I hope you enjoyed reading my last BookNotes post offering my picks for the best books on faith formation that have been recently published. Just reading about those seven titles, I hope, was somehow inspiring. We should be glad for these kinds of books that help us get to the heart of basic Christian discipleship and being transformed into the sorts of image bearers of God that honors Christ as Lord and is generative for our own growth in holy humanness. Such personal renewal certainly spills over into our daily lives, our churches and families and workplaces, inviting new possibilities for cultural flourishing and social healing. I think each of those books offered something indispensable and hope you consider them for a book club, study group or Sunday school class, although they are each ideal for your own personal reading. Tolle legge, ya’all.
Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren Winner (HarperOne; $24.99//our BookNotes sale price, $19.99) deserves to be on that list, even if it came out earlier in the year. I had mentioned it briefly here when it first released, but have been waiting to revisit it. In fact, I am so very fond of this erudite, delightful, learned, and edifying book that I wanted to tell you about it now in a review dedicated to nothing else. It is more than an afterthought or addendum to the last post, but surely is one of the best books of this genre all year! I am confident Wearing God will be on our “Best of 2015” list five or so months from now, in part because it drew me into Scripture and made me think and, yes, entertained me as it did so.
I’m sure you are not surprised to know that I think highly of the writing of Lauren Winner.
We have been champions of her books, from her amazingly interesting and very moving coming to faith memoir Girl Meets God to her brief but exceptionally useful discussion of Jewish practices Christian people should consider, Mudhouse Sabbath (there is a brand new study edition coming out any day from Paraclete, by the way) to her must-read book on the meaning of chastity, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, and her haunting, candid memoir of grief, divorce, searching but not finding God, and a quiet renewal of modest faith after a season of feeling away from God called Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. Beth and I and our staff have been glad to host her at the shop more than once. Her good, intelligent writing, a charming style of essay rooted in memoir, allows her to reveal much about herself (warts and all, as they say in that unflattering phrase) while bringing much insight about Christian theology, congregational life, social history, and a spirituality rooted in the broad, ecumenical, liturgical tradition into which she was baptized as a convert from Judaism.
As a bright and quirky young scholar (she knows so much about so many things and is a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction, now a prof at Duke Divinity School) she brings an informed, historical eye to many of her ruminations, making her a wonderful author to enjoy. (She calls herself a “bookworm who can happily get lost for a few days on a research trail.”) She knows much, has struggled with much, and yet writes so very, very well, without condescension or sentimentality or overwrought zeal.
I ought not try to compare her work to other popular writers that are also appreciated by some of her fans, but I’ll suggest that she is not as zesty or funny as Anne Lamott, nor as intellectually feisty as Phyllis Tickle, and she does not curse like Nadia Bolz-Webber (and her tattoos are less spacious, shall we say), and although she can be elegant, lyrical and even luminous in her prose vocabulary, she’s not quite as restrained as Kathleen Norris, although some have likened her style to Nora Gallagher. Her own faith journey towards Jesus came from devout Judaism, through a particularly thoughtful community of evangelicals, not from lefty atheism into liberal Episcopalianism like Sarah Miles, say, but one can appreciate their similarities in discovering a robust liturgical worldview. Nobody should bear the burden of being compared to Barbara Brown Taylor, but Lauren is good enough as a writer for me to at least suggest it. By naming this handful of contemporary Christian women writers who serve in mainline churches, and placing Ms Winner within their constellation, I think you get the picture. She is a very accomplished writer and both helpful and entertaining. She has written for Books & Culture, Christianity Today, and The Christian Century so you can imagine that we like her ecumenical appeal.
All of the previously mentioned books (which I’ve reviewed at BookNotes) share her memoirist styling — all tell much about her life and her spiritual discoveries emerge from her story. Is this maybe called “creative nonfiction”? There is more to her life that could be told, I am sure, but the point is that those books are very impressionistic, her reflections revealed as she narrates portions of her life and faith journey. I value that a lot, and enjoy those books because of that engaging, slice-of-life style. Anyone that can show us how to find God in our ordinary days by bearing witness to what they have discovered along the way can be helpful, sometimes as much as didactic theological or Biblical teaching or straightforward spiritual guidance.
