Lauren Winner fans might be excused for hoping a new book by the professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School might shed light on the latest chapter in the life of this brainy, articulate and audacious scholar.
In her first book, “Girl Meets God,” she relayed her conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Then came “Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity,” in which she made the decision to dial back her sexual adventures to conform with her newfound evangelical faith, which allowed sex only within the context of marriage. Three years ago, she published “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis,” where she tackled religious doubt, occasioned, in part, by her divorce.
But in her latest book,”Wearing God,” the revelatory memoir takes a backseat to a thematic theological exploration of the images and metaphors of God in the Bible.
Winner still uses the personal pronoun and packs in a few confessional strokes intended to reel in the lay reader and recommend the book to young Christians, especially Christian women. But this book reads more like a creative writing exercise than a narrative exposition.
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Winner is a gifted writer (and a voracious reader). She has taught a memoir writing class in a women’s prison for several years, and some of the material here may sound like topical writing exercises she used with her students.
Her thesis is that Christians get stuck on a handful of images of God and that may limit their faith journey.
“ ‘Shepherd’ and ‘light’ are perfectly wonderful images,” she writes. “But in fixing on them – in fixing on any three or four primary metaphors for God – we have truncated our relationship with the divine, and we have cut ourselves off from the more voluble and variable witness of scriptures, which depict God as clothing. As fire. As comedian. Sleeper. Water. Dog.”
She starts out by wondering what it might mean to be clothed in God and then considers Jesus’ commandment to clothe the naked.
A chapter on images of God as a woman in labor is particularly clever. Winner shows how the biblical prophets moved from describing God as a laboring woman to God as a midwife and God as a breast-feeding mother. Likewise, a chapter on laughter shows how images of God’s laughter are inseparable from images of God’s justice and especially God’s plan for the coming kingdom.
Winner’s purpose here is to become more closely acquainted with God. She seems to be on a mission to avoid burnout in her daily devotions. By picturing God in different ways, she hopes her readers, too, will become less distant and more intimate with the God they worship.
But there are, of course, limits to that intimacy. In the book’s final coda, Winner explains that there is at least one image of God she could not bring herself to write about: God as abusive husband (as imagined by the prophet Ezekiel). Communities of faith, both Jewish and Christian, she explains, have long made some texts more central than others.
And then there are the limits of words themselves. By defining God in so many ways, there’s the risk of circumscribing God. After all, isn’t God supposed to be infinite and, therefore, ultimately unknowable? Some theologians have wisely preferred a less intimate relationship with God.
While Winner’s writing is, for the most part, refreshing and instructive, her latest book may be more useful to seminary students or pastors searching for good sermon ideas than to everyday Christians wanting to deepen their theological horizons. The latter may better appreciate a good memoir.
Yonat Shimron is former religion writer for The News & Observer.
Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God
Lauren F. Winner
HarperOne, 304 pages