all ages who practiced celibacy by trusting God rather than their own will power. The Bishop of Hippo is keenly aware of how he was influenced by others and in turn serves as a role model, for instance for his dear friend Alypius. In these terms of imitation and emulation he justifies his Confessions. He also asserts the benefits for himself of renewing his gratitude and trust in God, engaging in scrupulous examination of his conscience, and understanding memory, the greatest marvel that humans encounter and the path that led him to discern God’s role in his life.

Augustine asserts that Christian lives disclose certain patterns and common issues. Delineating these matters reflects a theological understanding of how God acts in relation to human beings. Generalizations and norms are possible about human and Christian experience, based partly on ideas about God’s saving work. There is always a tension in Christian autobiography between the author’s desire to interpret normative patterns of Christian experience and the equally compelling wish to depict a singular life. If all lives fit one mold, what is the point of another life story? If each life is utterly unique, what could be learned from someone else’s story? Autobiography reveals a dialectic between the author’s differentiation from others and identification of what is common or shared with them. Writers have found diverse theological ways to reconcile these twin concerns to define a distinct individuality and to formulate common norms. The English Puritan Richard Baxter wrote: “God breaketh not all men’s hearts alike.”18 A theological norm for Baxter is the necessity of a contrite heart: the remorse and repentance that should lead a believer to seek forgiveness from God. Yet because hearts break in different ways, he is justified in trying to discern the contours of grace in his life’s broken pieces.

Beginning with Rousseau, and especially in the 20th century, spiritual autobiographers became far less concerned to formulate a normative theology that applies to others. Instead, the author is usually most intent upon defining a unique personal identity, including what he or she believes about God. Scholars disagree as to how to define spiritual autobiography and whether this term can be applied fruitfully to modern works in which a search for personal identity has virtually displaced the desire to know God, and the goal of defining one’s unique selfhood is more important than salvation or orthodox belief.19 In a spiritual autobiography, the author attempts to discern the presence of God or that which she believes to be ultimate or sacred, whether or not this is located in the symbols, institutions, and rituals sanctioned by a religious tradition. Yet even writers who are alienated from the religious tradition that formed them may explain their criticisms or test the adequacy of that tradition’s theology, as Edmund Gosse did.

Many autobiographies by women in recent decades (such as the works by Norris, Mairs, and Miles mentioned previously, Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge, Patricia Hampl’s Virgin Time, and Proverbs of Ashes by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker) explore how their religious traditions have been at once a patriarchal source of oppression and a positive resource for women. These writers reject certain elements from their religious inheritances and appropriate others. They reclaim areas of life rejected by many Christians as this-worldly, profane, or of lesser value than religious matters. These authors discern the holy in ordinary time, the body’s illness and healing, the cycles of the natural world, struggles for social justice, pilgrimages either officially sanctioned or personal, and intimate relationships with family and friends. Their works imply theological convictions about what is holy and gives life, yet they are more interested in interpreting what they have found meaningful than they are in advocating that others should adopt their beliefs or join a particular religious community.20

A writer may show how another religious tradition offers resources for understanding God and living a life of faith that are lacking in her own heritage, yet choose not to join that church or group. In Dakota, Cloister Walk, and other works, Kathleen Norris explores the destructive effects of her childhood’s Presbyterian views of sin and community and alternative understandings learned from poets and monks. Without converting to the Roman Catholic Church, Norris grows increasingly appreciative of what she learns by living as an oblate in a monastery; she challenges Protestant readers to recognize what is missing from their church’s apprehension and worship of God.

In contrast to many of the classics of Christian tradition, these writers do not propose a single normative model of belief or affiliation to readers. Rather, they suggest that every individual must find his or her own spiritual path. Compared to what one would find today in most Christian congregations or volumes of systematic theology, they are more open to a variety of theological options. Moreover, many recent spiritual autobiographers emphasize searching and striving for further understanding, not settled convictions. Often the end of the book is inconclusive about important religious matters, suggesting that the author’s search goes on. “Living the questions” (to use Rilke’s phrase) seems more important than formulating binding norms for a tradition or community. Individual searching is of paramount importance, and the theology arrived at is not proposed as the author’s final resting place, much less the single normative model for readers. Yet even in texts describing intense experiences of solitude, in narratives of deconversion, and in stories about inconclusive searching in several traditions, the spiritual autobiographer is almost always in dialogue with a theological tradition, criticizing its limitations and failure to practice what it preaches and inviting it to broaden and deepen its understanding of the human relationship to God.

