Twenty-six-year-old Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God should be the definitive conversion memoir for the Mountain Dew generation. The book chronicles her compelling ten-year journey from her days as a devout member of a Reform temple in high school in Virginia, her conversion to Orthodox Judaism during her undergraduate years in New York City, her baptism in the Anglican church while in graduate school in England, and finally back to New York where she began work on a doctorate and struggled to integrate her love for Judaism with her Christianity.
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GIRL MEETS GOD
A Conversation with Lauren Winner
By Bill McGarvey Twenty-six-year-old Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God should be the definitive conversion memoir for the Mountain Dew generation. The book chronicles her compelling ten-year journey from her days as a devout member of a Reform temple in high school in Virginia, her conversion to Orthodox Judaism during her undergraduate years in New York City, her baptism in the Anglican church while in graduate school in England, and finally back to New York where she began work on a doctorate and struggled to integrate her love for Judaism with her Christianity. Highly caffeinated twenty-somethings who have co-opted the term extreme and applied it to just about everything from sports to computers could certainly get a workout trying to keep pace with Winner's spiritual quest. But while she may fit a certain niche chronologically, Winners herself resists easy categorization. She's a self-described "nerd" who sports tattoos, a nose ring, and rhinestone-encrusted cat-eye glasses that look like they were inspired by a Far Side cartoon. She's a highly intellectual academic whose pivotal moments in her conversion to Christianity involve a dream featuring the actor Daniel Day-Lewis and her love for the admittedly middlebrow Mitford novels about a small Christian community in the south.
By her own admission, Winner is not attracted to anything lukewarm. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the following interview took place over tea in a coffee shop, while a torrential downpour soaked her hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia which was experiencing one of its worst droughts in recent memory. She returned here in the spring of 2002 to work on her dissertation and to be closer to her mother. In her first twenty-six years she's traveled enough spiritually, intellectually, and geographically to fill several lifetimes and, to her chagrin, it has landed her back home, two blocks from the synagogue she attended in her youth and right around the corner from the faith community she is now a part of.
Mars Hill Review: Let's start off with some basics. When did you begin writing Girl Meets God?
Lauren Winner: Three years ago, I wrote part of the opening chapter as an essay for The Best Christian Writing 2000. But I didn't really begin work on it in earnest until about two years ago.
MHR: What provoked you to begin writing a chronicle of your spiritual life?
LW: When I first converted to Christianity, a number of people said, "You should write about this because it's such an interesting story." I don't happen to find it all that interesting because it's my life and it's very familiar to me, but there are those who think the conversion of Jews to Christianity is an especially intriguing thing. What more specifically prompted me to start writing were the experiences I describe in one of the chapters about my move back to New York: during my first New York stint, when I was a practicing Orthodox Jew, I would spend Friday nights at shabbat services. But after returning to New York from Cambridge (about two years after I'd been baptized), on one particular Friday night, I was heading to a restaurant for dinner, and spied a group of people coming my way with whom I used to attend shul. Fearing their disapproval, I literally hid behind a fruit cart! It is a somewhat complicated thing to do--to try, after a religious conversion, to put the pieces of one's life and self back together. And, like many people, I find that writing helps me make sense of my own thoughts. So, I began scribbling things down.
Also, a number of spiritual memoirs were quite instrumental in the kind of gradual conversion I experienced. I read Christian memoir and Christian fiction pretty voraciously before I ever actually converted. In hindsight, I see that reading about Christianity let me experience it vicariously. Through the reading of these memoirs, I was able to dip my toes into "church" through books without attending myself. My recognition of the importance certain memoirs had been in my own conversion also prompted my writing.
MHR: Whose stories moved you the most?
LW: Well, immediately before I was baptized, I read Frederica Mathewes-Green's Facing East, about her conversion from Episcopalianism to Eastern Orthodoxy. Though it didn't motivate me to become Eastern Orthodox, her book was major for me. Her story is set very much in her church, so it's not so much about her interior life, although there's some of that, but it's very much about her community. In Girl Meets God, I describe reading Jan Karon's Mitford novels, which are also about a kind of community. I think this vivid portrayal of a community organized around one's faith was very appealing. In my own conversion, one of the things I struggled with was the realization that I would need to leave the Jewish community that I had felt such a part of. It was comforting to learn that I could leave that and land in some other equally welcoming and authentic community.
