Each chapter of Lauren F. Winner’s new book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (HarperOne), explores a single biblical image of God through a mix of exegesis, cultural history, and personal essay. The chapter excerpted in issue 84 is about bread. Image’s Mary Kenagy Mitchell recently asked Winner about her new book, her love of history, her punctuation, and the politics of writing about the Bible.
Image: Your new book is about overlooked images of God in the Bible. I imagine there were some images you found that didn’t make it in. Could you talk about some of those?
Lauren Winner: In the scriptures there are a lot of animal and nature images for God—water and rock and so on. I’m especially interested in two from Hosea: there God is likened to dew, and to a tree. I’ve spent time with the tree image, thinking about what trees are, and I have a nascent spiritual practice of tree gazing, where I regularly stare at a magnolia in my yard as a practice of attentiveness.
I love the song “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” It’s not widely known, but it’s wonderful. It’s sung mostly in English churches, or at lessons and carols services at Christmas. I had it sung at my ordination, and I make groups of people sing it whenever possible:
The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green…
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree
It’s ostensibly based on a reading of a verse in Song of Songs: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (2:3).
The tree image also illustrates one of the reading strategies I’m after in Wearing God: how do the scriptures double or treble the figurative language they use? For instance, the scriptures speak of God as clothing, and also as the one who clothes. In the instance of arboreal imagery, the Bible speaks of God as tree and also of us as tree. When we pray the very first psalm, we pray that we will not rush about madly, chatting with cynics and running errands with fools. We pray that, instead, we will be still, devoting our calm energy to the study of God’s word. We will be rooted in God’s word as “a tree planted by the water.”
At countless protests in American history—civil rights sit-ins, anti-war marches, labor demonstrations—eventually someone takes up the lines of the old freedom song:
We shall not, we shall not be moved.
We shall not, we shall not be moved.
Just like a tree that’s planted by the water,
We shall not be moved.
It means, broadly, that protesters will not be dislodged from their larger goals of a more just society, but also that protesters whom police or hecklers are trying to persuade to leave their immediate site of protest will not be moved.
Preachers through the ages have also used the psalmist’s image, likening Christians to trees who are sustained by—indeed, wholly dependent on—the living water that is God. One monk, Geurric of Igny, was so committed to the idea that he said people are upside-down trees, whose roots reach not down into the soil, but up toward the sky, “so as to tap into the heavenly Jesus for their divine sustenance.” This seems a lovely image of what God is inviting us to be. I would like to be a tree with roots shooting up, wrapped around and watered by God.
In Wearing God, I didn’t write about trees or dew. Both images come from the Book of Hosea, where the dominant imagery is of battering. I wasn’t prepared to write a whole chapter about battering language in the scriptures (though I touch on it at the end of the book)—and I wasn’t prepared to cherry-pick these two lovely nature images without addressing the more unsettling context of Hosea.
Image: A lot of history makes its way into the new book, especially American history. Could you talk about what you think makes a good history book, the kind you like to read?
LW: Two things come to mind, and they don’t always show up in the same book. Some historical episodes lend themselves to almost novelistic writing, and in the last twenty-five years there has been a lot of interest among historians in taking craft seriously, experimenting with narrative form. You see it in writers like John Demos and Simon Schama. That said, there are plenty of excellent, interesting history books that aren’t so much narratively interesting as they are interesting because of the argument they make or the evidence they’ve uncovered. I have always enjoyed so-called microhistories, where instead of writing a monograph about crime in early America, someone writes a case study of one infanticide in seventeenth-century Braunschweig. I often enjoy this kind of history the way I enjoy a short story or novel. A favorite of mine is A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, which is essentially an exegesis of the diary of a midwife on the frontier of Maine at the turn of the nineteenth century. Ulrich’s book turned out to be quite helpful when, in writing Wearing God, I turned my attention to the Hebrew Bible’s likening God to a midwife.
