Lauren Winner Offers Critique of Culture

Post a Comment » Written on October 8th, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Cathy Norman Peterson

CHICAGO, IL (October 8, 2008) – Although many people might view their televisions or magazine subscriptions as their primary access to popular culture, Lauren Winner has become something of a cultural critic in spite of her refusal to embrace either.

The author of Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath, and Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity doesn’t own a TV and removes her name from catalog mailing lists as quickly as possible. She wonders how the average American can find the time to watch the two hours of daily TV that statistics indicate.

But that doesn’t inhibit her nuanced analysis of the church and culture. After speaking at North Park University’s chapel last week, Winner sat down with a group of students and Covenant News Service to continue the conversation.

WinnerWinner responded to questions that ranged from her opinion on sexism in the early church to what it means to be evangelical.

When asked whether she sees sexism in the church’s history, Winner answered, “I think it is unarguable that there is a strong strain of misogyny, that is to say, instinctive, thoroughgoing disdain for women that runs through the church fathers. I would say that’s just a factual description.”

The real question, she added, is what we do with that information today. “Does that mean that you just throw that all out? That there’s no way of excising that strain, or of interpreting that strain and seeing what still is fruitful?” She would answer no.

One student asked Winner whether it is problematic to seek counsel from spiritual directors and pastors of the opposite gender. “That’s an interesting question,” Winner replied, “because often we are told, if you are going to go have intimate spiritual counsel, it’s better to do that with someone of your same sex. And, you know, the obvious reason is to not be an idiot.”

Winner said she respects the decisions of pastors and spiritual directors who choose not to counsel members of the opposite sex. She added, however, “In a situation where a man and a woman are having a relationship of spiritual direction, I don’t think it’s inevitable that something untoward will happen.” Rather, people need to practice discernment about whom they grant authority in their lives, she said.

Does Winner call herself an evangelical? Yes, but she took care to qualify what questioners mean when they use that term. Are they asking about her political convictions? Whether she had a specific conversion experience?

Her Jewish friends have read interviews in which she refers to herself as an evangelical, and then called her saying, “So, you’re one of those people?” Their reaction illustrates the importance of deconstructing a label that sometimes produces strong reactions.

Understanding how evangelicals view themselves is another matter. The definition of an evangelical has historically included a specific conversion experience, Winner says. “This kind of datable experience is less requisite than it might have been 15 years ago.”

Noting a changing understanding of conversion, she continued, “Certainly many evangelicals do still have this type of dramatic datable experience, but increasingly it seems okay to have a narrative of conversion or spiritual maturation that does not have a Road to Damascus kind of moment.”

Winner also proposed a different understanding of spiritual practices such as silence, solitude, and contemplation. Those practices generally are discussed as they relate to individuals, but at Duke Divinity School, where Winner teaches spirituality to would-be pastors, she promotes a more corporate view.

Proponents of spiritual practices need to consider the social context in which practitioners live, Winner said. She pointed to fasting as an example.

“I am especially keen with my students to think about fasting in light of a society afflicted by the gendered social ill of eating disorders,” she said.

Although Winner practices fasting, she wants her students to consider “what it means to responsibly advocate fasting on, say, a college campus where many women are struggling with eating disorders—if, that is, one can responsibly and faithfully advocate fasting at all in such a context.”

In further efforts to move beyond viewing spirituality as simply a means to further personal intimacy with God, Winner said, “I do wish that the gap between the active life and the contemplative life might be narrowed, that we might come to see that, at the very least, the church is called to both active and contemplative practices.”

She continued, “Maybe there are some people who are called solely to either active disciplines, like social justice, or solely to something like contemplative prayer, but I find that one leads into the other.

Winner also reflected on the changes of people’s reading interests. Memoir was wildly popular when she wrote Girl Meets God (published in 2002) which recounted her conversion to Christianity in her twenties.

Winner acknowledged that it could be considered presumptuous for someone to write a memoir at such a young age. But, she said, she wanted to get it written before the memoir trend in publishing ended.

That trend has not completely changed. She pointed to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which is No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list. The book has been on the list for 88 weeks. But there has also been a shift that has seen a spike in the publication of current events books. Eight years ago, she said, there were few such books. Today, of course, that landscape has shifted.

(Editor’s note: Cathy Norman Peterson is features editor of The Covenant Companion.)

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