On the back, the blurb from Kirkus Review reads: “Intriguing, absorbing, puzzling, surprisingly sexy, and very smart.”
I don’t usually put much stock in back cover blurbs, but in this case the reviewer got me. Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God is all of these things, but it is “surprisingly sexy” most of all. It’s the story of her conversions: first to Judaism and then to Christianity, and it’s surprising because it reads every bit like a love story. It’s surprising because it is passionate, dramatic, and full of difficult confessions, choices, and realizations– just like falling in love. The title set me up for the fall, in a way, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get the wind knocked out of me.
Of course, it’s also sexy because there’s sex in it. There are lovers and crushes and heart breaks and break-ups. Being the story of a young person, there’s a great deal of swerving and questing after the life she is meant to live, and the person with whom she’s meant to live it. Intertwined with the story of her relationship with God are many other love stories: romantic and familial, intellectual and physical. These are fully appropriate mirrors for a book which seeks to look at how pursuing and being pursued by God, pursuing a religious faith, each have a similar narrative arc to the most classic love story.
If love stories are complicated and hard to tell, so are conversion stories.
Winner grew up Jewish. This was “part of the bargain my parents struck as the first intermarriage in either of their families, that the kids would be Jewish.” Though her parents divorced when she was still quite young, she continued her Jewish education. As she immersed herself in the teachings of the Talmud, spending more and more time at synagogue, taking Hebrew lessons, and joining a Jewish meditation group, she found herself increasingly drawn to Orthodox Judaism. Judaism being passed to children by their mother, and Winner’s mother being Baptist, this would require formal conversion. She entered Columbia University, where she majored in religious studies and committed herself to life as an Orthodox Jew.
Then something happened that she couldn’t explain.
Maybe it was “a series of things that pushed me away from Judaism.”
Maybe it was reading novels about Episcopalians, and thinking, “I want what they have.”
Maybe it was the dream she had, of being kidnapped by mermaids, held captive, and then finally being rescued by a group of middle-aged men, but for one “beautiful, thirtyish, Daniel-Day-Lewis-like man” who had come to rescue her especially, and who, upon waking, she knew with certainty was Jesus.
More truthfully, it was none and all of these things, plus a bunch of other stuff. She grew increasingly attracted to the Christian church, and when she studied abroad in Cambridge, she was baptized and confirmed. “But there is another version of this story,” she writes, “one that is full of almosts and contingencies. Stop this story at any point and things look different… This other story is harder, the truth of it and the telling of it, but it is also true.”
The theme of divorce is recurrent, as leaving Orthodox Judaism proved painful and confusing. She longed to reconcile the learning and textual theology she loved in Judaism, with the deep attraction she felt toward the story and message of Christ. The gift she received in making this journey of reconciliation, is in turn the gift she gives to readers of this book: an honest rendering of what it means to walk one’s own spiritual path, no matter how difficult to explain.
Readers also receive a lesson in both Jewish and Christian feasts, rituals, and customs, peppered with literary and culinary antidotes from an inexhaustibly curious mind. After reading her description of baking challah, I actually went out and bought a giant used Jewish cookbook just so I could bake challah, too. Chapters consisting of short vignettes are not weighed down with heavy-handed interpretations. Where it would be tempting to oversimplify and neaten, Winner leaves an unfinished edge, and the book is the better for it. Her writing is conversational to a fault– entire pages can consist of long sentences strung together end-to-end with the word “and”– but redeemed by her brave and unabashed invitation into the thinking interior of the conversion process, the multiple conversions within it.
“Even once I figured out that the religious community I was entering was not going to be more or less to my liking than the one I was leaving, I still held onto the illusion that my relationship with God could be separate from the body of people I prayed with. That it could be separate from the community.”
These kinds of simple observations struck me (on the forehead) throughout the book, for the way they named what is true about my own experience that I had not yet named. Or perhaps had not been willing to name– the many dark human wrestling matches with one’s own ego.
On being unable to discuss her new faith with her father, she writes:
“So we don’t talk about church or God or prayer. And when we talk about other things, a creeping superficiality marks our conversations. I tell him about the papers I am writing for school, but I don’t speak about vocation. I tell him about decisions I make, but I never speak about prayerfully discerning God’s will for my life. I tell him about buying a new desk. I do not tell him about all the ways I am slowly turning into the person God wants me to become… Lil, my high school physics teacher…became a Christian ten years into her marriage. Her husband was worried and upset… A few years after her conversion, he looked up at her and said, “You know, hon, you really haven’t changed all that much. ” It was true in some ways. Lil still taught physics, still liked ballet and football games, still made a mean quiche crust. But her husband’s comment also spoke volumes about their marriage, which, while solid, had turned somewhat surface-skating. Lil’s husband could not see that, though she still baked quiche, what was most basic to her– why she got up in the morning, how she saw the world, what she did with her sadness– was all different, utterly.”
