Saturday, January 2, 2010

Girl Meets God

At John's prompting, I picked up Girl Meets God by Lauren F. Winner. Winner is biologically half-Jewish, converted to Orthodox Judaism, then became a Christian. Her story is fascinating and her knowledge of the Torah and Jewish tradition gives her unique insights into Christianity. She is extremely intelligent - undergrad at Columbia, graduate school at Cambridge, and, at the time of the book's publication, a doctoral student in Virginia. She left Judaism for the Episcopal church, frequents coffee houses, wants marriage and a family, and daydreams of a professorship at a Christian college. I ought to like her.

I'm not sure what I dislike about her. It may be partly that I'm trying to read it quickly before it has to go back to the library and this much of anyone's rambling internal dialogue would get annoying. It may partly be her writing style.

She writes a fast-paced stream-of-consciousness which is exciting at first, but, eventually, annoying. She flips from the past to the present to the middle past and back again at an astonishing rate, sometimes using three different verb tenses in one sentence. I don't think of myself as a particularly linear person - just ask my linear-minded husband - but Winner's vague and confusing timeline is disorienting. She throws in experiences and conversations which must be very post-post-Modern because they don't seem to relate to any other themes or topics in the book. Just like the phrase the teen-agers are throwing around willy-nilly these days: "That was random."

Her writing is compelling despite these drawbacks - her command of language is, not surprisingly, excellent (although she tends to do what I just did - stopping the sentence short for a qualifier - which works when it's done occasionally but loses its charm when over-used). She has some flashes of brilliant description and, as I said above, some fascinating insights into Christianity.

I sympathize with her in many ways: a tendency to over-analyze conversations, a preference for "lifestyle evangelism" rather than tract-passing or in-your-face confrontations, times of extreme self-consciousness, academic aspirations, times of spiritual fervor and times of spiritual depression, and so on. Maybe her neurosis is too like my own, maybe she's needy and I'm unsympathetic, maybe I can't take the emotional roller-coaster of her many romances. Maybe I'm jealous because she has succeeded in ways I wish I had succeeded, or because she has a dramatic story to tell - Orthodox Judaism, New York City, Cambridge, Episcopal liturgy - and I have the story of "converting" from one conservative Reformed denomination to another and childbirth. I don't know. And I feel bad for not liking her more. Here she has poured out her heart and soul for the world to trash on and I'm trashin.' No, not trashing, really. I appreciate what she's been through, what she's done, what she's written. I'm just pretty certain that we wouldn't be BFFs if she lived next door.

After all that, I doubt that I have instilled in you any sort of compulsion to go out and read Girl Meets God. Let me share a bit from the book, bits that stood out for me for some reason: insight or good writing or both, and you can decide.

Writing of the value of liturgical prayers: "One, it is important to pray with other people, in a group, a lesson that gives the lie to the lie I like to believe, which is that prayer is just about this vertical conversation between me and God and God and me. And two, liturgy is dull, and habitual, and rote, and you memorize it, and don't think about what you are saying and it is, regardless, the most important thing on the planet. It is the place you start, and the place you come back to."

And later: "Habit and obligation have both become bad words. That prayer becomes a habit must mean that it is impersonal, unfeeling... If you do something because you are obligated to, it doesn't count, at least not as much as if you'd done it of your own free will... Sometimes, often, prayer feels that way to me, impersonal and unfeeling and not something I've chosen to do. I wish it felt inspired and on fire and like a real, love-conversation all the time, or even just more of the time. But what I am learning the more I sit with liturgy is that what I feel happening bears little relation to what is acutally happening. It is a great gift when God give me a stirring, a feeling, a something-at-all in prayer. But work is being done whether I feel it or not. Sediment is being laid. Words of praise to God are becoming the most basic words in my head. They are becoming the fallback words, drowning out advertising jingles and professors' lectures and sometimes even my own interior monologue."

Writing of her college boyfriend: "And I loved him, loved him with that startling, easy college love, the kind you can just fall into carelessly because you are only eighteen and you don't have any idea how much it will hurt."

Writing about skits in church: "I never like these little bursts of theater, which pop up in church services every now and again. They feel infantalizing, like someone thinks the gospel needs to be dressed up and made entertaining rather than just being straighforward and read and dramatic enough in its own right. Skits in church annoy me."

These are some of the bits that keep me reading. They make it worth the sketchy verb tenses and young academic angst. These bits even inspire me a little and allow me to say that I do recommend Girl Meets God. You may want to space out the reading over time, though - this is best taken in small doses.

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