Author Interviews
4:40 pm
Sat February 25, 2012

A Theologian Has A Falling Out With God In 'Still'

Originally published on Mon March 4, 2013 10:46 am

Theologian Lauren Winner was 21 when she became a Christian.

Although she was raised in a Jewish household and had converted to Orthodox Judaism, she says she felt drawn to Christianity. Her surprising conversion is the subject of her first memoir, the bestseller Girl Meets God.

In Winner's new book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, she writes about a spiritual crisis.

Winner, an ordained Episcopal priest who teaches Christian spirituality at Duke University, says it happened around the time her mother died and her marriage collapsed.

She tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that nothing could have prepared her for what amounted to a falling out with God.

"In my life, I had this dramatic conversion to Christianity and it had lots of intense emotions," she says. "I thought that those feelings would just endure, and that those feelings would sort of sustain me in the life of faith forever. And then I came to a place where I was no longer in the glow of the young adult new Christian conversion; I was now just in the middle of my faith life."

For about five years, Winner says, she found it hard to do many of the things that she was used to doing, like going to church — which she often forced herself to attend — and praying.

"I found the ceasing to pray part of this to be one of the scariest parts," she says.

But even though she could not pray during this period, she still felt herself somehow surrounded by prayer.

"In hindsight, I have a hunch — a belief — a sense that I was very much sustained in this season of real spiritual desolation by the faithful prayers of other people," Winner says.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Theologian Lauren Winner was 21 years old when she became a Christian. Although she was raised in a Jewish household and had converted to Orthodox Judaism just two years before, she says she always felt drawn to Christianity. Her surprising conversion was the subject of her first memoir, the bestseller "Girl Meets God." But in Winner's new book, she writes about experiencing a spiritual crisis. It happened around the time her mother died and her marriage collapsed. Winner teaches Christian spirituality at Duke University and is also an ordained Episcopal priest. Her new book is called "Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis." And she says that nothing could have prepared her for what amounted to a falling out with God.

LAUREN WINNER: In American Christianity, I think that we have a habit of telling our spiritual stories in a way that culminate in conversion. They culminate in the born-again experience or they culminate in baptism.

RAZ: It's where you're headed to naturally, you're saying.

WINNER: Yes. The way that we - particularly American evangelicals, we know to tell the story of how we were far away from God and then we were born again or then we came to know God as though that were the end of the story. But I think that is actually only the prelude to the story. And in my life, I had this dramatic conversion to Christianity, and it had lots of intense emotions. And I thought that those feelings would just endure and that those feelings would sort of sustain me in the life of faith forever. And then I came to a place where I was no longer in the glow of the young adult, new Christian conversion. I was now just in the middle of my faith life.

RAZ: I mean, the journey you took to get to that point was pretty extraordinary one. For people who don't know you, you wrote a memoir called "Girl Meets God," and this was essentially about your conversion to Christianity. You had been raised Jewish. How does your family react to your decision?

WINNER: Some of my Jewish relatives were decidedly unhappy about my conversion to Christianity. Over the years - I'm now 35 - I have come to actual place of real sorrow for the pain that my conversion has caused some members of my family. And, you know, I deeply regret that this thing that is central to my life - I mean, I wish it were otherwise. I wish that the thing that was so central to my life was not a source of ongoing pain for members of my family.

RAZ: This memoir, of course, obviously deals with your struggles with faith. The two key moments - the death of your mother and the breakdown of your marriage, which is sort of kind of in the background in the book - you don't go into too many details. I don't want to pry.

WINNER: Good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: There are obvious perils with Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love." The circumstances are kind of similar, obviously, with the divorce and - but she took a trip around the world and you write: I just moved off the porch and went again to church. And you do go to church, even when you absolutely don't want to. Why'd you do it?

WINNER: When everything else in my spiritual life was flagging - when I wasn't praying, when I wasn't believing anything - I did have some instinct that got me to church more often than not on a Sunday morning.

RAZ: You tell a story about that time when you are going to church. And at a certain time, you're very frank. I mean, you're annoyed by some of the people around you.

WINNER: I was visiting Massachusetts one week and had a terrible week and didn't want to go to church and went to church. And as the service started, a woman sidled up to me and sat to my immediate left. And this woman looked like she had seen better days. And about halfway through the service, she started to tap her finger on the pew in front of us in a way that made - it felt to me like the whole building was shaking. And I just was so annoyed that this woman was tapping the pew. And I glared at her, and I hoped she would take the hint. And then I, you know, of course, without thinking, my left hand shot out and I placed my hand firmly over her tapping hand, you know, like a mother would still the tapping hand of a child.

And of course, I was horrified that I had done this. And then I noticed that the woman didn't seem offended and wasn't shaking my hand off. And then I realized that she had actually begun to hold my hand, and we held hands for the rest of the service. And, you know, that was where I met Jesus that day, in that woman who converted my serious breach of etiquette into a moment of bodily communion and bodily intimacy. And I think that's probably a moment I will not ever forget.

RAZ: That's writer Lauren Winner. Her new memoir is called "Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis." She's also an assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke's Divinity School. Lauren, thank you so much.

WINNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.