#27—Wearing God, a conversation with Lauren F. Winner [MIPodcast]
“If you, like me, picture God in lots of different ways, or if sometimes God seems easy to speak about, and on some days you have no words for God, and sometimes you feel that there are too many words for God, so many that the abundance stumps you—if that is the case, then you are pretty much right in line with how the Bible invites us to imagine God: in some very singular ways; in dizzyingly hundreds of ways; sometimes, in no way at all.” —Lauren F. WinnerMost Christians are intimately familiar with a few basic metaphors the Bible uses to depict God: King, Shepherd, Physician, Judge. Lauren F. Winner sees the value in these metaphors, but while studying the Bible she discovered hundreds of other metaphors which are often overlooked—metaphors which can make us more aware of God’s presence in our daily lives. Discovering new ways to think about God helped her recover from an apparent spiritual dry spell. Winner explains some of her favorite discoveries in the book Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God. She writes, “I hope the book will help you sit down with God in a place the two of you have never visited before” (23-24). Winner’s writing has been praised as wise and lyrical, winsome and erudite. Her books are informed by uncertainty and infused with faith. In this episode, Winner discusses a few fresh ways believers can imagine God by making use of biblical imagery.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Most Christians are intimately familiar with the few basic metaphors the Bible uses to depict God: king, shepherd, physician, and judge. Author Lauren F. Winner sees the value in these metaphors but while studying the Bible she discovered hundreds of other metaphors which Christians often overlook—metaphors that can make us more aware of God’s presence in our daily lives. God is like clothing, bread, a woman in labor, laughter. God is a friend. Discovering new ways to think about God helped her recover from a spiritual dry spell. She explains some of her favorite discoveries in the new book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.
Winner writes, “I hope this book will help you sit down with God in a place that two of you have never visited before.” Her writing has been praised as wise and lyrical, winsome and erudite. Her books are informed by uncertainty and infused with faith. In this episode, Winner discusses a few fresh ways believers can imagine God by making use of biblical imagery.
It’s Lauren F. Winner talking about the book, Wearing God, in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HODGES: Lauren F. Winner joins us today. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show, Lauren.
LAUREN WINNER: Thanks for having me. I’m excited.
HODGES: I thought we would begin by talking generally about your own background. You have a really interesting spiritual biography that you talk about in a book called Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. It seems like Wearing God is an obvious outgrowth of your spiritual biography, so go ahead and just talk about your background a little bit.
WINNER: So, I grew up Jewish in North Carolina and Virginia. And when I was twenty-one I was baptized in the Church of England. I was a graduate student at Cambridge at that time. I don’t have, you know, one of those datable conversion stories, I can’t tell you that I became a Christian, you know, at 10:03 in the morning on January second, 1999 or something like that. Although I would say that baptism is a datable thing, right, and significant—you know, was I a Christian ten minutes before I was baptized? That’s sort of a complicated question of baptismal theology. But there was a several years’ process that led to my decision to be baptized and to join a church.
And so that happened when I was twenty-one and I was just completely, completely, completely fired up about the whole thing. I was about, you know, you’ve heard that phrase the “zealous convert,” I was about the most zealous convert you can imagine. I was super into learning about the church and learning about sacraments and learning about church history and learning about the creeds and so forth. And I felt a pretty profound intimacy with Jesus and I felt like Jesus was right there and we were intimately connected.
And you know, because I was 21 and didn’t really know much yet about how life works, I assumed, well, this is how it will feel forever. I’ve had this conversion process that was in some ways, in some ways quite wrenching and dramatic to move from being an observant Jew to being a Christian. Even though it wasn’t like a one-off datable conversion, it was a dramatic thing in my life. And I thought okay, well, I’ve had this one wrenching, profound, dramatic, beautiful, complicated religious experience and now for the next eighty years I’ll just have more of this, more of this intimacy with God all the time, enthusiasm about the church all the time…
Of course, that isn’t what happened. And anyone who’s older than twenty-one knows that that can’t possibly be what happens. So I had this intense sort of convert’s zeal for some years and then I reached a season in life where I felt quite alienated from God.
HODGES: And before you get to that, talk really quickly about what church life looked like up to that point. So you had that zeal, how did that manifest in your actual actions? How often did you attend church, what was that like?