All life writing reveals interplay between communal norms for life stories and the author’s desire for a singular individuality, a distinctive voice, and a fresh perception of what is sacred. Each of these impulses, toward adherence to tradition and toward personal discernment, reflects a theology, an interpretation of how human beings are related to God. Both affirming a normative theological position and testing norms in life experience may be understood to be called for by a God who is known in the history of communities and also, as the Spirit that “blows where it chooses” (John 3:8), is manifested in new and surprising ways, including the details of a person’s life. The tension between individuality and the search for norms suggests a fruitful approach to autobiography’s theological significance and raises questions about such matters as the role of reason, appeals to experience, understandings of authority, the meaning of tradition, and so forth.

One of the most complex issues raised by autobiography is how a life writer correlates traditional ideas with what we may call the evidence of experience. Sometimes, especially in modern works, an author appeals to events in his life as a kind of authority that overrides traditional norms of belief and practice. Yet appeals to experience are problematic for many reasons, as the more insightful writers recognize. Religious traditions are usually highly cautious or skeptical about individual claims to have received a vision, uttered a prophetic insight, or encountered a divine figure or voice. From the point of view of a religious community, it is far more likely that an individual’s divergent views will need to be corrected by tradition than it is that the tradition must be reformed in light of criticisms. Moreover, just what one’s “experience” is and what it means must be interpreted and is open to alternative construal, including skepticism that this person’s life reveals something new and important about the divine.

When a writer conflicts with a formative tradition, we should ask certain illuminating questions. What kinds or dimensions of experience (cognitive, emotional, bodily, dreamed, volitional, etc.) are taken as the basis for theological insights? What specific incidents (such as worship, mystical union, communal bonding, conversion, moral outrage, or apprehension of sacred presence in the natural world) lead to conclusions about God? Why are these events presumed or asserted to be authoritative not only for the writer, but for readers and/or members of the author’s religious community? Does the author see experience as something that is self-evident, unmediated, or irrefutable, or is he aware of the need for interpretation, the possibility of other construals, and the inevitable role of inherited and contestable concepts, categories, and metaphors in representing any experience in words? How does one person’s story become a warrant for a theological conclusion relevant to another person or an entire religious community? These questions, which are rarely addressed directly in autobiography, provide one framework for examining crucial issues at stake in seeing life writing as a valuable resource for theology.

Questioning in Diverse Traditions

While to do justice to the history of life writing in the world’s religious traditions is beyond the scope of this article, we should note some of the varieties beyond Christianity and some contrasts. Certain traditions, such as Islam and Tibetan Buddhism, have a strong lineage of life writing.21 Although Confucian and Daoist traditions valued self-effacement and modesty, a significant group of Confucian autobiographers during the late Ming period (late 16th and early 17th centuries) described quests for self-transformation or practiced penitential confession.22 Japanese accounts of travel to sacred places take a journey as a metaphor for human existence and, as in Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, interpret the author’s experience against the backdrop of literary precedent. Before contact with European culture, Native American tribes did not produce written narratives. Yet particular lives were described in oral storytelling traditions such as coup tales, educational narratives, and accounts of vision quests or the acquisition of healing powers. These oral practices influenced the written narratives produced in great number beginning in the 19th century, both by literate Native Americans and in the form of “as-told-to” narratives edited by anthropologists, missionaries, and literary scholars.23 In all of these cultures, life narratives affirmed and illustrated the meaning of crucial virtues, values, and beliefs, and they reveal a theology, an understanding of the cosmos and sacred powers.

