Book Review: Wearing God, by Lauren F. Winner

“How do our images of God – and our resulting images of ourselves…invite us to become (or interfere with our becoming) the people God means us to be?

How do our images of God draw us into worship, reverence, adoration of God?

How do our images of God help us greet one another as bearers of the image of God?” (Wearing God, p. 8)

Lauren Winner’s Wearing God attempts to answer these questions by examining a few of the metaphors the Bible uses to describe God, exploring how they inform our friendship with God. The figures of speech examined include clothing, smell, bread and vine, laboring woman, laughter, and flame. The book closes with a wonderful chapter called “In This Poverty of Expression, Thou Findest That He is All,” and with a thought-provoking (but somewhat disturbing) aside entitled “A Short Note from the Women’s Prison.”

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Though Winner ends her book with “This Poverty of Expression,” I (Helen) find it an excellent starting point for discussing Wearing God. Last week, when discussing the way God is described in the Psalms, I mentioned to those sitting at the lunch table something I have been thinking about lately: that all of our language for God is figurative. There is no language to fully encapsulate who God is, so we are left with the tools of comparison and imagery. We can say God is our Father, but God is not literally our Father. When we say God is Father, we are creating a picture of God’s character – a picture that works well for some (who have/had healthy, life-giving relationships with their earthly fathers), and does not work as easily for others. When we say the Lord is our Shepherd, we imagine a Lord who guides us, directs us, protects us, and cares for us, but we are not likely pondering an image of God dressed in the garb of ancient sheep-herder. Wearing God encourages readers to imagine God in some ways that are rarely spoken of from the front of our churches, in ways that may make us feel uncomfortable because of their unfamiliarity.

Just as the metaphor “Father” may not be comforting or helpful for those who did not have healthy, life-giving relationship with earthly fathers, some of the expressions Winner explored did not register with me to the same degree as others. The idea of God as clothing, however, resonated greatly, partially because I am studying to teach Colossians. In Colossians 3, Paul reminds the Colossians that they have put off the old self (v. 9), and have put on the new self (v. 10). He encourages them to put on, “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (3:12), and urges them to put on love above all else, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). The image of “putting on” Christ, is also invoked in Romans 13:14 and Galatians 3:27 – it is a repeated idea in Paul’s writing. Winner discusses how “putting on Christ” creates true unity – she compares the clothing of Christ to the school uniform that tears down boundaries amongst classmates. As Jesus’ followers “put on Christ,” they were made to see that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Winner’s exploration of the metaphor of God as laboring woman was another picture that was impactful for me (strangely enough, considering I have never been in labor! Perhaps it’s all the Call the Midwife I’ve watched, which of course makes me an expert on child birth!).  As an Episcopal priest, Winner leads her church through the church calendar each year, and as she described herself looking ahead to Good Friday, she says,

“I picture Jesus on the cross and I feel very little. The Crucifixion has become so sanitized in my mind, so normalized and familiar, that thinking of it does not shock me or disturb me or really produce much reaction at all, because I, along with much of the church, have turned a bloody state punishment into nothing more or less than tidy doctrine. Perhaps God as a woman in travail can remind me of God’s vulnerability, and the centrality of that vulnerability for my relationship with that God” (p. 154).

Winner goes on to describe in quite gory detail, a picture of a woman in labor (with all the moaning, writhing, and yes, even tearing, that childbirth brings) and this description makes me feel completely uncomfortable, especially when I think about it as a metaphor for the work of God, as per Isaiah 42. But this is precisely Winner’s goal. While the cross should shock and disturb us with its violence, it has become anesthetized by our very familiarity with it. The picture of God as laboring woman and all that entails, shocks my system and gives me a new understanding of God’s work in the world, and the price of that work.

At times Winner’s writing style was perhaps a bit too poetic for my personal taste, and she was somewhat inconsistent with her interpretation of various passages (though, to be fair, she was most often offering the interpretations of church fathers and mothers, which vary in and of themselves). Also, her “A Short Note from the Women’s Prison,” which address the metaphor of God as a “battering husband,” I believe, is taken out of context. (Winner is looking at passages such as Ezekiel 16, which, I feel, can be better understood as an expression of God’s hatred of idolatry.) Nevertheless, I do recommend reading Wearing God as a way to challenge and expand your own most-used and best-loved metaphors for God, as you explore what it means to pursue friendship with God.

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