Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Girl Meets God: A Memoir by Lauren F. Winner

Life happens, and it's been happening in a big way around here, so I haven't been reading as much or as quickly as I would wish. But I don't really regret having taken my time reading Girl Meets God because it is a book that is best pondered and savored.

Lauren Winner came to faith in Christ after being raised in a Reformed Jewish synagogue and then converting to Orthodox Judaism because "[n]o other way to parse Judaism made much sense. If the Torah was true, then we should spend all our time reading it, and all our life living by it" (43). But within a few years, she became captivated by the incarnation, awestruck by the fact that God became flesh, and converted to Christianity, specifically of the Anglican/Episcopalian variety. Interestingly enough, I started thinking that Lauren's writing style reminded me of Madeleine L'Engle's Crosswick Journals, and in the very next chapter, Lauren revealed that she attends the same Episcopal church in NYC that L'Engle did.

I can identify with many aspects of Lauren's personality - her bookishness, her dislike of recess, her love for study and complete immersion in a topic - but her spiritual journey is completely different from my experience. Even though I'm not in the same place and don't agree with her on some points, I'm really glad to have read of her experiences and the insights on faith and theology that she draws from such a unique background.

Lauren juxtaposes the Jewish and Christian calendars to create the structure of the memoir, and this allows her to trace her journeys in each faith as well as compare and contrast elements of these two biblical faiths. For instance, she links the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur with the Christian practice of confession of sins. On Yom Kippur the Jews confess a long list of sins, of which the particulars they may not be guilty, but which a rabbi enjoins, "If you understood the glory and grandeur of God, you would realize you had committed each of these sins, every day of your life." Thus, as a Christian, Lauren concludes:

Confession makes sense to me because it is incarnational. In the sacraments, the Holy Spirit uses stuff to sanctify us. In the Eucharist He uses bead and wine, and in confirmation He uses oil and in baptism He uses water. In confession, the stuff He uses is another person. In that way, confession teaches us about the Incarnation all over again. . .Here, in confession, God is connecting us to Himself not through bread or oil or water or wine, but through another broken body, one who absolves you, and then says, "Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner." (214-215)
As an intellectual and a historian, Lauren is at once more modern and more grounded in tradition than your typical evangelical. There is a subtle undercurrent of feminism that runs throughout her story (both ethically and vocationally), and she makes an aside comment in favor of Darwin (105). In that sense, perhaps her adoption of evangelical theology has not entirely encompassed her worldview, in spite of her intent to be logically consistent.

Her brief historical description of tattoos (154-155) as used by Christian pilgrims to mark their identity with Christ (Galatians 6), made me almost ready to go get one. But then her account of a holocaust survivor's tattoo shocked me back to a stark, unromantic reality. It is this thorough understanding of her Jewish heritage and her Christian adoption that that can jolt us evangelicals out of our complacency and primly pious attitudes. In describing celebrating the Passover seder as a Christian, she reflects:

We see in the three pieces of matzot the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and see that we are taking the middle matzah, and breaking it, and we see that this is the way Jesus' body will break, on the Cross. . .I think, It is we Christians, we, who do this, not the Jews. At the seder, it is so clear: The Jews didn't break his body. Our sins broke his body. Break break break. They didn't kill Him; the weight of our sin killed Him. (172 - This is the spiritual truth, of course, but we cannot ignore the mystery of God's sovereignty and human responsibility described in Acts 2:23)
Finally, I was challenged by the seriousness and sincerity with which she pursues God. She humbles herself not only in the practice of confession, but also by following her priest's counsel to give up reading, yes, reading as a whole, not just certain books, for Lent, because, he said, "I think books would be a gift you could give Christ that would be really meaningful. . ." (124). She does it, not perfectly, but she gives up reading for Lent and learns that reading was her "always-cure. . .a tonic or escape route" (128). She realizes that "[w]hen I am stuck in a puddle of sadness and mistakes, I cannot take them to Mitford. I have to take them to God. I begin to suspect that [my priest] didn't want me to give up reading just because it was the equivalent of some dearly loved green sundress, but because it might move me closer to Jesus. It might move me to my knees" (129). That is profound, powerful, and convicting, especially for a fellow bibliophile!


Pam Elmore said...

Thanks for this review! I've wanted to read this book for a while now. Your review is just the reminder I need -- it's on my list for my next trip to the library!

Page Turner said...

It had been on my list for a while, too, Pam, but it's definitely worth moving it to the top!

Carrie said...

I just read it recently as well. =) (Which is one of the reasons I choose the other title for the book swap!) Sounds like we had a similar impression of it. I think it IS a great book and I wish I had read it much earlier also. Here's my review (over at 5M4B):

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great review and response.

I recently read this one too. Like you, one of the most striking parts to me was her description of her "book fast."

My review is here, in case you enjoy comparing notes as much as I do:

Janet @ acrossthepage

Mindy Withrow said...

I read this a few years when I was at a crossroads in my theological journey, and found it smart and encouraging. Having read some of Winner's other books as well, I think it might be fair to say that she doesn't quite identify herself as an "evangelical," so there is probably a reason why you found her beliefs somewhat inconsistent with that form of Christianity. But there seems to be something useful in her writings for everyone; I always recommend this title to people who are looking for a good spiritual memoir. Thanks for such a thoughtful and thorough review!

Page Turner said...

Carrie, thanks for the link to your review. I hadn't thought about the cover art that much, but you're right - it's a perfect fit.

Janet, I read your review from Semicolon's link, and it's actually what reminded me that I wanted to read it! Thanks!

Mindy, I thought it was very interesting that Winner describes her theology as evangelical, but quickly explains that she departs from typically evangelical views on certain topics. Since I believe theology always informs practice (intentionally or not), I was surprised that there seemed to be this disconnect. Granted she didn't elaborate a lot on what she meant by evangelical theology, but it still seemed a little inconsistent with her usually astute observations. Just my thoughts...

Sara said...

Hello, I just found your blog because I was googling Hannah Coulter, and I'm so glad I stopped by! I have been reading through some of your reviews and this one particularly interests me! So...I appreciate your review! I have added you to my blog roll so that I can keep up with your latest posts.

I am a fellow book lover; while I don't do a lot of reviews on my blog, I do have some extensive book lists in my sidebar of what I've read over the years.