Most of the autobiographical and biographical writing in the world’s religious traditions is highly didactic, presenting the subject explicitly as a model for emulation. This agenda both inhibits a full description of the subject’s life and personality and limits a work’s ability to raise challenging or unorthodox theological questions. Yet sometimes, one senses the author questioning his culture’s myths and sacred narratives or exploring discrepancies between his own experience and the culture’s normative account of reality. In Black Elk Speaks (a work fraught with interpretive problems), this Lakota holy man explicitly questions the efficacy of traditional rituals and beliefs and concludes: “There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”24 Yet this statement, like so much of this text, reflects the pervasive and sometimes distorting influence of editor John Neihardt, and Black Elk’s actual theological beliefs remain controversial.

A work of life writing may test established belief systems by exploring the limits of what can be put into words, suggesting in poetic ways the author’s mystical experiences or intuitions of what is ineffable. By portraying elusive and enigmatic experiences, a personal narrative may raise questions about whether the reigning theology adequately explains all of life or fully comprehends the divine.

In some religious traditions, autobiographical writing is comparatively rare, at least in ancient times. Yet in the 20th century, almost every religious tradition has produced autobiographies that challenge inherited and established patterns of thought. For instance, Judaism lacks an ancient tradition of autobiography (with the exception of Josephus’s Life), although it produced personal documents such as the ethical will directed at students and children, testimonies of historical events such as persecution and exile, and, since the 18th century, accounts of what amounts to a conversion to Enlightenment and secular values, such as Solomon Maimon’s autobiography.25 The 20th century brought an outpouring of Jewish autobiographical writing, much of it reflecting on how Jewish identity and values are expressed in secular movements for social justice, Zionism, intellectual pursuits, or artistic creativity, even when the author no longer participates in communal worship and denies central theological beliefs of Judaism. Many of these writers dramatize incidents and situations leading the author to question and reject Judaism as a religion, disclosing the beliefs and values at stake in this shift of orientation and commitment. Jewish writers have produced narrative accounts of the Holocaust, life in Israel, or the ambiguities of assimilation or uneasy dwelling in gentile or secular culture. The most famous Holocaust narrative, Elie Wiesel’s Night (first published in Yiddish in 1954), suggests the author’s loss of faith in God in the aftermath of the Nazi concentration camps, although we can also interpret this text as a descendent of biblical writers arguing with and accusing God as they raise disturbing questions of theodicy. Many of these modern texts explore a profoundly theological question: What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?

A modern autobiography with few predecessors in Hindu tradition is Mohandas Gandhi’s Experiments in Truth (1927). Gandhi recounts his striving for satya (truth), the sovereign principle that he equates with God. His experiments require the practice of virtues of truthfulness, humility, courage, and discerning judgment. Gandhi’s goal is not moral self-assessment, but rather to investigate his life story to discover what it reveals about truth: “My purpose is to describe experiments in the science of Satyagraha, not to say how good I am.”26 Gandhi’s conceptions of autobiography and of theology are in certain ways different than classical Western modes of discourse, yet we can recognize affinities, including the metaphor of life writing as a scientific experiment.

For adherents of historic religions, the modern world brings the possibility of a secular orientation, a loosening of communal loyalties, and the challenge, threat, and appeal of other faiths and worldviews in an increasingly mobile and interdependent world. A central theological question explored in contemporary life writing concerns what is essential in the writer’s religious tradition and what needs to be discarded or modified. Especially for writers with a strong intellectual or scholarly orientation, autobiography can explore challenges involved in integrating traditional beliefs with a critical perspective. A writer may suggest non-literal interpretations of myths or affirm the validity of relatively unknown or “minor” views as valuable threads in a rich tapestry of tradition.

