Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

A New Wineskins Conversation With Lauren Winner (May-Aug 2004)

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by New Wineskins Staff
May – August, 2004

NW: You wrote two books — Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath — in the latter book you discuss your Jewish heritage…

Lauren Winner: There are some broader things in Girl meets God about dealing with the larger culture and what it means to be young and self-conscious and living in secular Manhattan, whereas Mudhouse Sabbath as you say is much more particularly on the Jewish-Christian theme. But I think it is not simply about Jewish-Christian relations or Jewish Christianity; I see it as being about the question of spiritual practice, a topic which Protestants in America have been increasing interested in during the last ten or fifteen years. You know — people getting into Lectio Divina or other kinds of ancient Christian prayer disciplines, the revival that we’ve seen in Protestant circles of fasting … and it does seem to me that Judaism for lots of reasons is more schooled in what it means to “live in the spiritual disciplines” than a lot of contemporary Christian communities are.

NW: Right, have you seen that infused into some Christian communities that have not experienced the liturgies and prayers and those kinds of practices and disciplines? For instance, the Baptist tradition or Pentecostal?

Lauren Winner: Well, obviously my own — since I’m an Episcopalian and was baptized and converted in England — my own context is the more liturgical churches. But yeah, all you have to do is pick up an issue of Christianity Today to see that non-liturgical communities are interested in this ancient discipline. I mean, again, the fasting is something that comes to my mind. When groups like Campus Crusades for Christ are encouraging people to return to fasting as a discipline that doesn’t have anything to do with people who’ve hit the Canterbury trail and gotten interested in liturgy. And also even if someone just looks at the popularity over the years of certain books, like Richard Foster’s books on the spiritual disciplines, I do think that it is a hunger and a kind of a need that certainly finds different expressions in different Christian communities, but I think it is broader than just the liturgical churches.

NW: In your first book, you voice your love of reading throughout. How do you think those two—your love of reading and your faith—interact? Has that experience been from the time you were a little girl?

Lauren Winner: I have always been something of a bookworm. So, particularly in my conversion from Judaism to Christianity, reading was key for me because books provided my first real exposure to Christianity. I didn’t find myself suddenly at churches all the time—I found myself instead in the Christian section of bookstores, kind of gravitating towards books that could teach me about Christianity. So, that was certainly vital.

And now that I have been a Christian, what, going on seven years, I find that I actually have to try to check myself so that I don’t err in the direction of, for example, reading a book about prayer instead of praying because…it’s easier to read about praying than to pray. So I’ve certainly, I mean I’m sitting here actually in my office staring at the section of my bookshelf designated for books on prayer and spiritual disciplines and so forth, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from books and am utterly grateful to them, but I know that for me the danger is to say, “I don’t have to go out and do these things. I can read about social justice and that’s just as good as going to work in the soup kitchen or whatever.”

NW: Speaking of social justice, it didn’t seem like you dealt head-on with the issue of some of the voicelessness of women in Girl Meets God. Maybe you’ve experienced it or maybe you haven’t. But talk about that…

Lauren Winner: Yeah, I think that’s a very apt observation; I don’t think either of these books particularly deals with the “gender question” or whatever you want to call that question. And actually I’ve been spared a particular expression of that question because I’m in a denomination that ordains women, so I am not in a situation where I have to think through on a day-to-day basis perhaps the most basic questions of Christian leadership and women in Christian leadership.

Those are tremendously important questions, and it seems to me that many of us have fallen into extremes. Too many of the church’s conversations about gender lack nuance. We have a lot people who are really wedded to a kind of vehemently conservative view on those questions and then some people who are wedded to almost the exact opposite of that view.

I think we are living in the middle of a great cultural revolution that has been going on for thirty or forty years and is going to keep going on for decades and decades. And I think churches, just like everyone else, are in this moment kind of muddling through. At the time that I wrote Girl Meets God, my experience—it was like an early moment in my Christian life—and those questions for me were not as front and center.