MHR: It seems to me that one of the trajectories of your pilgrimage was from a very intellectual or heady type of Judaism to what one might consider a more "middlebrow" Christianity, vis-ˆ-vis the Mitford novels. Isn't there something ironic about that?
LW: As opposed to my sitting down and reading Karl Barth, and coming to faith through the church dogmatics?
MHR: Yes, or C. S. Lewis or Thomas Merton.
LW: I read Lewis's Mere Christianity in high school. It was either given to me or I stumbled upon it; at any rate, I didn't really like it. One of the reasons I wrote Girl Meets God--and I think this is also one of the reasons spiritual memoir has been popular throughout the last decade--is that there are a lot of people who aren't asking the Enlightenment questions that more standard apologetics texts like Mere Christianity strive to answer. Having C. S. Lewis, however brilliantly, explain the logic and rationality of Christianity didn't speak to me where I lived.
I do think that there are certain intellectual components to my faith life. I was very intellectually attracted to Christianity before I was more personally intrigued by it; I was drawn to the study of Christianity as a religion major in college, long before I ever considered attending church myself. But Christianity can't just begin and end in my brain. I've recently taken a job as a receptionist at my church here in Charlottesville. It's not the most intellectually stimulating work, but it is still very satisfying, knowing that my daily tasks, however mundane, contribute to keeping the church in working order. I don't think that God has called any of us to be the cerebellum of the body of Christ. While I have some intellectual gifts that I believe should be employed to serve the interests of the church, I'm unconvinced that I'm supposed to walk around living in my head all the time. Christians have, for a very long time, lived very much as Enlightenment people. We talk about knowing God through our minds. In fact, I think Christian tradition offers something much richer than that.
Memoir has the ability to offer an introduction to faith that can speak to people who might be left cold by apologetics. In numerous recent spiritual memoirs, the authors say, "Well, here's the story; this is what happened to me." The readers then take from it what they will. I think that's much of the explanation for the success of writers like Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamott, and Nancy Mairs, a disabled Catholic writer. One of the things she says that I especially like is that she isn't writing to tell readers to follow her example, but rather to tell them what she did. After they read it, they can do what they want. I think spiritual memoir also appeals to me because I' m an "F" on the Myers-Briggs...
MHR: What's an "F" on the Myers-Briggs?
LW: The Myers-Briggs is a personality assessment test that I think carries a great deal of veracity to it. I've actually been accused of being a Myers-Briggs determinist! Anyway, an "F" is someone who is more of a feeler vs. a thinker. Because I'm an F (as well as an N, for intuiter, rather than sensor), I'm a big picture, rather than a detail, person. Who knows if that's why? But classic apologetics doesn't speak to me as powerfully as memoir, as entering into someone else's ordinary story.
MHR: Well, if you're a feeler, why did you choose to convert to Anglicanism, which isn't exactly a touchy-feely faith choice?
LW: As opposed to something charismatic or Pentecostal?
MHR: Even Roman Catholicism seems a more earthy choice, in some ways. I'm a Roman Catholic, so I guess I should put my own cards on the table. But Anglicanism, especially the British sort, isn't a faith tradition or a church known for its abundant warmth. So, it would appear that you moved from a relatively insulated, warm, Jewish community to one that seems (to me) a little more austere or removed.
LW: It's true that Anglicanism isn't the most overtly emotional faith choice. In fact, it may be the least emotional of the Christian faiths [laughs]. And I do sometimes miss the warmth of the Jewish community. I was talking with a woman who had also converted from observant Judaism to Christianity, and I mentioned that while I went to church and had after-church lunch with some of the members, as well as occasionally attending a Wednesday night bible study, my life still felt fragmented. I didn't feel that my church was really a community. "Christians don't know very much about living in a shtetl," she replied--shtetl being the Yiddish word for village, something like the villages Isaac Bashevis Singer depicts.
