Cover image for Girl meets God : on the path to a spiritual life
Girl meets God : on the path to a spiritual life
Winner, Lauren F.
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First edition.
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2002.
Physical Description:
viii, 303 pages ; 23 cm
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BV2623.W56 A3 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
BV2623.W56 A3 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Like most of us, Lauren Winner wants something to believe in. The child of a reform Jewish father and a lapsed Southern Baptist mother, she chose to become an Orthodox Jew. But as she faithfully observes the Sabbath rituals and studies Jewish laws, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Christianity. Taking a courageous step, she leaves behind what she loves and converts. Now the even harder part: How does one reinvent a religious self? How does one embrace the new without abandoning the old? How does a convert become spiritually whole.

In Girl Meets God, this appealingly honest young woman takes us through a year in her search for a religious identity. Despite her conversion, she finds that her world is still shaped by her Jewish experiences. Even as she rejoices in the holy days of the Christian calendar, she mourns the Jewish rituals she still holds dear. Attempting to reconcile the two sides of her religious self, Winner applies the lessons of Judaism to the teachings of the New Testament, hosts a Christian seder, and struggles to fit her Orthodox friends into her new religious life.

Ultimately she learns that faith takes practice and belief is an ongoing challenge. Like Anne Lamott's, Winner's journey to Christendom is bumpy, but it is the rocky path itself that makes her a perfect guide to exploring spirituality in today's complicated world. Her engaging approach to religion in the twenty-first century is illuminating, thought-provoking, and most certainly controversial.

Author Notes

Lauren F. Winner, the former book editor for Beliefnet and a contributing editor for Christianity Today, has appeared on PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and Publishers Weekly, among others. One of her essays is included in The Best Christian Writing 2000. Winner has degrees from Columbia and Cambridge Universities and is currently at work on her doctorate in the history of American religion. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Raised by a lapsed Baptist mother and secular Jewish father, Winner feels a drive toward God as powerful as her drives toward books and boys. Twice she has attempted to read her way into religion to Orthodox Judaism her freshman year at Columbia, and then four years later at Cambridge to Anglican Christianity. Twice she has discovered that a religion's actual practitioners may not measure up to its theoretical proponents. (Invariably the boyfriends or their mothers disappoint.) It is easier to say what this book is not than what it is. It is not a conversion memoir: Winner's movement in and out of religious frames, but does not tell, her tale. It is not a defense of either faith (there is something here to offend every reader); and Winner, a doctoral candidate in the history of religion, is in her 20s young for autobiography. Because most chapters, though loosely related to the Christian church year, could stand alone, it resembles a collection of essays; but the ensemble is far too unified to deserve that label. Clearly it is memoir, literary and spiritual, sharing Anne Lamott's self-deprecating intensity and Stephen J. Dubner's passion for authenticity. Though Winner does not often scrutinize her motives, she reveals herself through abundant, concrete and often funny descriptions of her life, inner and outer. Winner's record of her own experience so far is a page-turning debut by a young writer worth watching. (Oct. 18) Forecast: This book has been selected for Barnes & Noble's Discover Great New Writers program, which means it will be part of a special display in every Barnes & Noble store. Algonquin plans targeted marketing in Christian, Jewish and national publications for the memoir, which has a first print run of 20,000 copies. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Winner, the child of a mixed marriage, was raised Jewish, converted to Orthodox Judaism as a young adult, and then became a Christian. In a saga both personal and intellectual, she leads readers down her religious path, one studded with detours and brambles. She is very much what a reader wishes a memoirist to be: insightful, wry, probing as she ponders what she has given up and what she has received. Her meticulous religious musings, eminently readable, border on the Talmudic--no surprise, because as Jew and Christian she studies Jewish scripture. And yet--while her struggles to take a life turned inside out and make it fit are absorbing, there is enough self-indulgent nattering here to provoke the occasional wince. Also, she sidesteps some of the more difficult questions as she tries to reconcile her Jewishness and Christianity. What, for instance, does she believe is the fate of those not saved? It is hard not be caught up in Winner's soul struggles, and those once caught will want to know what happens next. --Ilene Cooper

