Reinventing a Religious Self

I don't usually read memoirs. There are just so many of them out there, and the whole genre seems to have become self-indulgent or uninspired. Really, I'd rather just read fiction—especially if the alternative is a religious memoir about the conversion experience of a 20-something academic.

So I approached Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God a bit reluctantly. I had to admit, though, that the book's subject seemed intriguingly complex—Winner, the bookish daughter of a Reformed Jewish father and a Baptist mother, grows up in the South, decides in high school to become an Orthodox Jew, moves to New York to study at Columbia, and by the end of college emerges as a Christian. And that's really only the beginning.

The book's slightly unfortunate title involves more than a little irony. Winner doesn't so much meet God in a neat conversion experience as feel drawn into abandoning her Orthodox Judaism against her will. All this after undergoing the formal process required in order to convert to the faith of her father (Jewish-ness being passed down the maternal line) and having chosen to inhabit a life steeped in the study of the Torah and Judaica. When she decides to become a Christian, she continues to search for a way to position herself. This quest is fraught with longing for the faith she has left behind, a divorce-like pain of separation, doubt, and constant recalibration.

Friends, lovers, and family figure prominently in Winner's story. This memoir about a young woman's relationship with Jesus is propelled forward by the vicissitudes of other significant relationships in her life: her complex relationship with Steven, her Christian ex-boyfriend; her friend Hannah, one of her first close Christian friends, who is contemplating cheating on her husband; her Orthodox Jewish ex-boyfriend Dov. The dynamics of these relationships weave a fitting backdrop for her story.

WINNER'S QUIRKINESS shines through in anecdotes that infuse the book with much of its appeal. Before becoming a Christian, she has an epic dream about being kidnapped by a band of mermaids and taken to live for a year under the sea. The dream culminates with her rescue by a Daniel Day-Lewis-like hero who she realizes upon waking, with absolute certainty, is Jesus.

Later, she writes about dragging her mother along on a spontaneous trawl through Charlottesville, North Carolina area farms, searching for the residence of novelist Jan Karon. She wants to find the writer whose work contributed to her conversion to Christianity by inspiring a desire for "something Christians have."

Then there is her humbling first experience confessing to a priest. She feels convicted to make a confession and settles on Father Peter in a small upstate New York town, safely removed from the city. With some fear and trembling, she makes her way through a three-page-long list of sins and failings in front of this priest she has just met.

Winner writes lovingly of her old faith. Certain Jewish practices rise off the page in richly textured detail, and we understand her connection to them. Her visceral description of baking challah every Friday makes it clear that to end this habit would leave a real void.

Structurally, the book unfolds with chapters that follow the church calendar, a sort of liturgical-year-in-the-life approach that works well, Christian holidays dovetailing with Jewish holidays, further emphasizing the Judaism that will forever inform Winner's Christianity.

The book's straightforward prose is usually refreshing, though occasionally an uninspired metaphor or descriptive fragment distracts. In describing an unsuccessful attempt to speak in tongues: "But I didn't open my mouth. It was glued together as if I'd just eaten the world's stickiest peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

Winner also wraps up certain sections and chapters with self-consciously memoir-ish, sometimes contrived, sentences. After she and Steven decide to get back together: "...and we smile, he in Arkansas and I in New York, and we hang up, and I stretch and drink a glass of water and then take a shower that is long."

Overall, though, the telling is accomplished. Ultimately, Winner's way of articulating longing and desire, for God and meaning and love, resonates deeply. 

2Andrea Jeyaveeran works for the literary organization PEN American Center. She lives in Brooklyn.

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