Another significant form of theological questioning arises when Westerners write about their encounters and involvements with Asian religions, tribal traditions such as Australian or Native American groups, or New Religious Movements that others view disdainfully as cults. Some of these engagements culminate in conversion, but they may also engender narratives about appreciating more than one religious tradition or the need for a personal synthesis that is not expressed in affiliation with any one group. In the many accounts of travel to Buddhist cultures by Westerners, such as Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (1978), Bill Porter’s Zen Baggage (2009), and Circling the Sacred Mountain by Robert Thurman and Tad Wise (1999), authors reinterpret this foreign tradition for a Western audience, perhaps by translating it into a framework of thought that is psychological or “spiritual but not religious,” viewing it as part of the New Age or a perennial tradition, or presenting it as relevant to Western seekers dissatisfied with monotheistic traditions.27 The increasing prevalence of spiritual memoirs about inter-religious encounter and dialogue poses important questions about the identity and integrity of religious traditions and about what a person can learn from other religious traditions about God and the ultimate mysteries.

In recent years, professors and scholars of Religious Studies, Theology, and Biblical Studies have turned to the genre of memoir, breaking down a wall that for many decades separated the academic study of religion from personal religious reflection or confession. The history of the discipline of religious studies, which grew out of biblical and theological studies in Christian seminaries, still makes many scholars extremely cautious about revealing their personal convictions. This scruple and disciplinary self-definition is breaking down as some scholars welcome into the study of religion the kinds of insight and questioning central to autobiographical writing and seek to correlate these resources with traditional academic discourse.28 While some scholars criticize these memoirs as narcissistic, self-indulgent, or trivial in their yield, the best of these works show a vital and fruitful relationship between virtues and values that are often thought to be opposed: on one hand, critical examination of textual and historical evidence, skepticism, and impartial detachment, and on the other hand, virtues more often associated with faith, such as commitment, passionate engagement, and advocacy of a particular normative position.


In contrast to autobiography, which historically has been vital in some religious traditions and not others, biographical writing has been important in nearly every culture. In sacred biography, religious myth provides an exemplary pattern that shapes the representation of the subject’s life.29 Christ’s life is the paradigm in Christian tradition, beginning with Luke’s portrayal of Stephen in Acts 6–7. Other biblical exemplars and legends about saints and martyrs also influenced later works. Sacred biographies are usually highly didactic, instructing the faithful in what it means to be an ideal member of the religious community and dramatizing virtues and values. Sacred biographies gain credibility and provide aesthetic satisfaction with entertaining digressions, exciting stories, and vivid depictions of the details of an ordinary human life. Theology and religious ideas may be delineated, but the primary interest of these works is in how theology is lived out: the practical implications and expression of belief. Buddha, Confucius, or Muhammad serves as the paradigm of how beliefs about ultimate reality should be reflected in a believer’s practice of worship, ethical conduct, and spiritual disciplines.

Classical sacred biography, an account of the founder of a religion, and hagiography, the stories of later saints and holy persons, have some of the same theological purposes: to synthesize earlier oral and written traditions that may conflict, to facilitate the veneration of a saint’s relics in particular pilgrimage destinations, to illustrate moral virtues for believers, to demonstrate how to model one’s life on scripture, and to provide a textual resource used in worship, ritual, and popular piety. Ancient texts often became objects of veneration that took on a life of their own, playing a role in legends of miraculous healing, conversion, or deliverance from danger.

In modern scholarly biographies, academic standards and methods alter the writer’s task. The author may not be a member of the same religious community as the subject. The scholarly biographer wants to distinguish what can actually be verified as historically true about the founder or saint and what represents the values, vision, and agenda of the disciples and community that authored the primary written sources of our knowledge. A biographer may limit her study to historical analysis or, in social scientific accounts, take the subject as a case study or illustration of a psychological, sociological, or anthropological theory. Yet insofar as a biographer turns to evaluating the significance of the biographical subject’s life, interprets how fundamental convictions oriented that life, and argues for the contemporary relevance of the subject’s religious orientation, that biographer is doing a form of theology. Some outstanding works of scholarly biography on Christian figures that engage with normative issues include Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo, Richard Wightman Fox’s Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, and Paul Elie’s group portrait of four American Catholic writers, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. In Biography as Theology, James McClendon interprets how recurring images and metaphors reveal the theological convictions of Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan, and Charles Ives. McClendon is especially interested in how the doctrine of atonement was understood by and shaped the character and decisions of these figures.30