WINNER: So I joined the Church of England. I was living in England for two years and I came back to the U.S. and went to the Episcopal Church and was super involved in my little church life and began a formal process of discernment for ordination—to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. It is an interesting sort of intersection, that this feeling of kind of alienation and estrangement from God roughly coincided with the time that I was in that discernment process and was entering seminary. So I was completing a PhD, focusing on American religious history, and then I was going off to do an MDiv and I was writing book, about sort of contemporary Christian spirituality and, you know, pretty much everything in my life externally and internally was engaged with the church and with church culture in some way.
HODGES: And that’s when you hit that wall.
WINNER: Yeah, right. And so, you know, I think people who have had these seasons of becoming estranged from God, there is usually some autobiographical way of explaining it, though maybe not always. I mean, in my case I can say my mother died, my marriage was foundering—this was all deeply confusing and unexpected. So in some way that’s a correct account. There were these autobiographical circumstances that intersected, and in some ways may have provoked the season of feeling alienated from God. But I think the autobiographical explanation is never fully adequate because I don’t think that these seasons are ever fully about us. They are about us and they are also about God.
And we know from the scriptures, particularly the Book of Isaiah, in which God is described as “the self-hiding God” or “the God who hides himself.” We know that this is actually a quality and characteristic of God—that God is mysterious and that God does sometimes hide or withdraw. And then when you look at the whole history of Christian spirituality, the whole history of Christianity, you begin to see that there is actually a sort of pattern or choreography in the Christian life and this is part of it.
In other words, it’s not… I think when one comes to these seasons or one is experiencing God’s alienation or your own alienation from God or God being alienated from you or withdrawn from you, when you come to those seasons of encountering of God’s hiddenness or what seems like God’s absence, I think it’s never just about the fact that you had a personal crisis, it’s never just about the fact that you lost your job and are thrown into turmoil, it is also I think somehow about God’s own mysteriousness and God’s mysterious freedom to withdraw from us as God wishes.
Of course, we also can withdraw from God, right? We can persist in simple behavior or persist in kind of actively hardening ourselves against God or turning away from God. And so these seasons are about us and can be about us but I think they are also about some mysterious piece of God’s own being and God’s nature.
HODGES: Some people might look at that and say, “well, perhaps it’s just the case that you stop being able to convince yourself that there was a God,” and perhaps see this as an indication that belief in God itself is the problem. Did you run into that at all or any feelings about wondering if God was ever there to begin with?
WINNER: Yeah, I had those feelings—maybe I made the whole thing up, you know. Maybe this was all just something I needed in my teens and twenties and I don’t need it anymore. I had those thoughts. I think that sort of ineluctably I am a God-person and… I haven’t been a Christian obviously in my whole life, but I’ve been curious about God, I think, my whole life, even as a child. And I didn’t grow up in a family where that was an expected thing or where we were taught really anything about God, or where curiosity about God was like a valued characteristic. So I think I’ve just always naturally been curious about God and curious about the things of God and how to meet God.
So, yes, I did have these momentary, “maybe I’ve made all this up,” but I think I am wired or the Holy Spirit has chosen to interact with me in a particular way such that I can’t actually sustain those questions for very long. So even when I really felt that God was utterly absent, it wasn’t… it didn’t feel like, oh, proof for atheism, you know?
HODGES: Right. You mentioned how you kind of undertook a study of past Christians and found this choreography, a dance with God where God withdraws and comes back. Maybe you can expand on the relationship between your scholarship and your personal religious faith.
WINNER: That’s an interesting question and it’s not one I have a kind of crisp and concise, well-formulated answer for. I think… for me, study of Christian theology, study of church history, formal study of the scriptures, all of that feels of a piece with life with God. And I understand that not everyone will necessarily feel that way. And of course, in the Christian spiritual life… you know, the Christian spiritual life is full of diversity and there’s a real abundance of different ways of seeking God, of different ways of loving God, of different ways of getting yourself in a position to hear from God. And of course, no one person—you know, if we think about prayer. There are all different kinds of prayer disciplines and prayer practices—Lectio Divina, you know, silent prayer, contemplative prayer, liturgical prayer, conversational prayer. No one person is going to be drawn into all of the different kinds of prayer practices that have emerged in the life of the church.
And so even more broadly, not everyone is going to be called to a life where the primary way that they’re interacting with God is service. Some people’s Christian lives will be really marked by service as the primary way they interact with God.
So for me, study is one of the key ways that I… love God. And I think of, of course, the key passage, the hallmark passage from Deuteronomy where Israel is commanded to love God and commanded to love God in several different ways, one of which is, love God with your mind. Not everyone in the life of the church will have study as a central piece of their friendship with God or of their spiritual lives. But for me it always has been.