NW: In Girl Meets God, there’s some personal narrative in between more substantial chapters that deal with more pressing issues. Tell us a little about your organization there and how that flows.

Lauren Winner: Well, I think that in the last decade we’ve seen that memoir in general has been a really popular literary genre, and I think we can even say that there’s this subgenre of spiritual memoir that’s been really popular, like Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott, and Frederick Buechner and others. And it’s a genre that I am very drawn to personally — obviously, I wrote a book in the genre, but I also read tons of memoir.

We live in a kind of cultural and generational moment; postmodernism is a moment about people telling their stories. Obviously this culture of telling our stories can be taken to an extreme, as on Jerry Springer, talk shows and so forth, but I think it is no coincidence that in this cultural moment where people are interested in telling their own stories, we’ve seen this popularity and an increased interest in a religious and spiritual genre where people aren’t necessarily hitting you over the head with doctrine but are rather saying, “This is my story of what God did with me, and you can read it and do whatever you want to do with it.”

On the other hand, I think the danger of memoir is that it just becomes narcissistic navel-gazing tedium. Face it, my life is just not that interesting. So if Girl Meets God is about me, then I have failed. Hopefully it is about a work that God is doing and therefore has more universal or broader importance. There is a memoirist named Vivian Gornick who said that in a memoir, you the memoirist are not the plot. You are the narrator. I think that’s pretty good — unless you are Bill Clinton writing his memoirs or something — if you are just an ordinary person who’s trying to tell his story, I think it’s a very good watchword. So I try to balance both, like a strong narrative voice and yes, this is a particular person’s story, but here are questions that are going to maybe be of broader interest to Christian readers or maybe even Jewish readers or readers who are seeking.

NW: So you’re weaving theology with your response to it and your struggles with it. I think you do a lot of honest confession, and your voice is authentic in your books, and I think that brings a lot of credibility in turn. Things like evangelism. How do we effectively evangelize a postmodern world?

Lauren Winner: I don’t think evangelism is my great strength, in part because I’ve been pretty deeply formed in a kind of secular and self-consciously sophisticated world that thinks that faith is a private matter, and so it’s still embarrassing and hard for me to sit down with someone and share the gospel, even share my own experience in a certain way.

I do think we’ve seen in the more evangelical community in the last ten or twelve years, this notion of lifestyle evangelism—that you lead a glowingly wonderful life and your secular friends are going to look at you and say, “I want to know what gives her that special glow,” as though you’ve, you know, used great shampoo or something. There is a lot of truth in that, but I do think there’s a danger in that notion because, in order for lifestyle evangelism to work you have to have non-Christian friends — which a lot of us find it’s easier not to—and because you have to assume there’s a very close correlation between your works and the fruit that your works are bearing. And we live in a fallen world and we know the relationship between what is there but it’s not always visible, or we don’t always have the eyes to see the relationship between our faith and the fruit our faith bears.

So, I think lifestyle evangelism is a piece of how we evangelize in this postmodern world. But I also think we, the churches, need to just school ourselves in both articulation and courage. I mean, I find it very risky to sit down with a non-Christian friend and say, “Look, at the end of the day, this is what I think.” Now I don’t think the point is you’re supposed to badger your non-Christian friends to belief. But in Charlottesville, I would say, two of my closest friends are non-Christians, and I just constantly have to make an effort with them, to just make sure I’m telling them the truth when they ask me. I mean, it could be a small thing; they can ask me, you know, what I think of the current stuff going on in the Episcopal church with the consecration of the gay bishop, or they can ask me do I spend time praying. My mother’s quite ill: they might ask me, what do I really think is going to happen when she dies. And these are all instances where it would be easier for me to change the subject.

So I think if we just constantly ask ourselves, “Am I in relationship with people where evangelism might even be on the table? And then do I try and tell the truth to this person in both speech and deed?” I honestly don’t have great answers about evangelism, because it’s still very difficult for me.