Although Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God carries some of this trademark style, it seems to me it is a bit less memoir and a bit more explanatory of Biblical and theological teachings then any of her other books. It is still a real blast to read – I so enjoyed it and couldn’t put it down! – and I commend it for its very lovely style and delightful turns of phrase and images and word choices. It is well-written and enjoyable for the tales she tells, but there is more direct substance here than ever before.
The back story to this book is, though, rooted in her own narrative, and the book begins that way. She tells us about a fresh discovery (like being shot by “Cupid’s Arrow” she even says) made on the heels of the spiritual dryness documented in Still… of wanting to know God more deeply by discovering God’s revelation in the Bible. She has always valued the Biblical text, participated in faith communities that loved the Bible, but had not been deeply engaged in Bible study the way she was, say, in her fascination with church history texts or ancient diaries, or her use of prayer books and hymnals. I am sure I am not the only one who can relate to finding great solace and spiritual encouragement in spiritual authors, theologians, cultural critics, novelists and poets, and understand when she admitted that she found the Bible a bit boring. Happily, she starts the book with an admission to a new obsession, a true eagerness to study and attend to the Bible in all its unique and strange glory. Unlike any other literature, she assures us, it “overflows endlessly.”
Winner tells us that her “newfound wakefulness” to the Scriptures coincided with a discovery that her images of God were rather old and perhaps a mixed bag of usefulness and error.
…and it led me on a search: what pictures, what images and metaphors, does the Bible give us for who God is, and what ways of being with God might those pictures invite?
Well, I suppose you can see where that is going.
Ms Winner is correct to warn us that,
repetition of familiar images can have [a negative, dulling] effect. The words become placeholders, and I can speak them so inattentively that I let them obscure the reality whose place they hold. I repeat them, I restrict my prayer to that small cupful of images, and I wind up insensible to them.
“A small cupful of images.” Wow!
She obviously holds no brief against familiar images. She precedes this warning of certain images growing stale from over-use with a lovely reminder of how common images can come alive in a particular community of faith, exactly because they are regularly used and practiced.
Through repetition and association, these few images can become even richer: there was once a time when I didn’t have many thoughts or feelings about God as great physician, but now I have prayed to that God with Carolanne, whose husband is pinned down by Parkinson’s, and Belle, who so much wants to keep this pregnancy, and Albert, who is dogged by depression, and because those prayers, and the fears and hopes and miracles and disappointments they carry, God-as-physician seems a richer image than I first understood.
But get this:
Unlike my church, with its four favored metaphors, the Bible offers hundreds of images of God – images the church has paid a great deal of attention to in earlier centuries, although many are largely overlooked now. Drunkard. Beekeeper. Homeless man. Tree. “Shepherd” and “light” are perfectly wonderful images, but in fixing on them – in fixing on any three or four primary metaphors for God – we have truncated our relationship with the divine, and we have cut ourselves off from the more voluble and variable witness of scriptures, which depict God as clothing. As fire. As comedian. Sleeper. Water. Dog.
There are, as I suppose you know, a good number of books like this, exploring the odd and rarer images of God in the Bible, and while it is obviously good to explore these often overlooked self-disclosures of God – using the unconventional images, fresh metaphors, Biblical idioms that may startle and annoy, even – some of the other books that do this are either way too scholarly and dry or they seem to be driven by a spirit of mistrust about the main teachings of the Bible, an attitude of deconstruction, wanting to undo conventional truths, replacing orthodox insights with oddball and eccentric notions.
I do not think Lauren is doing this – going out on a shaky limb creating a new kind of faith that is disconnected from classic, historic convictions of the ages. Yes, she draws on some very unusual images from the Bible and she explores how some rather mystical sisters and brothers of earlier centuries drew on these images, but she isn’t making this up as she goes along, nor is she undercutting traditionally beloved images (although I think it is proper to say that given the multitude of images, some might refine or color how we understand the others as we hold in tension competing metaphors or similes.) That is, one can still call God Father even after one discovers God as Laboring Woman. God can reveal God’s own self by way of Bread and by way of Laughter and by way of King. Wearing God invites us to experience God anew by offering Winner’s own creative reflection on the way God meets us, seen through the lens of a bit of her own story and how she came to discover and appreciate these lesser-known or appreciated images. This process is primarily an imaginative, attentive, spiritually alert reading of the Holy Scriptures.
