My church is about to enter a new series called A Journey to Pentecost. This seven-week series is a way for us to prepare our hearts for Pentecost – the day when the Holy Spirit rushed in as a mighty wind and appeared with tongues like fire upon those who were gathered in the upper room (Acts 2:1-4). We are preparing our hearts for the Holy Spirit to visit us on the Day of Pentecost.
As part of that sermon series, our pastor will reference a book called Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner. For this reason, my blog today is a book review of Girl Meets God. For those of you who do not attend my church, I hope you’ll read it anyway and consider adding this wonderful book to your reading list.
Book Review – Introduction
Lauren Winner is a young, single woman with several degrees from prestigious universities, ending in a PhD from Cambridge. She’s currently teaching at Duke Divinity School and has published three books. From reading this book, it’s safe to say that my own reading list (which my family and friends often tease me about because it has too many intellectual books and too few fluffy romance novels) is as fluffy as they come. She reads things like out of print church history books (for fun), biblical commentaries, Chinese history, and guides to American Supreme Court decisions. I’m kind of proud of myself for reading Dante’s The Divine Comedy and my working knowledge of Shakespeare. I don’t read biblical commentaries for fun or care much about the history of other countries. Winner’s obvious intelligence doesn’t get in the way of her ability to tell good stories and engage the reader though. She’s a talented writer and I enjoyed her book.
The book is about her personal spiritual journey toward God. She’s the daughter of a Jewish father and a “lapsed Southern Baptist” mother who divorced when she was young. She was raised to be Jewish, but she had to officially convert to Judaism since her mother isn’t Jewish. She became an Orthodox Jew – a strict and traditional form of Judaism – wearing long skirts, keeping the Sabbath laws, and learning Hebrew. Nearly all her closest friends were Jewish. She dated Jewish guys – although those guys wouldn’t marry her because she was a convert and for various reasons they wanted to marry a girl from a traditional Jewish home. She ate Jewish food. Her Judaism engulfed every aspect of her life.
Even though she officially converted to Judaism, Winner had a fascination with Christian things. She read Christian books and wrote papers on Christian topics. She knew this was strange behavior for a Jew, but that didn’t stop her. She eventually had a dream in which Jesus appeared to her in person. She knew it was Him and writes,
I knew, as soon as I woke up, that the dream had come from God and it was about the reality of Jesus. The truth of Him. That He was a person whose pronouns you had to capitalize. That He was God. I knew that with more certainty than I have ever known anything else (p. 56).
This was one major step in her journey toward God. Because her entire life was centered on Judaism, it took her several years and several other major steps to make the decision to convert to Christianity.
Sometimes when a person’s entire life is centered on something they want to change, the best way to make that change is to move away for a time. (It worked for me after the breakup of my engagement when I went to Virginia Beach for a couple years.) Winner graduated from Columbia University and went to Cambridge in England. It was there that Winner found the courage to declare her faith in Christ, be baptized, and become a member of a church. Her father was horrified, her Orthodox Jewish friends did not understand and many turned their backs on her entirely, and she faced the judgment of those who thought she would tire of Christianity the way she had Judaism and become a Buddhist. But she took great pleasure in eating pork, casting off the long skirts, and embracing the amazing fact that God had sent His Son to earth to become a man who could understand us and live among us.
Much of the beauty of this book lies in the comparisons that Winner weaves between Christianity and Judaism. She sets up the book in sections that coincide with the seasons of the church – beginning with a Jewish holiday called Sukkot (an 8-day Jewish festival celebrating the harvest), then moving into the Christian seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, and Pentecost. Winner writes about how she misses the Jewish traditions that she grew up with, pointing out similarities and differences between Jewish and Christian holidays.
The main reason that our pastor is referencing this book in our new series is in regard to her section on Pentecost (makes sense, since the series is A Journey to Pentecost…). She starts this section by explaining that “Pentecost, which means ‘fifty days’ in Greek, was once just another name for Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that comes fifty days after Passover” (p. 227). She then goes on to explain the significance of Pentecost for Christians, which you non-Pentecostal readers can find in Acts chapter two. (Those of us raised Pentecostal or Charismatic had no choice but to memorize this moment in Christian history a long, long time ago.)