NW: When we push issues toward salvation, toward the end result of what we think is going to happen between my salvation and this person’s salvation that I’m talking to, it makes for any kind of conversation with a non-Christian or a Jewish person or a Muslim uncomfortable. With that approach, there’s little room for joining a journey with this person and becoming friends.

Lauren Winner: That’s a good phrase, I like that. “Joining a journey.” That’s good. Write that down!

NW: That’s a phrase we use a lot with our church in Nashville. Related to your book, Mudhouse Sabbath, do you think Christians in general have a very dim view of Judaism and Old Testament Law and a misunderstanding of a lot of those things?

Lauren Winner: I think, to begin with, Christians just don’t spend a huge amount of time thinking about those questions. We spend way more time listening to sermons on the New Testament than on the Old Testament, for example.

NW: Marcianite people, we are?

Lauren Winner: If you look at how Christians and the church have spoken about Jews, you’ll find a long history of violence done to Jews in the name of Jesus. It takes a long time for the residue of that language — Jews as Christ killers, etc. — it takes a long time for that language to truly work its way out of the community, and I don’t think it has truly worked its way out of the Christian community.

I’m given cheer by energy at least in some academic communities where theologians are beginning, and have been for the last decade or so, to really rethink questions like supersessionism, the role of Hebrew scripture. Now I would be naïve if I thought the presence of some of that energy in an academic theological community necessarily meant that for us average people in the pews that we were necessarily thinking differently about Jews and Judaism. So I think that we are in the middle of a long process, and certainly part of the impetus of that process was the Holocaust. I mean from Lutherans to Roman Catholics and lots of folks in between, there have been denominational statements denouncing the Holocaust, denouncing the history of anti-Judaism in the church that may have contributed to some of the rhetoric of the Holocaust. But I certainly think that we have a lot further to go. And also, the contemporary political scene, questions of Israel and Jews and Muslims; these questions are not going away. And in fact, they may just only be becoming more complicated.

NW: Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? Do we somehow compromise the idea that the Jews were involved in the crucifixion of Jesus? But also, the Romans were as well. Isn’t there enough guilt to go around?

Lauren Winner: I haven’t seen the film but I have read the book. I think that the place where that question comes up for many of us in our real church life is during Holy Week. And I do think that pastors and preachers when preaching on those texts have an obligation to at least offer some interpretation, some instruction, as to how we are to read texts that we know have had extremely violent consequences, consequences of real violence over the last two thousand years. We know that the Passion narratives were held up all through the Middle Ages when Jewish communities were razed and destroyed in Europe.

So I appreciated hearing this last Holy Week, when one of the Passion narratives was preached on, I appreciated hearing my pastor say, “When we hear this text today, we are not supposed to picture the Jews across the street at Congregation Beth Israel. We are in this instance to understand that we are here in the text; it is for our sins that Christ was crucified.”

NW: Absolutely.

Lauren Winner: I think that small moves like that can go a long way. But, again, it’s a question of preachers and teachers being held to pretty high standards. You have to be aware that it’s a pressing issue before you can address it from the pulpit.

NW: Right. And how do you, with your family and your friends who are Jewish, affirm their faith, and in effect “join the journey” with them toward God without somehow inadvertently or explicitly denying their faith in the Messiah when you made the decision seven years ago to believe? How have you handled that personally?

Lauren Winner: Well — perhaps not as well as I could have. I mean, I do believe that Jews, faithful Jews, are in a living relationship with the God of Israel. So being a faithful Jew is very different from being a pagan. Nonetheless, being a faithful Jew is not the same thing as being a Christian or I would never have become a Christian, right? So, I feel like my family and I … in a certain way it would be much harder if I was, you know, related to a group of Wiccans or something, whom I thought were just constantly in idolatry. I feel like I can look at my family and know, okay, I don’t understand the mechanics of exactly what will happen, I don’t know what God will do with non-Christian Jews—how He will interact with them at the end of time, but it is still the case that God is in a particular relationship with the Jewish people.

