What do Karen Armstrong, Kathleen Norris and Anne Rice have in common? Actually, they share several similarities. They are all white women born in the 1940s who have been heavily influenced by the Catholic tradition and are prolific and acclaimed English-language authors.
Out of these experiences they have written honestly and eloquently about their personal struggles with religion and their eventual reaffirmation of its critical role in life and in society. None has found the path easy.
Armstrong dealt with an undiagnosed condition of epilepsy well into her adulthood as described in her autobiography, The Spiral Staircase. She has suffered blackouts, fainting spells, depression and once attempted suicide. Today, she is considered by many to be the world’s foremost authority on world religions, with an unparalleled ability to point out their commonalities and how they can regain a healing influence in today’s world.
Raised a Protestant, Norris writes in The Cloister Walk how she rediscovered the deep wisdom of the Bible and theology while seeking refuge at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota after 20 years of being out of the church. Following this community of celibate men in their rigid schedule of prayer, work and Scripture, she found a spiritual rhythm to life, allowing her to be a better writer, wife and woman, and helping her face her husband’s cancer in 1999.
Rice, the wildly popular author with her famous series the Vampire Chronicles, spent the majority of her adult life as a self-described atheist until returning to her Catholic faith in 1996. She, too, has suffered tragedy with a daughter who died of leukemia when nearing her sixth birthday and a husband who died after 41 years of marriage. Vowing she would now only “write for the Lord,” she has finished two well-received fictional biographies on the early life of Jesus, both with the title Christ the Lord for the first and The Road to Cana for the second.
All of these women are exceptional writers and thinkers. I have benefited from every word I have read from them.
And they are more. They are the voices of why faith is such an indispensable part of what it means to be human. They honor our traditions without being locked in the past. They help us see familiar material with fresh eyes and deeper insight. They give us religious material of quality and substance that is also clear and understandable. They are some of the best preachers of our age.
It is said that women historically have been the backbone of the church. With the contributions of those like Armstrong, Norris and Rice, we might add that they are also the hope of our future. It’s a shame more churches (especially Baptist churches) don’t get it.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.
Mark Johnson is senior pastor of Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky.