Secrets of the Spiritual Paparazzi

By Mallory McDuff 09-30-2013
Paparazzi, Ronald Sumners /

Paparazzi, Ronald Sumners /

Some people follow pop-star celebrities. I follow spiritual writers.

Rather than tracking news about Lady Gaga or Beyonce, I’m a fangirl of writers like Anne Lamott, Nora Gallagher, Kathleen Norris, and Barbara Brown Taylor.  

The obsession is borderline embarrassing. Just last month, I announced at a party that writer Nora Gallagher, author of Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, friended me on Facebook. (In truth, I was bragging about an imaginary friend.)

After Nora accepted my friend request, I was bold enough to send her the link to an op-ed I had written about making my teenager go to church. Within 48 hours, Nora wrote back that she liked the title of my piece. So I was convinced she would like me too.

My love of spiritual memoirs has reached the point that my book club, The Literary Ladies, issues a collective groan when it’s my turn to suggest book titles. Many believe that memoirs about faith are slightly self-indulgent. In contrast, I view such writing as the deepest expression of sacred meaning in the chaos of our daily lives.

Just this summer at the Wild Goose Festival, I kept stopping my daughters whenever I spotted a religious writer, much like an Audubon member freezes at the sight of an elusive avian species: “Look, there’s Nadia Bolz-Webber,” I said, pointing out the tattooed, Lutheran preacher, whose memoir Pastrix recently hit the New York Times bestseller list.

When writer Phyllis Tickle walked past us as we waited in line at the port-of-potties, I grabbed my 14-year old’s arm: “Turn left – 90 degrees – don’t stare, but she’s totally famous!” I whispered.

“Mom you are staring at that lady,” said my teenager. “Please let go of my arm.”

We think about the paparazzi as obnoxious photographers aggressively pursuing celebrities. And to my daughter, I may have lapsed into that category. But I believe in pursuing stories of those who seek a spiritual life of abundance. For that reason, I won’t stop following writers of spiritual memoir.

For the past five years, as a writer, a mother, and a teacher, I’ve documented stories of Christians integrating the environment into their ministries, addressing real-world challenges like food insecurity and climate change through their faith. My own writing has revealed the importance of those timeless questions: how do we nurture spiritual lives in a broken world? And how do our spiritual practices bring us closer to loving God’s people and places?

Somehow by following the writings of others, I come closer to learning how I can live into my own faith. My pursuit brings me into an intimate space with the writers who are brave enough to share their vulnerabilities, which gives me spiritual courage by osmosis.

Living in the land of the spiritual paparazzi, I devour the written and spoken word through these writers’ books, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and even YouTube videos of their sermons and interviews.

For a late-night chuckle about the absurdities of faith, I crawl into bed with Anne Lamott’s religious nonfiction, from Traveling Mercies to Help, Thanks, Wow. To explore my own connection to place, I pick up Kathleen Norris’ memoir Dakota from its home on my bedside table.

When I have read and reread the books, I turn to social media. Just last week, the chaplain at my college’s chapel posted this statement — in response to one of Anne Lamott’s status updates: “Anne Lamott is definitive proof that there is a God. And God is probably a She.”

With more than 135,000 followers on Facebook, Anne Lamott recently wrote that if she were going to die in a year, she would only write for Facebook and Twitter, rather than for publication. In effect she has created an online ministry for fans like me through her Facebook page.

It’s not lost on me that the writers I follow most closely are women a decade or more older than me. In some poignant way, I am searching for female models who have gone before me and held their faith close at heart, in the midst of busy lives that included children, community, and vocation.

My bookshelves feature titles by my contemporaries – talented spiritual memoirists like Lauren Winner, Sara Miles, and Fred Bahnson - who give me concrete inspiration. But the writers who are older than me reveal a path toward grace that is messy, but time-tested. When they say that love conquers all, somehow I believe them.

In fact, I still remember when my own mother, who would be 68 this year, gave me a copy of Iyanla Vanzant’s book Until Today! Daily Devotions for Spiritual Growth and Peace of Mind. As a spiritual practice, my mother always woke up early and read a devotional book for 30 minutes to start each day. If she were alive, I believe she would encourage me to think of my late-night reading of spiritual memoir as prayer.

Indeed, my secret is that this fascination with spiritual writers reflects a continued search for belonging and meaning within the rushed rhythm of my daily life. The word “paparazzi” was first used in the 1960 Fellini film, La Dolce Vita, which means the good life. Such a life will require much from each of us, but we can start by chasing down stories of love and sharing together in a life of a spirit that is greater than us.

Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. She is the author of Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth's Climate.

Image: Paparazzi, Ronald Sumners /

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