HODGES: So for people who want to hear more about that difficult period of time in your faith life, I really recommend that book, it’s called Still. This book picks up a little ways after that. It seems like you had come around to a new place with God by the time you’re writing the book Wearing God, which is the one we’ll talk about through the rest of this interview. One thing that was interesting is you say that scripture was kind of your avenue back, or the scripture provided a way for you to reconnect with God in a surprising way. Talk for a moment about that.
WINNER: Yeah. Somehow, despite the fact that I spent my entire life in Jewish and Christian communities—which is to say communities in which the scriptures are held up as the word of God and as the most abundant place where God’s revelation is offered to God’s people and although in both of those communities communal engagement with the scriptures and personal individual study of the scriptures is very much valued and encouraged—somehow, somehow I didn’t totally get the memo on that. I mean, I knew theoretically that I should be reading the Bible but I just didn’t actually read it very much.
To be perfectly honest, I found the Bible sort of boring which seems sort of like a strange thing to say and feel but I found the Bible sort of boring. I was in a Bible study for a while and it just didn’t really quite take. And, you know, I would go to church and I would listen to the scriptures being read in church, but like I would sort of try to listen but I would also sort of daydream and wool-gather. And then about five years ago, I rather suddenly became… it was like a switch got flipped. I became rather suddenly completely enamored of the scriptures. And for the first time I really began to understand what people meant when they said things like, you know, the Bible was a place where God was totally alive for them, or that in engaging the scriptures and engaging the word they felt really alive to God and to God’s presence. I began for the first time really to understand that. It had never really made sense to me before when people had said that.
So I mean there were a couple of things going on in my life that I think helped awaken me to the scriptures. One was that I sort of, by accident, stumbled onto a practice—and I write a little bit about this in Still and I write a little bit about it actually in Wearing God also—but I sort of accidentally stumbled onto the practice of reading the scriptures in an unusual geographical location which is now a practice that I try to pursue weekly.
The logic of that practice is we’re so accustomed to reading the Bible at home or maybe reading the Bible like at a friend’s house if we’re in a small group or maybe reading the Bible in church. Then there are the nine million and three other places in the world where we don’t read the scriptures. And I think that where you read changes how you read so that if you take the scriptures to a strange or unusual location—which is to say basically anything other than your house or your church—and you read the scriptures in that location then you become available to certain possible meanings or certain readings or certain interpretations that otherwise you really wouldn’t be available to. So I sort of stumbled into that practice and that was very awakening for me.
I think another reason that I got kind of hooked on the scriptures is that I was beginning to teach classes in a women’s prison in Raleigh. And I was teaching them with a Baptist pastor who is one of the most interesting readers of the Bible that I have ever had the privilege to be around. And so listening to her engage the scriptures and also seeing how the scriptures flourished and were fruitful in her life I think was also part of what kind of finally got me curious about the Bible instead of feeling like the Bible was boring and alien.
HODGES: So you had different reading practices and then you also had people that you were connected with who kind of showed you new ways to read.
WINNER: Right, exactly.
HODGES: I’m speaking with Lauren F. Winner. She’s an assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. She’s also an Episcopal priest. Her books include Girl Meets God and Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. Her most recent book is called Wearing God.
This is a book about the metaphors that we use to describe God, and the metaphors that have been used throughout Christian history. I think that an important aspect of your book is how it’s attuned to the fact that we usually come to know God in a community. And so your personal relationship to God can really be impacted by the people that you worship with. And the crux of your book is the idea that we end up imagining God using familiar images and pictures and metaphors. You use this really interesting example to illustrate this idea. You talk about a blue Turkish bowl. I thought maybe that would be an interesting segue into the book itself.
WINNER: So I write in the introduction and the conclusion to the book about what it’s like to go to a museum, particularly a huge museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the National Gallery. That you can hang out in the museum, you can spend all day in the museum, you can go to the museum and sit for three hours looking at one painting, or I say in the book one blue Turkish bowl. And you can sketch the bowl and you can meditate in front of the bowl. And then you can leave the museum and tell your friend all about the bowl that you hung out with for three hours. You can maybe even mention the other three paintings you looked at and you can talk about the fabulous, you know, mozzarella and pesto sandwich that you ate in the museum coffee shop. But that’s a very partial description of the museum, right? It might be a pretty good description of the bowl, maybe, but it’s a very partial description of the museum. And that, I think, is part of what scripture understands about the task of speaking about God.
There are, I think, actually countless images, metaphors, tropes, kind of baskets of figurative language for God in the Bible. There are just many, many metaphors and idioms that the writers of scripture used to try to say something about their experience with God and what they know of God and who they know God to be and who they know themselves to be in relationship with God. And every single one of them is like a description of a bowl at the museum. I mean, every one of the descriptions says something true and illuminating about God but none of them—even if you add them all up, right—that’s not a description of the museum. It’s not finally the description of God.
Now, of course, this analogy breaks down, right? The usefulness, I think, of the analogy is that it gets at something about God’s abundance and God’s … I mean “abundance” isn’t even an adequate word—God’s super-abundance. But of course finally, you know, God far surpasses the museum. The museum, for example doesn’t give us our being and God does give us our being, that’s who God is. So the analogy breaks down but it is actually precisely in the breaking down of all of these analogies that I think we learn something about God.
So all of the figurative language and scripture for God is illuminating and has some really rich invitations to offer us. I think of each of these metaphors as sort of like a doorway and the doorway opens onto a particular path or a different path that we can walk with God. And it’s a path that we walk with God and a path that we walk to God simultaneously. But all of them are also partial and, you know, they will kind of break down if you push them too far. But that’s what I was trying to get at with the museum and the bowl, sort of God’s dizzying abundance.
HODGES: And there are few metaphors for God that I think are pretty widely held by Christians. These are things like God as father, God as shepherd, God as a physician.
HODGES: But those are kind of the main ones. I think Christianity, in a way, has kind of stopped at those. Why do you think that is? Why pick a few? Why have we kind of stayed at that level?
WINNER: Well, I actually don’t think it’s true that Christianity has stopped at those. I think that different historical moments in the life of the church have paid more or less attention to different images and different biblical passages and biblical metaphors. Part of what I loved in doing the research for this book, in Wearing God, I look particularly at six kind of clusters of figurative language from the scriptures for God. And part of what was fascinating was to see that basically all of these images—even though they aren’t images that we pay very much attention to today—that in earlier moments in church history in some Christian communities these were really central images for speaking about God and speaking to God and speaking about our relationship with God.
And so I think it’s interesting that different communities in different times and places in the life of the church will focus in on a handful of images. And maybe that’s just human nature, right? Maybe it’s just entirely predictable that a community will home in on few images, and pray with those and preach about those and write those into their hymnody. And of course when you do that, on the one hand those images become more meaningful. They become meaningful precisely because they are invoked and used all the time.
So I write in Wearing God briefly about the image of God as “great physician.” And I’ve lived a very lucky life, lo these thirty-eight years, I have not had serious illness and just if I were to think about my own personal, small, narrow, small life God as great physician wouldn’t leap out at me as an especially meaningful way of talking about God or I wouldn’t naturally gravitate toward that. But that is an image that I have prayed with and it’s an image I have used to pray to God quite a bit in the last ten years or so… because people in my church have needed God to be great physician. And so that image has taken on more and more meaning because I have prayed with particular people in particular health crises to the God who is the great physician.
So, that’s one thing that can happen when you kind of zero in on a handful of metaphors and images. But then there’s a less exciting thing that can happen and that is that the images can become kind of rote, you know, and the person praying with those images can become kind of insensible to them and not really ponder what they mean and just sort of use them almost as placeholders and then you sort of forget about the mysterious abundance that they’re holding the place for.
So all of that was a very long way of saying I think that on the one hand, there’s a richness that comes when you live intimately with a few metaphors or descriptions of God but there’s also a danger. And I think it’s very telling that the scriptures include so very many different metaphors for God. I think part of that very abundance in the scriptures is the constant reminder that we really shouldn’t get too comfortable with any one or two or three of these images because none of them will ever capture, you know, the whole of who God is and we shouldn’t restrict… when the scriptures don’t restrict the scriptural imagination to the images then neither really should we in the church restrict our imaginations to, you know, just father, a great physician, and shepherd.
HODGES: I think that’s one of the valuable things about the book overall—the way that it not only introduces readers to new ways of thinking about God through different metaphors, but that it also contains its own warning about that very exercise. And as you said it’s that idea of, almost the risk of idolatry, almost the risk of turning one’s metaphor into the object of worship and not remaining open to a living God who, like any relationship, will go through changes alongside a real person.
WINNER: Right. So I think one of the gifts of there being so many of these images in scripture is that, you know, as we were talking about earlier, people’s own spiritual lives have different—I don’t think I want to say phases, that sounds like dismissive—but different seasons. One is going to be in different spiritual seasons at different points. And so it’s a great gift that scripture gives us different kinds of language, some of which might be more helpful during some seasons than in others. And then of course, very few of us conduct our spiritual lives in total isolation, right? We are—and I would say we should be—members of churches and of Christian community and so even if I’m in a season of my spiritual life where some particular given way of imaging God feels like the way, feels like the thing, the powerful abundant thing, the person next to me in church might be in a season of life where she is praying with a very different basket of scriptural language for God. And then, of course, that person and I are in life together and in friendship with God together, and so our different ways of imagining God will kind of come up alongside each other. I think that church interaction also is a good of destabilizing a kind of solipsism, it’s a good way of kind of guaranteeing that we won’t get stuck in our own—just our own preferences, you know?
HODGES: Right. That must be kind of connected to where you write “There are plenty of psychological, and even medical reasons why our images of God matter.” And you also say that there are “social and political consequences.” This is the idea that the images that we have of God have real impact on our relationship to God but also how we worship and who we worship with and all off those things.
WINNER: Yeah. I have to say I was completely fascinated, in doing the research for this book, to discover this enormous social-scientific literature, which was new to me—obviously to many people it will not be new but, it was new to me—but there was this huge amount research that finds correlations. It’s not easy and it may not be possible just to prove causation, but finds correlations between on the one hand the image of God that you hold or the way that you image God when you are praying, and then on the other hand, a whole raft of things that, you know, seemingly would be unrelated to that. Like gun ownership, likelihood of gun ownership, or feelings of shame, or rates of psychopathology. I mean, the list goes on and on.
So I was completely fascinated to learn that there are these correlations between how we image God and then how we live our lives. And although it was new to me that there was all this research, when you step back and think about it, as a Christian and as a believer, you know… one would hope that there’s some correlation [laughs] between how we think about God and how we put together the sort of quotidian ordinary stuff in our life. If there is no correlation, that actually would seem problematic and confusing. So it was both fascinating and surprising to find this literature but in some ways it seemed, once I thought about, it seemed “oh well that actually exactly as it should be.”
HODGES: Because—yeah, because it has impact on someone’s actual everyday walk, everyday life. Life experience. I think that also speaks to why certain images of God appeal to different people, because everyone has different experiences and you bring that to your search for God. So, it only makes sense that different images—I think of Paul’s scripture where he says, you know, he’s talking about the body of Christ and says “Don’t let one member say that other that I don’t have need of you”—That would be sort of similar if I were to object to a certain image of God that didn’t appeal to me without recognizing that there are reasons why a particular image of God would appeal to someone else and not to me. And that that’s okay.
WINNER: Right. Right.
HODGES: With so many different images to choose from, you mention that you chose—I think you look at eight in this book—different kind of areas: friend, clothing, smell, bread and vine, laboring woman, laughter, and flame. So, I just wondered how you decided on these particular images out of all them that you had to choose from.
WINNER: Well, in a certain way, the book was totally self-directed in that I kind of wrote about the images that I naturally gravitated toward. And when I stepped back—maybe when I was, maybe about halfway done writing the book—when I stepped back I realized that there was a common thread in the images that I was drawn to. And the common thread is that all of those metaphors or images are very ordinary. They are connected to our ordinary everyday life. And you know, when you think about some of the images that we talk about more often in church—shepherd, king—I mean those are images that might have been very connected to the lives of first century people in Palestine or Israel, and—but they’re not—I mean I know “king” is not an image that is connected to my daily life in any way, right?
HODGES: Well you lived in England for a while. [laughs]
WINNER: I did live in England, but there was no king.
WINNER: [laughs] Praying to God and picturing God as Queen Elizabeth might be, or Helen Mirren, might be a stretch. So, I was very drawn to sort of ordinary quotidian daily images of God. And upon reflection, it seemed to me that this is really part of Jesus’s method. This is actually what Jesus did in his own teaching. And I’m thinking here, you know, primarily of the parables. That he would walk through an ordinary day, an ordinary Tuesday, an ordinary Wednesday, and he would look like around and he would glom onto something he saw. Something from ordinary life—a sparrow, a woman with her coins, men going to get their paychecks. And he would take that thing from ordinary life and he would say to people “You think that this is just a sparrow,” or, “You think maybe this is just guys queuing for their paycheck, but actually it’s much more than that. It’s actually here to tell you something about God and about who God is and about how you can be in a relationship with God.”
And once one begins to view the world that way, once you begin to walk through an ordinary day in your life and say “Oh. Out my back window is a tree. I’ve always just thought of that as a nice tree, but actually in Hosea, God identifies as a tree. So maybe that tree at my back window is actually here to tell me something about who God is and about who I might be in relationship with God, and who I might be as one who bears the image of God.”
So once you begin to look at your everyday life that way, it’s transforming, right? It’s just totally transforming. So, part of my hope for Wearing God as a book is that when people read it, that they will both come away with sort of a renewed curiosity about the scriptures and maybe a kind of a richer palate for imaging who God is and some different images to, maybe, use in prayer. But that they will also come away with a renewed capacity to look around their lives and notice that there are so many things in their day to day lives that are actually used by the writers of scriptures specifically to say something about God. And that means that the invitation to ponder God, the invitation to be drawn more deeply into a relationship with God is all around us all the time in our ordinary everyday life. Which seems to me, on the one hand, awesome and remarkable, and on the other hand, it seems exactly the strategy that a God who became incarnate would use. I mean it seems entirely consistent with what we know about God. God came to live among us for the sake of our relationship with God. And the kind of God who would do that is also the kind of God who doesn’t just communicate in abstractions or something, but actually takes up the normal stuff of everyday life to tell us what God is like.
HODGES: That’s Lauren F. Winner. She’s author of the book Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire and other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.
HODGES: Lauren, in the first chapter you explore God as “friend.” And that was an interesting choice because you write that you weren’t really keen on that image at first. That wasn’t something that immediately appealed to you, right?
WINNER: Yeah. So, the language of God as friend is deeply biblical. It is found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and then of course, it is intensely found when Jesus says to his disciples, “You are no longer my servants, you are my friends.” So it is deeply biblical language. But I associate it not with the Bible primary [laughs] but with Sam Wells, who was the dean of Duke Chapel, when I first got to Duke nine years ago. And this is an image that Sam really loves, that we are friends of God, that God has given us everything we need to be God’s friends.
And when I first heard Sam using this language, it really kind of rankled. I found myself thinking, “This language, like, borders on being disrespectful.” And this may in some way get back to in my own biography, kingship language is very important in Judaism. So as a young person, I grew up with a lot of kingship language, and that is language that really emphasizes God’s transcendence and God’s majesty. And so that’s, in my own formation, that sense of God’s transcendence, that sense of awe and of God’s majesty is very formative. It goes very deep in me. And friend almost feels like the opposite of that, right? So I would hear this language of friend and I would think “Who am I to call God my friend? God is the creator. God is my redeemer and the redeemer of all creation. To call God my friend seems kind of cavalier and disrespectful.”
But, it’s basically one of my working theories in the spiritual life that when something irks you—like when you hear something in a sermon and it really irks you, or when you read the scriptures and it really irks you, or you hear a hymn and it really bothers you—maybe, not always, but maybe, that’s actually an invitation from the Holy Spirit to pay more attention to that thing that’s irking you. Maybe it means the Holy Spirit has something for you in it.
And so I thought, all right, friend is very biblical and Sam Wells, who I respect a lot, is using this language. I should actually try to adopt this language precisely because it kind of bothers me. So I have. It took a while to get comfortable with it but, I have very much adopted the language of friendship with God. And as I suggest in the first chapter of Wearing God, it’s language that both is used a lot and in very interesting ways in the Christian tradition and also we can learn about what it might mean by studying how great theologians from the past have thought about that language. But it’s also, of course, language that we can think about in our everyday lives. I’m someone for whom friendship is hugely important. I know a lot about friendship when I look at the data of my own life, or the archive of my own life. And so it can be interesting to just say to yourself “well what I know that friendship, what does friendship require of me, what does friendship give me, what is hard about friendship, what is easy about friendship?” You can just sort of easily brainstorm that from your own life, and then say… so what does all of that suggest about God?
So in my own life, I’m a really inconsistent friend. I love friendship, it’s hugely important to me. I am totally inconsistent at it. I’m not a very good friend. I think most of my friends are better friends than I am. I’ve also, I think, gotten better at it. I think if you asked someone who’s been friends with me for ten years, the person would be likely to say that I’m a better friend than I used to be. I know about friendship, that if it’s really gonna be meaningful, it requires a certain kind of honesty, like there’s really no point in sort of… it’s not a great friendship if it’s at the level of small talk and trying to just present your best self and so forth. I know that friendship that on the one hand friendship is sustained by, you know, just liking the person and feeling affection. But, also, friendship is really aided by not having just to rely on affection so that when you actually have a common project with your friend—when you are teaching in a prison together or when you are planning Adult Ed at your church together—then that means your friendship has something to rest on beyond just the fact that you like each other.
So I could keep going but all of that, it turns out, is also true of my relationship, my friendship with God. I’m inconsistent, I’m not that great at it, I think I’m better than I was a few years ago, etcetera, you know it requires honesty, so forth and so on. So, I think “friend” is actually—as a model for how it might work, how it might go, to reflect on the Bible’s metaphors for God—friend is a pretty good model because we can pretty easily think about friendship in our own life and then say “Okay, so what does Jesus mean when he says we are now his friends? What might that mean?”
HODGES: And I like that you started out with that because, as you said, sometimes your initial reaction to a particular image might be negative or it just might not resonate with you, but if you push through that, you might find something that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. You talk about this as being “a blessed kind of un-comforting,” or “a holy kind of un-comforting.” And I like that. You’re inviting people to sit with their discomfort for a little while and see what can come out of that.
HODGES: I thought the start of the chapter on Clothing was actually kind of funny. You talk about your different interpretations of the story of Eve and Adam in the Garden in Genesis, particularly the part where God made garments of skin to clothe them with—the King James has that. And you had a really interesting way of interpreting that verse at first that I hadn’t ever thought about. So, talk about how you initially were reading that, about God clothing them with skin.
WINNER: So, I of course, heard that story even as a little girl in my Synagogue in Asheville, North Carolina, and I just always, from childhood, I always thought that it meant that that’s when God gave Adam and Eve actual skin. That somehow they didn’t have skin before that and then God gave them skin and I mean I think if you’d pressed me and said “Well, what did they look like before?” I don’t know exactly what I would said. I never really thought about it in that much detail.
HODGES: Wasn’t there like a PBS, like Slim Goodbody or whatever that guy with spandex suit was where you see all his muscles and stuff, maybe?
WINNER: Exactly, right. Or those, you know, those jangly Halloween Octo—you know skeleton coloring sheets from grammar school. That kind of thing. [laughter] And of course, the standard interpretation of this verse, I have subsequently come to realize, is not that God gave Adam and Eve human skin. But that God made them outfits, leather outfits, outfits from animal skin. Which of course makes a certain kind of sense. I was relieved to learn that there is a strain of rabbinic interpretation in which the rabbis—the rabbis share my view, but I should say I share the rabbis’ view—but there is rabbinic precedent for also interpreting the skin as human skin.
And in that interpretation, part of what that interpretation is saying is that it was only after the fall in some way that Adam and Eve became fully human. So, regardless of whether one thinks it’s human skin or leather suits, however one interprets the specifics of the verse, in either interpretation God is clothing Adam and Eve. And it’s the last thing that God does before finally exiling Adam and Eve from Eden. It’s the last thing that God does before sending Adam and Eve out. And it actually strikes me as an incredibly merciful thing for God to do. And I think one can picture God, you know, actually feeling some sorrow and thinking or saying or feeling “You, Adam and Eve, you do actually have to leave now, but here’s this last thing I can do for you. I can offer you this protective and beautiful garb before you go.”
And then it becomes, it seems to me, all the more remarkable that when we get to the letters of Paul, when we get to Galatians and Romans, that suddenly, God is no longer just clothing us. God is also our clothing. So Paul writes of our—of the baptized—being clothed in Christ. So it’s not just that clothed us with, you know, leather pants or what have you. God actually clothes us with God’s own self. And that just seems to me a remarkable thing.
And again, you can just begin to think about what clothing is and does in your own life, that yes, of course, it protects you from the elements, but beyond that it shapes your sense of self in a certain way. It conveys something about you to the world at large. It sometimes creates community. Right? I teach at Duke, this is why on game days all of the Dukies are wearing their Duke T-shirts, right, it’s clothing, marking everyone as part of a particular kind of community.
In addition to that, clothing—and me, this was and is sort of the most startling kind of spiritual peace of this clothing metaphor—clothing is actually quite an intimate image. Clothing is very close to us. And I think when we think of how the Bible talks about God, we’re pretty accustomed to saying that when the Bible uses family language, kinship language—God is father, God is lover, God is spouse—that that language is intimate. And that’s of course absolutely right. That language can be very intimate. But clothing is intimate in a different way. Clothing is pressed up against you. [laughs] And it is pressed up against the parts of you that you find beautiful and delightful, and it is—if you’re a 38 year old woman who wishes that you weighed a little less than you do—it is pressed up against the parts of you that you’re ashamed of. And the notion that God is that to us, that God is pressed close up to us, and that God wants to be close—both to the parts of ourselves that we find beautiful and the parts that we’re ashamed of—seems to me… that just seems to me a remarkable and profound thing.
