Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.
Reviewed by Jessica L. Rimmer, Student Life, Mid-America Christian University
In Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, Lauren Winner relates her own efforts and doubts during a faith struggle. The work is a personal account about what happens when a Christian leader faces the difficult choice of devotion to God and His scriptural ideals and personal desires. In true Lauren Winner style, the book reads like the journal of a scholar-artist. The beauty of the work is found in the honesty of the author and her willingness to be entirely vulnerable to her audience. The crux of her internal conflict revolves around her failing marriage to a wonderful man and the biblical mandate to stay married while simultaneously dealing with the loss of her mother. Winner finds herself facing an impossible choice: disap-point God and get divorced and so maintain her own sanity or stay married, continuing to lose her very self. This book details her choice to get divorced and her journey back to faith in God with a new sense of self.
This work is not a scholarly work; rather, it is a reflective piece of writing. It is rare that a scholar would write with this intensity of vulnerability. The level of personal risk involved in this work is remarkable, especially in light of Winner’s position as a biblical scholar at Duke University. While readers may not agree with Winner’s decision to get a divorce in light of the lack of biblical allowance to do so, her deliberate battle back to a conscientious and personal faith is inspiring. For those readers who have followed Winner’s faith journey through her other books such as Mudhouse Sabbath and Girl Meets God, the anguish that she relates in this memoir is palpable. In earlier works, Winner enraptures the reader with her scandalous, romantic conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Winner has had a passionate relationship with God and the Christian faith that was full of certainty. As she would say, she was full of assurance until she hit the blank wall of “the middle.” The reader mourns her crisis of middle faith as if they are reading the journal of a struggling friend who for the first time encounters paralyzing doubt.
This book is a beneficial read for Christian scholars who may themselves be facing doubts about God or have faced those doubts in the past. Winner normalizes the struggle with the very thing a scholar may be teaching. As Winner supposes, each of us enter times of great struggle when our faith seems to have died a little. In this dying, we find that we face our own spiritual middles. In an effort to hold up the mask of constant belief, many of us do not possess the bravery necessary to admit our own doubt. Most of all, what the reader gains from this work is that it is ok for those who have espoused certainty to encounter doubts about faith. As Winner demonstrates, the journey back is a messy one but a possible and worthwhile path.
The format of Winner’s writing makes it possible to pick up and put down for short stints. Each chapter reads like a diary entry from an ordinary day. The book is divided into three sections. In the first section, Winner describes her location as being “at the wall.” The wall of course is a word picture for the profound lack of movement that she feels is missing from her relationship with God. It is a picture of His silence. Section two, she describes as “wrestling with God.” She wrestles with old ways of doing and believing that are no longer eliciting faith movement. She wrestles with her own prayer life, or rather, the prayerlessness of her life. Section three is characterized by a newness of faith that Winner finds as different and yet the same as before. She has once again established movement in her relationship with God. These phases are an offering from Winner to her readers who will undoubtedly encounter their own walls, wrestling and eventually new movement.
Winner points to two inciting events that led her to the middle faith crisis: the death of her mother and a failed marriage. Unlike many divorces, where one party bitterly blames the other for love lost, Winner freely admits where her faults lay and where his did not. The goodness of her former husband does seem largely to contribute to her loss of self-perception as well as her lost perception of God. She writes:
If the choices are Christianity or divorce then I will have to choose secular humanism because I am not sure I believe any of this anymore and it is one thing to devote twenty minutes each morning to praying when you are not sure you believe anything anymore and it is another thing to organize your whole life around a marriage you don’t want to be in because a God who may or may not even exist says let no man put asunder. (7)
That quote captures the fundamental nature of what propelled Winner into the center of her crisis.
To read this book is to read about a deepening. Deep examination is one of Winner’s greatest strengths as a writer and a Christ follower. It is common to see her dwell awhile on a piece of advice that another person might brush past. Because of her thoughtful writing style, readers are beneficiaries of her vulnerability. In that vein, Winner relates some advice that propelled her through the transition of the middle. She is told that sometimes our searching for God can be a benefit to the deepening of our faith. She relates, “S says, it is not necessarily a good thing to be naturally receptive to God’s presence. It can be good, he says, but then to be naturally anything can make one not have to undergo the training necessary to make that which is immediate a habit” (105). This quote highlights the essence of Winner’s wrestling with God and foreshadows the hopefulness of section three of her journey.
The best audience for this work is those who are already fans of Winner. This book is not the starting place to use in order to gain a real sense of who she is. In fact, without the background of her faith journey, her crisis might seem ordinary. While first-time readers would still be impacted by the artistry of her writing, the profound sense of struggle could be lost. However, for those who have known the place from which Winner writes, the memoir can be painful and personal. Those readers must pick up this book because they will connect with her familiar honesty and bond even more deeply with her crisis.
Readers should not, however, pick up this book hoping for a guidebook on how to weather a spiritual crisis. Winner does not offer advice or wisdom to the reader. She does not tie her journey into a neat gift with a bow on it. Any guidance that a reader finds will depend entirely on the personal experiences of that reader and their connection with the author. She offers very few conclusions throughout the work. What is conclusive is that Winner finds newness in her relationship with God as her crisis ends. Without that conclusion, this book would be a depressing work about faith lost because of regular life trials.