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. 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.
After reading an advance copy of Lauren Winner's new (forthcoming in February) memoir Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, it occurred to me that far more egocentric than writing a book all about oneself is the feat of writing a book all about oneself and trying to play it off as a book about anyone or anything else.
Furthermore, the one thing more outrageously premature and obnoxious than writing a memoir--a spiritual memoir, no less--before old or even middle age or even 35, is writing two. There are, of course, exceptional circumstances under which a very young person's memoirs may be notable or especially insightful. The occasion of being a privileged young academic from the American South East does not rise to this level of notability. Winner cannot be blamed for this, entirely. Confessional prose is one of the few publishing avenues wide open to talented young female writers, and only open then given that they fulfill certain prerequisites (attractive, willing to talk about sexuality...) and even then, privilege and connections are required to even get in the door. Winner's career as a 30-something serial memoirist illustrates, through no fault of her own, everything that is wrong and corrupt in the current American publishing industry.
Nonetheless, I was excited to read Still, and despite my slight quibbles and larger objections to Winner's style and theology, I had enjoyed her previous works. The book purports to not be a straight memoir, nor a guidebook, but more of a public service, I suppose, a companion for those of us Christians who might ourselves experience a sort of...dark night of the soul. Which is, of course, an allusion to a work far better suited to serve such a purpose than Winner's present volume. Winner's crisis of faith was brought on by the death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage. Or so the blurb tells me. Once I started reading the book, it all became a lot less clear.
The whole book reads strangely. It is as though we are trapped in Winner's head with her, and it is decidedly a miserable and lonely place to be. Other people are but vague, passing thoughts that pass by on the outside. Events are obscured by constant ruminating. There is no ground to stand upon, no anchor to pull us down, no fresh air to hit our faces and snap us out of the fugue. The marriage is never spoken of in any illuminating detail; her husband is nameless. (I would respect the nod to privacy were he not named in full in her other works and all over the web--given that, this is just odd and confusing.) When Winner speaks of her late mother, it is in weirdly distant terms, passively hostile, perhaps a hint of denial, or perhaps we should take her statements at face value--she really doesn't miss her? Winner never makes concrete any of the details that make a memoir vivid. While she drops names and tries to impress us with her very Relevant magazine Christian hipster tastes, she doesn't tell us what her married life was like, really, what she misses, what she regrets, what HAPPENED. Where we are! What's going on! She just kind of wanders around in a miserable fog, and we are stuck there with her, ruminating.
Because of all of this, we are to believe God is "absent." Now this is one of my theological pet peeves. Why are we to believe God is absent whenever a yuppy has the flu? It screams of spiritual wimpiness, as it is ALWAYS these spoiled types who are bemoaning the absence of God when anything goes wrong in their lives. The poor working sorts of the world lean on God even more heavily, by and large, when things go bad. The rich and spoilt whine that God has abandoned them when very normal, cycle of life, kinds of bad things go down. It is the definition of self-centered and overprivileged.
In fact, rather like a spoiled child, Winner proclaims that if believing in Jesus means she has to stay married, she just won't believe! That showed Him! It never occurs to her, I suppose, that it's not Jesus' fault that she has chosen to make herself a very public figure proclaiming very authoritatively and very smugly a very rigid form of Christianity. That she chose to make sexual fidelity the focus of her public preaching. That she has chosen to make statements like that it is better to marry just for sex than to have premarital sex and sin. (One might be tempted to pull a Dr. Phil on her about that one.) She has chosen to make her living by loudly narrating her conversion only several scant years after it started--only a few scant years after her prior conversion to Jewish orthodoxy. By now narrating this "crisis of faith" only a few years later, it is as though her spiritual evolution was crippled by her own self-satisfaction in chronicling it, and her vaunted "pure" marriage, much the same. Did she love a man, or the idea of being piously married? She has nothing specific to say about Griff, the man she left. She never seems to see the hubris and hamartia in this little tragedy. Or if she does, she certainly isn't telling US about them. That would really be risky.
