Thinking Well Matters
SIX QUESTIONS . . . I write and publish books as a sort of thanks offering—a debt offering—and I teach future pastors at a divinity school because I believe that thinking well matters.
Lauren Winner is a teacher, preacher, and author of numerous books, including Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath. She teaches at Duke Divinity School, and lives in Durham, North Carolina.
In your work, what are you creating, and what are you cultivating? (In Andy Crouch's vernacular, what new culture are you making, and what good culture are you conserving and nurturing?)
Lauren Winner: At the moment, my work comprises three central undertakings: teaching, writing, and preaching. In a sense, preaching lends itself most interestingly to this question, as I am still learning that the goal of a sermon is not to present something "novel." At the same time, one is creating something new in a congregational sermon, because you are creating, precisely, a way of speaking from the Scriptures into the life and needs of a particular community at a particular time.
I also see this question of making and preserving very much in the writing of books. In a pretty obvious way, each book is its own new thing. And yet, I am very conscious not exactly of "conserving" culture—that is, my explicit aim when I work on a book is not to "conserve" something—but in learning from existing, good culture. So, in my most recent book, Still: Notes on a Mid-faith Crisis, I was very much informed by 19th- and 20th-century poetry, especially that of Emily Dickinson and Anne Sexton and (in a less explicit way) Deborah Digges. In a more basic sense, the book is very much drawing on literary conventions that have shaped autobiographical writing since the 19th century.
Who is the "public" for your work—who is it for, and how does it affect the lives of those who engage with it?
Different aspects of my work have different publics. My sense is that the work that looks the least broadly public—teaching—actually reaches the broadest public. I am currently teaching a very small seminar—nine students—on the history of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. Most of the students will be ordained as Episcopal priests in the next few years, and I believe that clergy have an enormous impact on broad publics. It is a bit indirect, admittedly—I guess writing books that people read or preaching sermons that people hear is a more direct engagement with a larger public—but I believe that those of us who teach future clergymen and clergywomen are helping shape people who then go into the church and into the world and have an enormous impact on lots and lots of people.
Why do you do what you do?
Because I love it. Because I am very lucky. Because I don't know what I think about anything until I work it out on paper. I write and publish books because I have been hugely affected by the books I read, especially books about the Christian spiritual life, and so I see my own books as a sort of thanks offering—a debt offering—I am trying to offer to other readers the kind of life-changing nourishment that books have offered to me. And I teach future pastors at a divinity school because I believe that thinking well matters—I want my students' future congregations to be guided by pastors who know how to think clearly, think well about (among other things) theology, politics, and history.
What skills, proficiencies, and virtues does this work develop in you?
Clarity of thought. Empathetic listening to the other (writing for an audience presupposes, I believe, listening to other people before and after you write). May I also say that it cultivates some vices? Pride is a vice that I think tempts many academics and writers—it certainly afflicts me. Envy. Insecurity.
What five books would you recommend to someone interested in understanding or pursuing the sort of work you do?
I am going to answer this question centrally with answer to writing, not centrally with reference to teaching or preaching (although I see all three as feeding and feeding on one another).
Two books about writing: Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose and What It Is by Lynda Barry.
A book about reading in our current cultural moment: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.
An amazing exploration of the literary terrain on which writers write: The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick.
And a memoir that takes you deep into the psyche of a writer: U and I by Nicholson Baker.
What do you do for fun?
I'm not a very fun person. So let me answer the question this way—if I had a random Friday off from work, a truly free day, on which I could do whatever I wanted: I would read for about half the day, I would have lunch at a restaurant with a friend, I would listen to the Diane Rehm Friday news roundup and maybe also Science Friday on Talk of the Nation, I would cook a semi-elaborate dinner. So I guess that means that for fun, I: read, hang out with friends, cook and go to restaurants, and listen to NPR. See? Like I said—I'm not especially fun.