The child of a Jewish father and a lapsed Southern Baptist mother, Lauren F. Winner chose to become an Orthodox Jew. But even as she was observing Sabbath rituals and studying Jewish law, Lauren was increasingly drawn to Christianity. Courageously leaving what she loved, she eventually converted. In Girl Meets God, this appealing woman takes us through a year in her Christian life as she attempts to reconcile both sides of her religious identity.
So reads the back-cover copy of Lauren Winner's book Girl Meets God. This book simultaneously intrigued me and discomfited me when I picked it up at a used-books store in Maine in August. Intrigued, because I enjoy memoirs of spiritual seeking, and I'm interested in what would make a woman first choose Orthodoxy (especially when she was reared Reform in a southern household, as I was) and then choose Christianity. And discomfited because...
Well, discomfited because it turns out that I have complicated
feelings about the notion of a Jew opting to become Christian. On some barely-verbal level I apparently can't help feeling a
pang when someone chooses to leave my tradition. Some childish part of me feels rejected, as if her decision were a reflection on my community, my God, or my faith.
I suspect I'm not alone in having that response... which is one of the reasons I think this book is worth reading. Because Lauren's voice is valuable, her frank chronicle of her journey is inspiring, and her story demonstrates that binary distinction isn't always the most useful way to talk about religious identity in today's world.
Evangelical friends of mine are always trying to trim the corners and smooth the rough edges of what they call My Witness in order to shove it into a tidy-born-again conversion narrative. They want an exact date, even an hour, and I never know what to tell them... My story doesn't fit very well with [the] conversion archetype. A literature scholar would say there are too many "ruptures" in the "narrative." But she might also say that ruptures are the most interesting part of any text, that in the ruptures we learn something new.
This tale is filled with fascinating ruptures. Lauren tells her story in a roundabout way, and the book has a two-steps-forward, one-step-back feel. She describes how she met with a pastor friend to admit that she was considering Christianity, and he chided her that one can't just divorce Judaism; how she bought a copy of The Book of Common Prayer, and then left all of her Jewish prayer books anonymously on the steps of a nearby shul, "the way an unmarried mother might have left her baby on the steps of an orphanage in another era." How she grew up Jewish, became more Jewish still, and then became Christian -- but the kind of Christian who will always have Jewish roots.
As befits a woman who's clearly spent some quality time with Hosea, Lauren makes good use of the metaphor of fidelity: between herself and her people(s), between herself and her God. "Divorce doesn't come easy," she points out. "I am as bound to Judaism as my parents are to one another. They're not married anymore, but they have daughters, so they still see each other sometimes." And according to one understanding, although she is an apostate, her Orthodox conversion is not reversible. On one level she remains a Jew. That bond doesn't disintegrate just because her relationship with God has shifted. Then again, her changed religious identity does make a difference, for her and for us. Her book, and her life, dwells in the place of tension between these two truths.
Girl Meets God is structured according to two liturgical calendars at once. The book begins during Sukkot, works its way through winter and spring and summer, and ends with a single Shabbat. (In this, it is the inverse of Harvey Cox's Common Prayers, which I reviewed here.) But Lauren follows a different calendar than the one I'm attached to: she takes us through Advent, and then Christmas, and then Epiphany, and so on through Pentecost. It's the Christian year, seen through eyes, and a heart, that know the Jewish year inside and out.
We walk with Lauren as she explores her nascent connections with the Christian liturgical year. And we loop back with her as she relives her Reform childhood, her movement into Orthodoxy (and eventual Orthodox conversion), her intense and unmistakeable connection with Jesus, and her realization that she feels called by God to live out her Jewish heritage in a Christian way.
Some of what Lauren writes rings profoundly true for me. Like these words about the perennial Jewish love affair with text:
[A]mong Jews, learn rarely means 'be taught'; it rather means 'to study,' and it rarely has a direct object. It doesn't need one. We all know the direct object is Torah...
This is what drew me to Judaism, in the first place, these words, turning them over like marbles in my hand, living inside these texts like clothes. Sometimes they are wool and they scratch and you want to take them off and maybe you do but you never stay naked for long.
Living inside these texts like clothes: yes, yes, yes, and a thousand times yes. I wish I'd written that. And I nodded in recognition of her description of the thought process that goes, "I am tired of looking for a church, tired of having my spiritual community be just a patched-together group of Christian friends scattered across the four corners of the earth, folks I can call at any hour but never pray with face-to-face or eat cheese straws with during coffee hour. I am tired of not being expected anywhere on Sunday morning." Replace "Christian" with "Jewish," and "Sunday" with "Shabbat," and her words could have been mine a few years ago before I joined CBI.
I like the way she relates joining a church to the forces that shaped her in her childhood congregational life. In the Reform congregation in which Lauren was reared, she writes, "I was...learning the most basic, most rudimentary, most important truths I know, like how to pray and how to study the Bible and how to build a religious community and see God dwelling among us...When I hear Anglicans talk about spiritual formation, I remember the finger paint and the honey and the fasting lessons, and then I am happy that I was formed at Congregation Beth Israel." (No relationship to my CBI -- the name "House of Israel" is pretty common.)