The somewhat amorphous field of narrative theology is relevant to understanding the theological dimensions of life writing, although most of this scholarship does not give much attention to particular texts or the history of specific narrative genres, but rather focuses on the significance of biblical narrative for theology.31 Several of these works describe how a “collision” between an individual’s self-understanding and the stories of scripture may lead a person to realign his personal narrative and beliefs according to the paradigms of religious tradition. This approach can orient fruitful studies of biography and autobiography, where conversion is often closely related to encounters with texts or exemplars and leads to a new narrative of personal identity. Stanley Hauerwas contrasts Inside the Third Reich, the autobiography of Nazi leader Albert Speer, with narratives that show a life shaped by a truthful narrative, which Hauerwas links to the capacity to disclose self-deception.32 Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative trilogy weaves together narrative theory, theology, and an understanding of personal identity as hermeneutic.33

While biography and autobiography seem to be distinct genres, they can blend and overlap in interesting ways. Much of Book 9 of Augustine’s Confessions is a short biography of his mother, Monica, and he describes his friend Alypius in considerable detail. Characterization of important people in an autobiographer’s life story is biographical writing. Hagiographical portraits sometimes disclose how the saint influenced the writer’s life. In biographies about a teacher or sage, a devoted student or disciple may reveal much about his own life.

In the 20th century, the genre of the family memoir allows authors to explore how their religious beliefs were shaped by or diverged from a parent or other family members, as we saw in the case of Gosse’s Father and Son. Later examples of family memoir include African American writer James McBride’s The Color of Water, which depicts his mother’s Jewish past and Christian conversion as well as McBride’s coming to believe in a God who is, in his mother’s words, “the color of water.” In The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston depicts the impact of her mother’s Chinese “talk stories,” exploring how the examples of her mother and other Chinese women including mythological heroines both helped and hindered her search for identity in the United States. In Proverbs of Ashes, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker recount their own stories alongside those of family members and other victims of abuse. They criticize the limitations of the doctrine of atonement as a way of making sense of this kind of trauma and search for an alternative theology that will bring healing to sufferers of abuse. Many recent memoirs evaluate the positive and negative effects of particular beliefs and commitments on family members whose stories serve as inspiration or cautionary tales. Insofar as these works assess the credibility and consequences of religious beliefs, they are doing normative ethics and theology in a narrative mode.34

Conclusion: Theology in Life Writing and a Theology of Life Writing

Autobiography does not simply report the beliefs that the author held in the past. It also reveals active theological questioning and searching in the author’s present moment, at the time of writing. Autobiography tries to discern how God was present in the author’s past life and how he or she now understands God or that which is worthy of ultimate devotion and trust. Even in “versions of deconversion,” when an author describes a loss of faith, the narrative may involve profound testing of religious doctrines to see whether they are credible, convincing, and life-giving.35 This intensive theological searching that is integral to the act of writing one’s life is what gives the classic works of religious autobiography their compelling power and significance.

To grasp this dimension of autobiography, we need to focus on “the story of the story.” This is revealed in authorial statements about the genesis of the book and the writing process, in the direct and oblique ways that an author’s rhetoric suggests an agenda, and in extra-textual biographical evidence that illuminates the purposes and process of creating this text. We should try to understand why and how the author thinks not only his prior life, but also writing that life reveals truths about God and the nature of a religious life. For instance, Augustine’s Confessions gives a vivid picture not only of scenes in his past life, but also of Augustine ten years after his conversion, the flush of initial enthusiasm long faded, renewing his faith, and reorienting his life through recall, recollection, and confession.36 He examines scrupulously his conscience, well aware of the dangers of self-deception and pride, and is moved again and again to repentance. The Confessions shows Augustine modeling his life according to scripture, using its images and stories, especially the Prodigal Son, to interpret his experience. He offers a sustained apology for his understanding of several Christian doctrines and criticizes rival beliefs and competitors such as neo-Platonism and Manichaeism. Above all, we see Augustine confessing his praise of God, prompted by the wonder and joy elicited by meditating upon his past and present life. In these many ways, his theology is not simply reported, but enacted by the writing of Confessions.

