Girl Meets Grace: Lauren Winner's New Reflection on Her Divorce and Desolation
First things first: Let's call a moratorium on jabs against people who publish two memoirs before age 36. Yes, our self-absorbed society is glutted with the genre; yes, many 30-somethings lack the wisdom and experience to say much worth sharing. But the spiritual autobiography—a narrative account of God's gracious movement in the believer's life—is central to the church canon. If Christians throughout the centuries have charged Augustine with "narcissistic navel-gazing" for his Confessions—all 13 books—I can't recall it.
Anyone committed to truly examining the shape of personal faith, unfolding over the years in a broken world, should sense a fruitful opportunity, if not a solemn obligation, to expound at length. And Lauren Winner, while not in Augustine's league as a memoirist, probes these depths as deftly and eloquently as anyone writing today. Her latest offering, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (HarperOne), is a sparse, elegant account of slipping away from the Jesus she so eagerly embraced in young adulthood, by way of Shabbat prayer, Jan Karon's Mitford series, and a dream about being kidnapped by "a dark Daniel-Day-Lewis-type man" who, by the way, was the Messiah. Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life, Winner's breakout 2002 memoir, was about dating Christ and Christianity, about realizing that "I was falling in love with this carpenter who had died for my sins." It established Winner—now a professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School and an ordained minister—as one of those hip, young evangelicals who could write for both Focus on the Family's singles channel and The New York Times Book Review. (It also doubled the sales of cat-eye glasses.)
If Girl Meets God was Winner and the Lord's "story of how we met," then Still is the story of Winner lying awake in bed, realizing she no longer knows the man next to her, the man she wed over 10 years ago. Still is not simply about disappointment after the honeymoon phase of faith, a reality other Christian writers have explored; it probes an existential crisis that whispers the honeymoon never happened. "The kidnapping dream and the prayer book and the baptism made a path; they were my glory road, and I thought that road would carry me forever," writes Winner in the preface. "I didn't anticipate that, some years in, it would carry me to a blank wall." Or, more plainly,
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.
Still is about coming to the end of the glory road. And the step one takes after that.
Divorce and Desolation
The image of the estranged marriage bed is apt here. For her spiritual desolation, Winner points to two events: her mother's death from cancer in 2004, and an unhappy marriage three weeks later to a minister introduced briefly in her 2006 book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Of the nature of Winner's discontent and eventual divorce, the details are blessedly few. Her ex-husband is a shadowy background figure, and his character is never maligned. In fact, Winner blames mostly herself for the divorce, what she calls a "spectacular, grave, costly failure," and the source of her unhappiness seems mysterious even to herself. She seeks counsel from spiritual directors, friends, and priests. She says "God became an abstraction … like math, puzzling and far away" during her six years of marriage, and admits that the root of this alienation may well have been her own sin. But specifics are omitted.