One of the reasons I wrote Mudhouse Sabbath was that I do feel that okay, here are these two communities in relationship with the living God of Israel—obviously, different relationships. The difference between Judaism and Christianity is not merely a denominational difference; it’s a difference that is more significant than that, but I think that these communities have something to learn from one another about how to be in relationship with this God. So I hope that my relationship with my individual relatives is characterized by the same sort of respect and openness. It isn’t always; there are times when we just stare at each other, bewildered. I think at the end of the day, my father and my sister just still think I’m a little loopy. And there is still some pain, I think, for my father in particular, that, you know I’m not there when he’s lighting the Hanukkah Menorah.

NW: But do you feel still—you’re not there—but if you were visiting in town, well, how do you participate in that?

Lauren Winner: Well, I think I can; I think it is only comfortable for me to participate as an observer. The first time I took my then-boyfriend-now-husband to meet my dad, it was a Friday night. We sat down to have Sabbath dinner, so there my father was with his yarmukle, saying the blessing over the wine, and there my grandmother was lighting the Sabbath candles—traditionally it is a woman in the house who lights the Sabbath candles—and I think it would have been really inappropriate if they’d said, “Lauren, why don’t you light the Sabbath candles?”

But at the same time, I thought that it was a good thing that I could participate by being present, and I could join in the communal prayers. The next day — we were there partially because a cousin of mine was having a bar mitzvah — my boyfriend and I went to synagogue, and I hadn’t really realized just how WASP-y looking my boyfriend was until we got there! But he’d been to seminary, so he could read Hebrew. So it was actually neat that he was at this service and was able to follow along and say the prayers.

NW: We appreciate the dialogue that your books are helping to further in this whole discussion of Christianity and Judaism and, as you have mentioned before, these questions are not going to go away and we need to continue that dialogue, and we think it’s very healthy and very godly, and we bless you with that as I know you’ll have further dialogue with other people. I ask God’s blessings on you about that.

Lauren Winner: I appreciate your saying that.

NW: We believe we should take Jewish-Christian dialogue seriously. We see that our very capacity to understand apostolic Christianity hinges upon our recovery of our Jewish heritage. You know, how can we ignore the ground out of which our faith emerged?

Lauren Winner: Right.

NW: It changes our lives when we realize that we are Jews. We aren’t the root — we are grafted into a tree, as Romans 9 says. And so that was a paradigm-changer for many of us. What are your thoughts on that?

Lauren Winner: We can see — again, even if we just look at how New Testament studies have changed over the last generation, we can see that many Christian communities are interested in understanding Jesus’ context in first-century Palestine and understanding that Jesus was a rabbi and was a Jew, and when he spoke in these opaque parables and so forth, he was using imagery that would have meant something to his Jewish community … that the temple was an important symbol and so forth. I would say that I hope that we can all sort of go a little bit further than that. I think that’s an important set of recognitions and realizations for the church to have. You put it well when you said you realize you are a Jew. Now obviously, to a Jewish audience, that statement wouldn’t make any sense.

NW: That’s what we were wondering — how would it sound to a Jew?

Lauren Winner: The problem is when it doesn’t make any sense to a Christian audience. We can understand why a Jewish audience wouldn’t understand a Christian saying, “I am a Jew.” But my concern is that, wow, there might be a lot of Christians who would be like, “Dude, what do you mean by that?” And it seems to me that it’s a good way of putting it because it recognizes among other things kind of a debt of obligation.

When we remember that tree grafting is the work done in Christ, that God extended his grace from the select group of people to whom he had earlier extended it, to all of humanity. This is a place where I just feel it’s a privilege that I grew up Jewish, because I never had to learn that. It never occurred to me—I didn’t have to go through the process of “Oh, this was actually this dramatic gracious thing that God did. He didn’t have to do it this way. He had originally had this covenant with a smaller group of people.” And I think as Christians we sort of get complacent and forget this was a dramatic thing that happened in the person of Jesus. I really like your phrasing there, and I’m thinking it would be interesting to know how different Christian audiences would respond to a Christian saying, “I am a Jew.”

