Check out the bestseller lists and you'll find memoirs aplenty: Tell-alls by everyone from comedian Tina Fey to former child star Tatum O'Neal to country music star Brad Paisley. Many memoirs are titled Confessions and contain little besides the trivial and sordid.
Are memoirs mostly a waste of time? Well, not if they're chosen wisely. Among the best I've ever read are by Christian writers, and that starts with Augustine. According to Duke University theologian Richard Lischer, Augustine's Confessions, written in A.D. 398, was the world's first memoir.
In his Divinity magazine article, “Telling Lives: The Power of the Christian Memoir,” Lischer notes that memoirs were traditionally the province of the “great man” like Augustine, presidents and generals after him, whose books offered eyewitness accounts of world-changing events. Not anymore: Many of today's memoirs are penned by ordinary people eager to share their personal stories — how they lost weight, dealt with alcoholic spouses, or survived marriage to a Hollywood star.
The religious memoir, however, should be very different. It should focus not on the person writing it, but on the God who changed our lives, and upon the community of faith. As Lischer explains, the “decisions and actions of the narrator are shaped by an awareness of God's presence in the warp and woof of a life.”
Lischer notes that with Christian memoirs, like John Newton’s or Billy Graham’s, the plot “turns on a conversion, a spiritual insight, or a faithful encounter occurring most often in the ebb and flow of an ordinary life.” As for Augustine, his Confessions helps us to see life, not as a great achievement, “but as an act of worship.”
Many modern Christian memoir writers — such as Lauren Winner, a Jewish convert to Christianity — have followed Augustine's example, describing their personal spiritual journeys. These memoirs, Lischer says, gives us a window into “the experience of grace as perceived through the window of another person's life.”
I know from my own experience of writing Born Again, about my time in the White House and in my conversion, that God used that to touch countless thousands.
Recommending a Christian memoir may be a good way to open a conversation with an unsaved friend. These days, some people are far less likely to listen to truth claims than they are to the claims of personal experience. So after your friend reads a good Christian memoir, than get together and discuss it — and maybe even help him or her gain a greater understanding of the claims of Christianity.
One memoir I can recommend wholeheartedly Rep. Frank Wolf’s Prisoner of Conscience. It’s a book revealing how his life-long faith influences every decision he makes as a congressman — whether it's standing up to the Speaker of the House (something that could have ended Wolf's career) or speaking up for the persecuted church around the world (something that could have ended his life).
Do you have a good story to tell about how God has worked in your life? Well, you ought to be keeping a journal. That’s a great way to remind yourself what God has done in your life. And who knows, as with so many others, your personal story, in literary form, just might lead others, especially in your own family, to consider the claims of Christ.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.
Publication date: January 5, 2012