Star witness: Winner's a conversion fan

As if it weren't enough for a young first-time author to be sought by the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio, Lauren Winner is pulling in some local publicity trophies as well.

A few weeks ago, close to 150 people piled into Barnes & Noble to hear her read from her autobiographical book, Girl Meets God (Algonquin Books). The turnout was beaten only by celebrity writers like Gloria Steinem and David Baldacci, says B&N's Michelle Allaire.

Much of the local interest can be attributed to the fact that Winner was once, in her words, "possibly the most involved teenager they had ever seen," at Congregation Beth Israel on Jefferson Street. Nine years ago she left for Columbia University and soon after embraced orthodox Judaism. Today she is an evangelical Christian offering her memoir as witness of her conversion and living just a few blocks from her old synagogue.

"It's definitely something I've had to negotiate," Winner says about returning with a clearly redefined identity. "I'm not close to anyone from that community anymore. Maybe it's just full of hubris for me to imagine that the people in that community are reacting at all. I may be aggrandizing the role that I play in their psyches," she laughs.

Religious belief is not the first thing that most strangers would expect to discuss with this confident, husky-voiced 26-year-old with a clear New York fashion sense. She comes across as more cerebral than devout, more intellectual than pious– "a nerd," she demurs.

She professes to be very happy with her new religious home, Christ Church Episcopal, where she works as a receptionist most mornings. But it's clear that the University is the main attraction for Winner, whose surprise literary success hasn't deterred her from her pursuit of a PhD.

"There's a really vibrant Christian intellectual community here," she says of UVA, where she is researching the history of the Anglican Church in Virginia. "There are people here who are theologically interesting in the religion department and then people in other departments who are pretty seriously engaged with Christianity and are trying to think meaningfully about the relationship between their academic work and their faith."

Winner is currently teaching a memoir-writing workshop at the Charlottesville Writing Center and is slated for some spring course in the Jewish Studies Department at UVA. But she is already expressing doubts in her long-held goal to continue academia as a career, and one wonders how her faith will bear up under her promising future.

"I don't think I'm going to convert to Buddhism next week– I think I'll stay where I've landed institutionally. But presumably no one really ends this sort of quest," she says, breathing heavily and melodramatically on the invisible quotation marks around "quest." Christ's witness is a little bit of a ham.