Let’s see… More than halfway through my summer vacation and so far I’ve only completed one of the books on my summer reading list. And that the shortest one. But if that’s all the progress I made, it’s okay, since the one book I crossed off the list was Lauren Winner’s Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.
I don’t really write book reviews, per se, on this blog. I would simply say that Still is well worth reading — though (as other reviewers have already noted) it shouldn’t be the first Winner book you read. It’s hard to understand the frustrations she wrestles with here if you haven’t read her earlier work: Girl Meets God to appreciate why Winner’s “mid-faith crisis” isn’t so much an intellectual argument with herself about God’s existence or the tensions within Christianity as her coming to terms with the flickering of conversion’s flame; and Real Sex to understand the depths of pain and doubt caused by the divorce that initiates what little narrative is to be found in Still.
Rather than review, I like to reflect, and this brief book’s reflection-to-page ratio is pretty impressive. Not for the first time in my short career as an iPad user, I wished that I’d bought a paper copy instead of the Kindle version — or that I’d figured out a decent way to annotate without a pencil or pen. But I took enough mental notes to spark at least two or three posts…
I’m still wrestling with my chief reaction (which has to do not with religious doubt, but my own ambivalence about the American South), but in the meantime, let me share the first thing that struck me about Still:
It’s well written
(See, this is why I won’t be launching a second career with The New York Review of Books anytime soon.)
I fear that seems like faint praise. But read Winner’s book…
…then ask yourself if you would have guessed that it was written by a woman trained as an academic historian, whose dissertation became a Yale University Press book subtitled Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia. (Unless you knew this going in, you might not pick it up from Still. For reasons that Winner gets at in an appendix I’ll describe shortly, she doesn’t dwell on her professional life.)
Even more than usual, there’s been much angst among historians of late concerning the quality of our writing. (For reasons that the preceding sentence makes eminently clear!) Just this morning, Randall Stephens became the latest well-regarded member of our guild to take to his blog and promote Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing as a corrective to the discipline’s tendency to produce analytic histories that read like, in Sword’s phrase, “slow-moving sludge.”
I haven’t checked out Winner’s work on 18th century Anglicanism yet, but reading her non-academic publications makes clear that she’s the too-rare historian who recognizes that writing is an art, and a craft. Almost as thought-provoking as Still itself is the appendix in which she answers questions from her editor, causing her to reflect on everything from the influence of poetry on her writing to the challenge of structuring a non-linear, non-narrative, non-memoir.
I’m not in any position to explain why Winner is such an effective writer in genres well outside of her professional training. But if you need convincing of her skill, let me offer one minor observation and then share one especially terrific example of her writing:
First, the minor observation. Winner has mastered one technique that even I know to (try to) teach my students: staggered pace. Chapters, paragraphs, sentences, or words… little of the same length repeats. (I wish this had occurred to me before writing my dissertation or first journal article, but the lightbulb didn’t go on until my first or second year at Bethel, when one of our deans — trained as a literature professor — gave a guest lecture on the Baroque that, among other things, pointed out how the scenes of Shakespeare’s plays fluctuate in length. And the effect that choice has on sustaining the audience member’s — and reader’s — attention.)
In between somewhat longer ruminations on Epiphany and her mother’s death, for example, the reader encounters one of Winner’s chapters focused on the Eucharist (there are at least four of them). It’s not as brief as a later, one-paragraph chapter entitled “after purim, the eucharist,” but the page and a half of “eucharist, i” are my favorite in the entire book.
So second, the example of writing that should sell you on Still…
Invited to preach at an Episcopal church in upstate New York, Winner remains up front during the sacrament, holding out a chalice of wine from which the faithful drink deeply or, more often, in which they gingerly intinct their wafer. She notes that she knows nothing about the people she serves, but then can’t help but ask the priest about the remarkable actions of one elderly couple (“fragile as mushrooms”) that knelt before her. She learns that
for a dozen years, he has been afflicted by a wasting disease, an intestinal disease that makes it almost impossible for him to eat—he lives on Ensure and lemonade. But at the altar I don’t know that, I only know what I see: they each take a wafer from the priest; and when I come to them with the chalice, the wife dips as I say “The Blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life,” and she eats her wafer, and then her husband likewise intincts his round of Christ’s Body into the wine and then he hands the round of Body and Blood to his wife and she eats his wafer for him. There at the Communion rail, I don’t yet know what illness lies behind this gesture, I only know the couple’s hands and mouths, and that I am seeing one flesh. I have read about this, heard sermons about a man and a woman becoming one flesh; and here at the altar, I see that perhaps this is the way I come to know such intimacy myself: as part of the body of Christ, this body that numbers among its cells and sinews an octogenarian husband and wife who are Communion.
It’s a startling bit of writing. I had been coasting along, reading too quickly, when I sat upright and reread those paragraphs again and again.
I’m probably overreaching, but I think of “eucharist, i” as the core of the book. Even as Winner (in the original moment of worship and the later moment of writing) undoubtedly remembers that her own attempt at “becoming one flesh” was torn asunder, she is blessed by this vision of a “husband and wife who are Communion,” an early hint that she will find herself best able to doubt faithfully within the body of Christ. The fusion of awful memory and hopeful vision: just another of the mysterious miracles of Communion.