A few months ago, we had as our monthly column a description of our favorite memoirs. In the Christian tradition, testimonials are a common book genre--from Augustine's classic, Confessions, to contemporary mega-sellers like Nicky Cruz' Run, Baby, Run or Charles Colson's Nixon-era conversion-story Born Again. Some are filled with unexpected candor and wit--I think of the remarkable Traveling Mercies by novelist Anne Lamott or Nora Gallagher's Things Seen and Unseen.
It is good to tell one's story and see God's hand in it all.
Some which I listed are among my all-time favorite books. Sadly, not all see God's hand, some may see and deny, but each are nonetheless incredibly moving, poignant tales of life and loss, search and homecoming, guilt and redemption. We invite you to revisit that column and enjoy our recommendations there. They are great reads, and I think it one of my more interesting lists. In fact, you can help us spread the word by forwarding the list to others who appreciate thoughtful literary types of memoirs...
A new book has just come out that immediately goes to somewhere near the top of that stellar list, and we have to tell you about it! The great writing, the sound intellect, and the truly fascinating life (indeed, even the handsome and well-made hardcover by the prestigious publishing house, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) make this a splendid, splendid book to own or to give as a gift ($23.95 hardcover).
I refer to Lauren Winner's plainly named Girl Meets God: On
the Path to a Religious Life, one of the very best books Beth
and I have read all year.
Lauren F. Winner's name may be familiar to some of our readers. She is a senior editor for Christianity Today and is the former cultural editor for beliefnet.com. She is a contributing editor for Books & Culture, and you will find her among other great journals such as re:generation quarterly not to mention having pieces in The New York Times Book Review. For a writer somewhere in her 20s, this is no small feat; meeting God or not, she is a very smart girl. (One of her pieces even got into the exceptional collection The Best Christian Writing of 2001, a paperback I treasure for its wide range of articles and diversity of writers.)
As a social critic, historian and nearly ubiquitous reviewer of books, Winner has proven herself to be intelligent--really, really--and a trenchant essayist. As a writer of considerable wit and clarity (I have little time for the obscure or overly arcane), she can make the complexities of her many varied topics understandable and interesting. I have admired her from afar for quite some time now. Those of us with particular interest in college ministry and advancing a world-formative perspective in journalism and cultural criticism should know of her. SWF, Gen X, discreetly tattooed, funny, brainy, shares details of her love life. What's not to like?
What I didn't know until advanced copies of Girl Meets God showed up with an accompanying press kit (she will be appearing in our store for a reading in late October) is that one of the things Winner knows most about is the culture of conservative Judaism. Lauren Winner--active and devout Episcopalian that she is--is a Jew.
Girl Meets God tells the fabulous story of this precocious bookworm of a girl growing up in the heartland of the south in a nominally Jewish home. Active in her Reformed congregation, she hungers for the deeper reality and experience of God and is driven intellectually and spiritually to convert to the more conservative Orthodox Judaism.
Orthodox Judaism being what it is, she couldn't just "change denominations,"Â so to speak (like, say, a Presbyterian might become a Methodist). No, she must undergo immense study of Torah and Talmud (and, so, the study of Hebrew!). She must go further into her already rigorous practice of keeping sabbath and learning kosher and all the other rhythms of the Jewish liturgical customs. She must practice such a variety of holy days--like Tu B'Shevat, which comes to us in a hilarious chapter--and she will under go the mikvah, a ritual, purifying bath, which she describes in picture perfect detail.