Of course, some of what she writes is distancing for me. Like this, which follows a description of how she has filled her apartment with Christian icons, reminders of God's incarnate presence in the world:
In my more pompous moments, I describe myself, my Christianity, as radically incarnational. The Incarnation, that God took flesh, is the whole reason I am not an Orthodox Jew... I am a Christian because being a Christian gives me a picture of God to talk to during all these moments where, without the picture, I would forget that God exists.
When I began her book, I wondered whether maybe Lauren left Judaism because she never got deep into Judaism in the first place. Because she never found the teachers and interpretations who make my heart sing. (If she really knew us, that childish voice in me asserts, she would never have walked away.) But that theory turns out to be wrong. Her Orthodox conversion was (near as I can tell) adult, mature, and genuine. She's read the teachers I love so much -- she quotes some of them, from time to time. And she knows Judaism intimately, and with love.
It's just that her relationship with Jesus supercedes these. The more I read of her book, the more I had to acknowledge that Lauren embraced Christianity not because she was rejecting us, but because this is the path that leads her to God. And her dual background makes her uniquely able to translate; she speaks Judaism fluently, and she's growing increasingly fluent in her newfound tradition, too.
Some of her observations about Christianity moved me deeply. Like, "It is a bold liturgy the Book of Common Prayer suggests we recite [on Ash Wednesday]: to acknolwedge that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and to proclaim our chosen-ness as the children of God anyway." (I'm reminded of the Hasidic parable about holding two slips of paper in one's pockets at all times: one that proclaims I am dust, and one that proclaims that for my sake was the world created.)
I laughed at her point that "Reading the New Testament without Jerome and Augustine and the Venerable Bede makes about as much sense to me as reading Hebrew Scripture without Rashi." (Now there's an analogy one doesn't see often.) I felt a pang when she described what it's like to be "deprived of Alleluias" during Lent, and how it feels to say them again for the first time when Easter finally comes. And I nodded my head in recognition when she wrote "The Passover seder is the best kind of meal for a bookworm" -- despite our obvious differences, this woman and I have a lot in common.
When she writes about prayer, and about the tension between fixed prayer and spontaneous prayer, she could be speaking for me:
God, I have decided, is not on call. This is what Randi means when she says I will have to pray every day, maybe twice. He is all-powerful, so I suppose He could be on call if He wanted to be, and maybe on rare occasion He is. But in general, God doesn't just turn up when you page Him. He is right where He always is, and what regular, daily-maybe-twice prayer gives us is some more hint of just where that is, and how to get there, and one of the things liturgy gives us is a way to get there when all our other ways have given out.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking chapter of the book, for me, comes during the Holy Week section. Lauren introduces us to an Orthodox family who became her intimates during her process of moving deeper into Judaism. She talks about what it felt like to bring a Christian friend to seder in this Orthodox household, at a time when she was beginning to wrestle with the realization that she was going to become a Christian. Afterwards, the friend asked her incredulously, "you're going to give all that up?" Lauren assumed at the time that her friend meant the singing and the ritual and the Haggadah and the joy, and haltingly said that yes, she was. But what she didn't realize then, she writes now, is that she was also giving up her relationship with that family, to whom she has not spoken now in four years.
In this section, too, she writes about her experience of the Passion liturgy. This is difficult stuff, but powerful (I mean her retelling, though I suppose the same can be said of the source text.) When I was in college, my madrigal ensemble sang Christian sacred music in a variety of churches during Holy Week. I still remember the church where the pastor preached about the cross being a stumbling-block for the Jews, and how I fled the sanctuary in hot, miserable tears. The Passion is violent and painful, and profoundly uncomfortable for many Jews today. So I have a lot of respect for Lauren's wrestle with the story of the Passion, and the way the Jews have traditionally been cast therein.
Speaking of our stories, Lauren asks good questions about how Jews and Christians read Scripture -- particularly how we read our shared texts, which look pretty different through our two sets of lenses. "How does one read the Hebrew Scriptures Christianly, without turning the Hebrew Scriptures into nothing but a prelude to Jesus?" I'm glad she asks, and I think her answer is valuable, too. She argues that if you are a Christian who believes that, in Paul's words, "The gifts and call of God are unrevocable," then you can't read Naomi or Mary's speeches as a sign that the covenant of Christianity trumps the covenant formed at Sinai.
Toward the end of the book there is a chapter called "Credo," which she begins by asserting that she is, by temperament, an annotator who writes in her books. I had to laugh when I reached that line, since my copy of her book is covered now with underlining and exclamation points and my usual assortment of marginalia. Lauren offers us a quotation which she has copied into her own prayer book:
Faith...is not about propositions, but about commitment. It does not mean that I intellectually subscribe to the following list of statements, but that I give my heart to this reality. Believe, indeed, comes to us from the Old English belove, making clear that this too is meant to be heart language. To say "I believe in Jesus Christ" is not to subscribe to an uncertain proposition. It is a confession of commitment, of love.
(-- Diana Eck, from Encountering God)
And in the end, that's what this book is, I think: a confession of commitment and of love. Lauren's way of meeting God has changed profoundly, but her genuine love of God and respect for religious tradition shine through. This is a fascinating book, well-written and erudite and funny. And it offered me a window not only into Christian tradition -- but also, through her newly-foreign eyes, back into my own.