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Spiritual Essay Review    



Mudhouse Sabbath
By Lauren F. Winner
Paraclete Press, 2003
Hardcover, $17.95 (161 pages)
ISBN: 1-55725-344-7

Lauren F. Winner concludes Mudhouse Sabbath by describing a beginning. After affixing a psalmist sign to the exterior door of her apartment, she discovers, “this is the beginning of making Christian space out of an ordinary apartment.”  Although on its surface Mudhouse Sabbath tells the story of how Winner reworks her life as a Christian to accommodate her past as an Orthodox Jew, the text explores the fragments of daily life that constitute spirituality and personal identity in a way that is honest, refreshing, didactic, and at times uncertain. 

In her introduction, Winner sets up a dichotomy between her “blissed-out newly wed” seven-year relationship with Christianity and her nostalgia for “the rhythms and routines” of her “Jewish ways.”  Throughout the book, Winner marries Christianity and Judaism in ways that make sense to her, even as she maintains a sense of personal choice—the same combinations, acts, and events will not, she recognizes, affect others the way they affect her.   However, in detailing her acceptance of difference, Winner lends a nuanced texture to Mudhouse Sabbath, particularly in chronicling her mother’s struggle with uterine cancer and her boyfriend’s grandfather’s “decline”. 

Winner’s willingness to juxtapose her personal and spiritual lives, to lend emotions like jealousy to her intellectual and literary configurations of both Judaism and Christianity, is almost entirely successful.  Her willingness to narrate her relationship with her boyfriend Griff as both a sign of “Charlottesville hospitality” and a site of her jealousy brings Winner’s epistemological crises into the realm of the mundane.  Being able, for example, to “risk transparency” when a younger friend of her boyfriend’s hugged him, then asked Winner if he had “felt uncomfortable about The Hug.”  Winner responds: 

I told her that actually, when she took that flying dance floor leap into Griff, I felt old and uncool and insecure, and also wondered all sorts of things about boundaries and friendship, and had wanted to kill them both.  This truth-telling, to be sure, didn’t change the world, but it did push me and Rita a bit closer to real knowledge of one another.   

Winner’s “truth-telling” comes, coincidentally, in a passage remarkable for her use of a pseudonym: she charmingly renames the younger girl “Rita Hayworth.”  Like her references to a diverse body of literary texts and popular culture, naming the younger girl after Rita Hayworth embeds Mudhouse Sabbath in conversations possible both in coffee shops like the Mudhouse as well as in churches, synagogues, and universities.          

Within some of her parenthetical comments, Winner draws her reader toward her, creating a conversational tone that is as friendly and welcoming as the communities she depicts.  Of her boyfriend Griff Gatewood, she whispers conspiratorially to the reader “(makes him sound like he’s an Anne Rivers Siddons character, but he’s a real live person).”  In the chapter on hospitality, Winner similarly invites the reader to share in her discomfort as a new member of Christ Church in Charlottesville by noting, “I knew exactly two people.  (One of them was my mother, and what single woman wants to get stuck at coffee hour eating donut holes with her mom?).”  The delicate balance between her straightforward prose and her friendly asides makes Winner come through as a person both serious and giving, spiritual and personable, making her story one that the reader approaches at first as an observer and then as a companion of sorts on Winner’s search for reconciliation between faiths and within herself.    

Overall, Mudhouse Sabbath is a compassionate and thoughtful examination of Winner’s desire to sustain herself by drawing on two sets of stories, practices, and faiths.  Her skillful integration of religious discourse into her awareness of everyday issues like boredom, dieting, fashion, and grocery shopping makes Mudhouse Sabbath an effective and engaging commentary on the conscious and, perhaps more aptly, self-conscious choices about faith, order, community, and identity that we make without thinking each day. 

Mudhouse Sabbath is Winner’s second book-length memoir and shares with her first book, Girl Meets God (2002), an interest in defining her spiritual identity by looking at her family—her father was a secular Jew and her mother a lapsed Southern Baptist—and herself.  Winner also co-wrote Protestantism in America (2002) with Randall Balmer.  Winner’s work has appeared in Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Christianity Today, The New York Times Book Review, and The Washington Post.  Formerly, she acted as the cultural editor for  Winner is completing a doctorate in the history of American religion at Columbia University and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.       


Emily Bowles
Southern Scribe Reviews


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