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In ‘Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis,’ Lauren F. Winner suffers a spiritual dry patch

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It’s very tricky to review a religious, inspirational book. Because what are your criteria? What if your faith is not the same as the author’s? What if the author’s inspiration tastes to you about as inspirational as flat 7UP? If you write disapprovingly, it may sound as though you’re talking trash about God — never a good idea. And what if (God forbid!) you don’t believe in God?

There’s a brand of religious person who not only thinks God is her Best Friend but also that this friendship goes both ways. If you’re looking for a sermon of sorts, here is “Still,” written by Lauren F. Winner, a young woman who was brought up Jewish and converted to Christianity. Now she teaches at Duke Divinity School, and along her spiritual journey, she’s written such books as “Girl Meets God” and “Mudhouse Sabbath.”

In the case of “Still,” the occasion for these pages is the fact that she’s gone through a divorce and is suffering a spiritual dry patch, a diminishment of the ardor she experienced while going through her conversion and shortly after. The first third or so of “Still” is devoted to that feeling of loss or sadness that one feels when one’s faith begins to melt away: “I went to church by habit. I went prompted by some deep-buried intuition. Most days I went brittle, like a dry cake of gingerbread. Like the hinges of an old book.”

Part of this is just the to-be-
expected pain of going through a divorce: “Sleeping in this twin bed in someone else’s house feels, in a word, pathetic. Who winds up here, at thirty-two, living out of a suitcase and sleeping in someone’s spare room in a twin bed?” The answer’s obvious: a woman (or man) who’s grinding through the first stages of a divorce, who would rather live in an unfamiliar house with a friend than stay home.

The divorce and the spiritual dryness seem to go together, but the author declines to make a specific connection. Somewhere, embedded in the narrative, is the uncomfortable fact (or is it a fact?) that she’s the one who wanted the divorce. (She follows the good advice of my much-married stepmom, who told me, “Always speak so well of your exes that people will think they’re dead.”) But, of course, divorce is frowned upon in Christianity, and a lot of people, including John Milton, have struggled with the dilemma of how to do what you want and still stay balanced on your moral high horse. Winner deserves happiness, she mentions, and marriage was keeping her from it. This comes under the heading of “A poor excuse is better than none,” and at times she sounds alarmingly like the ding-dong ex-wife in “Two and a Half Men,” but how does anybody who admits to watching that show get off judging somebody else’s literary style? Judge not!

Divorce aside, “Still” is about losing the connection to God, or Jesus, and then getting that connection back. She’s preparing to go to a “pie social”at church, for instance, and comes up with a sentence like this: “Then at 4:00 I have a really invigorating, really fabulous phone conversation with my spiritual director, the kind of conversation that leaves me feeling that all is right with the world, or, at least, that there is a way of proceeding in a world where not all is right. . . . I am looking forward to this pie social. It is just the kind of relaxed church event I enjoy at the end of a good afternoon.”

Whether you enjoy this book, or are morally improved by it, depends on how many sentences like that you can swallow, and how much of a theological snob you happen to be.

See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.

STILL Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis By Lauren F. Winner HarperOne. 244 pp. $24.99

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