Library Journal Review

A senior writer for Christianity Today and an essayist whose works have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Winner is a recently converted Episcopalian and former Orthodox Jew. The daughter of a lapsed Southern Baptist mother and secular Jewish father, this young writer offers a fresh perspective on the ways religion relates to the lives of Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1976). She has structured her spiritual autobiography as linked reflections based on annual religious festivals, beginning with a chapter titled "Sukkot" and followed by essays based on the names of Christian celebrations. The book is a humorous, sexually frank portrait of a deeply engaged faith shopper, "stumbling her way towards God." The memoir focuses on her undergraduate years (when she converted to Judaism and then to Christianity) and her life as a doctoral student in religious history at Columbia University. One has a sense that Winner's head is still spinning and that she is still catching up with her changes of heart. The turbulent narrative is at first hard to follow, but its disorder becomes a delight as the author's gentle, self-effacing humor emerges. Winner offers a rare perspective, connecting Christian and Jewish traditions in unexpected ways. Recommended for larger public libraries.-Joyce Smothers, M.L.S., Princeton Theological Seminary, NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-This memoir explores the transition from childhood to adulthood in a voice that is often sophisticated and learned, and occasionally naive and almost gossipy, as the author shares with candor her family ties, friendships, and love affairs. Winner is the daughter of a Reform Jewish father and a Southern Baptist mother, neither of whom talked much about God during her early years. She describes growing up in a liberal synagogue and experimenting with body tattoos, even though "-Jewish law forbids tattoos, plain and simple." As a teen, she questioned everything, and her search became inextricably bound to her social and intellectual life. She writes as one would recall pivotal events in life's journey, and not in a linear fashion. After fervently embracing Orthodox Judaism during college, she was drawn to Christianity, each change following much reading and soul-searching. Mentored by an Anglican priest during her years as a graduate student at Cambridge, she eventually took comfort in becoming a "lifestyle evangelist," which she describes as "-living a good, God-fearing, Gospel-exuding life." Now she is a doctoral student at Columbia. She admits to both a "cherished intellectual snobbery" and to being "faintly embarrassed about the role Jan Karon's Mitford novels played in my conversion." Not a treatise on comparative religion, this is an engaging story of one bright young woman's quest for faith.-Molly Connally, Chantilly Regional Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Oxford, Mississippi Back when Mississippi was dry, Ole Miss students and any other Oxford residents who wanted a drink would drive to Memphis, just across the state line, stock up on beer and whiskey, and haul it back in the trunks of their cars. Memphis was also where you went if you needed fancier clothes than you could find at Neilson's department store, or if you just started feeling itchy and trapped in the small hot downtown and wanted to go out dancing. You didn't need to leave Oxford to find a cherry Coke, which you could share with two straws at the Gathright-Reed drugstore, and you didn't need to leave Oxford to go to church. There are plenty of churches in Oxford: Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Episcopal, all kinds. Before I arrived this week for a Southern history conference, I'd been to Oxford and Memphis exactly once each, on separate trips. I was a bridesmaid at my friend Tova's wedding in Memphis, at the Peabody, the famous hotel where ducks swim in an indoor fountain and where they say the Delta starts. I don't remember Oxford nearly as well-it had been the stop in between Nashville and Hattiesburg on a rather frantic research trip for my master's thesis, a blur of archives and oral history interviews. I hadn't gotten to do any traditional Oxford activities, like go to a tailgating party before a football game or recite an ode to Faulkner. My trip to Oxford this time might not be any more relaxed. I'm here giving a paper at a conference on the Civil Rights movement, and my schedule will be full just sitting in the auditorium and listening to historians talk. But the conference ends on Friday and I'm staying over till Sunday morning so my plan is to try to do one traditional Oxford thing on Saturday. It hasn't occurred to me that I'll spend Saturday doing the most traditional Oxford thing there is, which is going to Memphis. The conference, all in all, is stressful. Stressful because I feel very much the youthful, inept doctoral candidate reading a paper in front of all these famous historians, including my thesis advisor and other people whose books line my shelves. Stressful because my dress is ever-so-slightly too tight, and I'd managed to leave New York without a single pair