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Lauren Winner on Doubt and the Christian Faith, Part 1

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Lauren, in Girl Meets God you chronicled an optimistic conversion story from Orthodox Judaism to Anglican Christianity. But a funny thing happened on the way to your happy-ever-after with Jesus. What happened in your life that rocked your faith?

Several things.  Most centrally, I was very unhappily married, and in the midst of that unhappiness, my faith seemed to dissolve.  But I think the happy-ever-afters of young conversions can give way even without a big life crisis. I was 21 when I became a Christian.  I, naively, didn’t understand that my faith would continue to grow and evolve as I grew and changed.  I thought, in the flush of conversion, “Oh, there will just be more and more of this for, say, the next 70 years.”  Lots of life circumstances can put pressure on your faith – since publishing Still, I’ve heard from people who have had their faith tested after losing a job, after feeling burned by church politics.  And of course your faith can and will change, sometimes in hard or confusing ways, with no obvious life event’s having caused the change – it will change because God is a multi-faceted mystery.  It will change because we change, what we can see and feel and hold will change. 

 

You write that this is a book about being in the middle, and that the middle is often viewed as an unfortunate place to be: middle age is not as good as being young, for example, and the middle voice in Greek is downright incomprehensible. But what can be learned in the middle?

Well, I love the middle voice.  As I suggest in Still I think the middle voice is actually the voice of the spiritual life.  In the many languages that have a middle voice, certain kinds of verbs often call for the middle voice—emotion verbs, like grieve and mourn; verbs that describe moving your body without changing your overall position (turn, but not run; bow, but not dive) and verbs that name a change in bodily posture but not much motion (lie down, kneel), verbs that are necessarily mutual, necessarily reciprocal (embrace, greet, converse), verbs for speech actions with emotional overtones (confess), verbs of cognition (think), and verbs of spontaneous happening (grow, become, change).  These middle verbs, it seems to me, are religious; they are the verbs that constitute a religious life: to forgive, to imagine, to grow.  Part of what I’m learning in the middle of the spiritual life in fact has a lot to do with the middle voice.  The middle voice is used when you want to capture an odd tango of active and passive, when you are somewhere between the agent and the one acted on, you use the middle voice.  Beyond that, you use the middle voice when the subject has some characteristic, some quality, that makes it partially responsible for whatever has happened in the sentence.  And you use it when there is an actor who is vivifying the activity of the whole sentence, but is not named.  So, “my senator bribes easily” is a middle.  The senator has some quality that makes her bribe easily – she’s corrupt.  And there is an agent who is unnamed by doing the action – whoever it is who is waving a bribe under the senator’s nose.  In the middle of the spiritual life, I think those are some of the things I am learning;  that there is something about me that allows the action to take place—my sin, my endless need, my longing. And there is always the hidden agent, the One who animates my prayer and my faithfulness, even when that One is unnamed, undisclosed, possibly even forgotten. 

 

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You’ve said before that this is not a memoir. How would you describe it?

I think the “notes” of the subtitle is more or less right – it is a collection of first-person reflections on the questions What happens when you come to a spiritual wall?  Especially what happens when you allow yourself to stay at the wall, when you don’t run from the wall, but you stay there and let yourself see what the wall has to teach you?

 

There are some very personal things in this book. You write about taking anti-anxiety meds and not liking your mother very much. But the background of the book is a painful divorce that you mention but don’t discuss in detail. What are the boundary lines for you in writing critically about other people and about your private life?

 

To be honest, I don’t have many boundaries about my own life.  I mean, I have a few, and I probably don’t even know what they are – there are simply some topics I don’t gravitate toward on the page, and those must be the topics that feel to me, at some deep level, off-limits. For whatever reason – some sort of impulse toward on-the-page exhibitionism, maybe – I don’t mind writing about personal things.  But I have, over the last ten years of writing, grown to feel less and less free to write about other people’s stories. I still don’t get the balance right, I’m sure.  Any time you mention anyone else in your first-person writing – even if you are trying to stay within your own perspective -- you are still drafting someone into your story.  This question has come up in every writing class I have ever taught—“How do you write about other people?  What are the ethics and mores of writing about other people?”--and I don’t have at tidy answer to that question. I will say—I will be saying to a writing class in about 5 hours!—that we all have stories we can’t tell, and that’s fine—but if there is a story you can’t tell, don’t try to write it, while omitting everything crucial.  Just write a wholly different story. If you can’t tell the real story about your relationship with your mom, that’s ok – but then tell the story of your relationship with your sister or your relationship with your high-school mentor – any other story that you do in fact feel free to tell.

 

Author photo courtesy of Getty images; in RNS archives.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Christian - Catholic, Christian - Orthodox, Christian - Protestant
Tags: author interview lauren winner, doubt and the christian faith, flunking sainthood, harperone, lauren winner, still: notes on a mid-faith crisis

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