NW: I think that the Christian ethic demands it. How does the Jewish ethic demand that we somehow interact?

Lauren Winner: Yes, it’s a very good question. There was this statement that was published a couple of years ago signed by a number of prominent American Jewish scholars and rabbis, and it was then developed into a book called Christianity on Jewish Terms. It was a book that took ten or so theological themes like election and incarnation. Two Jewish scholars and one Christian scholar wrote on each theme.

And what was so radical about this statement that all of these Jewish folks signed was that one of the planks—some of the planks were obvious, like “Jews and Christians can work together for peace and social justice,” you know, stuff like that—but there was this statement, “We need to recognize that we worship the God of Israel,” which as you point out, is a much easier statement for a Christian to make than for a Jew to make.

And I do think that as counterintuitive as that feels for some Christians, I think it feels even more counterintuitive for Jews, and I have been in some very fruitful kind of dialogues and conversations with Jewish thinkers and theologians and rabbis about this, and it breaks down, obviously, on what we do with Jesus, which of course — when I keep saying Judaism and Christianity is not merely a denominational difference, that’s why it’s not merely a denominational difference! Because the most generous position I think a Jewish thinker can get to is “God somehow sent Jesus for the non-Jews.” And even that would be a pretty radical statement for a Jew to make.

When you read the Gospels you see that, yes, God sent Jesus for the non-Jews, but first and foremost for the Jews. And you can’t read that stuff about the Syro-Phoenecian woman and come away from that thinking, “Oh, Jesus really just came to hang out with the Gentiles.” So I think that is the place where the conversation begins to falter. So I think you’re right, it is a harder, a narrower conversation in some ways I think for the Jewish participants than for the Christian participants.

NW: Okay, well what are some of the books that are on your shelf right now, the next ones up that you want to read?

Lauren Winner: Um, well, a book that I read a long time ago that was out of print and I just realized it had been reprinted — I’m really looking forward to rereading it—is a book called Clinging: the Experience of Prayer by Emily Griffin, who is a Catholic writer and I actually had the privilege of meeting her last week. I was at a Christian arts workshop in New Mexico, and she was there. So, I’m very excited, I have an inscribed copy of one of my favorite books by the author! I’m looking forward to reading that. And I am starting the third volume of this three volume novel called Kristini Lavransdatter. Have you heard of this book? It has quite a following in some Christian communities, but I hadn’t heard about it until a year ago. It was written in the 1920s and set in medieval Norway, and it follows the exploits of this young Christian — well, I guess in the course of three books, she stops being young — but this Christian woman in like fourteenth-century Norway, and I thought “Why do I want to read that? That sounds totally irrelevant.” But it’s just amazing — I understand why it’s a cult book among the people who’ve read it. So I just read the first two volumes and I am waiting for the weekend to come so I can start the third.

NW: Right. I really appreciate your time, Miss Winner, and I really appreciate your writing and what you’re doing with it. And again as a magazine, and all the editors that are involved in this, we bless you with continuing in that ministry.

Lauren Winner: Thank you. I appreciate it.New Wineskins

Lauren WinnerLauren F. Winner is author of Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath.

Ms. Winner is a daughter of a Reform Jewish father and a lapsed Baptist mother. During her freshman year at Columbia University, she converted to Orthodox Judaism. She studied in England, receiving a master’s degree from Cambridge University, and during that time she was baptized into the Church of England.

Ms. Winner tells the story of her religious journey in Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Religious Life (reviewed by New Wineskins in our July/August 2003 issue), a book that was met with widespread critical acclaim. In Mudhouse Sabbath she illuminates the spiritual lessons that Judaism taught her, reflecting on how Jewish religious practices shape and inform her faith as a Christian.

Currently at work on her doctorate in American history at Columbia, Ms. Winner also contributes to numerous magazines. Her work has appeared in Christianity Today, the Christian Century, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and many other journals.

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