HODGES: I think that story of Adam and Eve perfectly captures that. I want to just quickly read this teeny section here where you say, “God’s clothing them is the first disclosure of something we see over and over in the Bible: God’s deep abiding interest in working with and for human beings.” You say you found yourself “picturing God, bending over, stitching for garments for Adam and Eve. I imagine that God is sad while stitching and I imagine God’s gift as one of utter tenderness. ‘I know you have to leave but here is one last thing I can do for you before you go.’”
I thought the chapter on clothing was especially rich. And of course you conclude with the idea that God invites us to clothe others. And you tied into the notion of serving others and caring for other people.
That’s from Lauren F. Winner’s book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire and other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God. Lauren is an Episcopal priest, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, and an author of several other books about faith. We’ll take a quick break and then come back and wrap up the interview.
HODGES: Lauren Winner, the last image I wanted to talk about with is—people really need to go buy the book because there’s so much more there than we would ever have time to cover—but this is a chapter about the Laboring Woman. This is an image or metaphor of God that you took from Isaiah, Chapter 42, where it says “For a long time, I’ve held my peace. I’ve kept still and restrained myself. Now I will cry out like a woman in labor. I will gasp and pant.” Talk about that one because picturing God as woman in labor is probably one of the less frequent metaphors that people might meditate on.
WINNER: Yes. And for me, it has been a profoundly uncomfortable metaphor and image. And I’ve come to realize over the last few years of believing with and praying with that image and metaphor, that it’s uncomfortable to me not because it’s female image and not because it’s kind of a human image—there are plenty of anthropomorphic images for God in the scriptures—but rather it is the physical vulnerability that that verse suggests.
Now, childbirth, labor, is, and I say this as someone who has not had a child, but I have done extensive reading and talked to lots of friends, and I am now persuaded that childbirth is both an experience of profound strength and at the same time profound bodily vulnerability. And one thing that’s very striking about that image from Isaiah is that in the Hebrew, Isaiah uses, in one verse, three different Hebrew verbs to say something about the labored breathing, the bellowing, the gasping that God will do in labor. So that’s remarkable that there are these three different verbs that none of them just mean “I breathed.” They all mean a different version of bellowing, grunting, groaning. So the verses really a soundscape of God’s laboring.
And as I’ve lived and prayed with this verse and this image, what I’ve diagnosed in myself is that the discomfort I feel about it, the discomfort I feel when I picture God in bodily anguish, which is like super uncomfortable. I just want God in charge, right? And kind of have it all under control. I do not want to be picturing God in bodily anguish. But of course, there’s another biblical place which gives us God in bodily anguish, and that is God on the cross. And that my own thinking about the cross has become sort of sanitized, right, the cross has become a doctrine. And so, when I think about Jesus on the cross, I don’t feel particularly uncomfortable, I don’t have a sense of that as God in bodily vulnerability for salvation. And of course, that’s exactly what’s going on in Isaiah. Isaiah is writing to Israel when in Israel is in exile. And in this particular passage of Isaiah, God is saying “I am laboring to bring forth new life.” So it’s very similar to what we then see on the cross, which is God in bodily anguish laboring, if you will, to bring forth new life. So for me, the image from Isaiah has begun to sort of give me the crucifixion again, and give me the cross again, not as a kind of sanitized abstraction, but actually… as what it is.
HODGES: Yeah. It’s a particularly useful image for some women to be able to think about. There aren’t as many metaphors and images of God that are particular to the experience of women, and so I was glad that you spent a chapter on that.
WINNER: I think that it’s true that that is an image that many women might have an easier time getting to than maybe some other images. But I do think it’s worth noting that we live in a funny historical moment where on the one hand, there are more women than ever before who, like me, don’t have any direct access, even in ancient Israel, if you didn’t have a child you still would have been at lots of, you know, your sisters and your neighbor women’s childbirths. So we live in this odd moment where there are more women than there ever have been who don’t have direct access to the image and we live in a moment, where because, you know at least in North America, dad is in the delivery room where actually many more men than in ancient Israel would have, many more men today do actually have some direct access to what this image means. So, I don’t think it’s only a girl’s image. And I think it’s kind of cool to live in this historical moment where men have more direct access to this image than they would have even when Isaiah was written.
HODGES: I mean we could go on and on but people really need to go and pick up the book. The book is called Wearing God, and it’s a book about the metaphors that we use to think about God. And I really appreciate you taking the time to come on the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
WINNER: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)