Reading, I just wanted to pull Winner out of herself. She seems to have some vague sense that she is to blame for some of this mess, but she needs to work it out with the people involved, not inside her head, and not with the audience for her memoirs. Theologically, I find this book useless as a teaching moment (although it purports to be one) because she never delves into the concrete matters that brought her to crisis. So she feels like she's a bad Christian because she married and then quickly divorced. How does she resolve that? It seems she resolves to ignore it and move on--something that tells me that the personal trainwreck resulting in memoir number three can't be long down the road from here. She doesn't miss her dead mom, what's that about? Is it numbness from deep grief? Unresolved something else? What does it mean, spiritually, to feel that way? These questions don't need to be definitively answered, but they must be at least addressed. But to fall back on a cliche accusation, Winner seems too self-absorbed to have perspective on any of this. Which is perhaps understandable, but it makes her a terrible guide for fellow Christians feeling a spiritual crisis because of personal issues.
I wonder where Winner will go from here. I understand she is planning to become an Episcopal priest, but my sense is that this may just be yet another way for her to run away from whatever anxieties have kept her talking fast and glib since her first memoir. This book was frustrating and unrewarding to read, and I will surely be denounced as a grouch for panning such a fashionable Christian writer. But so be it; Still was a miserable, stifling read.
on April 12, 2012
This book is advertised as exploring what happens at a crisis of faith, when one reaches the "middle" of the spiritual life and feels stuck, or bored, or unsure whether or not to continue. It does not do so in any way that needed to be published.
Lauren Winner is an engaging and gifted writer. Her prose is easy to read and in many places beautiful. However, this story really was not helpful. As others have said, the VAST majority of it was just her self-centered introspection. Not the kind of introspection that lends itself to growth and wisdom, but the kind that just comes across as navel-gazing.
There are many books for the spiritual life that cover this theme far better. Even on desolation, on wrestling with God, or finding yourself not even wanting to wrestle with God anymore.
I do not mean this as an attack on the pain Ms. Winner must have felt following her divorce, the death of her mother, or her spiritual crisis and dryness. But I see very little to recommend here for others.
Lauren Winner is a talented writer and a provocative thinker, but I do not believe that this book is her best work. The subtitle says the book is "Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis," and the author describes it as "an autobiographically inflected rumination on a focused spiritual theme -the theme of desolation and consolation," and acknowledges that it is "not really a narrative . . . the chapters are reflections." This is generally accurate, but to use the term "chapter" to describe many of these observations is a bit of overstatement: many are only a page or two in length, some only a few sentences. The author admits that "structuring this book was hard," and it shows - the book has the feel of a collection of blog or journal entries that have been bound between two covers in roughly chronological sequence. "Mid-Faith" is also a bit of a stretch, given that the author is in her thirties and is a relatively recent convert to Christianity from Orthodox Judaism (although Wikipedia tells us that she was recently ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, notwithstanding her "mid-faith crisis").
I found the content of the book to be sometimes interesting, but usually when the author was quoting another thinker or writer. The author acknowledges at one point that her complaining "sounds tinny and childish," and that same tone is present in many of the chapters of the book. She mocks another post-divorce memoir (snarkily calling it "Masticate, Meditate, and Masturbate"), yet her style constantly - relentlessly - evokes that other work with its references to the type of food being eaten, the wine being drunk, the color of the dress she was wearing, the music that is playing, the piece of artwork being contemplated during the discussion with "my friend [fill in the blank - e.g., Ruth, Samuel, Molly, Hannah, Sarah, Phyllis - the list of names invoked by the author seems endless]" and yet none of these descriptions really seem to have anything to do with the substance of what it is the author is relating. The author's writing style was a distraction to my understanding of her content and it adversely affected my ability to benefit more fully from reading the book; all the effort spent to create a mood in the writing could have been profitably spent editing the book into a more coherent whole.
