When I started writing this blog last October, I assumed that, from time to time, I would use this space to review books that I had recently read, or at least base my reflections on something I had read. I never expected that I would do what I am about to do… which is to base a blog post on the review of a book I have not yet read; a book, in fact, that has not yet been published.
Lauren Winner is, by Christian publishing standards anyway, a superstar. She is a professor of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, which, at age 36, is impressive in itself. But she came to the attention of the evangelical reading public with her first “memoir,” Girl Meets God, which appeared in 2002 (when she was, what, 26?). A few years later she wrote Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity, and her place among best-selling evangelical authors and on the lecture circuit was secured.
I do not mean to diminish either Ms. Winner’s talent or her accomplishments. I actually heard her speak at a conference in the Chicago area in 2006 and was sufficiently intrigued by her presentation there that I read Girl Meets God, a title I would not likely have otherwise been drawn to. And I’m glad I read it. Despite the title, the book’s insight is valuable for men as well as women. I did not read Real Sex, although I read several reviews, all mainly positive. I had not thought about Lauren Winner for awhile until I read a review, by Katelyn Beaty for Christianity Today, of Ms. Winner’s forthcoming title, her second “memoir,” called Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.
The book will be published next Tuesday, and it will be downloaded to my Kindle on that day. I look forward to reading it. In the meantime, Katelyn Beaty’s review is provocative and insightful enough, in itself, to merit both reflection and comment.
I remember thinking, as I read Ms. Winner’s first memoir, that it was a bit pretentious for a 20-something to presume she had lived long enough and gained sufficient experience that her ruminations could actually be of value to the Christian community. But they were. And after I got past that initial cynicism, and could see beyond some of the limitations which her youth and inexperience imposed upon her indisputable talent as a writer, I came to appreciate her honesty and gave thanks to God for her testimony of faith. I also wondered if the exigencies of “real life” would dull her enthusiasm. I hoped they wouldn’t leave her disillusioned.
According to her reviewer, Ms. Winner’s new book reveals that life has indeed taken its toll on both her psyche and her faith. Her first book described her initial experience as a Christian in terms reminiscent of a bride’s reflections on her wedding and honeymoon. Apparently her new book tells us that there never really was a genuine honeymoon. She had thought that her early encounter with evangelical Christianity (she had previously embraced the Judaism of her father) would be an exciting excursion along the “glory road, and I thought that road would carry me forever,” the reviewer quotes from the book’s preface. “I didn’t anticipate that, some years in, it would carry me to a blank wall.”
And it is that kind of honest admission that caught my attention as I perused the review of Winner’s book. Lauren Winner came to the painful reality which most, if not all, Christian believers eventually encounter. Unlike most of us, however, she is apparently willing to acknowledge her predicament, admit her own failures and unrealistic expectations, and grapple with the doubts and disappointments she has faced. She writes,
The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone.…Once upon a time I thought I had arrived. Now I have arrived at a middle.
I applaud her honesty. I have been there too. In fact, we all have. But there is something about our “church culture” that prevents us from facing up to the fact that our faith has not been all that we had expected or desired. Rather than grappling with that reality, however, most of us settle into a humdrum pattern of spiritual mediocrity, putting on a happy face at church but hiding a gaping emptiness inside.
Our churches should be hospitals where the pain of disillusionment and disappointment—with ourselves, with our friends and family, and yes, with God—can be acknowledged and healed. Instead, they are too often little more than social clubs where superficial smiles and cursory exchanges cover over the doubts, the questions, the longing for something more and the fear of admitting that in front of all those who, outwardly, seem to have it all together.
I am looking forward to reading Ms. Winner’s story. The reviewer indicates that Winner has emerged, to some degree, from the depths of her despair, from that time when God seemed totally absent. But she has not regained that almost giddy enthusiasm of her initial days as a believer. Her new book apparently reflects her continuing love of Christian liturgy which, according to her reviewer, “reorients her to the biblical story… and often provides Winner the faith she can’t muster.” That is my testimony too.
Lauren Winner reminds us that there are unexpected twists and turns along the glory road. We may feel that we spend more time in the ditch than on the highway. The church will be a better place, however, if more of us will honestly admit that we are weary from the travel, our throats are scratchy from the dust, and sometimes we can’t see where the road is leading. The journey to the kingdom is often just one plodding footstep after another. Admitting our weariness, our doubts, our disappointments, our weaknesses and failures will go a long way to easing the grind of the sojourn. We can’t find rest until we admit we are weary. We can’t be healed until we acknowledge we are in pain. And we won’t fully experience the salutary benefits of the body of Christ until we are willing to grant that sometimes we simply can’t understand the predicament we are in. We need each other to get us through the times when our faith is weak, and Lauren Winner has shown us how to take the first steps to restoration after we come to the end of the glory road.