Thursday, August 26, 2010

True Conversions No.12: Girl Meets God

Girl Meets God: A Memoir
Lauren F. Winner
Random House: New York
c. 2002, 310pp. US$15.00
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7080-

A graduate student with both high aspirations and admirable accomplishments (degrees from Duke, Columbia, Cambridge universities), Lauren Winner is what one might term a sequential convert. A child of a mixed marriage (her parents, Southern Baptist and Reform Jew respectively) from Charlottesville, Virginia, she first converts to Judaism while still in her teens. Several years later, she is baptized into the Episcopalian tradition of the Christian faith. All along and throughout her faith journey, she struggles to reconcile the tensions of both traditions within her. This memoir is the story of those interior struggles and the author’s efforts to “come home” both spiritually and culturally.

This all sounds very serious and ponderous. And it is. But at the same time, Winner brings a wonderful and totally unexpected element of mirth to her account. Simply put, she is very sassy and very funny. She is the first to see the irony in her own situation, which she is able to view with frankness, grace, and humor, despite some quite painful interludes.

“I had no epiphanic on-the-road-to-Damascus experience. I can’t tell my friends that I became a Christian January 8, 1993, or on my twentieth birthday. What I can tell them is that I grew up Jewish. I can tell them about the time I dreamed of Jesus rescuing me from a kidnapping; I can tell them I woke up certain, as certain as I have ever been about anything, that the dream was from God, and the dream was about Jesus, about how He was real and true and sure. I can tell them about reading At Home in Mitford, a charming if somewhat saccharine novel about an Episcopal priest in North Carolina, a novel that left me wanting something Christians seemed to have. I can tell them about my baptism.”

So begins Winner’s account of her spiritual journey, a journey which, initiated with her baptism, continues to unfold as she realizes the depth of pain her ‘divorce’ from Judaism has cost her. Both parents are perplexed; several members of her tight circle of Orthodox Jewish friends break off contact and shun her altogether; secular colleagues, are skeptical and patronizing. Only a few Christian friends-- including other converts from Judaism-- and her parish family at her All Angels church community provide a nucleus of support and encouragement for her newly claimed spiritual identity.

Tellingly, Winner is drawn to Christianity—and most particularly to the Anglican tradition—because of the Incarnation: “the idea that God lowered himself and became a man so that we could relate to Him better…. Christians, unlike Jews, spent their time talking to a God who knew from experience what it was like to get hungry, to go swimming, to miss a best friend.” Her insight into the Incarnation of Jesus provides a natural segue into an embrace of sacramental, most especially Eucharistic life: “I believe… receiving the Eucharist is the place where reality is most real. I believe it is the most important thing I do each week.” That said, she acknowledges “I have never felt God at the communion rail…. I keep hoping one day God will give me some feeling at communion. I figure he is helping me become something else…. He is calling me to a place where He is truer than everything else, truer even than how I feel.” Ultimately, all explanations and rationalizations aside, the individual experience and decision is what it almost always is—a literal leap of faith.

The organization of Winner’s memoir is of interest. She follows an entire Christian liturgical calendar, both beginning and concluding with Advent. Within each of the demarcated sections, she moves back and forth from the Christian event to a roughly simultaneous or roughly analogous Jewish celebration. Winner is every bit as steeped in Jewish history, culture, and theology as she is in her newly-embraced Christianity. Consequently her synoptic reflections are especially rewarding for the non-Jewish reader.

This book was first published in 2002. Winner formerly converted to Orthodox Judaism after high school. She was subsequently baptized into the Christian faith after her undergraduate years. This memoir was penned during her years as a graduate student and doctoral candidate. Where is she now in terms of her faith journey? Has the “divorce” she describes between her Jewish and Christian identities been resolved? Has she, over time, been able to integrate both traditions more harmoniously in terms of her spiritual practices and devotions? The spiritual memoir of this intelligent, inquiring, and deeply sensitive young adult certainly merits a sequel. This volume clearly concludes with a “to be continued” rather than a “happily ever after.”

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