I saw parts of my story in hers. Where she ran from one religion into another, I ran from the Christian faith I grew up with toward no religion at all– or toward a personal theology I cobbled together from my explorations of Ashtanga yoga and Vipassana meditation, plus a smattering of poetry and trees. It took me a long time to recognize that the anger I felt toward Christianity had more to do with a small, noisy group of fundamentalists than with the radical teachings of Christ Himself.
The pattern of escape, embrace, reject, escape again is one I recognize in other parts of my life, too. I used to, and still fight the urge to, purge my belongings and clothing every half a year or so. I’ve moved at least once if not twice a year in the past ten years, changing my mind about what I ought to do for a living and reinventing my wardrobe at least as often, and prompting my relatives to comment each time I come home for Christmas, “You look different every time I see you.” I am slightly in love with change. Commitment is not something that comes easily for me– at least outside of commitments to my partner, friends, family, and writing.
Perhaps that’s a small part of the attraction and value of religion, that it offers a framework to support the fickle human heart.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent. I’m thinking about giving up complaining, and purchases beyond the strict necessities– even the purchases I trade for, like clothes and books. I waste so much thought and energy on these things, and inevitably gain little in return. What if I left these spaces empty? What might fill them instead?
Winner’s pastor asked her to give up reading for Lent. Books. I have to say that I’m relieved to have an excuse– I’m starting graduate school in two months– otherwise I’d feel obligated to give up reading, too, for the very reasons she describes:
“Giving up books for six weeks did not just leave me with more free time. It did not just save me money. It also left me starkly alone with my life. I read, I think, for many reasons. I read for information, for pleasure, I read because I want to figure out the craft of putting sentences together. But I also read to numb any feelings of despair or misery that might creep my way… I begin to suspect that Milind 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.”
On prayer, she’s equally honest and full of humor. These past few weeks, while reading and thinking about the book, I’ve found myself praying more, because her words have given me permission to feel the way I feel, even if it’s no way at all. I’m just beginning my exploration of the Episcopal church, which I immediately felt drawn to because of the strong presence of liturgy and ritual, something I did not really notice growing up in the United Church of Christ. The gymnastic quality of it– kneeling and standing and bowing and crossing oneself, taking the bread and the wine at the altar every week– knits me into my body during service, grabs my attention when it’s so apt to wander and fret. It’s said that even when you’re not as present as you could be, the liturgy is working on you. Winner writes that during communion, she often feels nothing at all, and yet thinks it’s the most important thing she does all week.
“God, I have decided, is not on call. That 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 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.”
Above all, I love the following quote, from Diana Eck’s Encountering God, which Winner has inscribed in her prayer book beside the Apostle’s Creed:
The Latin credo means literally “I give my heart.” The word believe is a problematic one today, in part because it has gradually changed its meaning from being the language of certainty so deep that I could give my heart to it, to the language of uncertainty so hallow that only the ‘credulous’ would rely on it. 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.”
I love this because I struggle with the creed myself, holding open the prayer book and wondering, Do I have a right to be here, a right to say these words, when I don’t know from one day to the next how I am going to feel about them? Oh Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. Yet in repositioning the center of belief over the heart, it’s as if my wild and frightened thoughts, so changeable and distracting, settle down on the carpet and listen like children.
My heart doesn’t use words, it just beats its quiet observation of time. It is smart and simple and wholly without artifice. I have no power over it. It races when I am about to read or speak in front of people, no matter how well I know them or they me. It wags its tail at the sight of L. It drops low like a bass drum when I am in the presence of something enormous, loving, and inexplicable.
Maybe the most surprising thing of all about Girl Meets God is that we’re surprised at all. Why shouldn’t the pursuit of God, of Love, be as consuming and passionate and extraordinary–and a thousand times more so— as our most passionate pursuits of human love? Why shouldn’t a relationship with God, as in our relationships with one another, also be challenging, inconsistent, alternately routine and exhilarating?
Faith as commitment– a day in, day out, waking up together, living life together, kind of commitment– becomes possible. If faith is not a sudden gift of certainty and lack of doubt, but a showing up and honoring of the other, if it’s about being there when you say you’ll be there, then maybe I can do this after all. Maybe faith can keep happening for me, too.
I can do those things out of love.
“My friend Meredith will be confirmed next week. She is terrified. She thinks she may run away…She says she is not having new doubts, just the same one she has every Sunday, only magnified. “Every time I stand up to say the Creed, I wonder if I can say I believe these things.” I tell her what I told her two years ago when she told me she wasn’t enough of a Christian to go to church. I told her, “Go to church for a while and one day you may look down and discover you’ve become a Christian.”
Thank you, Murasaki, for the recommendation!
Photo credits 1 & 3: 2008, 2009 copyright Andrea Guido
2 & 4, copyright 2010 Melissa Reeser