Last winter, while recuperating from a car accident, I gathered around my bed a stack of books, not only to while away the time but also as a means of amplifying the experience of coming so suddenly and unpredictably close to death and surviving. The fact that I was lying there, breathing in and out, eating, drinking, and reading books seemed to me miraculous as I lived over and over again in my mind that scene, already fading as fast as dreams do when we wake. I knew this experience had enormous significance, perhaps accessible to me in sleep when I would groan and cry out and feel myself falling. But to abstract the meaning from those dream times eluded my conscious mind.

At times of crisis, I have discovered, the world begins to take on symbolic significance. The weather becomes a portent; mundane objects glow with messages. The books I had gathered would, I felt, contain clues to the meaning of my experience. Whether by accident, design, or unconscious selection on my part, they tended towards what can be called “confessional” literature, stories of true-life adventures from Christian veterans. Miraculous escapes from various life-threatening situations; hopeless, dead-end existences transformed into lives of unspeakable richness; stories of trust and daring, of contact with another dimension of life that ordinarily we only guess at. To someone suddenly snatched from the mainstream of life and flopped on the shore gasping for air, these books had the heady effect of undiluted oxygen. Almost-life became not quite good enough for me. Anything less than a marvel was meaningless.

When I finally got on my feet again, both literally and figuratively, I began to think a little more analytically about this genre of Christian writing. To a Christian, “confession” is a many-sided word. It can mean confession of sin, proclamation of God’s mighty works, or praise, as in “the heavens declare the glory of God.” All these meanings are usually present in Christian confessional literature, whereas in its secular counterpart the reader is simply the recipient of the intimate and sometimes compulsive confidences of the writer. Nevertheless, it now seemed necessary for me to identify the particular benefits and dangers of this kind of writing for Christians. Was it indeed a valid form of faithful witness? What sort of history did it have in the Christian tradition?

To begin in the middle, there is a long flat stretch of Christian history that is almost totally devoid of confessional writing of the sort so dear to the heart of browsers in Christian bookstores, though there was a good amount of devotional writing by mystics such as Thomas à Kempis. (The History of the Calamities of Abelard, ostensibly a letter to this meretricious monk’s friend but with at least one eye on its broader publication, can at best be labeled autobiography and not confessional in the many-faceted Christian sense.) Scholasticism, which extended its empire unquestioned from the eleventh century to the first rumblings of the Reformation, hardly allowed of such a messy variety. Theologians saw their task as categorizing the data of faith, much as their regrettably pagan mentor, Aristotle, had set about categorizing the biological world. After all, there is so much of it. How else is one to get a grasp of the subject unless it can be indexed?

Article continues below

Whereas Plato had meandered about in dialogues, Aristotle and the churchmen intended to tidy things up. Even in Dante, who, though he never laid claim to the title of theologian, nevertheless gave us perhaps the most read of medieval theological tracts, we find the categorizing influence of the Scholastics on a burgeoning imagination: carefully delineated circles marked off for circumscribed varieties of both sinners and saints. But as his characters spin out their stories, confessing under the stern eye of Virgil or the luminous eye of Beatrice how they got where they are, it is as though the floodgate holding back seven centuries of stories had broken. Out they spill, eager to fill in with particulars the broad, blank surface of universal categories.

From that point on, Scholastics fell on hard times. They were defamed as mere hairsplitting debaters devoid of feeling. Actually, they were quite fiery in their debates. Their fervor shines through in their hymns, such as St. John of Damascus’ still familiar “Day of Resurrection.”

Yet one can scarcely imagine an underling of the Avignon entourage writing the story of his conversion experience in the manner of Chuck Colson. It is not that these Christians lacked the material with which to chill one’s blood and thrill one’s soul. The history of St. John of the Cross, that playboy knight-errant turned mystical monk, would alone provide enough copy to saturate Guideposts. Instead, he chose to write an incredibly complex how-to-do-it book on attaining union with God.

The quintessence of Scholastic writings was contained in Peter Lombard’s “Sentences,” short, reasoned, doctrinal propositions, revered among churchmen because they were impersonal and therefore could not be confined to individual instances. At first, it would seem that the Reformation made precious little impression on how Christians wrote about their faith. True, Luther’s tracts were a little snappier, especially those directed against the pope, and his transcribed Tabletalk gives us vivid scenes of the tempestuous Luther household. But it took another century for the subjectivism inherent in the new theology to flower into confessional literature.

