Girl Meets God

One night Lauren Winner had a dream.

She had been kidnapped by mermaids to live at the bottom of the sea. After a time, she was rescued and taken to her childhood home in North Carolina. Her rescuer, as she describes him, was a “beautiful, thirtyish dark Daniel-Day-Lewis-type man”

Winner’s boyfriend, a fellow Orthodox Jew, could only be irritated because he thought she was dreaming about another man. Her roommate at Columbia, another Orthodox Jew, decided the man was the prophet Elijah.

On a visit to her mother in Charlottesville, Virginia, Winner shared her dream with a former teacher, who was not an Orthodox Jew, but rather a serious Christian. The teacher did what all good dream interpreters do: ask the dreamer what she thinks it means.

Winner admitted that she thought her rescuer was Jesus. The teacher agreed, but reminded Winner who she was and said that “An Orthodox Jewish life might not have much room for Jesus.”

True.

And so for the next two years Lauren led a faithful Orthodox life. But then, as she writes in her engaging spiritual memoir Girl Meets God, “..my Judaism broke” and she let Jesus in.

Winner didn’t begin life as an Orthodox Jew. She is the daughter of a lapsed Jewish father and a lapsed Baptist mother. After her parents divorced, she moved with her mother to Charlottesville where, as a teen, she got involved in Reform Judaism.

“Immersed” might be a better word for what Winner did. A bookish girl, she read everything she could on Judaism and became a dedicated student of Torah, deeply involved in temple and attending summer schools in Jewish studies.

When she started college at Columbia University, Winner was exposed to the thriving world of Orthodox Judaism and felt drawn to it, eventually converting (necessitated by the fact that her father, not her mother, was the Jewish parent).

But even as a student, faithfully observing the Law and making challah on Fridays, she felt drawn to Christianity. She took courses in it. She spent hours at the Cloisters museum in upper Manhattan, studying elaborate scriptural manuscripts. And she dreamt.

By the time Winner graduated and went across the sea to study at Cambridge, she knew exactly what she would do once she reached England: She would make room for Jesus, which she did as she was baptized into the Anglican Church.

That is the bare bones of the story told in Girl Meets God, but of course, there is much more to the book than that.

Winner explains how her Judaism is foundational in helping her read and understand Scripture. She honestly describes the pain and confusion her family and friends felt at her second conversion. She confronts what disturbed her about Orthodoxy. She meditates on charismatic movements, Eucharist and confession.

Winner, now a doctoral student in American religious history and contributing editor to Christianity Today, has written a very modern spiritual autobiography that will appeal to readers who are open to a rather quirky journey, full of broken romances, tattoos, certainty and doubt, and a nose ring, honestly told. She is quite young – only in her twenties – and Girl Meets God has, as a result, a very unfinished, still-on-the journey feel about it, but that is part of the book’s charm.

The book has its flaws. Winner doesn’t tell her story in a linear way – we jump back and forth in time in sections that are organized thematically, rather than chronologically, and that can get a bit confusing at times, especially since she writes so much of the book in the present tense.

There is also just the slightest streak of ego in Girl Meets God. Now, self-centeredness is hard to avoid in writing a memoir, true, but there are times when Winner’s world seems unbearably small, centered on her awareness of her intense intelligence, her books and her boyfriends, and her spiritual angst only shrinks that world further, rather than expanding it. The reader appreciates Winner’s honesty, for example, at sharing her miserable jealousy of a pregnant friend, and what that teaches her about her spiritual life, but it doesn’t eliminate the reader’s desire to shake her out her self-centeredness, nonetheless.

How do we come to faith? Too many of us don’t. Too many of us put on faith like a well-worn coat we blindly grab out of the closet, never asking where it came from or if it really keeps us as warm as we could be. It is rare to find those who are actually concerned with truth and are willing to change their lives because of it. But even in the modern world, there are a few. In Girl Meets God, we meet one of them, a funny, smart young woman with a penchant for vintage cat’s eye glasses who loves Jesus even as she sometimes yearns for challah on Friday nights.

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