The second and probably obvious factor is whether the subject matter is interesting to me. I’m interested in histories of daily life, of ordinary people, and less in the history of ideas. Though even as I say that, I see a false dichotomy. I have just read an amazing study of women in nineteenth-century southern households, Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage. There, the history of daily life is absolutely inseparable from politics, from ideas about (as well as practices of) slavery, freedom, and power. As Glymph puts it, to talk about freedom in the postbellum south is to talk about wages and political participation, but it is also to talk about:
Virginia Newman’s idea of freedom: “a blue guinea with yaler spots.” This was Newman’s first “bought dress,” and it represented, for her, control over her “whole life” and, concomitantly, the diminished control white people had over it.
There you have it: state power, consumerism, ideas, and what I’ve unhelpfully glossed “daily life” all rolled into one—and rolled into one in such a way as to diagnose the political work that my own depoliticizing language of “daily life” actually does. I am interested in books that draw, or expose, connections between the daily and the political, the kitchen and the state, the object and the idea.
Image: Wearing God might be your most political book. Was that a surprise? I’m thinking, for instance, of the section in the chapter on bread where you write about the advent of white, factory-baked bread in American households, and why it had such appeal—a story which, you write, is “entwined with our national history of shaming immigrants and shaming women.”
LW: I’m interested in the history of the church in the United States: how Christians see and respond to major events. When I write about the history of the white bread loaf, that’s partially a story about people engaging in the early twentieth-century sanitation movement—and it’s also a story to do with larger national discourses about immigrants and women and women’s work. I’m interested in how Christians qua Christians and churches engage those questions.
In writing the book, I noticed that every chapter does make some kind of political or ethical turn, usually near the end. There was some intentionality about that. The Bible doesn’t have anything to say about America per se, but it’s of course a deeply political text. It’s interested in how power is and might be arranged. It’s hard to imagine a faithful reading of the scriptures that doesn’t pay some attention to that. I don’t think that’s the only thing to pay attention to, but the arrangement of power is a register that seems to me to be almost always at play. How could it be otherwise? One of the questions on the table when we read the Bible could always be, what ethical invitation is being issued here?
Image: I’d like to ask you about punctuation. In Image we typically hew to the Chicago Manual of Style, which means we prefer lowercase pronouns for God and Jesus, but you argued for capitalized pronouns, which you use in the book. Could you talk a little about why?
LW: This has always been my practice, and I’ve always had to argue for it. In magazines one often loses the argument. The bottom line for me is that it’s good to have linguistic markers of the way that God is different from us and therefore requires strange speech. I have some formation in this from Judaism, where there’s a practice of writing “G-d,” to avoid fully spelling out God’s name. That’s done for a different reason than capitalizing God’s pronouns, but it’s another orthographical marker of God’s difference.
I assume the history is monarchical. Capital letters tend to signal importance. But saying that, I realize I don’t really know the history of capitalizing God pronouns. Something new to research!
In this case, the whole book is about language for God, and the vast majority is about using ordinary language to try to say something about God. But there needs to be recognition that God requires unusual speech, and when I write about Jesus, the capitalized He’s and Him’s and Himself’s are a reminder of that.
Image: What are your hopes for the new book, now that it’s done?
LW: I think it’s my richest and most interesting book, and I hope it finds its people. Usually in these pre-publication weeks, I feel like what I’ve written is absolute dreck and should be buried in the garden or in a cave or in a trash can—but this book, I must say, I just love. It’s not perfect, of course, but I think it is engaging and spiritually provocative.
I did struggle to write it. I rewrote two chapters top to bottom after the copy edit. And there are two paragraphs in the first chapter that I rewrote something like eighty-eight times, and then rewrote completely again at the eleventh hour. I finally landed on what the paragraphs wanted to be, and I think they’re great. It was only when I had finished the book that I realized that.
To some extent, with all my other books, even my one academic book, there was a feeling of trying to fit myself into some shape, of writing to make myself different, or writing as disguise. Wearing God is the first time I haven’t felt that way. I haven’t felt like I wrote it to try to change myself. Ironically, of course it did change me—it gave me a deeper relationship with God. The book feels like it fits me the way a well-fitting dress fits, and there’s a pleasure in that.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.