Article continues below

In fact, it was Jonathan Edwards who not only championed experiential religion in such works as A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections but also with his Personal Narrative brought into prominence the literary form that had been accumulating in the diaries of countless unpublished Puritans. When he writes that after a particular spiritual revelation “the appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm sweet cast or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything,” his meaning is immediately accessible to the contemporary Christian in a way that systematic theology is not.

Indeed, the first literary production of the new world, William Bradford’s History of Plimouth Plantation, was a forerunner to Edwards’s Personal Narrative. This official diary of the Elect Nation took up the old medieval notion of the chronicle which, even when it described ecclesiastical events, never proposed to be more than history. Bradford’s History, however, became a continuation of the Hebrew’s confessional salvation history.

As we observe the fresh flowering of this mode of expression on the new continent, we can also trace its roots back to its greatest practitioner. The American historian Perry Miller links the Puritans to Augustine “simply because Augustine is the arch-exemplar of a religious frame of mind of which Puritanism is only one instance out of many in fifteen hundred years of religious history.… There survive hundreds of Puritan diaries and thousands of Puritan sermons, but we can read the inward meaning of them all in the Confessions” (The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, Beacon, 1961, p. 3)

The African Augustine, writing his Confessions in a monastic community half a world away while the Roman civilization was crumbling under the barbarians’ onslaught—what could be more alien to American Protestants? Yet the ordinary person in the pew can read St. Augustine’s Confessions, at least the first ten books, with much more ease and understanding than he can read a recently published theological tome. Why is it that, though most of the faithful, Protestants and Catholics alike, would feel totally at sea with Augustine’s treatise on the Trinity, they nevertheless would feel the firm foundation of faith beneath their feet as they read his recollections of the journey towards belief?

Article continues below

Possibly for the same reason that, says G. K. Chesterton, an ancient pagan “worships the peak of a particular mountain, not the abstract idea of altitude.” Few people are philosophers but everyone understands a good story. And that is why our faith is in a story, not in a philosophy abstracted from it, useful as that might be in more mundane matters. “Now this deep and democratic and dramatic instinct,” Chesterton continues, “is derided and dismissed in all the other philosophies. For all the other philosophies avowedly end where they begin; and it is the definition of a story that it ends differently; that it begins in one place and ends in another” (The Everlasting Man).

Certainly this is true not only of The Story but, by God’s grace, of our story as well. The change, the transformation, the metamorphosis, is the subject of all Christian confessionals; they can all be summarized by “I once was lost but now am found.” No analytical feats are necessary to understand that experience. We have all been supplied with the necessary raw lump of life.

While we are exulting over this fact, however, it may be well to remember that whatever stories we can tell are only derivative, not primary. Augustine himself must have been guarding against the pride incipient in his great work by casting the entire story in the form of a prayer. While dredging up the unsavory motivations that led him to excel in his studies, he adds: “I need not tell all this to you, my God, but in your presence I tell it to my own kind, to those other men, however few, who may perhaps pick up this book. And I tell it so that I and all who read my words may realize the depths from which we cry to you.” This extensive prayer, undoubtedly the longest in any language, is no mere literary device but a protection against pomposity.

For there is no parallel for such work in the Gospels. Even Paul, in his asides about his former life and conversion, is brief and unelaborative. One might have expected so spectacular a conversion to occupy more than the meager, almost impatient mention in Galatians and the thirty-one verses that Luke gives it in Acts. One cringes at the thought of a twentieth-century gospel modeled on the pseudo-personalism of our mass media—“How Jesus Turned My Life Around: The Miracle Story of a Simple Fisherman Now a World Renowned Evangelist, as Told to Our Roving Reporter, John Mark.”

Article continues below

Part of what a literary critic would call the internal evidence that authenticates the Gospels is this very constraint on the part of the narrator. That four separate accounts of the same events should focus so exclusively on the person of Jesus rather than on the observer’s reactions to him indicates the inexorable power of that person. It was not for nothing that Jesus chose his closest followers from among the illiterate. Luther once wrote that if the Gospel could be promoted or maintained by worldly means, God would never have entrusted it to fishermen. Perhaps they were the only ones who could be trusted not to be incessantly scribbling away at their diaries. Paul, that great and gifted writer, bemoans that the Lord appeared to him as to “one born out of due time.” But if Paul, the intellectual who, by his own admission, was obsessively introspective, had been one of that scruffy, itinerant band, into what temptation might not his talent have led him?