Even before her conversion, she was rigorous. Read this excerpt to catch a good flavor of her high school years:
"I read books about Jewish history, Jewish ritual, Jewish law. I read Susannah Heschel's collection of essays on Judaism and feminism; I poured over old copies of Lilith, the Jewish feminist quarterly named for the feisty, headstrong woman to whom, according to Jewish tradition, Adam was married before Eve; with Fran and Simone and other women in my Congregation Beth Israel meditation group, I studied Miriam's Well, a book of newly created feminist Jewish rituals. I read books of American Jewish history, about the Jewish communities in South Carolina and Rhode Island that dated back to the colonial era, and about the waves of Russian Jewish immigrants who came through Ellis Island in the late nineteenth century. I sat in the Jefferson-Madison regional library, just a block from the synagogue, and read and reread the handful of Judaism books on the shelves--a faded compendium of Jewish holidays, filled with grainy photographs of women with coiffed hair, standing, smiling, next to elaborately braided challah loaves and glowing Sabbath candles; a short guide to Purim; and Anita Diamant's book on Jewish weddings. This last book was the least relevant of all but I read it over and over, wanting to memorize every detail of Jewish life, even details, like weeding chuppahs and glasses broken under groom's feet, that didn't have anything to do with me.
"But mostly I read about Orthodox Judaism. Lis Harris' loving portrait of a Hasidic family in Brooklyn was published when I was in eighth grade, and I read it once a month. I read every novel Chaim Potok had written, and I imagined one day having a daughter and naming her Davida, after Potok's one female protagonist..."
Although her love for conservative Judaism is a central and shaping aspect of her life and the book, it is her eventual embrace of Christ--seen most concretely in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church--that makes the book truly extraordinary. Her courageous move (literally, she goes to England for a season of study, knowing full well she will be baptized there) has created for her quite a quandary, a moral struggle she feels to this day: how to be honest about her faith in Christ to those who so cared for her in the journey toward a strict Jewish lifestyle? To suggest that her new found (and very deeply considered) faith led to an identity crisis is, shall we say, an understatement. She feels she has betrayed this community, these people, that faith.
Like most church folks, she soon discovers that not all congregation members are particularly likable, nor are many as thoughtful about the faith as she--church history, theology, liturgical studies, social ethics all figure into her voracious discipline of Christian study. (In fact, in a splendid and insightful chapter, her spiritual director has her give up--get this!--reading for Lent.) Her ruminations about the faith are truly insightful and those of us who have walked in the way of Christ for a lifetime will still discover immense inspiration and new ideas in her reflections.
Not surprisingly, her deeply-rooted and uniquely Jewish way of seeing--and especially, her way of seeing Scripture--significantly color her experience of the gospel and the texture of her Christian discipleship. While she doesn't always describe it in such glowing terms, it seems to me that this is an amazing gift and is consequently one of the wonderful by-products of her memoir; Christian readers are surely bound to be blessed by such an overt (if not always didactic) reminder of the essential Jewishness of the Christian faith. Seekers, too, will be well-informed as to just what it is they are getting into as they consider the call to Christ.
(Only one critical note: perhaps it is because she is urban and urbane, but both Beth and I felt like it was surprising, and a touch disappointing, that she didn't note much about creation. Hebrew scripture surely teaches an Earth-honoring vision and an orderly creation that speaks volumes to us of God and God's ways. One would hope that a Jewish Christian might have a nearly natural avoidance of a dualistic piety...I so wonder what Winner would do with the neoCalvinist CCO staff training stuff like Creation Regained or Walsh & Middleton's wholistic worldviewishness in Transforming Vision.)
Still, the book is very, very Jewish. Perhaps only by reading, in tandem,
say, Christianity Is Jewish by Edith Schaeffer, a few novels
of Chaim Potok, Calvin's commentary on the Ten Commandments and a
whole lot of Walter Brueggemann, might a Christian gain such an appreciation.
And so, we think that this book, for this reason alone, would be an immensely significant selection for church libraries, small group discussion or reading clubs. Perhaps it could be useful in Jewish-Christian dialogue groups. I pray it is widely reviewed and becomes well-known.
Girl Meets... is not all spiritual search and theological quandary and heady faith journey, though. She tells delightful stories of unsuccessful arts and crafts lessons at synagogue school; her boyfriends appear and reappear in a way that is candid and interesting; she happily invites you along to joyous feasts and festivals; you learn of her mother and their guilty pleasure of Jan Karon's Mitford novels; she puts you right smack in the middle of a Gen X single life in Manhattan. Not exactly Sex and the City, I suppose, but she does write with such honest flair that you are sure she is telling the truth.
