Religion occupies a unique place in American society. Although separation of church and state assures a secular culture, most Americans identify with some form of religion. Americans take an individualistic view of their religious practices. The result is a virtual “supermarket” of religious options, and Americans are accustomed to “shopping” in this religious marketplace in search of the religious or spiritual path that they feel suits them best. Girl Meets God, twenty-five-year-old Lauren Winner’s account of her relatively youthful spiritual journey as she seeks to find a religious home first in Judaism and then in Christianity, is both an intensely personal narrative and a representative voice for the situation that her generation faces as they confront the landscape of American religion in the early twenty-first century.
Winner was born in Asheville, North Carolina. Her father was Reform Jewish and her mother was a lapsed Southern Baptist. Lauren and her older sister, Leanne, were raised in the Jewish faith even after her parents divorced and she moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, with her mother. As a teenager, she actively participated in the life of the Reform synagogue in Charlottesville, joining a meditation group and teaching Sunday school with her friend Randi. She read and studied about Judaism. One summer when she was in high school, she took classes at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York, which is one of the few places where women can study the Talmud, and she lived with an Orthodox Jewish family. The summer before she went to college, she participated in a program in Israel.
She concluded that the only way to be true to her Jewish belief was to convert to Orthodox Judaism. She attended Columbia University in New York because of the active Orthodox Jewish life there. She had to undergo a formal conversion process since her mother was not Jewish and Judaism is matrilineal. She prepared for the bet din, an examination before a court of three rabbis, by studying with one rabbi in New York and with her special mentor, a rabbi in Boston who was a leader of the group with whom she had traveled to Israel. In December of her freshman year at Columbia, she went through the bechina (exam) and the ritual bath, mikvah. For most of her four years in college, she endeavored to live as an Orthodox Jew.
During this time, her intellectual interests at Columbia gravitated toward Christianity, and her course work focused on American religious history, especially Protestantism in the South. She loved to spend time at the Cloisters, a museum devoted to medieval art. Just a year after her conversion to Orthodox Judaism, she had a dream in which she and some other women were captured by mermaids, spent a year in captivity, and were rescued by a group of graying men, except for one “beautiful, thirtyish, dark Daniel-Day-Lewis-like man” with whom she continued to have conversations about the kidnapping. She believed that “the dream was about Jesus, about how He was real and true and sure.”
By her senior year in college, things changed. She explains that “gradually, my Judaism broke,” and she became more open to Christianity. As she read novels by Jan Karon, which revolve around an Episcopalian rector in a small town in western North Carolina and depict the Christian faith of these people as they go about their daily lives, she thought: “I want what they have.” She confided her attraction to Christianity to a Presbyterian minister on campus, but he told her that she could not divorce Judaism. Soon thereafter, she purchased a Book of Common Prayer and attended a series of “learning services” at an Episcopal church. By the time she graduated she had determined to convert to Christianity. She was baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church while she was living in England as a fellow at Clare College, Cambridge.
Upon her return to complete doctoral studies at Columbia two years later, she had to confront putting the pieces of her religious life together from the perspective of her newfound Christian faith within an environment where she was known as an Orthodox Jew. One of the ways that she approached this situation was through writing for publications such as Christianity Today and the Internet magazine Beliefnet. Her book Girl Meets God is in some ways an extension of that writing...
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