I learned much from every chapter, I really did. I was a bit surprised that Winner didn’t realize some of these metaphors or similes are in the Book, and will be eager to know if this is new material for you, dear reader. New for you or not, however, I am sure you will experience at least some of what I did.
Firstly, I enjoyed a new appreciation for the details of the Biblical texts she proclaimed (Ahh, her Jewish background gives her fluency in Hebrew and the Midrash of the old rabbis, too, so she brings a learned and historically informed view to her playfully close reading of the passages under consideration.)
Secondly, I suspect that you, like I, will be surprised to discover that many in church history have appropriated these less then common Biblical images and idioms for God. She weaves from the Biblical text to a medieval prayer book to a story of a contemporary church she visited or prayer meeting or class in the local women’s prison where these images are known and used and back to a line from Augustine or Julian or Spurgeon.
Her knowledge of saints and mystics and theologians is extraordinary: from the exegesis of John Calvin to the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, from Ambrose of Milan to Catherine of Sienna, from Aelred of Rievaulx to Julian of Norwich, she cites them all. Of course Hildegarde of Bingen shows up, but so does John Flavel. In fact, there are little sidebars and boxed quotes from many ancient and contemporary writers – from John Donne to Birgitta of Sweden, Emily Dickinson to Gordon Fee, the Book of Common Prayer to Norman Wirzba – and these are themselves extra ruminations on the points she is making.
And there are stories galore, many from her own life; her aforementioned work in a women’s prison is shared more than once, as is a narrative about going to a prayer/protest at an immigration detention center; her passion for racial and social justice in this era of mass incarceration is nearly fiery – God bless her, as I suspect this isn’t her natural love language, as they say. I was deeply touched by a few of the anecdotes that pertained to each new image, as touched by the stories as by the creative Bible interpretation, and found her social/political concerns very compelling.
I was choked up more than once, in fact. She writes about women’s vocalizations during childbirth in a beautiful, sensuous, graphic chapter about labor (she even quotes famous hippy midwife Ina Mae Gaskin!) and links that to God’s own groans in Isaiah 42 – a powerful study as evocative as anything Brueggemann has written. God being vulnerable is not a new idea – she reminds us of Placher’s book The Vulnerable God and quotes a passionate paragraph from Ellen Davis and moves from the passion of Christ’s death to an earthy reminder of his very human birth, but it is very moving in her telling. Her section about nursing, too, is excellent, and surprised me with some sensitive reminders of how some women feel who are unable to nurse their little ones at their breasts. (And yes, she brings up Numbers 11.) So God is a birthing mother, maybe a labor coach/midwife, and a nursing mom, too. I can’t imagine any woman who wouldn’t find this interesting, and I think most men should, too.
In the chapter from which the title of the book is drawn, Winner writes some wonderful stuff about clothing. We comport ourselves differently when we wear different outfits and it is really fun hearing her talk about her different “styles” and go-to garments. She does some Bible study on “clothing” oneself in Christ (Galatians 3) while sitting in the women’s clothing section of a Raleigh department store – what an idea, what a great few pages that was! – and she offers, of course, some history and sociology of fashion. (Again, she reads very widely, and has an eye for the fascinating historical factoid or the significance of social trends and shifts through the ages.) But the piece in this chapter that got to me was a story of Stephanie Paulsell (from a beautiful Christian Century essay) where she told a friend that she was too depressed, from a miscarriage, to pray. Her friend sent her a dress that she herself had worn while praying intentionally for a year, writing to her that the outfit had so many prayers in it, Paulsen could just wear it as an act of prayerfulness. I don’t quite know why, but I cried and cried when I read that. God revealed as clothing is a tremendously rich notion, well backed up with Bible stories, and a must-read for anyone interested in creative prayer, maturing in Christ, or, of course, clothing and fashion.
