The Rise of the Memoir and Pre-Evangelization

Memoir as literary genre has become strikingly popular over the past few decades in our culture.

What does this teach us about evangelization and especially pre-evangelization?

In a September 15, 2015 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Catholic writer Mary Karr offered this theory:

GROSS: You have an interesting theory in your book about why memoirs have become so popular. And you could argue they’ve even become more popular than a lot of serious fiction. So you want to share that theory with us?

KARR: Yes. I mean, I think as fiction has become more hyper-intellectual or dystopic or unreal, I think people hungry for the real – for real, lived experience, have been forced to migrate to memoir.

The real. The authentic. Humanness. Beauty, joy, and goodness–and/or lack of it. These are connecting points that can reveal our true humanity and desire for God, the essence of pre-evangelization.

Pre-evangelization is discovering and uncovering hunger. Discovering that there’s something more, something transcendent in life–and that the most fundamental human values and experiences (i.e. love) are (even if shadowy or obscured) evidence that God exists and we are created in God’s image.

The popularity of memoirs shows this cultural hunger for authentic human experience. Sharing the Gospel necessarily includes proclaimation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior–the “initial proclamation,” as it’s called in Church teaching. Yet in many situations, before this liberating truth can be heard, a person must experience curiosity about God or the spiritual life. Cooperating with the Holy Spirit, we can help our neighbors, peers, co-workers, and family members recognize this God-sized hole by not simply sharing doctrine, Bible quotes, or Catechism passages in a vacuum–but sharing in the context of our authentic human experience. Faith is not an abstract set of propositions. Christian faith is becoming more fully human through life-giving relationship with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. You have a story to share.

As Timothy O’Brien recounted after an interview with Karr:

So while she’s willing to talk quite openly about her faith in a voice much louder than a whisper, Karr still thinks it’s her duty to “translate my spiritual experiences” so that they can be heard today, in an age where “doubt is the American religion, and whoever believes the least wins.” This is especially true in light of her belief, mentioned several times, that she is writing primarily (though not exclusively) for a secular audience. Practically, this means that “in talking about my faith, even with people who believe, I lead with my doubt.” In her view, this is not solely a matter of speaking in a way people can hear – it’s a matter of accurately portraying the life of faith: “the truth is that love and grace don’t really read on the page unless you set them next to fear and trembling. I want to write about moments of joy, but it’s hard to show it except in relief to suffering.”

And this isn’t some radical new idea. Read the New Testament. Doubt is prominent, suffering is present–but in sharing these real, authentic human moments, we also find new freedom and poignant truth.

The simple lesson for evangelization? Keep it real. Share your faith in a way that answers our culture’s hunger for “real, lived experience.”

A version of this post originally appeared at


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