Personal Jesus

Religion and politics seem to be ever more entwined in the American public square, with religious language being used to alternately affirm or decry stances on any number of issues–the Iraq War, the death penalty, abortion, same-sex marriage, and so on. However well-intentioned, something about such rhetoric seems fundamentally reductive, regardless of where on the political spectrum it originates. How refreshing, then, to read Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God. In three hundred pages Winner never once attempts to connect religious belief to a political position, current event, or social issue. Rather, in reflecting on her long conversion from Orthodox Judaism to evangelical Christianity, she retrieves the idea of a personal God, a God of love who seeks above all else to draw individual human beings into relationship with him.

Lauren Winner is the younger daughter of a nominally Southern Baptist mother and a nominally Reform Jewish father. Winner herself was raised Jewish. “[P]art of the bargain my parents struck as the first intermarriage in either of their families,” she writes, “[was] that the kids would be Jewish.” The impression left on the reader is that this compromise was about as important as agreeing on a color to paint the living room–neither her mother nor father exhibited much religious fervor.

But for Lauren, religion held more than a little fascination. As a youth she devoured books of Jewish history, Jewish rituals, Jewish theology. She read the book of Deuteronomy for a book report, damning it with faint praise: “This book is a little slow…basically a rehash of laws that were discussed in earlier books of the Bible.” At summer camp she befriended an Orthodox Jewish boy and as their friendship deepened, the contrast between the rich textures of his stern faith and the more ephemeral wisps of her friends’ and family’s Judaism became clear. “Either these laws were true or they were not true. Either God revealed all that stuff to Moses on Mount Sinai or He didn’t. If He did, then we’re bound by it, all of it, every last word, every syllable, every letter. Or else God had nothing to do with it… Either there was no Judaism or there was Orthodox Judaism.”

This led to her conversion to Orthodox Judaism, requiring study under rabbis, special rituals, and an oral examination. Following this conversion, she went to Columbia University, home to a sizable Orthodox Jewish contingent, to study history. But as she immersed herself in Orthodoxy, she simultaneously noticed another faith on the landscape: Christianity. She was drawn to the literary pathos of the Incarnation, gripped by dark, Medieval Christian art at a museum. Though her Orthodox friends and boyfriend worried, she assured them she did not buy into it. Then she had a dream one night: about mermaids and a man who looked like Daniel Day-Lewis, and she realized “that the dream had come from God and it was about the reality of Jesus… That He was God. I knew that with more certainty than I have ever known anything else.”

Unsettling though this was, she could not shake the dream’s vividness. She found herself drawn to the Book of Common Prayer and to Jan Karon’s Mitford series of novels. She realized, and gradually admitted to herself, that there was yet another conversion in store for her, and so became a member of the Anglican Church in Cambridge while in England working on her Master’s.

In Girl Meets God this story is told in flashbacks, interspersed with Winner’s reflections on what this particular autobiography means. She structures the book around the Christian liturgical year in which she finds solace, and echoes of the Jewish tradition of reading the entire Torah each year. She writes on the way her Jewish youth has enriched her newfound Christianity (referencing with just a tinge of superiority Christians “who think the Bible begins with Matthew”) and her efforts to realize that enrichment; she laments relationships severed by her conversion and celebrates new ones gained. She explores ways of dealing with the ache she feels on Jewish holidays. In essence, she unpacks what it means–spiritually, personally, intellectually, socially–to be a convert.

Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of Girl Meets God is the way Winner recovers the very personal image of God as lover. Not “lover” in a distant, dispassionate, Platonic but in the way most people typically think of the word: Jesus as divine boyfriend. It’s a venerable tradition but one that has fallen into neglect. Even our image of the church as bride of Christ is tainted with mental pictures of virginal brides in white veils gliding down flower-bedecked church aisles to Pachelbel’s solemn Canon. It’s beautiful, but there’s not much passion about it. Yet Winner observes, “The Eucharist is intimate. Watching it is a little like spying on a couple making love.”

This sort of thinking echoes the Beguines-Catholic laywomen who founded their own religious orders as the Middle Ages were coming tumultuously to a close. “You are my softest pillow,” wrote Mechthild of Magdeburg in her mystical treatise The Flowing Light of the Godhead, “My most lovely bed, my most intimate repose, my deepest longing, my most sublime glory. You are an allurement…a thirst for my humanity, a stream for my burning.” It’s not a human lover saying this in Mechthild’s book; it’s God speaking to a dearly beloved human soul. One could allegorize this sort of thing but doing so would miss the point.

To Christians accustomed to thinking of God almost exclusively as divine Sovereign and Parent, these images may seem completely foreign. But Winner believes that to have a crush on Jesus like a schoolgirl, to have a lover’s passion for him, to have a spouse’s commitment is the privilege of all Christians. Indeed, Winner implies that cultivating just that kind of relationship is not a right but a responsibility: “The Incarnation, that God took flesh, is the whole reason I am not an Orthodox Jew.”

Some of Winner’s rhetoric can eventually get tiresome. At times it seems she is stretching her words in order to sound more like Anne Lamott than Lauren Winner. She sometimes has trouble finding and sustaining her voice, moving in the space of a few pages from depicting a cliched caricature of “gin-swilling, scratchy, jazz-listening” New York graduate students to writing evocatively of an ex-lover, “The missing pours out of my pores, extravagantly.” She also refers to God exclusively in masculine terms (“He,” capitalized), which I felt warranted a word of explanation from someone who mentions on more than one occasion feeling suffocated by the sexism of Orthodox Judaism.

There are larger questions she leaves unanswered, too. For instance, historically neither Orthodox Jews nor evangelical Christians have been particularly generous when it comes to those who live and die outside the faith. So what about all her Jewish friends and family? What about the millions of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others who have heard of Jesus but have never embraced him? Are they wrong, objectively? What of people, including former Christians, who have gone the other way, converting to Judaism? Granted these are questions of theology, and Girl Meets God is hardly intended to be a scholarly treatment of religion. Additionally, Lauren Winner should not be expected to have definitive answers to questions with which Christianity has lived since it became an organized religion (and Judaism for over twice that long). But this reader, at least, would have welcomed the reflections of someone who has been both an Orthodox Jew and an evangelical Christian on such questions.

Perhaps they will be addressed in a subsequent volume. Occasional literary and theological naivete notwithstanding, this book is a wise and discerning debut for Winner–it is a solid reminder that the Christian faith is, or should be, an intimate relationship, not a party affiliation.

Andrew Hoogheem is an editor at William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan.