Spiritual Autobiography & Memoir


Instructor: Katherine Turpin

Course Synopsis:

In this course students will read and analyze both historical and contemporary spiritual autobiographies and memoirs. Students will work collaboratively to develop analytical tools for engaging these works as artifacts of individual experience connected to historical, social, political, and religious realities. We will practice writing our own spiritual stories through regular short writing exercises, seeking ways to share these stories in ways that are compelling, honest/truthful, artistic, edifying, and ethical. Together we will explore and critically assess the potential uses of spiritual autobiography for personal reflection, educational use, spiritual care, spiritual formation, preaching/testimony, and organizational promotion and development.

Course Overview

This course will work on a biweekly rhythm.  In each two week rhythm for the first eight weeks, we will read excerpts of two historical memoirs and discuss them, engage critical secondary sources on the genre and discuss them, and write a short (1000 words or less) autobiographical exercise. During these 8 weeks we will be building critical frames and lenses by which to analyze and understand the genre. In weeks 9 and 10 we will be sharing presentations of student work engaging two contemporary memoirs in light of these analytical and constructive tools.

Course Objectives

  1. To develop familiarity with a range of classic and contemporary spiritual autobiographies and memoirs, engaging them both empathetically/devotionally on their own terms and analytically in terms of assessment of genre, historical and social context, rhetorical purpose, literary forms, theological/spiritual/philosophical content, and value for formational engagement.
  2. To analyze the development of characteristic forms, variations, and innovations in the genre over time.
  3. To identify the relationships between individual spiritual experience and historical/social/political/religious contexts in a variety of historical and contemporary settings through engagement with spiritual autobiography.
  4. To explore and critically assess the potential uses of spiritual autobiography for personal reflection, educational use, spiritual care, spiritual formation, preaching/testimony, and organizational promotion and development.
  5. To practice sharing one’s own spiritual stories in ways that are compelling, honest/truthful, edifying, and ethical.


You will need to read two full contemporary (post mid-20th century) memoirs/autobiographies during the course of the class.  Please choose books that you have not read earlier for another class or on your own. And, our goal as a class is to cover as many of these as possible, so please sign up for the memoir and don't choose an author that someone else is working with (we are not all going to read Rachel Held Evans, for example). There are 83 on this list, and I am open to other suggestions, but there are plenty for all of us to work with 2 distinct books.

Of your two choices, one memoir will need to be from somebody who is quite different from you, either in terms of race/ethnicity or religious tradition (here thinking Buddhist rather than Christian, not Baptist rather than Evangelical). Please challenge yourself to engage someone who is truly different from you.  You will create a presentation on this memoir.  The other is from somebody who shares major identity markers with you.  You will write your final paper on this memoir.

Remember to sign up here to claim your memoir!

Adiele, Faith. Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun. New York: Norton, 2004.

Andrew, Elizabeth JSwinging on the Garden Gate: A Spiritual Memoir. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2000.  On the Threshold:  Home, Hardwood, & Holiness.  New York:  Westview Press, 2005.

Armstrong, Karen.   The Spiral Staircase:   My Climb Out of Darkness. New York:   Anchor Books, 2004. 

Beak, Sera.  Red Hot and Holy:  A Heretic’s Love Story.  Sounds True, 2013. 

Bessey, Sarah. Jesus Feminist, or Miracles And Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God. 

Bolz-Weber, Nadia.  Pastrix:  The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. Jericho Books, 2013.  

Bondi, Roberta. Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995.

Boyle, Gregory.  Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.

Bozarth, Alla ReneeWomanpriest: A Personal Odyssey. San Diego: LuraMedia, 1978.

Braestrup, Kate. Here if You Need Me, or Anchors and Flares

Breyer, ChloeThe Close: A Young Woman’s First Year at Seminary. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Cairns, ScottShort Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven–A Pilgrimage. New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 2007. 

Caldwell, Gail.  Let’s Take the Long Way Home.  New York:  Random House, 2010.  

Campbell, Colleen Carroll. My Sisters the Saints.

Carter, Jimmy. An Hour Before Daylight, or A Full Life

Chernin, Kim. In My Father’s Garden: A Daughter’s Search For a Spiritual Life. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1996. 

Chittister, Joan. Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir.

Covington, DennisSalvation on Sand Mountain. New York: Penguin, 1995. 

Crane, GeorgeBones of the Master: A Buddhist Monk’s Search for the Lost Heart of China. New York: Bantam, 2000. 

Doty, MarkHeaven’s Coast. New York: Harper Perennial, 1996. 

Doyle, Glennon. Love Warrior: A Memoir.

Duncan, David JamesMy Story As Told By Water: Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-Watchings, Fish-Stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, from Living Rivers, in the Age of the Industrial Dark. Sierra Club Books, 2002. 