Still, we need not despair of finding a biblical prototype for our beloved confessional thrillers. For one, there is Jeremiah, who records his reactions in Lamentations. He, of course, was only amplifying the tradition of the confessional psalms. The psalmists seem to have been inveterate penitents, documenting their spiritual highs and lows in scrupulous detail. The movement that begins with “Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul” and culminates in “Let the heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moveth therein” is a familiar one to us. This is why the psalms serve so well liturgically. Whereas people may shuffle their feet uneasily over certain sections of creeds, feeling inadequate to comprehend the meaning of “very God of very God,” everyone feels in his bones the full weight of the declaration “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.”

Article continues below

It is not difficult to understand the appeal of confessional literature. We all like to have someone else affirm our experience. “I know what you mean” is one of the most comforting phrases in the language. It is a part of the glue that holds humanity together. But we also read these books for inspiration. They open a tiny crack in the blank grey wall of the cul-de-sac we find ourselves in from time to time, and through the crack gleams the promise of undiscovered possibilities in life, a more expansive dimension into which others have been transported and from which they beckon us.

“You too can live through prison camps and unspeakable nightmares” we hear Corrie ten Boom and Solzhenitsyn and Jeremiah saying. “Your life can make a difference in other lives” declare Brother Andrew, the Bible smuggler, and Nicky Cruz, the delinquent tamer. I can even remember staring at myself in the bathroom mirror after finishing Keith Miller’s The Taste of New Wine, stunned by the realization that this was the face of one engaged in terrible spiritual warfare, that every act of mine was of everlasting importance, that vast invisible powers preserved and protected me. That knowledge was like an immense secret I bore into the world.

But though it is easy enough to identify these aspects of the appeal of confessional literature to readers, there remains a deeper motivation that links the reader and the writer in a common search. Corrie ten Boom says this in her book In My Father’s House: “So many times we wonder why God has certain things happen to us. We try to understand the circumstances of our lives, and we are left wondering.” I think this is a large part of what drives people to read others’ experiences or to write down their own. They must teach themselves the meaning of their own lives by seeing those lives not as a succession of disconnected episodes but laid out as a path, full of switchbacks and stones, but leading somewhere. The writer is left, not wandering in a trackless maze, but wondering at the delicate and intricate meetings and passages he has made. Without a perspective, a pattern is impossible to perceive.

Thomas Merton, whose own confessional Seven Storey Mountain became a best seller, explains the necessity of seeing his life as a story whose author is God: “Too often the conventional conception of ‘God’s will’ as a sphinx-like and arbitrary force bearing down upon us with implacable hostility, leads men to lose faith in a God they cannot find it possible to love. Such a view of divine will drives human weakness to despair.… We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good.” And Augustine, the arch-confessionalist, goes perhaps deeper than all the others when, stripped of every other concern, he cries out as to a lover, “Why do you mean so much to me? Help me to find words to explain.”

Article continues below

Nothing less than such a primal need can justify, however, the covering of pages with a welter of words about one’s private world. The dangers of a public, printed confession are manifold, both to the writer and to the reader. Too many times as I read the books beside my bed during that convalescence, I was driven almost to despair by well-intentioned writers more bent on an uplifting moral than on a painstakingly accurate description of their lives. Despite their frequent disclaimers of perfection, I was often depressed. When I came across Solzhenitsyn’s account of his dastardly behavior towards his fellow prisoners upon being arrested at the front in World War II, I was ambivalently thankful that someone else was as weak as I.

Also, there can creep into the documentary a subtle contempt for early experience that belies the notion of preparation. We too easily convince ourselves that we have risen above or outgrown what we once were. But I have had this illusion shattered for me when passing houses I once inhabited in childhood or as a student or young mother. Then the eerie feeling comes over me that my own ghost, a shadow of the person I was then, is looking out the window at me. A great pity, for that prisoner of the past weighs me down, and I know it is that ghost, as well as my current, transitory self, who must be redeemed, who will be with me when I give back my own story to its true author.

Edmund Spenser and the Angels

“How oft do they their silver bowers leave …

And their bright squadrons round about us plant.”

—The Fairie Queene

He saw their glowing pinions cleave the skies

As angel-squadrons left high heaven and came

To fight for man, to watch and daily ward

Against base fiends ranged round his sin-blind side.

So, twice-born, and within the Spirit’s flame,

Spenser beheld our world through light-filled eyes;

And rapt with awe the poet-mystic cried

(Seeing his own unworth before the Throne):

“Oh, why should heavenly God to men have such regard?”

And all the angels echoed: “Love, alone!”

M. Whitcomb Hess

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.