If what I have described still sounds irresistible to you, I encourage you to first read some of the other authors who have walked this trail before Winner and may have more profound insights on the topic. I especially recommend Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by Kathryn Greene-McCreight or Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris. McCreight tells the story of her struggle with mental illness in the context of her faith, while Norris shares the spiritual aftermath of her husband's death after a marriage of over 30 years. Another alternative story of one soul's dark nights can be found in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. These books offer substantial meditations on the crisis of faith and adversity, and also provide helpful perspective to Winner's predicaments.
Update 11/19/12: I am always trying to improve my reviews, so if you're tempted to vote that my review is not "helpful," please take a few moments and leave a comment as to your reasons so I can do better next time. Thanks!
***This review refers to the prepublication, uncorrected proof in paperback.
Whether or not you enjoy Ms. Winner's memoir might depend largely on your experience and/or personal faith more than her writing style. Some readers may identify well with the author, or glean insights from the book. Other readers could feel disappointed. I do hope copy editing will whittle or correct pages of endless run-on sentences and what seems to be a rebellion against grammar. There's casual or conversational writing, but it can go too far. What makes the writing trip up, in this reader's opinion, is it's almost like reading a too heavily "prosed" personal journal. In the Q&A section at the end of the book, Ms. Winner admits that she wrote it mainly for herself. It's as though she added scholarly and/or expressive words to make it sound more literary to the reader, which is awkward. Readers might wonder, am I reading a diary, a text book on theology or a novel?
When I ordered the book, I expected a strong spiritual/faith basis.'Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis' is really much, much more about the author and her religious activities than personal faith in God or Christ. In fact, interactions with friends, family, students and aquaintances (and her thoughts or feelings), it's as though Ms. Winner is going through life with the notion that everything and everyone--including God--revolves around her or her ability to understand, analyze or embrace it. Existentialism springs immediately to mind.
I love what her priest says to her on page 125: "Your life as an academic is about thinking and reflecting and analyzing... a disciple also rests in the blessed assurance that God is engaged with everything that matters, even when we aren't." That term--academic--is truly at the heart. Personally, I wish the majority of the book didn't revolve around the author's apparent need to appear intelligent, enlightened and cultured. I wish it didn't focus so intently on Ms. Winner's church attendance, communion, church groups... essentially measuring her faith by whether she's dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. It reminded me of my single year at a Baptist Bible college.
I kept hoping the author would arrive where her friend, Sarah, had. Sarah knows that faith and its expression are in a sense a simple way of life. It's about God. It's about focussing on others instead of getting wrapped up too tightly in ourselves. As in Micah 6:8, it's about living justly, loving mercy and walking humbly. God and faith are bigger than we are. They also aren't rocket science. On the final two pages before her Q&A segment the author doesn't disappoint, but it took over 200 pages to get there!
edited on 12/31/11 to add:
Since posting the above review, I went back over the book, re-reading the Q&A section at the end, the two prefaces, and portions of the chapters (I have to agree with another reviewer that the format/structure is awkward and confusing). Here's the SECOND take-away from ONE reader, for what it's worth: Winner specifically states in the first preface that it's not a memoir, and in the second preface says the book is "about God moving away at the same time God took away the ground". Skip to the Q&A, and the author's sincere intentions and effort were to write the book as prefaced.
In reaching out to others (presumably readers) struggling with a faith crisis, there's one major stumbling block, along with a few minor ones... such as, where is the spiritual wisdom? Those who've been through truly dark, cold nights (weeks, months, years)realize that God didn't move away, nor remove the ground from beneath. A dear friend of mine lost her husband of 40 years a year and a half ago. She stopped going to church for awhile, stopped taking communion, and stopped going to rosary... yet she never lost her faith. She took up vegetable gardening and met God in the garden. She took up preserving produce and met God in the kitchen. She understood, even in the depths of grief, that God didn't leave.
