Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

January 28, 2010

in What I'm Reading

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Medical prescriptions often include warnings about repeated use: Repeated use may cause insomnia, for example. Or breathing problems. Maybe seizures. Possibly hallucinations.

At least with medications we’re given fair warning.

The language we use every day, on the other hand, doesn’t come with similar cautions. And it’s a pity, because the repeated use of words also causes all kinds of difficulties – lack of interest; boredom; laziness; confusion; even deafness.

As Frederick Buechner writes, “Words wear out after a while, especially religious words. We’ve said them so many times. We’ve listened to them so often. They are like voices we know so well we no longer hear them.”

Kathleen Norris takes words we think we know and reminds us why we might want to give them a second look.

That’s why books like Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark and Wishful Thinking – both of them short, compact and whimsical dictionaries – are so helpful. Each of the entries in these books discuss well-known words in such unexpected, unusual, oblique ways that we actually hear the words again. And we begin to understand what they really mean.

Kathleen Norris, in her Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, goes about the same kind of work — taking words that we think we know, and reminding us of why we might want to give them a second look.

The table of contents in Amazing Grace reads like a litany of what may seem, at first glance, to be old, used up, worn-out words that belong only on the dusty shelves of – oh, I don’t know, maybe a pastor’s library.

Words like Salvation. Incarnation. Annunciation. Orthodoxy. Grace. Faith.

In the pages of the book, though, Norris – by approaching these words in fresh ways – is able open our eyes to what the words actually mean, and why they’re still important. She does not simply tell us about the words, but rather – as someone once said all good writing and good preaching should accomplish – brings us to a place where we can see them and understand them for ourselves.

In the chapter on “Preaching,” Norris quotes the thirteenth-century poet Mechtild of Magdeburg: “Of the heavenly things God has shown me,” she writes, “I can speak but a little word, not more than a honeybee can carry away on its foot from an overflowing jar.”

Norris treats each of the words and concepts in this book with as much care and concern as the honeybee has for that little drop of honey. And just as the bee rightly enjoys and relishes its drop of honey, so readers of this book will be refreshed and renewed as Norris brings back to life words that have become invisible from too much use.

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