Ehrlich, GretelA Match to the Heart. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.  (or The Solace of Open Spaces).

Erdrich, Louise.  The Blue Jay’s Dance:  A Birth Year. New York:  HarperCollins, 1995. 

Evans, Rachel Held.  Searching for Sunday, Evolving in Monkey Town (later Faith Unraveled)

Gallagher, WinifredWorking on God. New York: Random House, 1999.

Gilbert, ElizabethEat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia. New York: Penguin, 2006.  (or Big Magic)

Goldberg, NatalieLong Quiet Highway. New York: Bantam Books, 1993. 

Halpern, SueMigrations to Solitude: The Quest for Privacy in a Crowded World. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Hampl, PatriciaVirgin Time. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992. 

Harjo, Jo. Crazy Brave.

Harvey, AndrewA Journey in Ladakh. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

Hendra, TonyFather Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul. New York: Random House, 2004. 

Jacobs, AJ.  The Year of Living Biblically.

Janzen, RhodaMennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. 

Johnson, Mary.  An Unquenchable Thirst:  Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life.  New York:  Spiegel & Grau, 2011.  

Johnson, Robert ABalancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998. 

Jones, Lisa.  Broken: A Love Story-Horses, Humans, and Redemption on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Scribner, 2009.

Kamenetz, RodgerThe Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India.New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 1994. 

Karr, Mary.  Lit: A Memoir (she has two others, but this one has explicit spiritual conversion)

Kidd, Sue Monk. Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman's Journey from the Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.

Lamott, AnneTraveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. Anchor Books, 2000. (Pretty much anything she's written is memoir).

L'Engle, Madeleine. Any of the four Crosswicks Journal.

Levine, StephenTurning Toward the Mystery: A Seeker’s Journey. New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 2002.

MacDonald, Sarah.   Holy Cow.   New York:   Broadway Books, 2002. 

Macy, JoannaWidening Circles. Canada: New Society Publishers, 2000. 

Mairs, Nancy. Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith and Renewal. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Manning, MarthaChasing Grace: Reflections of a Catholic Girl, Grown Up. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996. 

Matthiessen, PeterThe Snow Leopard. New York: Penguin, 1978. 

Mernissi, FatemaDreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1994.  

Miles, Sara.  Take This Bread:  A Radical Conversion. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007.  

Momaday, N. ScottThe Names. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1976. –The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969.

Morrison, MelanieThe Grace of Coming Home. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1995.

Nafisi, Azar.  Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random House reissue 2008.

Nomani, Asra.   Standing Alone:   An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.   New York:   HarperSanFransisco, 2005. 

Norris, KathleenDakota: A Spiritual Geography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. (also Cloister Walk)

Nouwen, HenriThe Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery. Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1976.

O’Reilly, Mary RoseBarn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2001.

Pataki, Allison. Beauty in the Broken Places.

Patel, Eboo. Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. Beacon Press, 2010.

Phelps-Roper, Megan. Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving Westboro Baptist Church.

Prejean, Sister Helen.  River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.

Rimes, Shonda.  Year of Yes.

Rosen, JonathanThe Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. 

Rothluebber, Francis. Nobody Owns Me: A Celibate Woman Discovers Her Sexual Power. San Diego: LuraMedia, 1994.

Salzberg, Sharon. Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. New York: Riverhead, 2002. 

 Sarton, MayJournal of Solitude. New York: W.W. Norton, 1973. 

Soper, Katharine B. Steps Out of Time: One Woman’s Journey on the Camino. Ann Arbor, MI: Stellaire Press, 2013.
Starfire, Amber.  Accidental Jesus Freak.
Stevenson, Bryan.  Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
Strayed, Cheryl.  Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail.

Taylor, Barbara Brown.   Leaving Church:   A Memoir of Faith.   New York:   Harper Collins, 2006. 

Tweedie, IrinaThe Chasm of Fire. Great Britain: Element Books, 1979.

Weems, Renita J. Listening for God: A Minister's Journey Through Silence and Doubt. Touchstone reprint, 2000.

Westover, Tara.  Educated: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2018.

Wiesel, ElieNight. New York: Avon, 1969. 

Williams, Terry TempestRefuge. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. 

Willis, JanDreaming Me: An African American Woman’s Spiritual Journey. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001. 

Wiman, Christian.  My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.

Winner, LaurenGirl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2002. Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.  New York:  HarperOne, 2012.  

Winterson, Jeanette.  Why Be Happy When You can Be Normal. 

Wurtele, MargaretTouching the Edge: A mother’s spiritual path from loss to life. New Jersey: John Wiley, 2003.

Jan 08, 2020WedChoose your Memoirdue by 06:59AM