Believers have been writing about their spiritual journeys ever since St. Augustine invented the autobiography 16 centuries ago. Today, spiritual memoirs are enjoying a popular resurrection.
Exhibit A is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which describes Gilbert’s midlife meltdown and her subsequent yearlong global quest for food, salvation and sex. Published in 2006, the book has sold some 8 million copies.
“I used to have this appetite for my life, and it is just gone,” says actress Julia Roberts, who plays Gilbert in the film adaptation that opened Aug. 13. “I want to go somewhere where I can marvel at something.”
Fans of Gilbert’s book will be among those watching for how the film handles the book’s creative take on two classic elements of spiritual memoirs: the inner quest for spiritual transformation and the outward pilgrimage to faraway places — in this case Italy (for food), India (to study and meditate with a guru) and Bali (for romance).
For her part, Gilbert isn’t sure why Eat, Pray, Love struck such a powerful spiritual chord.
“My questions, for some reason, about my life intersected, dovetailed, with questions that apparently a lot of other people, women in particular, at this moment in history, were asking about their lives,” she says in a video conversation on her website.
Gilbert has praised spiritual memoirs that stick closer to home, including Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies (1999) and Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (2009). Like Eat, Pray, Love, these modern memoirs strike a balance between devotion and irreverence through the careful use of humor and irony.
Janzen, who describes her journey away from (and back toward) her conservative Mennonite upbringing, said spiritual memoirs resonate with contemporary readers who are familiar with both spiritual angst and Oprah-style confession.
“Books about devotion are experiencing a resurgence largely because people realize other things haven’t been working,” Janzen said. “As women realize that the old answers — such as finding identity in your profession or your primary relationships — fall down or become insufficient, they are looking for something else.”
The daughter of a former Mennonite leader, Janzen fills her book with traditional Mennonite foods (borscht and zwiebach), names (Caleb and Waldemar), exclamations (“GolDARNit!” and “DagNABBIT!”) and music (the Mustard Seed Praise Quartet was popular with her family).
Janzen gripes about her “painfully uncool childhood” and criticizes Mennonites’ parochialism, sexism, homophobia, and hostility toward higher education. But she also praises the community’s commitment to peace, nonviolence, simple living, and loving others in Jesus’ name.
Janzen, now 47, tested that love in 2006 after a disastrous week in which her husband told her he was gay and she was badly injured by a drunken driver. She returned to her parents’ home to recuperate and rebuild her life, and in the process rediscovered the quirky virtues of her tradition.
“If parents were judged by how much an adult child clones their beliefs, my parents would be defined as failures,” Janzen said. “But my parents modeled the stuff they believed, so I didn’t see any hypocritical gap between faith and practice.”
Janzen, who teaches English and literature at Hope College in Holland, MI, is now working on a sequel, Backsliders. She said memoirs are a perfect genre for stories of spiritual quest.
“Memoirs display a narrative arc that is based on a life-changing experience,” she said. “The protagonist experiences conflict, goes through a period of introspection, and emerges with a new direction for her life. It’s a conversion narrative that shows readers change is possible.”
Jana Riess, the former religion editor for Publishers Weekly, said Janzen’s book is a refreshing alternative to therapeutic memoirs that spell out why authors left their faith and why their life is better for it.
“Janzen’s memoir is different in its affection for the Mennonites who raised and formed her,” Reiss wrote on her blog. “This is a woman who appreciates her family and her heritage.”
Change continues for Janzen, who remarried last August and is involved in church once again after years of spotty attendance.
“I have married a man of faith. I am active in a faith community. And I am feeling pretty comfortable with my Christian identity,” she said.
But the lively services at her new Pentecostal congregation contrast with Mennonite worship, where believers “sit very still and worship Jesus with all your heart, mind, and soul, only as if a snake had bitten you, and your are now in the last stages of paralysis.”
“It’s definitely a stretching experience,” she said. “It’s literally hands-on!”