Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott, Pantheon Books; 288pp; $23.

Novelist, memoirist, columnist for the online magazine Salon, and author of an idiosyncratic and popular how-to-write book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott will admit with only the slightest embarrassment that she is a born-again Christian. As she explains in her new book, Traveling Mercies,

My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned me and then held me while I grew. Each prepared for me the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear. When I look back at some of these early resting places—the boisterous home of Catholics, the soft armchair of the Christian Science mom, adoption by ardent Jews—I can see how flimsy and indirect a path they make. Yet each step brought me closer to the verdant pad of faith on which I somehow stay afloat today.

There is much in my own Christian walk that I recognize in Traveling Mercies—as when Lamott finds herself on a plane sitting next to a right-wing home-schooler who recognizes her for what she is: a fellow Christian, perhaps, but one who "will be on the same curling team in heaven as Tom Hayden and Vanessa Redgrave."

But the part of Lamott's tale that made me feel I was reading my own autobiography was the lily-pad journey to Christ. I have never identified with those archetypal conversion narratives where, in one sudden moment, a Heart Is Warmed and a Life Changed, the convert receiving Christ with glee and maybe a whispered, "What took you so long?" In my case, it was Jesus who wondered what had taken me so long when I finally decided to stop fighting against him and say, with Anne Lamott, "F___ it: I quit. … You can come in." (Wait a minute, some readers will protest. Does the Hound of Heaven really pursue people who talk like that? Are there no standards? You'll have to take that up with him.)

Anne Lamott is hardly alone in writing about a curious path to God. Indeed, there is now a flourishing subset of the memoir genre: Quirky Routes to Faith. Kathleen Norris—who, if I read the introduction to Amazing Grace correctly, has finally admitted that she is, in the words of Lamott, not just Christian-ish, but a Christian—reconfigured her struggling-poet career by spinning out no fewer than three books about her midwestern, Benedictine journey to faith.

Article continues below

Christians don't have the market cornered. In With Roots in Heaven, Tirzah Firestone relates how an Orthodox Jewish childhood, a college-aged backpack across Europe, the suicide of her Buddhist older brother, one remarkable tea-leaf reading, a stint at an apocalyptic commune in Minnesota, meditation—and an affair—with a man named Truelove, extensive training in alternative medicine in Boulder, and marriage to a Christian minister led to her ordination as a rabbi in the fledgling Jewish Renewal movement (a very wonderful Jewish fellowship centered in Germantown, Pennsylvania; I know—I was quite involved for a while myself).

Firestone may have Lamott beat in the quirkiness category, but if you only have the patience for one memoir, I'd stick with Traveling Mercies. Many of the 25 essays collected here first appeared online, at (although for the book version, Lamott has unfortunately edited out some of her best Salon lines, including her declaration that her jazz-listening, Scotch-swilling, New Yorker-reading friends would rather believe she had become close personal friends with Strom Thurmond than with Jesus, since at least Strom, sadly, isn't a figment of anyone's imagination).

Lamott presents the pitfalls and struggles of Christian life with uncanny, irreverent honesty. Take the chapter on forgiveness:

I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of those Christians who is heavily into forgiveness—that I am one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay this way. … I tried to forgive various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years—four former Republican presidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree. … But in the end I could only pretend that I had. I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, if we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo. So I decided to put everyone I'd ever lived with, slept with, or been reviewed by on hold, and to start with someone I barely knew and had hated for only a while.

Enter Lamott's "Enemy Lite," the mom of a classmate of Lamott's son, Sam. We never learn the woman's name. We do learn that she is thinner and richer than Lamott, has a Ronald Reagan sticker on her white Volvo, and is a Classroom Mother Extraordinaire (you know the type, always sending in signed permission slips weeks before they're due, and the first to volunteer to drive on field trips). She also has what Lamott calls a "little baking disorder." At the last-day-of-first-grade farewell party, Lamott ate cookies baked by her Enemy Lite and even mingled conversationally with her until E.L. "had to go and wreck everything by asking 'Did you bake anything?' "

Article continues below

Worse still, Sam Lamott was a slow reader, while E.L.'s offspring was perusing Solzhenitsyn in the crib: "With a patronizing smile, as if to say her child would not be needing them because he was reading the new Joan Didion," Enemy Lite began slipping Lamott basic readers she thought might help Sam. To top it off, after reading Operating Instructions (Lamott's candid bestseller about her first year as a single mom), Enemy Lite whispered to her, "maybe it's a good thing he doesn't read."

But by the chapter's end, Lamott, who has sipped tea on E.L.'s couch while glaring at her size 4 figure, has

"finally got it. … I got that I am as mad as a hatter. I saw that she was an absolutely innocent bystander in my own little psychodrama: that I was the one worried that my child wasn't doing well enough in school. That I was the one who thought I was out of shape. And I was trying to get her to carry all this for me, like a Sherpa, because it hurt too much to carry it myself.

Not all of the vignettes Lamott shares are as benign as this account of learning to stop hating the cookie-baking field-trip-driver with the perfect son; she spares little when describing her own addiction to alcohol, the death of her best friend, Pammy, and the pitiful cough of her two-year-old friend Olivia, who has cystic fibrosis. Traveling Mercies is not for the tender-footed. But then, neither is the Christian life.

Lauren Winner is Kellett Scholar at Cambridge University.

SIDEBAR: Imprint: Does God Live in Your Brain?