The chapter on smell – yes, aroma in the Bible – is also truly fascinating. I can’t even begin… Of course Lauren knows something about the history of smell, and how other senses are privileged in the West and cites writers who think about that. This was fabulous stuff, with some obvious, and some not so obvious applications.
And then there is a chapter called “Bread and Vine” which should appeal to anyone with an interest in the recent flurry of books about the intersection of faith and food, the spirituality of eating. (And, man, was I glad for the quote from Lutheran liturgical theologian Gail Ramshaw, in Winner’s section about Eucharistic bread, about being done with the dumb little manufactured communion wafers that don’t look or taste like anything!) This luscious rumination on bread, mostly, and wine, moves widely from vineyards to Winner’s own kitchen to Southern cookbooks, racial diversity, the thirteenth-century Saxon mystic Mechthild and her visions, and the Biblical call to be intoxicated with love for Christ. It’s a great chapter.
Her chapter on laughter is quite good, although not funny. There are some very good insights about the harsher Psalms, where God appears to laugh not pleasantly with others but at them. (Aside: it made me think of two Bruce Cockburn songs, “Laughter” from an early album Further Adventures of… and the wonderful “Listen for the Laugh” on Dart to the Heart.)
The chapter called “Flame” is wonderfully written and moves from the predictable use of fire as ardor for God to the more dangerous vision of God as fire, a bit on Pentecost, and the question about whether the fire predicted for the end is destructive or restorative. She moves in some very interesting directions while pondering flame and fire during Holy Week, and finally gets to talking about the role of prayer and spiritual disciplines. She declares that,
I do not want to instrumentalize prayer. Prayer, finally, is not productive, and it is not a means to an end. And yet, I know from my own halting two decades of prayer – of on-again, off-again prayer, of prayer that I consistent and prayer that is sporadic – that it is precisely contemplation that is turning me into a person with the capacity to attend to God and to God’s world.
She continues, in a question that is most likely your own, as it is mine,
How can I become a person who pays enough attention that I might notice something and then act in response? Prayer, lectio divina, reading the same passage of the Bible again and again and trying to notice what God has for me to notice; siting in silence; walking in silence; repeating the psalms over and over – these habits might teach me how to pay attention.
Wearing God ends with two short chapters, one a bit heady about the “poverty of expression” which reminds us of the limits of language. (With shades of her previous work, Still, Lauren reminds us of the Deus absconditus of Isaiah 45, “the God who hides.”) I was riveted by this, but didn’t find it adequate, despite it being pretty meaty stuff. (She draws on the thoughtful book The Wound of Knowledge by Rowan Williams, Denys Turner and Beldon Lane, if that is useful to know, and ends with the prayer of Paul in Romans –“how unsearchable are his judgements!”)
The other short chapter, though, was gut-wrenching and passionate. It is called “A Short Note from the Women’s Prison” which starts “There is a chapter missing from this book.” I do not want to give away too much, but it is a candid, even raw, reminder of one of the less happy and useful images of God in the Bible, and a reminder of how many women who are incarcerated have been sexually abused. This chapter is important, a bit disturbing, and I am grateful for Lauren’s struggle with these texts of terror, as they are sometimes called.
Although there is much Bible study in this book, and even more church history, drawing on monks and mystics, and teaching us about how others have construed these various images of God and God’s divine presence in the ordinary stuff of life – smell, laughter, nursing mother, clothing and more – this is, still, a Lauren Winner reflection. She tells us about her own life a bit, and starts with a fascinating admission of being a little uncomfortable with the notion of God as friend. May we call ourselves friends with God? In what way does that image frame our day to day – what “shows up” when we see life through that lens? That first introductory chapter “The God Who Runs After Your Friendship” is lovely and important.
Because I hope the book will help you sit down with God in a place the two of you have never visited before, each chapter concludes with a prayer. The final aim of this book is not to persuade you to stop thinking about God as your shepherd and start thinking about God as a cardigan sweater or One who weeps. The aim, rather, is to provoke your curiosity, and to inspire your imagination, and to invite you farther into your friendship with God.
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