Similar forms of theological thinking animate the great Christian autobiographies by John Bunyan, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Theology shapes the tradition of spiritual autobiography even as it veers away from conventional doctrinal formulations in writers like Benjamin Franklin, Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Annie Dillard, and Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Pantheon, 1963). Questions about ultimate reality animate life writing from other religious traditions, such as Wiesel’s Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (London: Penguin, 1966), Muhammad Asad’s The Road to Mecca (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), and N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1969). In the finest biographies, both the sacred and scholarly varieties, the author addresses the question of why and how his subject’s life is significant and discloses what is most valuable and worthy of commitment.

Creating an autobiography or biography is a rhetorical act attempting to persuade readers of something. The author may be trying to reorient the reader, elicit a commitment, or turn him away from a false ultimate or wrong priority. An autobiographer may challenge readers’ beliefs about what is worthy of loyalty and trust or may intervene in a culture that denies value to his or her life by implicitly asserting: “My life has value that you have not recognized, and I can speak for myself.” The theological significance of autobiography lies not only in the depiction of the author’s life, but also in its attempt to show readers what gives life meaning and in readers’ responses to this. Given this theological agenda and rhetorical context, an author’s questioning may not be intended to culminate in an answer, but rather to provoke self-examination and questioning on the part of the reader.

Theology is thinking about God. There are many ways to think about God and many forms of discourse that can explain and depict such thinking. Autobiography and biography have a special kind of persuasiveness and value because of their claim to truthfulness, their capacity for rich and vivid detail about a particular life, and their expansive temporal scope for presenting how and why a person’s convictions developed and changed. Life narratives reveal the interplay between individual character and the cultural forces that shape it, including religious ideas and beliefs. Life writing texts have a flexible freedom to encompass both plot-driven story and topical or thematic discussion of ideas. This kind of writing formulates insights that should enrich systematic theology and guide ordinary believers as it tests how well classical doctrines and established orthodoxies actually help make sense of a particular life. Autobiography and biography do not simply illustrate traditional beliefs; such writing is itself critical and creative theological thinking.

The most compelling autobiographical works—such as those by Augustine, Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, and Edmund Gosse—dramatize theological questioning in the writer’s present moment. Life writers understand the religious meaning of their authorship variously: for instance, as testimony to God’s grace, as service to a community, or as the ongoing questioning and searching that is necessary in a vital spiritual life. As well as showing the influence of theological ideas in their lives, these thinkers enact in diverse ways a theology of autobiography, that is, the belief that the act of writing one’s life is itself a theological practice.


Helpful orientation will be found in three types of scholarship: theoretical studies of the genre of autobiography, historical accounts of religious autobiography, and encyclopedia articles on diverse religious traditions. Good overviews of critical theory of autobiography include James Olney, ed. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, and several works by Paul John Eakin, including Fictions of Autobiography and Touching the World.37

The development of autobiography in formative periods of Christian tradition, especially the 17th through 19th centuries, are explored in Patricia Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression, Paul Delaney, British Autobiography in the Seventeenth Century, Avrom Fleishman, Figures of Autobiography: The Language of Self-Writing in Victorian and Modern England, Linda Peterson, Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation, Daniel Shea, Spiritual Autobiography in Early America, and Owen Watkins, The Puritan Experience: Studies in Spiritual Autobiography. A masterful interpretation of concepts of individuality from Augustine to Rousseau and Goethe is Karl Weintraub, The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography.38

Encyclopedia articles that survey life writing in the world’s religious traditions include John Barbour’s “Autobiography” and William LaFleur’s “Biography” in The Encyclopedia of Religion and many articles on specific genres, cultures, and religious traditions in The Encyclopedia of Life Writing, ed. Margaretta Jolly.39

Further Reading

Barbour, John D. The Conscience of the Autobiographer: Ethical and Religious Dimensions of Autobiography. New York and London: Macmillan, 1992.Find this resource:

Barbour, John D. Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Barbour, John D. The Value of Solitude: The Ethics and Spirituality of Aloneness in Autobiography. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Barbour, John D. “Autobiography.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2d ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference, 2005.Find this resource:

Caldwell, Patricia. The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Cragg, Kenneth. Troubled by Truth: Biographies in the Presence of Mystery. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Dan, Joseph, Jan Schwarz, and Theodore Wiener. “Biographies and Autobiographies.” In Encyclopedia Judaica. Edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2d ed. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference, 2007.Find this resource:

Delaney, Paul. British Autobiography in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.Find this resource:

Eakin, Paul John. Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Eakin, Paul John. Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Fleishman, Avrom. Figures of Autobiography: The Language of Self-Writing in Victorian and Modern England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Gyatso, Janet. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Heffernan, Thomas. Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Hermansen, Marcia. “Roads to Mecca: Conversion Narratives of European and Euro-American Muslims.” The Muslim World 89 (1999): 56–89.Find this resource:

Jolly, Margaretta. The Encyclopedia of Life Writing. 2 vols. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001. See articles on Conversion, Confession, Religious Autobiography, Religious Biography, Repentance, and Spiritual Autobiography, as well as articles on specific authors, genres, and religious traditions.Find this resource:

LaFleur, William. “Biography.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference, 2005.Find this resource:

McClendon, James W. Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology. Nashville: Abingdon, 1974.Find this resource:

Miller, Patricia Cox. Biography in Late Antiquity: A Quest for the Holy Man. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Olney, James, ed. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.Find this resource:

Parker, David. The Self in Moral Space: Life Narrative and the Good. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Peterson, Linda. Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Reynolds, Dwight. Interpreting the Self: Autobiography and the Arabic Literary Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Reynolds, Frank, and Donald Capps. The Biographical Process: Studies in the History and Psychology of Religion. The Hague: Mouton, 1976.Find this resource:

Shea, Daniel. Spiritual Autobiography in Early America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.Find this resource:

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Stanislawski, Michael. Autobiographical Jews: Essays in Jewish Self-Fashioning Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Watkins, Owen. The Puritan Experience: Studies in Spiritual Autobiography. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.Find this resource:

Weintraub, Karl. The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.Find this resource:

Wu, Pei-Yu. The Confucian’s Progress: Autobiographical Writing in Traditional China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.Find this resource:


(1.) Augustine, Confessions, 2d ed., trans. F. J. Sheed (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2006), 3.

(2.) C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955).

(3.) John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (London: Penguin, 1987), 53.

(4.) Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Bantam, 1974), 2–3.

(5.) David Parker, in The Self in Moral Space: Life Narrative and the Good (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), uses the work of philosopher Charles Taylor to interpret the key ethical question in autobiography as “What is it good to be?” I think this question is finally theological as well as ethical, insofar as it invites reflection on whether human goodness is supported and sustained by powers beyond human nature.

(6.) John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, ed. David J. DeLaura (New York: Norton, 1968).

(7.) Edmund Gosse, Father and Son (New York: Norton, 1963), 246.

(8.) Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 168.

(9.) Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 184.

(10.) See Hugh Kerr and John M. Mulder, Conversions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983).

(11.) Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing (New York: Plume, 1995), 188.

(12.) Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993); Sara Miles, Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion (New York: Ballantine, 2007); and Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal (Boston: Beacon, 1993).

(13.) C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 232–233.

(14.) Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper and Row, 1952), 140.

(15.) Marcia Hermansen, “Roads to Mecca: Conversion Narratives of European and Euro-American Muslims,” The Muslim World 89 (1999): 56–89.

(16.) For analysis of understandings of personal change in the world’s religious traditions and the applicability of the concept of conversion, see many essays in Lewis R. Rambo and Charles E. Farhadian, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). Of interest in the same volume is Bruce Hindmarsh, “Religious Conversion as Narrative and Autobiography.”

(17.) Augustine, Confessions, 190.

(18.) Richard Baxter, from The Autobiography of Richard Baxter, in Kerr and Mulder, Conversions, 35.

(19.) See John D. Barbour, “Spiritual Autobiography,” in Encyclopedia of Life Writing, ed. Margaretta Jolly (London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001).