of stockings. And stressful because one of the other people speaking at this conference is my erstwhile beau. This conference is small, only a dozen or so people participating; I'll never be able to avoid him. His name is Steven; like me, he's a history grad student. We tried a transatlantic relationship, Steven in Arkansas (where he's getting his doctorate), me in England (where I was finishing my master's degree). But I freaked out for reasons I still don't entirely understand and broke up with him in May. I last saw him six weeks ago, early August, one very tense afternoon in Virginia. He was there working with papers at Alderman Library, and he stopped by my mother's house the day I was packing to move to New York. I was tired and distracted and we argued and he said I yelled at him the way you yell at someone you love and I denied it and he left. Later, my friend Hannah looked at me pointedly (it was over the phone, but I could feel her looking pointed) and said, "That was very unwise. You shouldn't have agreed to meet with him." "Well," I said. That was all I said. I couldn't think of anything else to say. Two months later, I call Hannah from the airport, this time on my way to Mississippi. "Have a good conference," she says, "call us when you get there." Then she adds, "Don't let Steven get you alone like you did in Virginia." Steven ignores me at first, won't even make eye contact or say hello, but the second night of the conference we all attend a reception at the Episcopal church, and he's half drunk on red wine by the time I get there. It's the only time I've ever seen him even approximate drunkenness. He had this delinquent youth in Boston, smoked pot every day from the age of twelve, passed out on the pavement from angel dust, crashed his mother's car after downing too much bourbon, and shoplifted antiques and canned goods. Once, a friend of his had been entrusted with several hundred dollars, to buy provisions for a church youth group trip. He and Steven spent all the money on drugs and then stole $400 worth of groceries: hams, gallons of milk, bags of apples. The chronology has always been a little fuzzy-I'm not sure when exactly he stopped breaking the law, but I think during college. And since then Steve's walked the straight and narrow, the extremely straight and narrow. Doesn't smoke. Doesn't chase skirts. Doesn't drink much. Swims every day. Eats wheat germ in his oatmeal at breakfast. But there he is, standing on the patio of St. Peter's Episcopal, putting away red wine and getting slightly glassy-eyed, which I know only because he decides finally to make eye contact with me. The eyes are enough of an invitation. I walk over to him and we talk about this and that, how smart his paper had been, whether he plans to ignore me for the rest of our professional lives. When everyone else goes inside for dinner, we stay outside and talk, and finally we duck out of the back of the church and find a restaurant, where I drink a gimlet and eat the best chicken I've had in months. Then we go to Faulkner's grave, an exciting and authentic Oxford activity, and Steven, who knows these things, says that when you visit Faulkner's grave you have to drink bourbon in his honor. So we find a little liquor store, and buy a tiny bottle of Maker's Mark, like the kind they give you on airplanes, and go and sit by his tombstone, and I shiver slightly in the September air, thinking about how Willie Morris had died over the summer, and how my friend Pete, who was in Jackson then, had drunk a bottle of George Dickel in Willie Morris's honor and then gone to Choctaw Books and bought The Courting of Marcus Dupree. I think about how Faulkner is buried here right next to his wife, even though they had the most miserable marriage. And I think about how much Steven loves me, and I try to remember why I had broken up with him in the first place. This may have been precisely what Hannah was worried about. "What are you doing on Saturday?" I ask. I vaguely recall that months before, Steve had said he might go to Hattiesburg to do research, and if that is still his plan, I might tag along. I could always use another day in the Hattiesburg archives, and it would be better than sitting around in Oxford car-less and alone, especially now that I've already done the Faulkner thing. "I'm planning on going to Memphis," he says. "Oh yeah, what for?" "There's this church there that I went to when I was up in Memphis in August. I thought I'd go back." "But Steve, tomorrow is Saturday. One goes to church on Sunday." He clears his throat and coughs. "This is a Messianic Jewish church. Synagogue. They meet on Saturdays, you know." I do know. I am a Jew, after all. I've devoted more Saturdays than I could count to worshipping in synagogues of one stripe or another. That wedding in Memphis had been full of Orthodox Jews, kosher-keeping, Sabbath-resting Orthodox Jews in modest clothes singing Hebrew songs and dancing whirling, ecstatic, sex-segregated dances; the wedding was on a Sunday, and I spent the morning before chanting familiar prayers in the women's section of Memphis's Orthodox shul. That was before I gave in to Jesus, admitted I'd been fighting with him all these years the way you fight with someone you love, prayed the Sinner's Prayer and got baptized. I knew all about Jewish services on Saturdays. It is one of the things you know when you are part of the olive tree onto which all the other Christians have been grafted. 