Jews traditionally stay up all night the night before Pentecost studying the Torah because they commemorate God’s revealing the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai on Shavuot. She and her friends decided to do the same thing, studying to find the reasons that the days (Shavuot and Pentecost) coincide. In Acts, the followers of Jesus were gathered all night to celebrate Shavuot. The next day, the Holy Spirit fell on them.
The author and her friends take turns teaching each other what they’ve discovered and this all night study leads them to the conclusion that when God gave Moses the Torah, He gave “a living tradition. He gave not just a book, but a way for His children to read and interpret that book” (p. 236). When God gave His followers the Holy Spirit, He gave “the thing that would make His revelation stay alive for us, stay with us, even though the moment of revelation is over. He gave us the Holy Spirit to help us build the church even though Jesus has ascended into heaven” (p. 235). The parallel is that at both events, God gave His people a gift that would keep on giving, growing and developing our understanding of Him and our ability to know Him. “At Pentecost and Shavuot, revelation becomes a human responsibility” but “the authority of people to unfold revelation here on Earth will always be held in check by His will” (p. 237).
After establishing that the Holy Spirit is given for the on-going work of the church, Winner (now an Anglican) has a chapter devoted to speaking in tongues. She writes frankly about the gift of tongues and what she has learned about it. A friend of hers told her that it’s the best way she knows to express her gratitude to God because words often fail her. Overcome by gratitude toward God and unable to express it the way she wished, Winner writes,
I sat on my couch and I began to pray for a prayer language. I wanted to make the creek-rushing sounds. I wanted to thank God with words bigger than any words I had. I wanted to praise Him effortlessly, to not have to think of sentences all the time, to not be constrained by my own small vocabulary” (p. 257).
In her prayer, she turned her request into a test of God. If He was real, He would give her a prayer language. When the prayer language did not come immediately, she realized how ridiculous that test was and that God would give her the gift of tongues when she could ask for it without making it a test of her entire faith.
The Holy Spirit is also the Sanctifier. In a chapter entitled Sanctification School, Winner tells of the day that one of her best friends announced she was having a baby. This friend’s marriage had gone through a fiery trial and had been on the mend for about a year. The author, still single and wanting to be married, did not handle the news well. While polite to her friend, she went home and cried out to God about her own jealousy and asked God to give her the grace to stand with her friend during this time. This is one of my favorite parts of the book – probably because I can identify with the author. I feel that many people see marriage as THE Thing God uses to sanctify people, to purge them of sins. But are singles not also sanctified through the trials we face – loneliness, uncertainty of the future, celibacy, childlessness? Winner captures this sentiment so well by writing,
Hannah’s pregnancy is my own school of sanctification. God is sanctifying Jim and Hannah through marriage and parenthood, but He is not just blessing them and leaving me out in the unblessed cold. He is using my ridiculous jealousy and my endless self-pity to sanctify me… God does not cause our suffering, but He uses it. (pp. 280-281).
Like her thoughts on sanctification, there are some other wonderful gems in this book that I hope you will discover for yourself. Winner writes candidly about her own life and experiences. She opens herself up to the reader and shares very personal details of her life. She struggles with the restrictions of Christianity in some of the same ways she struggled with Judaism, but the gracious mercy of a God who would send His Son to be our brother draws her back in. Those things make her want to be a better Christian.
One topic in this book that I found refreshing and surprising is her openness about the difficulty of celibacy as an evangelical Christian. As I did a little research on her, I found that she has recently published a new book called Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. In this book, she discusses the topic in more detail and helps modern evangelical Christians get a handle on the theology of chastity. I ordered a copy immediately and look forward to reading it as soon as it arrives.
I guess that’s the best praise I can offer for the book – I immediately ordered her newest book. If you enjoy reading at all, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of this book at your local bookstore and get to know Lauren Winner. Hopefully in reading her journey, you will discover something of yourself and come to a fresh understanding of all that God offers to His saints.
Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life by Lauren E. Winner
Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, (c) 2002.