I have been sitting on this book for over a week. Normally I write my reviews almost immediately after I finish the book, read through them a couple of times and publish them. But I am not sure how to review this book (and officially the book did not release until today). It is not because I didn’t like it. I really did like it.
It is more because I am not sure how to describe the book. This is not a straight forward memoir, or standard prose Christian Living book. Parts of it are more like diary entries. There are chapters that are just a single quote. It is a book intended to take a while to work your way through. It is the taking the reader through the arc of pain and spiritual loneliness that the author went through.
I finished the book last Tuesday. On Monday, Christianity Today posted a review that was probably ill advised. Winner is a regular contributor to Christianity Today and Books and Culture. So she is well known to the other editors and to many of the readers. When the reviewer ended the review with:
“Still is an instant spiritual classic, and a balm for disillusioned Christians who don’t know or particularly like the God to whom they pledged fidelity years ago, as well as for those who divorced God long ago but are looking into remarriage. The Christ who wooed Lauren Winner away from her lively Judaism so many years ago is the same today and forever, till death do us part.”
I knew there would be a problem. Many of the comments decried her divorce and a few hinted that she should no longer be considers an author of spiritual works. A couple almost danced at the fact that Winner (whose previous books includes a book on Christian sex) did not manage to have a marriage last more than six years.
There is something particularly nasty about Christians that cannot give grace. I understand that people’s sins matter. I am unlikely to pay a lot of attention to a financial consultant that recently declared bankruptcy. However, there is a lot of wisdom that comes from making mistakes yourself. A lot of addiction counselors are former addicts. Dave Ramsey once declared bankruptcy.
Ms Winner’s divorce is not really the point of the book. Although the effects of the divorce are important. The divorce is the first thing that she has really failed, but wanted to succeed. And the distance from God that is described in the book started before the marriage, at the death of her mother weeks before the marriage.
The central theme of the memoir is that the middle part of faith is often hard. That is not a new theme. The beginning is new and fresh. But after the new and fresh, there is a period of learning and growth. Still is about the dry points. The points where we often go through the motions waiting for the newness to come back.
The newness is not really going to come back, at least not in the same way. Winner works back to faith, but she has to work through her issues. Community is a big part of this book. Winner does not have to work through life alone. She has her local church and pastor-friend. She has her students, her work and her books.
For me, I related to the books (although she likes poetry a lot more than I, and understands a lot more than I). Winner is, like me, probably overly analytical. There is a good line in the book about how she has so many books on prayer, not because she prays so much but because she wants to pray, but is somewhat afraid, so she reads about prayer instead of praying. I get that. In the end, it was not her brain that helped her out of the middle slump of faith. It was her community and her liturgy. Those things that kept her moving, even when she did not really want to move.
This is a weakness of low-church evangelicals like me. We hit middle slumps and we do not have a liturgy, we do not have a theology of the sacraments that pushes us back to the power of God, imparted to us by these physical actions. Instead we have popular preachers and good catchy music. But it is easy to avoid church services is no one knows we are not there. It is easy to ignore sermons when we can intellectualize them or minimize the exegesis of the preacher.
Winner is an example of why Eugene Peterson is really right. Spiritual growth apart from the church is impossible. Not because we need the ‘holiness’ of the church. The church is not holy or made up of perfect people. Instead the church is made up of people that have bad days on different days than us. We help our neighbor on days that she needs help. She helps us on days we need help. It is about a body that actually needs the rest of the body to function.
I will send my copy of the book to the first person that asks.