Let me start off with three important statements. 1. Most of the people I currently talk to about books have already read this book. 2. I don’t actually talk about God with those people, though perhaps they think I do. 3. I think I like this book, but I’m not sure, and I’m not sure that it really matters whether or not I like it.
Buying this book, I felt like I imagine people who buy pornography for the first time might feel. I went to the store when I imagined it would be fairly empty. I took the long way around the store to get to “Christian Living” section, where this book was shelved. I didn’t want anyone I knew– or even people I didn’t know, really– to see me there, looking at “that type” of book. When I couldn’t find the book on my own, I almost gave up rather than ask the sales clerk for help. When I did ask for help, I stammered and spoke so quietly that the clerk had to ask me (loudly, it seemed) to repeat myself. “I’M LOOKING FOR GIRL MEETS GOD,” my voice echoed. “I DON’T KNOW WHO THE AUTHOR IS.” The clerk was polite enough, I suppose, but I felt that further explanation was required. “I DON’T USUALLY READ THIS KIND OF BOOK, BUT MY FRIEND SAID IT WAS PRETTY GOOD.” Heaven forbid this clerk think that I read this book’s neighbors (Who Stole My Church?: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century was intimidating enough. Thank goodness the “Christian fiction” was on the next aisle.). I found the book, I bought the book (from the same clerk, the one who was already familiar with my “special purchase.”), I read the book. A lot of religious writing feels like pornography to me– essentially exploitative, slick and prettied up for sale, and aimed at providing the reader with a quick fix of a powerful emotion so the reader can avoid the hard work of experiencing the real thing for him- or herself. This book is not pornography.
Some of the problem I have with religious writing comes from the issues inherent in capturing the essence of the ineffable in words. I should not really hold the author responsible, artistically speaking, if he or she fails in this task. I have failed at this many times myself– but then, I’ve never tried to publish my failed attempts, either, much less sell them. The “selling” aspect of religious writing might also be a sticking point for me. Coming from a background that embraces an entirely lay ministry and teaches (quietly) that being paid for preaching is priestcraft (which is a sin), perhaps religious writing is just too much like selling one’s witness or being paid to serve God (which people should do anyway, like washing your hands after using the bathroom). I’m sure those are two issues that influence my reading of any religious writing, but at the heart of my distaste for the genre is the fact that so often it just feels false to me. Probably those two previous issues are part of why it feels false, but they don’t fully encompass the issue. This book does not feel false.
I think I like Winner’s book because it feels (mostly) true. I take issue with small things in this work– tossed-off comments that are major doctrinal issues for me, or a particular tone, or her ethos in any given part– but the part of this book I love, the part that makes me glad I asked for it, and the part that makes me willing to recommend it to other thinking human beings is irrelevant to these troublesome motes. The overall truth expressed here is more important. I find Winner’s account to be truthful because her articulation of her conversion(s) feels like mine. Her account describes a continuing process of coming to know God. My particular faith, as practiced in the United States, seems to have as many homegrown believers as it does converts. Always it seems that these converts have a moment when they know the Gospel is true. They can point to how they were before and point to how they are after accepting Christ. They can see the difference. I value their experiences and am glad to hear them when they are shared, but I don’t have any of that. What I have instead is a slow non-linear process of coming to know God. Though Winner does have lots of before-and-after she can describe, they are presented as before-and-afters that build and comment upon each other. Like so many people’s, Winner’s conversion account is no Pauline epiphany, but is one maybe closer to Peter’s growing familiarity with (and temporary betrayal of) Christ and His mission.
Winner claims at one point that English doesn’t have a word for “a complete turning around” the way that Hebrew or Greek do (212) and so I assume, well-read as she is, that she has rejected the word “conversion,” though she does not explain why. Winner’s book has caused me to consider again how I define conversion. What does my conversion look like? I think we (Latter-day Saints, that is, though possibly the same is true of other Christians) imagine conversion to be a one time thing. I think we think that conversion is something that happens before we’re baptized and after baptism, all “turnings” are just repentance. I think we miss that repentance and baptism are both parts of what is essentially the life-long work of being converted from the natural human to a saint through the Atonement of Christ the Lord. I really appreciate the call for assessment suggested by Winner’s text. Truth-telling is gutsy work, particularly when we have to tell the truth to ourselves about ourselves. Though I don’t agree with all of Winner’s conclusions, I appreciate her willingness to be gutsy.