Usually when a Christian mentions a person’s story, she means a conversion story, also called one’s “testimony.” These stories are often framed the way fairy tales are framed: and then I gave my life to Christ and lived happily ever after. But something happens to our faith when we focus persistently—almost compulsively—on beginnings and conclusions. Our thinking about God flattens. When we find ourselves in a middle, we are lost.
Lauren F. Winner, best known for her book Girl Meets God about her transition from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity, found herself lost in such a middle. Gradually, after her mother died and her marriage disintegrated, she realized that not only did she no longer feel God’s presence, she couldn't remember if she ever had. Fighting the urge to grasp for answers, Winner came to inhabit this middle by writing thoughtfully through it. To all of us flattened by testimonies, Winner’s book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis can only be called a gift.
Still is a book about middles. “I am not thrilled by the idea that I am entering a vague in-between, after the intensity of conversion and before the calm wisdom of cronehood.” She considers different middles: middle game in chess, middle tint in painting, middle voice in ancient Greek, middle school. She finds metaphors. She consults historians, examines words like “belief” and “boredom,” and the ways those words have been understood in the past. She is candid. Still is not about the fading of Winner’s faith, but rather about being in that darkness. Blurred though the line may be, she does not lapse into self-indulgent navel-gazing. She has a sense of humor in her writing, and her candor makes her gazing valuable for the rest of us.
Still is divided into three parts: Wall, Movement, and Presence. Each is filled with chapters that seem like short essays—discrete, thematically ordered reflections. The shortest chapter in the book, titled “a thought, after reading Emily Dickinson,” simply says, “God has become illegible.” This is a book of bare-bones honesty, and it feels like reading the polished journal of a remarkably insightful writer. She notices the people in the pews around her as she continues attending church services and Wednesday communion at her Episcopal church, Holy Comforter. She sneaks into a synagogue’s Purim celebration and considers the book of Esther, a book that shows the hiddenness of God. Or, is it his absence? “For that finally is the question, that is the anguish—to abide in God’s hiddenness is one thing, to abide in God’s absence is altogether something else.”
Winner does not give quick, conclusive answers. Instead, she invites us in to her earnest search for God. At a small celebration she hosts in remembrance of Emily Dickinson, Winner considers something Dickinson wrote in a letter: “We both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.” Maybe all belief does not fit in the narrow dictionary definition of intellectual assent beyond further observation. Maybe some people have steady belief they can stand on, “like a pier,” and their steadiness is a gift to the church. And “maybe God has given to some this humming sense that we know nothing, this belief and disbelief a hundred times an hour, this training in nimbleness (and maybe that is a gift to the church, too).” This gift deepens the way we can look for God and, in quieter ways than we might expect, find him.
The effect of Still is not to pile on more complications to the way Christians tell their stories, but to clear out space. In the way that poetry resonates more fully when you are emotionally hollowed out, when the quietness a poem demands is all you have to give, Winner finds herself in this place, and Still is a document of this emotional landscape. Lauren Winner is not the first person to find herself here, and she may not be the first person to write about it. But the work she does in Still will remind her readers that and then I gave my life to Christ and lived happily ever after is not the whole story. There are greater depths we will be thrown into. And here I am with Christ still and I keep reaching toward him.
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