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Conversion Is Always Difficult: An Interview with Lauren Winner

By Jayson Whitehead
March 10, 2003

Born to a Jewish father and a Southern Baptist mother, Lauren Winner was raised Jewish because of an agreement her parents made when they married. Although her parents were basically lapsed in their beliefs, Winner was drawn to religion from an early age. When her parents divorced, she moved in with her mother and continued her Jewish education. But because of her mother’s Gentile heritage, Winner was not technically considered a Jew until she formally converted to Judaism at the end of high school.

Winner attended Columbia University in large part because of its high population of Orthodox Jews. She initially fell head over heels into the Orthodox way of life, attending service every day and adopting Judaism’s strictures. However, by her second year of college, she found herself drifting towards Christianity. Having grown up in the South, Winner had always possessed an innocent curiosity regarding the Protestant faith. A voracious reader, many of her favorite southern writers like Flannery O’Connor were of Christian persuasion. And according to Winner, Jan Karon’s Mitford novels—a series of books that follow the exploits of an Episcopalian minister—were an important influence for their sentimental picture of the Christian life. "I’m still faintly embarrassed because they’re not ‘great literature’ or what-have-you," she says. "But I’ve asked my boyfriend to read the first Mitford novel because I was like, ‘Well, if you want to understand my path and my story you need to read this book.’ They were quite instrumental, at least the first two."

Around the same time she began a stint at Cambridge University, Winner converted to Christianity and joined the Anglican Church. Her recently published memoir of her religious journey, Girl Meets God (Algonquin Books), is a revealing portrait of her quest to find spiritual solace. Currently finishing her Ph.D. while working as a receptionist at her church, Winner spoke with oldSpeak about her conversion to Christianity, her relationship to Judaism, and her struggle to unite the two.

OldSpeak: In moving from Judaism to Christianity, was it important for you to find a denomination like Anglicanism that has a lot of rites?

Yeah, I was very drawn to Anglicanism; I think part of the reason I ended up an Anglican is because some of this happened in England. At the initial time I wasn’t necessarily sure why I was so attracted to it, but in hindsight it became clear to me that it was actually very similar to Judaism in two ways. One is that it—as Judaism is—is liturgical. As all Jews around the world are using basically the same prayer book and saying the same prayers at the same time, Anglicanism is the same way.

The second way in which it’s similar is that both Judaism and Anglicanism place a real emphasis on the historical received traditions. Anglicanism—even though it’s a product of the Protestant Reformation—places more emphasis on the teachings of the Church fathers than some of the other Protestant denominations.

Should the Protestant Church stress its roots in Judaism more than it does?

I do definitely feel a real kind of burden—to use evangelical speech—about the place of Judaism in the Church. I think the Church would do well to reflect on Judaism in two respects. One is precisely what you mentioned. What are the Jewish roots of Christianity? And there has been in recent years a real interest, at least in the scholarly community, in recovering the fact that Jesus was a Jew and recognizing that he was formed by the Judaism of his day.

There’s a lot of things that Judaism and Christianity have in common—because Christianity got them from Judaism basically—that I would say the Jewish community still does better. For example, we both ostensibly observe a Sabbath, but I think that American Christians don’t really know exactly what that means. Maybe that means we go to church and the rest of our Sunday looks exactly like every other day of the week. So there’s some wisdom that the Jewish churches have that we can learn from.

Second, I think the Church needs to reflect on the many horrible and violent things that the Church has done over the last two thousand years to Jews in the name of Jesus—all the anti-Jewish violence. We really need to take some responsibility for that and think about where have we gone wrong in developing our theology—that that’s the place that it leads to sometimes. I don’t think anyone wants to say Christianity was responsible for the Holocaust. That’s obviously a gross reduction and oversimplification. But certain churches in Germany were very complicit in the Holocaust. I think that that has sparked both the Catholic Church and a lot of Protestant denominations to rethink.

In Girl Meets God you write: "I usually think the Church of England is much more together, insightful, and generally sane than the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A." Can you explain that?

England doesn’t have the same evangelical subculture that we have in America. There are certainly many evangelicals of different denominations in England but just for historical reasons the evangelical communities developed differently. The evangelical wing in the Church of England is somewhat different because the overall evangelical context is different.