"So this Christmas is small. I go to midnight mass, which at All Angels we make at eleven o'clock instead of twelve. On the way home, I stop at the grocery store to buy a box of Lucky Charms. In line behind me is this sexy, blonde professor from my department. He is buying only healthy food, tofu and fresh mozzarella and some sort of wheat cracker.
"I am mortified. In the fall, I got drunk at a departmental party and came on to him wildly and I do not think I have spoken to him since, and here he is in line behind me at the grocery store on Christmas Eve, and of all the possible edibles I could have selected, I am buying Lucky Charms. We chat about the weather and I slink away home, and curl up on my sofa with a novel and a scratchy red afghan and fall asleep, novel in hand, under a crescent of light from my lamp."
Going to midnight mass, coming on to her sexy, blond colleague, getting drunk--this is not typical reportage for evangelical conversion stories. Neither are the admissions of pride, the lust, the jealousy; nor the intellectual rigor, the classy hours holed up in quaint New England cafes, the love for books, nor the exceptional insight into the significance of liturgy and Anglican worship. This is not your typical Christian book.
But I maintain, this is nearly as good as it gets, a conversion tale to place adjacent to those by Lewis or Lamott. It is smart, honest, well-told, vastly entertaining, full of pathos and not a little educational. Who among us can't stand to learn a bit about leil tikkun Shavnot or the Jewish demand for tzedakah (charity)? Who can't benefit from crisp reflections on the liturgical calendar or speaking in tongues, the most theologically sound view of the sacraments or the apparent anti-Semitism in the Christian testament? Wanna come away with good insight into the book of Ruth? Or clarify your feelings about confession? It's all here, in a delightful narrative style.
Winner's meditations are solid, her theological soundings sure, her questions are the right and deepest ones, making this a valuable book for Christian growth. It doesn't feel at all preachy or sentimental when she says stuff like this:
"Once, when we were still dating, Steven read aloud to me from a half-rate Orson Wells novel, a scene in which a believer and a cynic are debating God. Of course I know you believe in it, the cynic says, what I want to know is do you believe in it the way you believe in Australia? Some days, I believe the Christian story even more than I believe in Australia. After all, I have never been to Australia, it is just a picture on a map. I don't know if I will ever go there, but I know that eventually I am going to Glory.
Living the Christian life, however, is not really about that Australia kind of believing. It is about a promise to believe even when you don't. After all, when I stand up in church to say the Creed, it may well be that the very morning I didn't really know for sure that some fifteen-year-old virgin got pregnant with a baby who was really God.
Saying the Creed is like vowing to love your bride forever and ever. That vow is not a promise to feel goopy and smitten every morning for the rest of your life. It is a promise to life love, even, especially, when you don't feel anything other than annoyance and disdain."
I have plenty of "annoyance and disdain"Â for much of the goofiness that passes for Christian discipleship these days. And surely many of us are annoyed by some of the silly things that pass as testimony. I have more than disdain enough for many Christian books that flood the CBA marketplace. Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Religious Life, I am happy to say, is exceptional. This is a great story and a greatly written book. We heartily invite you to order it today.
In a nearly throw-away line above, I recommend the famous and rather controversial Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. His work and acquaintance have meant very much to me lately and I hope to write about his corpus of work before long.
For now, though, consider his brand new Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Westminster/John Knox; $29.95; paperback). This collection of articles (104 in all--like some Hebrew scribe, he was to do 100, but miscounted) serves as a grand resource for Older Testament themes and as a perfect intro to Brueggemann's work and worldview. In ways that can only be called Brueggemannesque, the various themes provocatively circle back across one another and reverberate with ongoing resonance. A handful of these essays are so central to Brueggemann's project that it may be a perfect handbook to keep alongside his other books. More importantly, his brief but thick entries on themes such as land, covenant, hope, the image of God, the priestly tradition or exile can help us towards a full understanding of the Scriptures themselves. Enough said for now.