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. The datable conversion story has a venerable history. Paul, the most famous Jew to embrace Jesus, established the prototype of the dramatic, datable rebirth. He was walking on the road to Damascus, Luke tells us, off to persecute the zealous disciples of the newly dead carpenter when Jesus appeared to him, and Paul became his follower instead of his foe. Centuries later, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was atttending a meeting in Aldersgate Street; listening to Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, his heart was "strangely warmed." At that instant, Wesley later wrote in his journal, he felt that he "did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Less notable personages have dramatic conversion stories, too. My high school physics teacher sat in her kitchen reading the Gospel of Mark one day when, in an instant, she knew that Jesus was God and had died for her sins. My friend Tim dedicated his life to Christ when he was four at a mission's conference at Bibletown, in Boca Raton, Florida. He had seen a puppet show about Jesus knocking on your heart. So he opened it and asked Him to come in. My story doesn't fit very well with this 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. 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. A few years after the dream and a year before the baptism, I sat, drinking cider that scalded my tongue, with a Presbyterian minister I had known since my first week as an undergraduate at Columbia. "Pastor Mike," I said, "I think I am beginning to believe in Jesus." Pastor Mike sipped his cider in silence. Finally he said, "You know, Lauren, you can't just divorce Judaism." I felt like I'd been socked in the stomach. Pastor Mike urged me to talk to the campus rabbi, and then he said, "I had no idea when you told me you wanted to get together that you wanted to talk about Christianity. I thought maybe you were going to come out to me as a lesbian." Which, on a campus obsessed with identity politics, might have been more congenial than a Jewish student prattling on about Jesus. Some weeks later, I walked into the bookstore at Union Theological Seminary and bought a Book of Common Prayer, which felt like the boldest, most daring-do thing I'd ever done. The next day I gave away all my Jewish prayer books. I left them 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 some earlier era. I haven't spoken to Pastor Mike since that morning. It's been three years. I tried to write him a letter once or twice, to say, You knocked the wind out of me with that divorce line you cavalierly tossed out over your crumb cake. But the letter didn't gel. I got through, Dear Pastor Mike, Remember last time we spoke, at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, and that was as far as I got. Pastor Mike's metaphor, I learned, was useful: trading my Hebrew prayer book for an Episcopal Book of Common Prayer felt exactly like filing for divorce. That was the only word I could come up with. The more Christian I became, the more I needed to have nothing to do with Judaism. Every new Christian habit, purchase, or prayer was accompanied by the unlearning of a Jewish habit, the cessation of a Jewish prayer. I donated my Havdalah set and one of my tallisim to a synagogue. I gorged on lobster and got drunk on the driest, most expensive bottles of Amarone I could find. I sold crates of sixteenth-century Jewish poetry and Hebrew commentaries on the Torah to a bookstore in Chapel Hill. I got an email from my friend Leah, then a Jewish Studies major at Duke. "I was just at a used bookstore on Franklin Street, and I picked up a Mikraot G'dolot for incredibly cheap. 'Lauren Winner' was scribbled in the cover-that wouldn't be you, by any chance?" She didn't ask why I was selling off my library. The only Jewish habit I couldn't set aside was baking challah, which I kept up every Friday, two misshapen braided loaves, made with whole wheat flour, the recipe my friend Simone taught me. We had spent a long afternoon a few weeks before my Bat Mitzvah baking challah in her kitchen. That challah got me into college: my entrance essay was about baking bread as a feminist experience, about women passing down secrets from one generation to the next, in the kitchen. Pretty sophisticated, I thought, when I wrote it at fifteen. Six cups of flour, four beaten eggs, a packet of yeast dissolved in a dish of warm water, a dollop of honey, some butter, poppy seeds for the top if you want them, or raisins for the inside at Rosh Hashanah, to remind you that the New Year is sweet. Mix it all together, save for some of the egg to glaze with later. Knead it and let it rise in a warm place in a well-oiled bowl and punch it down after it doubles in size. Divide the dough into snakes and braid. The braid will always look better raw, more precise and perfect than after the bread bakes. Divorce doesn't come easy. 