Neuroscientists from the University of California at San Diego have found what they call the God module, a tiny locus of nerve cells in the frontal lobe that appears to be activated during religious experiences. They discovered this neural machinery while studying epileptic patients who have intense mystical experiences during seizures. Apparently the intense neural storms during a seizure stimulate the God module. Tracking surface electrical activity in the brain with highly sensitive skin monitors, the scientists found a similar response when very religious nonepileptic persons were shown words and symbols evoking their spiritual beliefs.

Article continues below

A neurological basis for spiritual experience has long been postulated by evolutionary biologists because of the social utility of religious belief. In response to reports of the San Diego research, Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, said through a spokesman that "it would not be surprising if God had created us with a physical facility for belief."

When we determine the neurological correlates of the variety of spiritual experiences that our species is capable of, we are likely to be able to enhance these experiences in the same way that we will enhance other human experiences. With the next stage of evolution creating a generation of humans that will be trillions of times more capable and complex than humans today, our ability for spiritual experience and insight is also likely to gain in power and depth.

—Ray Kurzweil,The Age of Spiritual Machines:
When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence
(Viking, 1999).


Readers with a long memory—or access to an index—will recall that Lewis Smedes's first contribution to CT appeared 40 years ago this month. The lead piece for the issue of February 16, 1959, Smedes's essay surveyed a selection of significant theological works published in the previous year. Between then and now he has written a number of significant books of his own—among them, The Art of Forgiving and Shame and Grace—and taught Christian ethics for 28 years at Fuller Theological Seminary, from which he retired in 1994.

Editors from CT and Christian History met with Smedes in December to talk about his newest book, Standing on the Promises: Keeping Hope Alive in a World We Cannot Control (Thomas Nelson). As if to test his practice of forgiveness, the CT crew arrived half an hour late, having gotten the time wrong. Smedes was as gracious as his writings on forgiveness would suggest.

Why did he turn to the subject of hope? Hope is one of the cardinal Christian virtues, but when Smedes looked around, he was surprised to see how little is written about it. If, as he believes, "hope is so close to the core of all that makes us human that when we lose hope we lose something of our very selves," this relative neglect is indeed surprising.

One explanation is that there may be among many Christians an unexamined uneasiness with talk about hope, since we don't express hope for that of which we are certain. Do we feel, perhaps, that if we speak of hope we are not as confident as we should be in our faith? Smedes addresses this tension head-on in the closing chapters of his book.

Article continues below

Many books read as if their authors couldn't bear to leave out even a single scrap of information, a single anecdote. These bloated products should have been edited down to a half or even a third of their length before being published. Smedes does the editing himself. In conversation he described the writing of Standing on the Promises as a process of wide-ranging accumulation followed by ruthless pruning. What began as an entire chapter on the optimism of the Enlightenment—the "hope for endless progress"—ultimately became a half-page at the beginning of chapter 29. The result is a book without a wasted word.

SIDEBAR: Hypertext - Spirituality Sightings

It is old news by now that Americans have rediscovered "religion"; the newsmagazines have told us so. But this heavily reported trend shows no signs of abating; indeed, as the turn of the millennium approaches, sightings of the "spiritual" continue at an increasing rate.

Consider, for example, The Best Spiritual Writing 1998 (HarperSanFrancisco), edited by Philip Zaleski, with an introduction by the poet and memoirist Patricia Hampl. Based on the model of well-established annual anthologies of short fiction, essays, and poetry, this volume is both good news and bad news for Christians.

First the good news. The mere existence of such a collection—and a superb collection it is—attests not only to the spiritual hunger of Americans, contra the prophets of secularization, but to a radical shift in the cultural climate. Here, along with writers from Buddhist and Jewish and Native American traditions (and "none of the above"), are Andre Dubus and Madeleine L'Engle and Frederica Mathewes-Green (whose essay first appeared in CT) and Luci Shaw, not to mention Marvin Barrett and Anne Lamott (whose new book is reviewed on p. 86) and Nancy Mairs (whose essay first appeared in the Christian Century) and Reynolds Price. That is good news indeed; it suggests an opening, a public square, if you will, where Christian voices will be heard. (See also Tim Stafford's article "The New Theologians," p. 30 of this issue.)

Now the bad news. To begin with, the book is oddly framed by Hampl's introduction, from which it will be sufficient to cite a few obiter dicta:

  1. "Spiritual writing (or perhaps simply real spiritual writing) is allergic to pietism."
  2. "The comforting absolutes and the complacent preening of the saved have nothing to do with the autobiographical business Augustine and his literary descendants accept as their task as spiritual writers."
Article continues below
  1. "As moderns, we are born into a tradition of disbelief . …It is precisely our deep sense of not knowing that makes ours an age of great spiritual inquiry and links us to the enduring voices of mystical experience of all times, orthodox or otherwise."

Well, you get the picture. Now, some of the writers who follow Hampl's programmatic introduction are right in step with her, but others appear to be vulgar believers, people who believe they have found the truth, and it has set them free. They don't seem to belong in the same book, finally.

So the bad news is that when people talk about the spiritual, they may mean almost anything. And this in turn suggests that whatever is happening in America spiritually is neither unambiguously good nor bad from a Christian perspective. There is an opening, an opportunity, to which we must respond, but without distorting the message in a misguided attempt to appeal to this or that "generation."

Among recent or forthcoming books that consider this dynamic, look for two that will be reviewed in a future issue of CT: Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium (Jossey-Bass, 1998), by Richard Cimino and Don Lattin, and Growing Up Religious: Christians and Jews and Their Journeys of Faith (Beacon Press, March 1999), by Robert Wuthnow.

—By John Wilson.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.