I definitely miss the all-encompassing community of Orthodox Judaism. But my Christian experience has changed since that conversation, too. One may have to work a little harder to forge Christian community, but it's utterly doable. It may mean living in intentional community with other Christians. It may be something as simple as joining a small group or Bible study. But Christianity is inherently communal. The Body of Christ isn't language that lends itself to individualism.
MHR: In Girl Meets God you also describe a time when as a Christian you're in a sort of valley. It seems to me that the wisdom here is the same for both faiths--a sort of prescription for practicing and moving through. Have you found anything particularly different between the two faith traditions in terms of your spiritual dry spells?
LW: I wouldn't say that there's much difference in my valley moments, but this is something I'm still trying to figure out how to handle as a Christian. Judaism, because it is based on a daily observance of the law, gives its practitioners a lot of tasks. Observant Judaism dictates diet, dress, and all manner of things--so if you happen to get caught in a spell of doubt or despair, there are all these religious practices to keep you tied into Judaism. And unless you're say, a Benedictine, or in some other restrictive order, Christianity does not explicitly order your culinary and sartorial choices. So it's kind of a challenge to ask myself, "What do I mean when I say 'just keep practicing', even in a valley moment?" Does that mean to just keep praying every morning or is my Christianity expected to inform my life at every moment in everything I'm doing?
MHR: What is your prayer life like?
LW: In the book there's a constant sense of not quite doing what I would like to do; not praying as much as I wish I had. And that's still true, to some extent. At this point, the center of my prayer discipline is the practice of Lectio Divina. And I think I've finally found a spiritual director here in Charlottesville. Actually, I didn't find him--God clearly found him for me, which is very exciting.
One thing that's sort of a recent development in my prayer life is that I've finally gotten comfortable with conversational prayer. Initially this was very foreign to me, and uncomfortable. Maybe it's just the people I'm hanging out with in Charlottesville, or maybe it's working in a church atmosphere where we open and close every meeting in prayer, but I now find myself praying in groups, off the cuff as it were, quite frequently.
I'm teaching a writing class here, at a local writing center, and I walked into the first class and found myself wishing I could open in prayer. That's fairly new for me, that impulse or expectation--that prayer should begin and end anything we undertake.
MHR: In your book you mention that prayer is very gratifying.
LW: Yes, it is. And even when I don't feel like it's gratifying, I believe it is edifying. Prayer is a necessary and useful component of spiritual practice--like the sacraments--and I believe it is always efficacious whether I feel anything or not.
MHR: Orthodox Judaism carries with it a lot of physical restrictions, and yet, do you feel that Judaism appealed to you because you were, in a sense, more "earthbound" then?
LW: I can't say that one religion is less abstract than the other. I think Christianity seems less abstract, which is one of the things I was trying to explore in my chapter on Ascension Day. In many ways, Christianity is the less abstract religion because we're the ones that get the incarnate God. On the other hand, this incarnate God is up in heaven somewhere. So, while it's all well and good that he's incarnate, unless you happened to live in first-century Palestine you didn't get to hang out with him in that literally embodied way. So, both religions experience--forgive the academic jargon--a dialectic between abstraction and concreteness, between absence and presence.
Still, I miss much of the ritual and celebration of Judaism. A good friend here is not Jewish, but is sending her children to preschool at the synagogue. I saw her last week and she said, "Lauren, they [meaning the Jewish school] have a holiday practically every week." While this is a slight exaggeration--although in September it's not really that much of an exaggeration--there is something I miss about that regular celebration, and something extremely spiritually instructive about it. That's most likely one of the reasons that I never went in any wholly Protestant direction when pursuing Christianity.
MHR: Keeping the celebration of holidays in mind, what made you choose the Anglican Church, rather than what would seem to be a more obvious choice--Roman Catholicism?
LW: I can only really speak about it as a call. It was just very clear to me, for reasons I could not have even begun to articulate at the time, that I was supposed to be in the Anglican Church. The choice to remain an Anglican still feels very clear to me although I have some discomfort about certain things going on in the church today. But it feels absolutely clear that this is where I'm supposed to be. And I can tell you why I'm not a Roman Catholic ... [laughs] I think that if I were called to Rome, before I crossed the Tiber I'd have to get to a different place on issues like papal authority, and on women in the ministry, and on the coredemptorist doctrine, with Mary as coredemptorist. I'd have to more fully understand what that doctrine meant before I could sign up.
MHR: A skeptic might say that you've been through two major faith traditions before you hit 25, where are you going to be when you're 30--or rather what are you going to be? What's stopping you from pursuing Islam or Buddhism?
LW: To be honest, I've stopped feeling like I have to give a persuasive answer to that question, but I absolutely understand why people ask it. Many of my Jewish relatives were less than thrilled about my conversion to Christianity, and I think some of them sort of hoped that it was just a phase I was going through. I think that now they're at a point where they understand that it is not a phase. So when the question does come up, I feel like it's not my job to come up with a satisfying answer, because I can't imagine what a compelling answer might be. How could I convince someone that I'm really, really serious this time? I, myself, feel sure I won't be converting to Buddhism or Islam. It's utterly obvious to me that God has placed me in the church, and he'll keep me here; his grace will keep me here, even if I feel, at some point, like falling away.
MHR: Do you consider yourself in any way radical? You seem to have gone to extremes--from a Reform synagogue in high school to Orthodox Judaism as an undergraduate in New York and then to Anglicanism as a graduate student in Cambridge. Clearly, your faith journey has not been one I would categorize as lukewarm.
LW: I do think that's a part of my emotional temperament. I think most of my friends would describe me as intense. Since I was a child, I've had this need or desire to be part of a religious community. What one might call a "lukewarm" expression of religious community or commitment doesn't really appeal to me.
MHR: Do you feel the restlessness that characterized you when you were younger, or is that behind you now?
LW: I suppose I was restless, but we can probably chalk a lot of that up to just having been a teenager. How can you separate being a teenager from being restless? I do feel that, as I grow older, I'm now better able to deal with uncertainty. For example, and you're going to love that I'm going back to this again, well, I'm also a "J" (for judger) on the Myers-Briggs test, which means that I look for closure. Okay, I confess that I'm really into the Myers-Briggs [laughs] ... So, as someone who judges rather than perceives, I generally prefer and feel comfortable with closure, organization, and decision making. I don't like to leave decisions up in the air. Right now, I'm in a place of possible vocational transition. For nearly a decade, I've had a pretty clear vision for a particular career path in academia, but that no longer feels like what I will do. I'm certainly going to finish my Ph.D., and maybe I will still wind up on the academic path. But perhaps I'll wind up on some different vocational path. I have two more years on my dissertation, which means I have two more years to figure out what to do. The fact that I'm comfortable with this open-endedness and uncertainty surprises me. Just a few years ago, the thought that I might be in a place where, "Hmm, it's gonna take me two years to figure it out," would've been completely unnerving and anxiety producing. Now, I feel a little more able to ride that out.
I definitely love teaching at the university level. I'm teaching at UVA [the University of Virginia] in the religion department this spring, and I'm very excited about that. But there are a lot of trappings of the profession and of the academic career that do not have a hold on my heart.
MHR: Though your book is titled Girl Meets God, one of the questions I found myself asking when I was reading it was, "When does girl meet world?" In some ways, with your intellectual pursuits, there is a kind of a "hot house" flavor or feeling with regard to your life. You're in school, continually, studying, and studying some more--pursuing first one degree and then another. Do you ever ask yourself the question...
LW: When will my life actually start?
MHR: Yes. Academic life, while wonderful, is also pretty insular, and all about ideas.
LW: I would answer that in two parts; unfortunately you may feel that neither of them really answers the question. I do have thoughts and feelings about academia as an institution, but the way they take shape in my head is less "this is not the real world and I need to get out there and live." Rather, my thoughts tend to be more of, "if I'm going to spend my life serving an institution, I need to serve the church and not the academy." The two ideas are not necessarily incompatible, but you're right, the academy is a very totalizing institution, and one that's going in directions that make me uncomfortable. I think it's increasingly in bed with the market--not a good trend.
It's very seductive to think life doesn't begin until you're out of school, or until you're married, or until you own a home of your own, or whatever. But I think I've come to the place where I'm no longer waiting for my life to start.
MHR: But in a lot of ways, an academic life has protected you from having to go out and "get a job." You're living on scholarships, right?
LW: Studying is a job; it's just a job that doesn't pay anything. Academia protects me from a lot, to be sure, but it doesn't protect me from needing to pay my rent. I was working thirty-plus hours a week while I was in New York, for a web site called Beliefnet. And although my Ph.D. is in history, this year I'm teaching in the religion department at UVA.
MHR: It's interesting that you left New York and returned to Charlottesville. Is it more difficult coming back here as a Christian when you'd been a practicing Jew the last time you lived here? How has it been to practice your Christian faith here as opposed to New York?
LW: It's been interesting for me to be back in Charlottesville, in a couple of ways. One is that actually I'm much happier and more satisfied with the Christian community here. I think that church life in Manhattan is very strange. It's sort of anomic and atomized like everything else in Manhattan.
Here, at UVA, there's a vibrant group of Christian folks, more than at any university I've been affiliated with. So there's a lot of overlap for me between friends of mine at church and friends of mine at the university--people who share both my faith and my intellectual interests. That's been extremely satisfying. And I much more quickly became an active member of my parish church here.
MHR: Has a part of your identity search been about your roots as a southerner? Do you find that you're more comfortable in the South?
LW: The South has a big hold on me, as opposed to New York. Though I have to qualify that by saying that I don't feel entirely of the South. I think in some ways being Jewish in the South, at least on the mythic level, remains complicated.
MHR: Do you think New York held more appeal for you when you were becoming an Orthodox Jew?
LW: I think being in New York was about getting away from my family. I never wanted to be a New Yorker. I would say that culturally, I went about as far away as I could. I'm sure that was an overdetermined choice; if I looked closely there were probably lots of reasons I did that, but I'm sure that like many teenagers, I was trying to get some distance from my parents.
MHR: Talk to me about Flannery O'Connor. I understand you've been rereading The Habit of Being.
LW: One of the things I appreciate is the way she speaks to mystery. Mystery is a word that gets bandied about in the Episcopal Church and certain evangelical circles too, but not in a very satisfying way. It's sort of denuded of content--it's like, look, we can't really understand the Eucharist so we'll just call it a mystery and move on to the next thing. Both mystery and grace are instrumental in all conversions. In fact, instrumental isn't even the right word. Grace is constitutive of all conversions. As far as I'm concerned, conversion isn't possible without it. All you can say is that grace intervenes.
For me, that relationship between grace and free will is always something that ties me up in knots. God is extending this grace--all the time and everywhere--and my ability to receive it has little to do with me. So I can find myself in circles thinking about questions like why did I receive this grace--this relationship with God--and someone else, say my sister, did not?
MHR: I really like your description of the Eucharist in Girl Meets God. Can you talk a little about that?
LW: In my church, I serve as a Eucharistic lay minister, which I really love. But a couple of weeks ago I was at the altar and was so moved by what I saw that I felt almost paralyzed. Watching 150 people coming up to get the Eucharist was very meaningful, and it made me realize that until recently, the Eucharist hasn't held much meaning for me. It was so powerful, watching the Body of Christ come forward in faith to receive his body. All these people, just straggling along the Christian road, most of us uncomprehending what is really going on, but we receive it nonetheless. We receive it because we know it to be a place where, mysteriously, we meet God.
MHR: Have you visited your synagogue here yet?
LW: No, I haven't. But I've had breakfast with the rabbi.
MHR: Has he read your book?
LW: It hadn't been published at the time. I've been told by those who've read the book that they think it's a loving and fair portrait of the Jewish community in Charlottesville, which I hope is true. I've learned a lot of very important spiritual lessons from that community and that I wouldn't trade for anything. I would be surprised to find myself a member of a church that's as vibrant and creative as the synagogue here was when I was growing up.
MHR: But at the end of Girl Meets God, you're on your way to temple, but you're planning to go to church the next day. Where are you on balancing the two right now?
LW: I haven't been to temple since then, except for a cousin's bat mitzvah. I continue to miss a lot of things about Judaism; there's no question of that. And on the occasional Saturday morning, I do wish that I could go to services at Congregation Beth Israel, especially because I live just two blocks away. But that would be so inappropriate on a number of levels.
MHR: Was it easier to walk back into the temple in New York because it felt more anonymous?
LW: The incident at the end of the book was very weird. Going to shul that morning was like a compulsion. It was a real moment of closure for me. In some ways I don't know that this issue of Judaism versus Christianity will ever be completely closed, but I ended the book with that scene because it was the closest to closure I've gotten. A friend of mine told me a story about breastfeeding her son. When he was six months old, she introduced him to the bottle, and he took to it immediately. He refused to breast-feed again, except for one final time a few days later. His mother described it as a small gift, one last breast-feeding session. That's how that morning in synagogue felt to me.
MHR: Has your academic research involved the study of early- or first-century Christianity, and how the Jewish Christians moved away from the law to became more fully what we consider Christian today? Do you feel that something was lost along the way?
LW: My scholarly knowledge about that is pretty minimal. I do think the church definitely needs to better grapple with its Jewish inheritance. When people talk about the church recovering its Judaism, they generally mean recognizing that Jesus was a rabbi. Let's remember that Jesus was a Jew. That's great as far as it goes, but it may not go very far. For the church to fully recognize its Jewish inheritance is to recognize four things: 1) that the church is deeply informed by the Judaism of that early common era, 2) that Judaism and Jews play a distinct role in the Christian salvation story, and 3) that thinking theologically about Judaism is different than thinking theologically about any other non-Christian religion. Lastly, it's important for the church to grapple with the horrors carried out against the Jewish community in the form of deicide charges and so forth. All of those factors need to be acknowledged simultaneously. I don't think it's just a simple matter of nodding that yes, Jesus was a Jew, and supporting that idea by having a Passover seder. I don't think that's really sufficient.
MHR: In your book you don't explore the persecution of the Jews in the twentieth century. How did that figure into your conversion?
LW: I hate to admit that I hardly thought about it when I was initially converting. And I really only began to think about it very seriously of late. Around the time I began writing, I found myself, perhaps coincidentally, reading a lot about Jewish persecution, both in the twentieth century and in the Middle Ages. At the same time, some pretty complicated issues regarding the Palestinian conflict arose in my church in New York.
The rector and a member had taken a trip to Palestine, and when they returned to New York, the church hosted a number of lectures to discuss their findings. The conversation that emerged was extremely troubling to me. So at the same time as I was immersed in all this reading and was learning more about anti-Jewish massacres in the Middle Ages, I was also participating in these very complicated and disturbing conversations at my church about Israel and Palestine. It's not so much that I was troubled by the criticisms of Israeli policy. What troubled me was the way the "Jews" were very unthinkingly, and I believe unintentionally, characterized in these conversations.
MHR: Have you been to Israel?
LW: Yes, before I converted. I went to Israel the summer before I started college. I would like to go back at some point.
MHR: Are you still closely connected to your Orthodox friends?
LW: A majority of my connections with my Orthodox friends were lost not because my friends were furious with me or devastated by my conversion, but because the social context for the relationship ceased to exist. I used to see them on Friday nights, at shabbat dinner, and obviously, I no longer spend time in that social space. It's sort of like the friendships you develop at the office. When you leave your job, many of those friendships fall apart. It doesn't mean the relationships weren't real or important.
MHR: I understand that you're currently working on a book on chastity.
LW: Well, I've been doing some writing about chastity, which was basically born out of my own experience with learning to live chastely. It's hard to get statistics on the question of chastity in the church, but what is available seems to suggest that lots of unmarried, primarily orthodox or committed Christians are either having sex, or having something pretty close to it. Obviously, there are many that aren't, but there seem to be lots who are. What this suggests to me is that the church isn't doing the best possible job--pastorally--that we're not giving single Christians all the tools they need to faithfully live out the Christian teachings about chastity.
My personal experience has been that there's not a lot of space in the Christian community to have the kind of conversations that I would find helpful. I think a lot of people have decided that premarital sex and chastity is a litmus test. The average Christian might feel comfortable going into their pastor's office and confessing that they're really having trouble with the concept of tithing, and that they need the pastor's help in working with them on tithing to the appropriate level of their income. There's a feeling that the church will work with them on this issue without judgment. But would they feel the same way if the issue were sex outside of marriage? I believe that there's very little space for Christians to honestly admit that where they are on this issue is far from perfect, and though they realize their behavior is sinful, they need help in getting to a more chaste place--help that's realistic.
In the orthodox Christian moral vocabulary it's clear that sex belongs in marriage. I think the conversation that's available right now is that chastity is about gritting your teeth, bearing it and not having sex. But I wonder if there isn't a more robust understanding of chastity--seeing it as a discipline that involves not just a turning away from premarital sex, but as a turning toward God.
MHR: Has your position on chastity shifted from when you were an Orthodox Jew?
LW: The Orthodox Jewish practice is actually much more specific. One isn't allowed to have any physical contact with members of the opposite sex who aren't blood relatives. You can't even hold hands. My understanding is the Orthodox Jewish community in America has less premarital sex than the orthodox Christian community, but I gather that this is increasingly becoming an issue among modern Orthodox Jews. In some ways it's less of an issue because Orthodox Jews tend to marry earlier; and there aren't too many people who convert to Orthodox Judaism in their mid-twenties. However, many people who become "born again" Christians later in life have already been schooled in a more liberal sexual practice. These folks then have to break that habit.
MHR: Will this book be more of a memoir?
LW: In some ways. It's not meant to be a literary; it's a more popular kind of book--a blend of self-help, accessible theology, biblical teaching, and so forth. But yes, there will be some first person discussion. Not because I want to encourage a "tell-all," voyeuristic culture, but because I think that hearing other people's stories--in this case, my own story of learning to practice the discipline of chastity--can be very useful.
MHR: There's been some incredibly insular material written about chastity by people who haven't spent much time "in the world," and who are a little disconnected from what's really going on.
LW: I've spend a fair amount of time thinking about the model that Josh Harris and others put forward, the "court, don't date" model. While that vision has its virtues, it doesn't work especially well if you're over nineteen years old. He has this notion that one's parents are supposed to be actively involved in the courtship process. It's hard to imagine how that would work in my life, or in the lives of many of my twenty-something, thirty-something, and forty-something single friends.
MHR: Again, Harris's advice doesn't seem to come from a particularly "lived in" place. The books of his that I've seen don't reflect the world I live in. It's as if he would prefer that we all went back to some Christian cave, eschewing popular culture, and living with our Christian parents who still have a certain jurisdiction over us as adults. What is your take on the concept of "girl meets world"?
LW: My engagement with popular culture is limited just because I'm a nerd. It doesn't have anything to do with my Christianity. For example, I don't own a TV, though I did watch The West Wing premiere at a friend's house. I don't like the feeling my brain gets after I watch too much TV. I'm perfectly happy not to have one.
MHR: But I do wish you had written more about your engagement with the world in your memoir.
LW: I think you're right. Having written the book a little over a year ago, I think that's something I would write more about if I could do it over. I think my life has changed since I've moved back to Charlottesville. In New York, I sat at my desk and worked. Then I would go see a friend and would come back and work. I think my life here is more varied and balanced. Perhaps this is because Charlottesville is much more manageable in a lot of ways.
MHR: And do you feel like a normal twenty-six-year-old now?
