Book Review: Girl Meets God (Jul-Aug 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

by Margy Roark
July – August 2003

Books on the spiritual life abound, not all of them helpful. Many of these are the religious equivalent of diet books. They promise that if you follow this recipe or that regimen you’ll get to God. They often suffer from a phony objectivity and a bossy tone that belie the dark and doubtful pilgrimage of an actual soul. The authors leave out the messy parts of the spiritual life: the emptiness, the cravings, the binging and purging. Such books are dishonest. The memoir genre, in its confessional way, is better equipped to present the spiritual life in all its messiness and, thus, with more authenticity. This accounts for the popularity of Christian memoirists like Anne Lamott who freely acknowledge their weaknesses past and present (in Lamott’s case, alcohol and drug addiction in the past; in the present, occasional homicidal urges toward perky soccer moms and rich Republicans) even as they seek to be holy.

Even so, I approached the spiritual memoir Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life with suspicion. The title suggests it is one of those chirpy light-weight books for twenty-somethings about getting straight with the Lord before you go scouting for the perfect mate. Not so. The subtitle is more accurate: Winner never really meets God—she is too humble to claim that. She is on the path, approaching God, looking for him in every nook and cranny, growing in insight, and leaving parts of her self behind as she travels. The trip is joyful at times. But it can also be lonely and long.

Winner’s story is anything but typical. Born to a lapsed Baptist mother and a secular Jewish father, Winner is drawn first to Judaism, becoming an Orthodox Jew in her late teens. In her early twenties, she converts to Christianity in the form of evangelical Anglicanism. But the book is not so much a conversion narrative as it is an exploration of the two faiths, an ongoing dialogue between the two as Winner struggles to reconcile her love for Judaism and Jewish friends with her conviction about Jesus. The chapters are structured according to the liturgical year, progressing from Advent to Epiphany to Lent and so on. But throughout, Winner is mindful of the Jewish holidays that coincide with the Christian calendar and she draws compelling parallels. This in itself is reason enough to read the book. Winner, who is working on a doctorate on the history of American religion, is one of those rare birds—an academic who can write readable stuff. She gives a rich and vivid account of Jewish rituals and practices in a way that makes you want to study Judaism yourself. And if you come from a Christian faith tradition that does not observe the liturgical year, as I do, you will welcome learning more about how such structure can provide shape, focus, and meaning in a spiritual life.

Take Pentecost, for example, where the disciples receive the Holy Spirit. Winner points out that Pentecost is another word for Shavuot, the Jewish holiday which was initially an agricultural celebration but is now a celebration of God’s revelation of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Some Jews observe this holiday by engaging in an all night bout of studying the Torah. Their wakefulness is a kind of penance for the Israelites oversleeping on the morning God was to reveal himself to Moses. Winner compares this sleepiness to the disciples’ drowsiness at Gethsemane and admits to her own problem with spiritual napping. When Winner and two friends stay up all night studying Acts and Talmudic stories, the insights they come away with suggest that revelation is not a one-time occurrence. Through our collective study of Scripture and by the help of the Holy Spirit, God is always speaking to us if we can only stay awake to hear Him.

Winner is a voracious reader and Girl Meets God is a paean to the many books that have taught Winner precious things about God (be prepared to bolster your reading list). This makes for an insightful, nuanced discussion of Scripture and spiritual teaching through the ages. When Winner, as a new Christian, wants to understand the Eucharist, she reads everything she can get her hands on and looks at all the different words we use to describe this sacrament and what they mean. She unearths an old Roman term for the sacrament, Viaticum, which originally meant the basic necessities one needs on a journey in order to survive. But Winner also learns about the Eucharist through experience. A five-year old in Winner’s Sunday school class defines communion as God being poured into a cup for us to drink. When Winner helps serve the bread and wine one Sunday, she realizes how powerful is the bond between unlovable people who come together as loved.

It makes sense that Winner’s hunger for righteousness takes the form of reading. We read to become different, to leave our old selves behind. A love of reading also admits humility, a willingness and need to hear others’ thoughts. What Winner finds compelling in Judaism is the devotion to studying God’s word. She is delighted with the way rabbinic scholars weigh the words of the Torah with such loving care. Anglicanism, in the way it preserves and values the writings of Christians through the centuries, places a similar value on words. Winner lingers over The Book of Common Prayer savoring the way the prayers of the early church fathers provide words to pray when she has none.

One or two discrepancies cloud the book. Winner glosses over the history of women’s enforced voicelessness in both faiths—since she has not been affected by it, she ignores it. This is a disappointing though perhaps understandable lapse; she covers considerable territory without tackling feminism. Also, her attempt to intersperse the more substantial chapters with chatty personal narrative at times falls flat.

On the whole though, this is an unusual and absorbing book. And Winner’s profound honesty and humility about her weaknesses give the book its credibility. She finds the spiritual life incredibly difficult: she struggles with sex, with selfishness, with the inability to pray. Most of all, she struggles with belief itself—with the way faith becomes stale; with the way churchy language can begin to seem meaningless; with how hard it is to persist in Christianity when the story of Jesus seems so unbelievable. But she recalls a Hasidic story about a student and teacher: the student asks, “Rabbi, how can I say ‘I believe’ when I pray, if I am not sure that I believe?’” The rabbi answers, “ ‘I believe’ is a prayer meaning, ‘Oh, that I may believe!’” Winner reminds us that the work of faith is not up to us, thank goodness, but to God. And because of this, we are changed slowly but surely. The trip is exciting.
New Wineskins

Margaret lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband, Brian, and daughter, Maia.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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