Thursday, March 12, 2009

Girl Meets God: A Memoir by Lauren F. Winner

I don't read many memoirs, but when I do, I am always struck by how difficult it must to be to take your own life and pin it down in a story someone else will find worthwhile. I admit to feeling a certain level of trepidation over whether or not I should judge someone else's life on its artistic merit. Fortunately, I enjoyed Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God enough that I don't have to feel overly guilty.

Winner writes like a cross between an English and a history major--her writing style and approach to faith strongly attest her love of stories and tradition. Her style is not necessarily what I would term "literary" (in comparision to, say, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking), but it is always bookish. I particularly appreciated Winner's attempt to structure her memoir around the intermingling (Orthodox)Jewish/(Episcopalian)Christian calendar. Within these sections, however, the story often felt fragmented, and I wasn't sure why certain scenes were placed together.

The intended audience for Girl Meets God is probably the broadly-defined spiritual reader. But reading reviews on Amazon, I quickly came to the conclusion that different readers pick this book up for very different reasons. Christians readers want to know how Winner came to Christianity. Jewish readers want to know how Winner left Judaism.

I don't share all of Winner's theological conclusions, but she expresses her relationship with her new faith in some beautifully honest passages. Several readers complain about not having a clear grasp of what drew her to Christianity, but I appreciated the fact that she can't, for all her obviously academic and linear leanings, wrap her personal journey into neat theological points.

The Incarnation appealed to the literature buff in me. Embodiment was the novelistic culmination of anthropomorphism, of assigning God human characteristics. All through the Torah, God is pictured as having hands, a face. The rabbis say, Of course God doesn't really have hands, but the Torah uses the language of hands and faces and eyes so that we will have an easier time wrapping ours minds around this infinite, handless God. That is what you say if you are a rabbi. But if you are a good novelist, you actually give him Him hands and eyes by the end of the book, and that is what the Bible does. It says, in Deuteronomy, that God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; and then it gives Him an arm in the Gospel of Matthew (51-2).

Unfortunately, the language of a faith which is new to her was sometimes a little stale for me. I was often more interested in her passages about Judaism (which is less familiar to me). Some of the most beautiful of scenes in the book recount, layer after layer, what Winner lost when she left Judaism, and her yearning to create connections between the two religious halves of her life. I was particularly moved by her description of buying a Jewish papercut of Ruth 1:21 (Naomi's lament: "I went away full, but the Lord brought me back empty"):

I track down the artist. Her name is Diane and she lives in New Mexico. I email her and ask if the papercut of Ruth 1:21 is available for sale. She writes back: She will sell me the picture for $900. It is Friday afternoon that we exchange these emails, and she wishes me a Shabbot shalom, and I think, Of course, she thinks I'm Jewish. I half-feel I am deceiving her by not spilling my entire religious autobiography to her over email. (Are you sure you want to sell your art to a traitor?)

When the papercut comes in the mail, I unwrap it with some ceremony, and hold it in my hands for a long time and then I hang the papercut on a wall with crosses--a sturdy, orange clay cross that I bought at that Episcopal church in Oxford, Mississippi, and a trio of iron crosses, Jesus' and the two thieves', that I found at a small craft shop in North Carolina. It hangs underneath those, and it looks delicate and just slightly out of place, like a bit of lace peeking out of a heavy woolen winter coat.

"It is a difficult verse," Diane writes to me in her email. "The challenge for me was to capture the loneliness of the verse, and still imbue it with a sense of beauty. I suspect it reflects difficult losses for you" (249-50).

All in all, Girl Meets God is a unique and honest addition to my small collection of memoirs.

(Image from Random House.)

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