By Lauren Winner*
Reviewed by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Harper Collins Publishers, 2015, 304 pp.
These days my faith life is mostly empty, lethargic, and dissonant. So when Lauren Winner’s memoir, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis came out, I gobbled it up. Winner converted from Judaism and wrote a book about it, then launched a writing and academic career based on her newfound Christianity, so she’s pretty audacious in that book to admit she’s bored with faith. I liked her immediately.
Winner describes the barren breadth of what St. John of the Cross called a “dark night” and she calls “the middle” of her faith journey. Christians need testimonials about emptiness; it’s a valid dimension of the life of faith. Otherwise the world assumes we’re wearing blinders; otherwise we don’t confront the beloved paradoxical reality that is our Source.
Winner’s latest book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God is the logical next step. “God’s utter difference from the world is too much to describe, and God’s nearest intimacy with the world is too near to name,” Winner writes. In Wearing God Winner plunges into this intimacy, attempting to describe the indescribable by means of the Bible’s under-explored images of God.
This is a profoundly incarnational approach: God as garment, God as bread, God as flame. Winner explores every metaphor from an earthy, embodied perspective. So the biblical passages in which God smells us and those where we smell God lead Winner to consider the stench of a homeless man, banned from a library: “The possibility of my being a sweet-scented offering may turn precisely on my remembering that Jesus, the Fragrance of Life, was a sometimes homeless man whose body was not always perfumed by women bearing nard. He surely sometimes stank.”
When Psalm 37 presents Winner with God’s menacing laughter (“The Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming”), she can’t pray the psalm until she hauls herself to the house where her friend was beaten, nearly to death, by her husband. “I picture God weeping with P’s weeping, and raging for her, and laughing at the man who battered her. This picturing begins to feel like prayer.” Her effort at prayer is radical, as is the Biblical interpretation that emerges. I am much more willing to accept the theological reflections of a writer when he or she has given them a spiritual test-drive, as Winner has.
I’ve spent the last decade exploring natural birth as a source of sacred wisdom (in fiction—Hannah, Delivered), so I was cautious when starting Winner’s chapter on God as laboring woman and midwife. The metaphor is much misunderstood and maligned. But Winner does it justice:
The image of God as a laboring woman puts together strength and vulnerability in a way that tells us something about God and how God works. The point is not just that God is vulnerable, although that itself is startling. The point is that in the struggles of labor, we can learn what strength is. If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, then strength is not about refusing to cry or denying pain. Strength is not about being in charge, or being independent, or being dignified. …Strength entails enduring, receiving help and support, being open to pain and risk. …Strength entails entrusting yourself (to medicine, or to the wisdom of your own body, or to the guidance of someone who is there in the room with you). Strength even entails giving yourself over to the possibility of death.
Winner is relentless in her effort to dig up the reality behind the metaphor, even if it’s not her reality, and then bravely deduce what it might say about our creator.
Hers is no mere intellectual exercise. It’s a struggle to engage this elusive, immanent Spirit. Says Winner, “Thus the passage in Isaiah (42: ‘All who want to worship the Lord, come and sing a new song’) may suggest a sort of Mobius strip of redemption, in which God is redeeming, God is suffering the pains of redemption, and as we are being redeemed, the new song we sing helps—helps God breathe, helps God relax, helps God feel less pain, helps God deliver.” The delivery is both personal and political, and our engagement must be both intimate and collective—a genuine effort to see through others’ (especially marginalized) eyes. If we’re going to draw from daily experiences to help us interpret Biblical metaphors for God, Winner writes, we must “make the effort to stretch our imaginations to include experiences beyond our own.” Winner has done just that in this marvelous book, and I’m grateful.
*Lauren Winner has facilitated summer writing workshops at the Collegeville Institute for several years.