LW: I don't know what a normal twenty-six-year-old is. I have a lot of friends my age that are already married with kids. And I also have a lot of friends who are twenty-six, but whose lives aren't much different from college students. Then again, I have other friends whose lives don't reflect either of those lifestyles. My stepmother once told me that after twenty-five, age doesn't matter. Maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but I think there's some truth in it. Age becomes, maybe, less important than life stage.
MHR: What do you do for fun?
LW: Reading-wise or life-wise? I have my friends who I spend time with, and I'll be going to a movie tonight. Does that sound too pathetic for words? [laughs]
MHR: Do you do any reading you would qualify as a "guilty pleasure"?
LW: Oh sure. I have a whole list of novelists whose work I follow. I'd been waiting patiently for two years for Nancy Leman's most recent book, published this summer. And Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott mysteries are some of my favorites. Deborah Knott is a cool protagonist; she's a district judge in North Carolina.
MHR: Do you have any thoughts on what's being published as "Christian fiction" today?
LW: If by Christian fiction you mean those books published exclusively for the Christian book market (the CBA), as opposed to more classic literary fiction like Walker Percy or Ron Hansen, I'd have to say that I think Christian fiction is actually getting better. Vinita Hampton Wright is a good example of that.
MHR: Do you think it's important for writers to define themselves as "Christian writers" or as writers who happen to have a Christian orientation?
LW: I get asked that a lot. People say, "Oh, you're a Christian writer." But I feel like claiming either label takes a lot of hubris. I'm just someone who's trying to be both a Christian and a writer. It seems so presumptuous to qualify oneself as a Christian writer.
MHR: That said, are you most interested in appealing to fellow Christians or to the culture at large?
LW: I'm writing for both. The chastity book I'm working on is written specifically for a Christian audience. I'm not interesting in converting the masses to chastity; I'm interested in fostering a particular conversation in this community.
I would hope Girl Meets God would be read broadly. I hope it'll be embraced by Christians who might gain something from a more personal exploration of Judaism. I hope Jewish readers will find it too, but I honestly don't know if they will. And I also I hope it will be read by spiritual seekers who, like me, might be drawn into faith through reading someone else's story. And I hope insofar that it qualifies as literary nonfiction and not just a "religious" book that it will be read at a secular level as well.
MHR: To get back to Flannery O'Connor for a moment--she talks about writing "edifying works." How do you feel about that?
LW: I absolutely think there's a place for writing what ends up being spiritual food for the converted. One of the things I think--I hope--is changing in the Christian book world is the place of conversion in Christian novels and memoir. So often, conversion has been the point, the plot climax, of Christian stories. But increasingly, we are seeing books that begin after the conversion, after the revivalist has left town, books where the plot is not about getting someone converted but about the long grind of faith that begins afterwards.
People have described my book as a conversion memoir, but I don't necessarily see it that way. I see it as describing what happens to me at the beginning of my Christian life--immediately after my conversion. Yes, I talk about my conversion experience in the book, but explaining why I converted is not the point of the memoir. The point is much more about discerning the place of Judaism in that context and figuring out what the first steps of a contemporary Christian life look like.
MHR: Do you think you're at the very beginning of your spiritual journey?
LW: I wouldn't frame it quite like that because I was engaged in a relationship with the living God of Israel before I converted. My converting to Christianity was clearly a rupture--converting from Judaism to Christianity is no mere denominational change, but it's different than converting from atheism or paganism. The God of Israel is also the God of the New Testament. I think it's been a fairly steep learning curve for me, and I wouldn't say my issues with Judaism are completely resolved. Perhaps they will never be completely resolved. But I don't feel plagued by those concerns in the same way.
MHR: You talk about your religious pilgrimage not being about feeling, but about faith.
LW: The creed, while not a sacrament, is another useful example of this. You don't say it because you believe it but in order to believe it. It's a statement of what you will to be true.
Bill McGarvey is a singer/songwriter and a contributing editor at Book magazine. His first solo album, Tell Your Mother, was recently released. He can be slightly awkward in social situations when words like "prestidigitation" come up.