My experience in England was that the Anglican Church had an easier time being the broad church that Anglicanism always says it is. What I mean by "broad church" is that Anglicanism is this very diverse, capacious denomination. There are very evangelical people, and much more Anglo-catholic people and then much more liberal people. But they’re all in there together using the Book of Common Prayer and praying in churches. In America those divisions seem to be much more pronounced, and there’s a lot more tension and a lot more self-conscious division where people want to readily identify, "I’m a liberal Episcopalian, I’m an evangelical Episcopalian." On the one hand it’s fine to have those identities. On the other hand, in general less fission and fracture in the church is better than more fission and fracture in the church. So I just didn’t see those divisions as being quite as sharp and full of animosity in England as they sometimes seem in America.

You write frequently of feelings that you are betraying the Jewish faith. Have you reconciled that or is that going to be a continual process?

I think both. I would say that all the emotions that I highlight in the book—both the sense that I’ve betrayed the Jewish community in some way and also just a real sense of sorrow and missing certain things about Judaism—I think I’ll always feel those to some degree. But frankly I feel them less. And part of that is because I wrote the book three years ago and that means that I was a much—to use an evangelical idiom—younger Christian at that point. So in a certain way as I’m increasingly formed by the gospel and formed in the church, those feelings—I don’t think they’ll ever disappear, I think Judaism will always be emotionally important to me just because of my family and I’ll always have a lot of gratitude to the ways that I was Jewishly formed as a child and a young adult—but I think the kind of intense emotions that are sometimes present in the book are sort of tapering off… which is nice.

The book ends with you working Judaism back into your life. You talk about restocking your library with some of your older Jewish books and going to shul. Has that process continued?

Well, I think if most people just looked at my life on a day to day basis there’s very little that "looks Jewish." As I say in the book I still bake challah pretty often. That may be one of the very few externals. Passover’s in April and I’ll go to North Carolina to Passover Seder with my family and so forth. With the scene I describe at the end of the book of going back to shul, I realized now that the book has been published that some people have read that as like, "Oh, she’s going to start doing that regularly, or she’s going to move to a messianic Jewish community," which is not at all how I intended it. More, for me, that was almost like a moment of closure. And it was like a little gift from God. Like, "Okay, you can go experience this one more time and then the next day you can get up and go to church because that’s where you belong."

Could you compare it at all to the end of a personal relationship?

I would hesitate to take that too far because with the breaking up/relationship analogy, hopefully at some point you’ve completely moved on. Whereas I don’t expect nor do I really hope that I will at any point have totally left Judaism behind. Back to the Sabbath example, I feel like there are some lessons I learned particularly in the Orthodox Jewish community that are pretty valuable. I would like to on some level rather than abandon those lessons translate them into a Christian example. Again with the Sabbath example, by that I don’t mean that I plan to start observing all the strictures of the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath on the Christian Sabbath. That doesn’t make any sense. But I do find myself reflecting, "What really was distinctive about that experience? What contributed to making that day the Lord’s Day and a day that is different from the other six days and is there any way to translate that into this new situation?"

Why is someone so ostracized when they convert from Judaism to Christianity?

I was ostracized much less than some people. With some people, their parents act as if they’re dead. Conversion is always difficult. The Christian community also mourns when someone converts away from Christianity. I think conversion to Christianity from Judaism is particularly painful to Jews. If I had become a Buddhist no one would have been excited, but it might not have had quite the same level of pain for the Jewish community because there is this really long history of Christian antagonism and Christian violence to the Jewish community, including forced conversions. There’s no real history of Buddhist violence to the Jewish community. Even on a not fully articulated or subconscious level there’s a long history of anxiety and fear about Christianity. I’m claiming that this gospel story is true and it’s a story in the name of which Jews have been killed for centuries. People didn’t drop those deicide charges—"the Jews killed Jesus and therefore we should kill them for retribution"—until pretty recently.

Can you point to one thing that has been particularly difficult about your conversion from Judaism to Christianity?

Figuring out the role of law in Christianity has been an ongoing struggle for me, because obviously there is law and we’re bound by it, but it’s not the same. Every external act that you do is not guided by law in the same way that it is in Judaism. So just trying to figure out how to live into that without becoming "legalistic." Which is to say, Christian liberty is a complicated thing, because it obviously is not just some sort of antinomian free for all, but on the other hand the choreography of law and Christianity is different than it is in Judaism. So that’s been tough.



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