Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Last night I read and this morning I wrote about Girl Meets God by CT contributing editor Lauren Winner. It will be the November OSV book column, along with the new Flannery O'Connor biography

Girl Meets God was an engaging spiritual memoir, along the lines, as many have noted, of an Annie Lamott style of spiritual writing: honest, personal, smart, humorous. Winner was raised a Reform Jew, then converted to Orthodox Judaism when she went to Columbia University, then converted to Anglicanism when she went to Cambridge. The title of the book implies a conversion rooted in a framework of relationship, and although Winner is very brainy, that is essentially what it comes down to, as embodied in a dream she had as an Orthodox Jew, a dream in which she was kidnapped by mermaids and rescued by a dark, thirtyish, "Daniel-Day-Lewis-kind of guy." Her boyfriend thought she was dreaming about other men. Her roommate thought it was Elijah. Her 10th grade physics teacher, a Christian, asked her what she thought. She admitted she thought it was Jesus. The teacher said she thought so too, but that an Orthodox Jew didn't have room in her life for Jesus, right?

Well, right, at least for the next two years, during which Winner busied herself with school and life as an Orthodox, until she finally gave in and said yes and was baptized a Christian in the Anglican church.

It's a good book, particularly for a smart young person on a spiritual search, or the parent of one who's wondering what her kid is up to. It's a very honest book, too. Winner's quite open about what ultimately turned her off from Orthodoxy, and open about her own sins and failings as well. There's a lot of nice detail, and some nice vingettes - I think my favorite was the story of her trip back to her mother's home in Charlottesville. As silly as it makes her look to some, Winner admits that one element crucial in her conversion was the novels of Jan Karon - the Mitford novels about the Episcopalians in North Carolina. It doesn't seem right, she admits - it should have been Dosteovsky - but it was Karon, so there.

Anyway, on this trip back, she learns that Karon has moved to the area, to get away from her ever-present fans who visited her in NC. Her exact whereabouts are a mystery, but one day, Winner and her mother set out - on a pilgrimage - to find her. I won't tell you what happens - nothing much, but everything that needs to, really - but it's a wonderful chapter.

I was annoyed by a few things, though. Winner is smart, and knows it - she's only in her twenties, but has vast knowledge about everything from Judaism to American religious history (she is a grad student in the field, after all!). She doesn't exactly wear her intense intelligence on her sleeve, but it's clear she knows she's smart. Now, self-centeredness is hard to avoid in writing a memoir, true, but there are times when Winner’s world seems unbearably small, centered on her awareness of her intense intelligence, her books and her boyfriends, and her spiritual angst only shrinks that world further, rather than expanding it. The reader appreciates Winner’s honesty, for example, at sharing her miserable jealousy of a pregnant friend, and what that teaches her about her spiritual life, but it doesn’t eliminate the reader’s desire to just shake her out her self-centeredness, nonetheless. There's also a bit too much of the implied "I've got tattoos and I drink and I'm such a different kind of Christian" woven through the text, a theme I took up in my twenties, too - in terms of being a "liberal" prolifer in my case, but in the end, I decided it wasn't about me, so I should just get over myself and do the work.

I also felt there's a bit of a gap in her spiritual accounting. I don't think I ever got a clear sense of what she thinks about Jesus and why, except that he's real and he "rescues" her. Maybe that's all we need to know, but you know, I think in terms of apologetics, since I've spent three years writing about it, and as charming as this book is, I don't think that reading it would make the why of Christian faith clear to a non-believer, to the extent that such can be done anyway.

Eve has read the book too, and I'm very interested on what her take might be.

And yes, I really am trying to read all those books on the left, and if anyone's read or knows a lot about the Newman partial biography (which is what it is), which is quite a revision from received wisdom, let me know.

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