As not only a religious scholar, writer, speaker and (literally) teacher who makes a living from Christianity, it should be obvious that some people would buy her book seeking comfort and/or answers in their own struggles. Rewritten several years down the road, when Winner herself has had time to digest her own struggles and grow stronger in her faith, it might be. The author still doesn't seem to understand that God never left her in the first place. She does, however, take two and a half pages of the Q&A section to try and explain why she didn't write clearly and straightforwardly about her inarguably religious profession in the chapters, but rather treating that fact as an aside in the text. She says, before going on, "It's still confusing and uncomfortable for me" and "it is too hard". Why, then, write 'Still' now? She goes on to say, "If I've written it well, it isn't about me. It's about the questions: How does a spiritual life change? How do you enter that change?" Only TIME can bring the clarity and authority to address possible answers to those questions.
The book does read like a personal journal, and does seem to, as another reviewer put it, trap the reader in the author's mind. Even upon rereading it, 'Still' seems very narcissistic. Maybe that was the intent? Put the reader in the writer's mind so that the reader "experiences" it? As I told my dear friend, I've buried a number of loved ones, and every time the grief was different... because each relationship was different... each loved one unique. I've had three miscarriages; the first was devastating, the second brought sadness, and the third was almost a heavy resignation. Anyone going through a crisis of any kind might seek guidance of some kind. It's rarely useful to get one, self-focussed perspective based on one, single experience. I'll stick with the three star rating, although I almost changed it to two stars. I wouldn't recommend the book to a friend or family member going through a struggle.
There are better books out there to encourage or guide.
on April 27, 2012
I was disappointed in this book. It's small scraps of meditation, with few "aha" moments. Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L'Engle, and a number of other Christian writers do this kind of writing so much better. I've read journalism by Winner, which I have enjoyed. I also was disappointed to read some of her commments on her own Biblical illiteracy. This woman, is, afterall, a minister and well-known Christian writer. Maybe, like wine, she will mature and improve with time.
on April 12, 2012
I saw Still sitting on a New Releases table at B&N, and since it mentioned her other book, Girls Meets God, as being somewhat related, I bought Girl Meets God first. I read and enjoyed it, went back to the store and purchased Still.
Less than four days later, I am going to take Still back and return it.
I feel that this book is woefully unfinished. I don't mean the occasional short chapter - I like that device, and I think it is a writing device that can work. I mean, simply, that Ms. Winner's book is -not done-. It reads as a ramble, not in a good way, in a way that labors to keep your attention but cannot succeed. This book dances around details of what brought on her crisis in faith, but does so in a way that makes it difficult to understand where Lauren's crisis even comes from or why it grows so large in the midst of her training to become an Episcopal pries.t
In fact, she mentions her professional life so rarely that it is essentially absent from the book, despite how clearly her professional life had to have informed what was happening to her.
She states outright the book is not a memoir, but a series of ruminations on a theme, but it reads as a memoir that simply isn't done. This book needs finishing, and I am not willing to pay hardcover prices for a book that isn't finished.
This saddens me, because I underlined many lines in Girl Meets God that I felt resonated so well, and it's setup was not quite linear either but I felt worked much better.
With regret, I feel I must return this book. I have not returned a book in a decade, but I feel I have to do so now. I can't even make of it a good gift to someone else, a friend or family member, because I don't want to give them this unfinished work either.
I will watch for Lauren's next work - Girl Meets God made me interested in seeing Ms. Winner's life unfold - but I will be a little more wary next time of taking the time to look between the cover pages before I spend any money.
I must state, though, that Lauren's prose remains engaging, if occasionally so self-absorbed it becomes impossible to care about. She is a fantastic writer, and her turns of phrase are endlessly memorable. I just wish she had spent another year on this book, a couple more drafts, one or two more turns with an editor.
I just expected, I suppose, something more.
The title "Still" can be taken two ways. Just like physical life, spiritual life contains not only high places and low places, but flat expanses where we seem to be standing still. At times like this, one response is to listen for our own inner wisdom, to be deliberately quiet and still.