(20.) Terry Tempest Williams Refuge (New York: Vintage, 1992); Patricia Hampl, Virgin Time (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992); and Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon, 2002).

(21.) See David Reynolds, Interpreting the Self: Autobiography and the Arabic Literary Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); and Janet Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). For an overview of autobiographical writing in the world’s traditions, see John D. Barbour, “Autobiography” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2d ed., ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference, 2005).

(22.) Pei-Yi Wu, The Confucian’s Progress: Autobiographical Writing in Traditional China (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

(23.) Arnold Krupat, For Those Who Come After: A Study of Native American Autobiography (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); David Brumble, American Indian Autobiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); and Hertha Wong, Sending My Heart Back Across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

(24.) John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), 270. See also Raymond J. DeMallie, ed., The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984); and Clyde Holler, ed., The Black Elk Reader (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000).

(25.) See Michael Stanislawski, Autobiographical Jews: Essays in Jewish Self-Fashioning (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).

(26.) Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments in Truth (Boston: Beacon, 1959), xv. The original was published in 1927–1929.

(27.) Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard (New York: Viking, 1978); Bill Porter, Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009); and Robert Thurman and Tad Wise, Circling the Sacred Mountain: A Spiritual Adventure through the Himalayas (New York: Bantam, 1999).

(28.) Recent memoirs by American scholars of religion and theology include Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010); Marcus Borg, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (San Francisco: Harper, 2014); John Dominic Crossan, A Long Way from Tipperary (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2009); Mark C. Taylor, Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Leila Ahmed, A Border Passage (New York: Penguin, 1999); Carlos Eire, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy (New York: Free Press, 2003); Huston Smith, Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine: An Autobiography (San Francisco: Harper, 2009); Roberta Bondi, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995); and James P. Carse, Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1995).

(29.) For critical studies of sacred biography, see Thomas Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and their Biographers in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Donald Capps and Frank Reynolds, The Biographical Process: Studies in the History and Psychology of Religion (The Hague: Mouton, 1976); and William LaFleur, “Biography” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2d ed., ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference, 2005).

(30.) Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967); Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon, 1985); Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (New York: Harper & Row, 1970); Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950); Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003); and James W. McClendon, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974).

(31.) Works of narrative theology include Michael Goldberg, Theology and Narrative (Trinity Press International, 1991); George Stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997); Stanley Hauerwas and L. Gregory Jones, Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989); and Hans Frei, Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays, ed. George Hunsinger and William Placher (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

(32.) Stanley Hauerwas, “Self-Deception and Autobiography: Reflections on Speer’s Inside the Third Reich,” in Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations into Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), 82–98.

(33.) Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

(34.) James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (New York: Riverhead, 1996); Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (New York: Knopf, 1976); and Brock and Parker, Proverbs of Ashes, 2002.

(35.) John D. Barbour, Versions of Deconversion (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994).

(36.) For analysis of how Augustine’s Confessions reveals as much about his situation fighting Manichee views in North Africa at the time of writing as it does about the actual nature of his conversion (which is rather differently described in earlier works, such as his Cassiciacum dialogues), see Paula Frederiksen, “Paul and Augustine: Conversions, Narratives, Orthodox Traditions, and the Retrospective Self,” Journal of Theological Studies 37 (1986): 3–34.

(37.) James Olney, ed. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980); Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2010); Paul John Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985); and Paul John Eakin, Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

(38.) Patricia Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Paul Delaney, British Autobiography in the Seventeenth Century (London: Routledge & Paul, 1969); Avrom Fleishman, Figures of Autobiography: The Language of Self-Writing in Victorian and Modern England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Linda Peterson, Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986); Daniel Shea, Spiritual Autobiography in Early America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985); Owen Watkins, The Puritan Experience: Studies in Spiritual Autobiography (New York: Schocken, 1972); and Karl Weintraub, The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

(39.) John Barbour “Autobiography” in The Encyclopedia of Religion (2005); William LaFleur, “Biography” in The Encyclopedia of Religion; and Margaretta Jolly, ed., Encyclopedia of Life Writing (London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001).