Still: A Chat with Lauren Winner
I’ve been a fan of author Lauren Winner’s work since her spiritual memoir Girl Meets God was released in 2002. I had the chance to meet her in 2010 when she taught a workshop at the Laity Lodge Writer’s Retreat…but didn’t get much past a shy hello as we washed our hands side-by-side in the lodge’s restroom. It must have been the funky glasses, or maybe the long list of credentials her bio boasted, or that sharp intellect that so characterizes her writing—whatever the case, I was suddenly tongue-tied. So I was pleased to be given the opportunity to redeem myself when the chance arose to ask Lauren a few questions about her latest book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. It’s a lovely book that covers some difficult terrain in the world of Christian living. But that’s just like Lauren Winner: she doesn’t shy away from the hard questions.
Laura: Throughout Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, you talk about the middle—the Buddy Crawford time—of faith. For those who haven’t read the book, will you tell us a little about what that means to you?
Lauren: Sure. I think that in American Christianity, we are very good at narrating the beginnings of our faith lives—our conversions, the dramatic things that brought us to God. But that is not the end of the story. That is really the prelude to the story of our faith lives, and most of us pass most of our faith lives in various middles—moments after the glow of conversion may have dimmed, moments where God's presence might seem more elusive than it had earlier. The middle territory can be terrifying. It can also be more interesting and richer than the beginning.
In the chapter busyness during lent you refer to slinking away with a novel immediately after referring to yourself as slothful and undisciplined. And yet, one gets a sense that story is something that deeply fills you. Would you speak to that incongruence a little? Has our society come to see reading fiction—or poetry, even—as a waste of time? Do you think that story can be a sort of map—a tool of discovery—when we are in these middle times?
I just read an article in The Atlantic about Philip Roth, which noted Roth once said that reading novels is soon going to be about as common in America as is reading Latin poetry. This is depressing. There are, of course, still many fiction (and even poetry) readers out there, but I do think our culture's emphasis on efficiency, on calculable payoff, is at odds with the reading of fiction and poetry.
I love your phrases "map" and "tool of discovery." For me, reading theology and memoir has been one such mapping, and so too reading fiction and poetry. I recently reread Their Eyes Were Watching God, itself a book about discovery. I'd read it—or at least some of it—in college, and hadn't really gone far with it. Rereading it, I was hooked, became obsessed, fell in love. Which may have something to do with age. In college, I was the age the novel's protagonist was at the outset of the book. Now I'm roughly the age she was when she came to herself.
In the chapter prayer, ii, you mention your love for books and say sometimes I think that all this reading gets in the way…Do you think pursuing a scholarly understanding of faith can keep us from having that child-like faith that Jesus speaks of?
In general, I would say that learning aids, rather than hinders, that blessing. But sometimes, some of the trappings of study can interfere. It is not the knowledge gained that interferes, but the accoutrement—like pride. Pride often attends education, and pride certainly doesn't enhance the mystery.
In the author q & a with your friend Mary Kenagy Mitchell, you say that in leaving your marriage, you were “…doing something that was simply not permissible, and that is something I remain troubled by, confused by—it is not something about which I feel cavalier…”
Is there anything that has helped you along this particular journey that you would like to share with others who may be entering a similar path?
I agree it's a conversation we need to have. I don't think I have much wisdom. The wisest wisdom I have is actually quoted in Still, in the chapter called "ode on god's absence.” There I quote a friend who said to me, several years before I left my husband, “I don't know if you will divorce; I hope you don't, but I don't know if you will or not; I do know that if you do divorce, you will know some things about God in a few years that you don't know yet.”
That turned out to be very, very true. I might well have learned things about God if I'd stayed in my marriage, of course—I'm sure God has lots of ways of growing us, lots of ways of giving us what it is God has for us to learn. Be that as it may, I am stunned by how much God gave me even through an experience of limitation and failure. One can't really quantify what one knows about God, but it seems to me that I have learned more about God, a more profound kind of knowing, in the last 3 or 4 years than in all the previous years added up. Perhaps most centrally, through my divorce, I began learning for the first time in my life about grace. Really, this was my first real recognition of what we Christians mean when we talk about grace. In walking away from my marriage, I walked into a sense of my own failure—and in learning something new about myself (i.e., the depth of my failure), I opened the way to learn more about God, about God's grace.
In the chapter anxiety, ii, you discuss the fear of being left alone, of going through life hidden— and how writing in first-person-prose is a way of hiding in plain sight. You said that if you wrote the book well, it’s not about you. Can you tell us more?
… I think the question about first-person writing is: are you talking about yourself, or are you using first-person narration to say something about something else (something larger than yourself)? I hope that in Still I've moved, in every chapter, from "me" to something larger, and that is what I mean when I say I hope the book is not about myself.
The book moves seamlessly and with much grace through the three moments that you define in the preface: at the wall, the wrestling, and the presence. I am left wondering about your specific experience with the middle—can you share with us one thing that you noticed through this moving that you are holding close?
Wow, I'm glad you think it moves seamlessly! I have worried that somehow the arc, the movement, wasn't clear, wasn't pronounced enough.
One of the most important things to emerge for me in this middle is that there are all sorts of different ways of coming into intimacy with God. When I was a new Christian, my sense of intimacy with God was very much Jesus as friend, the God who was right nearby, who was at hand, to talk, and to comfort. I am beginning now to see how many other kinds of intimacy there can be. At the moment, I feel a very near, very palpable sense of God, but it is an elusive nearness, and it is wonderful. It is very different from "friend." Or, if it is like friend, it is like a friend who lives in another state and writes you letters--real, revealing, detailed, chock full of daily life letters on actual stationery, posted with actual stamps.
Beyond that, I think my most important learning in all of this has been the realization that you don't get to go back. By which I mean, you hit a wall in your spiritual life, and your first impulse might well be to turn around and try to retrace your steps, try to get back to whatever spiritual space you'd been in before—try to get back to that particular vital prayer life, or that particular church, or that particular sense of knowing God. But you don't get to go back. Or at least, what I came to see about myself was that I wasn't going to get to go back. And increasingly, I didn't want to go back. Increasingly, I knew that if I could still myself enough to wait at the wall, attentively, something new would show up—and that new thing, if I could recognize it for what it was, would be a new way of knowing God's presence. But it would not be a recovery of what I'd had before.
There are many more questions I would love to ask you about this lovely book, Lauren, but they are the type that might be best considered over a cup of coffee or a glass of Cabernet. Maybe one day? Thank you so much for taking the time to sit with us for a bit today. And thank you, also, for the gift of words that you give so generously.
Well, that is very tantalizing. I am now very eager to know what those questions are! I am sitting right now at a table at my neighborhood cafe with a glass of Cabernet and a cup of coffee, actually, so I say both!