The book is a collection of personal reflections on the author's journey across her own spiritual plateau. The individual meditations make no attempt at consistency. Each reader will undoubtedly respond to different insights in different ways. For example, I was irritated and alienated by a chapter using second person address, "You think" and "You feel," because the author's experiences are not my experiences and I have never thought what she was thinking. On the other hand, her account of serving communion to a fragile, elderly couple brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart. I particularly appreciated the quotes of poems and passages from other sources and the author's meditations on them. Other readers may prefer her revelations of and reflections on events in her own life.
This is a book by and for someone who, feeling lost, seeks to find God and to be found by God.
Lauren Winner's "Still" is an unsettling memoir-like series of notations on hitting a spiritual wall. In Winner's case, this "dark night of the soul" (though she wants to avoid that phrase) seems tied to her mother's death and the end of her marriage.
"Still" is unsettling in part because of its style. It is memoir like, but it lacks traditional narrative. It's more like a series of notations, observations, and reflections with a general movement forward in time. We move from Winner's initial foreboding, to the emotionally dark period ("the middle"), toward some sense of recovery from her dark doubts. The format bothers some readers but I find it a welcome break from ordinary narrative.
"Still" is unsettling more so for reasons of content. Countless reviewers have commented on the self-absorbed audacity of writing multiple memoirs before reaching one's late thirties. I hate to admit it, but there may be something to that criticism. Perhaps the charge of self-absorption lingers because we seldom leave Winner's inner world of emotions and thoughts. But when significant life events - becoming a divinity school teacher, a mother's death, the end of a marriage, preparation for priesthood - are swirling about, it's disappointing to engage them solely from the emotional standpoint of the author.
I'm sad for Lauren Winner's divorce, but I recognize that divorce is sometimes a necessary reality. However, I was disappointed both that Winner delved into her divorce so soon after its conclusion and that she didn't probe the theological and emotional issues tied up with it. Frankly, I'm quite irritated when Christians of influence invite the world into the spectacle of their divorce if only because the writer is bound to share intimate details about another person and they're often going to speak poorly of them. On the other hand, it's sad when a theological memoir can be written about a spiritually dark period without exploring theologically (at least in depth) what connection there might be between divorce and depression.
"Still" was an interesting read, but I'm not sure I would recommend it - unless you're a voyeur. If you want a book about spiritually difficult periods of life, and how to survive them, look elsewhere.
on May 25, 2012
I looked forward to reading Lauren Winner's story which I mistakenly believed to be a memoir and really is a hodgepodge of religious and Biblical history, religious holidays and rituals, poetry, and tidbits from the worlds of art and cooking as well as a few personal stories--most of them taken from conversations with friends and acquaintances. She includes information from both the Christian and Jewish religions (she was born and raised Jewish, later converting to Christianity).
Winner reveals practically nothing about her failed marriage--maybe a little more about her deceased mother--but nothing of much depth. She implies that there isn't much to tell about her mother--that they didn't have a deep relationship. Her vocabulary is at times more like gobbledlygook than anything else. Here's an interesting sentence taken from her chapter on loneliness where she begins by telling us about the Christians who left the Roman Empire in an attempt to find God in the desert. I quote: "Mostly these desert sayings are opaque and epigrammatic; they feel like glass to me, like Jesusy zen koans." Excuse me? I'm sorry but I don't know people who talk like this.
Sometimes she over-intellectualizes and sometimes she just comes out sounding weird. I see her as the poor woman's Kathleen Norris, another Christian intellectual who bombards us with quotes from Emily Dickenson and couches everything in an expensive vocabulary, but the nuggets can be few and far between. Like Kathleen Norris, she turns to the psalms as a prescription for anxiety. Great medicine, but if they could only give us more straight talk about their lives and the spiritual solutions they use rather than losing us in a sea of words which are often unnecessary to describe their conflicts of faith.
Perhaps if you use a highlighter to emphasize the words which ring true for you, you can keep Winner's book by your bedside for inspiration during your dark nights of the soul. Personally, I think that you will be saying "TMI" to most of it.