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, at weddings and college graduations, and sometimes they talk on the phone, about going in together on an expensive birthday present for me or my sister. I gave away all my Jewish books and let go of all my Jewish ways, but I realized, as I spent time with other Christians, that Judaism shaped how I saw Christianity. It shaped the way I read the Bible, the way I thought about Jesus, the way I understood what He meant when He talked about the yoke of the law. I found my heart sometimes singing Jewish songs. I thought I had given away all my Jewish things, but I found that I hadn't. I'd just given away some books and mezuzot and candlesticks. I hadn't given up the shape in which I saw the world, or the words I knew for God, and those shapes and words were mostly Jewish. Shortly after buying that Book of Common Prayer, I moved to England, to study for a master's degree in history at Clare College, Cambridge. Cambridge is where I was baptized and confirmed, where I first received communion, where I learned Christian liturgy and hymnody. Cambridge is where I learned to say simple phrases like "I'm a Christian" and "I'm off to church." When, two years later, I moved back to New York to begin doctoral work, I had to learn something else: how to be a Christian in a neighborhood where everyone knew me as an Orthodox Jew. I didn't know how to tell Jewish friends that I had become a Christian, didn't know how to explain to old professors why I now could attend classes during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, didn't even know what to say to my accommodating Catholic acquaintance who, delighted that I was back in New York, had made dinner reservations for us at a kosher dairy restaurant on the East Side. Just after Labor Day, barely three weeks after I'd moved back to New York, I traveled to Baltimore to meet with a couple, Jews turned Episcopalians. We sat rather awkwardly in the kitchen of their refurbished Victorian, drinking coffee and making small talk. They were not sure why I had come, and I could not explain. Finally I blurted out, "I tuck my cross underneath my blouse every time I see someone in a yarmulke. On Friday night, I actually ducked behind a fruit cart because I saw an old friend from college-it was clear she was coming from Shabbat services, and it was equally clear that I was headed to a local Italian restaurant where I would do forbidden things like spend money on Shabbat and eat forbidden food like shrimp scampi and prosciutto." "Oh," said the wife. "Now I see. You've come to see us because you're trying to figure out how to put your life back together." On the train back from Baltimore to New York, I made up my mind to do several things: buy a Hebrew siddur; call up my friend Tova, whom I had avoided since joining the church; and visit a Messianic Jewish synagogue. Messianic Jewish synagogues are the spiritual homes to congregations of Jews who have become Christian, but who retain some Jewish practices. They worship on Saturdays, they sometimes pray in Hebrew, they observe some of the Jewish holidays. Their men wear prayer shawls and yarmulkes. Their women dress modestly and sometimes cover their hair. I have always hated Messianic Jews. They have always made me want to run screaming in the other direction. This hatred is not a very Christian way to feel, but I feel it anyway. They have always freaked me out, they unnerve me, they give me the willies. I want to shake them and say "Make a choice! Pick a religion!" But on the train back from Baltimore I was pierced by a sudden sympathy. Making this choice is not so simple after all. Relinquishing all your Judaism at the foot of the Cross isn't easy. Maybe the Messianic Jews knew something that I did not know. So it seemed providential when, sitting there by Faulkner's grave, Steven-who is no more Jewish than Quentin Compson-said he planned to spend Saturday morning at Brit Hadasha, home to Memphis's Messianic Jews. Excerpted from Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life by Lauren F. Winner All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Sukkotp. 1
Oxford, Mississippip. 3
Adventp. 23
Morning Prayer: John 8p. 25
All Angels'p. 29
Conversion Storiesp. 38
Shopping for a Creche with Hannahp. 65
Christmasp. 69
My Icons and Mep. 71
Epiphanyp. 77
Baptismp. 79
Tu B'Shevat Muffinsp. 82
Conversion Storiesp. 88
Taxonomyp. 100
Family Valuesp. 107
Lowell Housep. 111
A Winter Weddingp. 114
Lentp. 117
Ash Wednesday Evangelismp. 119
Reading Fastp. 123
Iolap. 130
Prayer Lifep. 133
Randi Waits Anxiously for a Phone Callp. 149
Grinning Bananas, Teal Crescent Moons, and Other Body Artp. 152
Holy Weekp. 157
Palm Sundayp. 159
Holocaust Fantasiesp. 163
Seder Storiesp. 165
The Viaticump. 180
Opal's Easterp. 189
Eastertidep. 197
Contraband Partyp. 199
Bedep. 200
Ascension Dayp. 202
Confessionp. 206
Family Reunionsp. 216
Two Funerals, and a Weddingp. 218
All the Questions You Might Want to Ask about Angelsp. 221
Pentecostp. 225
Shavuotp. 227
The Bible I Usep. 238
Reading Ruthp. 240
Speaking in Tonguesp. 253
Paring Knifep. 259
Albemarle Pilgrimagep. 261
Credop. 268
Mary Johnson's Samplerp. 272
Religious Revivalsp. 276
Sanctification Schoolp. 278
On Rebuilding a Jewish Libraryp. 282
Adventp. 291
Shabbat Morningp. 293
Notesp. 297
Acknowledgmentsp. 305