January 9, 2003
‘Girl Meets God’—Again and Again
"Girl Meets God: On the Path to Spiritual Life" by Lauren Winner (Algonquin Books, $23.95).
Lauren Winner's spiritual memoir, "Girl Meets God," is a passionate and thoroughly engaging account of a continuing spiritual journey within two profoundly different faiths.
Winner, the child of a Reform Jewish father and a "lapsed Southern Baptist" mother, was raised as a Jew in the South. Told she was not really Jewish, since Jewish law dictates that Judaism passes through the blood of the mother, she chose to convert to Orthodox Judaism at the end of high school, following her parents' divorce. By the end of her senior year at college, she decided that while in graduate school in England she would convert again, this time to evangelical Christianity.
One of the fascinating things about "Girl Meets God," beyond the seismic shifts in Winner's affiliation, is the degree to which faith and practice have formed the underpinnings of her life. As a teenager, Winner immersed herself in the activities of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Va. She "traded in lacrosse practice and ballet lessons and field hockey sticks, awkward dates at the movie theater and Friday night football games and many other normal teenage activities for more hours, more afternoons and weekend at the synagogue." As a college student, now an Orthodox Jew, she was drawn to Christianity through diligent study, constant questioning and careful, nearly obsessive attention to spiritual teachings.
She explains herself in this way: "What draws me to a religion is the beliefs, the theologies, the books, the incantations, the recipes to get to God, and I like to imagine that they work in the abstract, that they are enough, that they exist, somewhere, pure and distinct from the people who enact them."
The great strength of "Girl Meets God," though, is not purity of theology but force of personality. Winner is insatiable, and dauntless, in her search for religious truth, at whatever personal cost. The sheer energy of her quest, combined with her refreshing honesty and flashes of wild humor, give her story its edge. The book follows the arc of a liturgical year, opening with Sukkot in the fall, and then dividing into sections named according to the ecclesiastical calendar -- Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Eastertide -- with subchapters, some only a page or two, on varying topics. There are commentaries on subjects like "Family Reunions" and "The Bible I Use," the author's reading of the Book of Ruth and a discussion of the similarities between Christian and Jewish festivals. Yet, Winner's thinking is so wide-ranging, in scope and in time, that the organizing principle seems imposed, almost too decorative.
Early on, she refers to her increasing love for Jesus in terms of marital infidelity, and compares her abandonment of Judaism to a wrenching divorce that has caused her to lose friends and distress family members. She does not deviate from her path, though, once converted to Christianity for good by a powerful dream. "I knew, as soon as I woke up, that the dream came from God and it was about the reality of Jesus," she writes. "The truth of Him. That He was a person whose pronouns you had to capitalize. That He was God. I knew that with more certainty than I have ever known anything else."
The book is, in fact, a curious mixture of certainty and searching, from beginning to end. Nor is it clear even at the end that Winner's journey is over. Having given away her entire collection of Jewish books at the time of her second conversion, Lauren later finds herself buying the old familiar texts again, missing Judaism and rebuilding her library even as she works to build and sustain her Christian life. "Now I am reading Ruth again," she writes. "I find I am reading her differently. Ruth is still my favorite. Not because she is a convert, but because she is a bridge, genealogically and literally, to Jesus.
"It is no surprise, I guess, that I read Ruth differently than I used to. All the stories look different, through Christian glasses."
Skeptical friends have suggested that Winner may convert again, perhaps becoming a Buddhist next time. She insists that she will remain a Christian, albeit one who has been formed and trained by Judaism. "Judaism and Christianity have something to do with each other," she writes. "Judaism and Christianity make a path." Most readers of this thoughtful and highly entertaining book will be moved by her journey.
Reeve Lindbergh has written "No More Words: A Journal of My Mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh" (Simon & Schuster, 2001) and "On Morning Wings" (Candlewick Press, 2002) an adaptation of the 139th Psalm for children.