Jun 6, 2011

Why Catholic conversion narratives?

A Catholic is not required to be able to recount becoming Catholic. A narrative isn't needed. One's Catholicism is determined by certain ritual acts -- baptism, confirmation, etc. -- and not a personal moment of choice that needs to be able to be told in story form.

What's interesting, then, is how popular this conversion narrative genre is for contemporary Catholics.

E.g.: Almost 5,000 Catholic conversion stories on YouTube.
E.g.: A very long list of these narratives at Defenders of the Catholic faith.
E.g.: Web sites like Convert Journal.

Not that this essentially evangelical form of narrative is without anxiety for Catholics. At Defenders, e.g., they note "We are in the process of re-tooling some of our conversion stories in light of what we consider to be the weaknesses of the conversion story medium."

There seems to be something odd about Catholic conversion narratives -- they're so evangelical.

My sense is, too, that while there're certainly historic examples of Catholic conversion narratives, that this widespread popularity -- that conversion narratives as a common Catholic practice -- is new.

Catholics don't traditionally need these narratives. If a Catholic is asked, are you a Catholic?, the answer -- the evidence -- isn't normally going to be a conversion story, or an account of how one got that way. A Catholic might say, "I was born in the church," or, "I've been baptized and confirmed," or, "I go to mass regularly."

The faith is understood as being, in a sense, not personal. It is an institution in which one participates, not something that is essentially about the individual or an internal reality for a single person. It's not necessary to have searched for the church or to have found it. It's enough it's just there and that one just is Catholic.

Imagine: The Pope doesn't have a story about how he became Catholic. No one would take that as evidence (I don't think) that he's not really. If I were to ask, e.g., "is the Pope really a Catholic?", no one would answer with his conversion story. The evidence I'd be understood as asking for isn't a story about how he chose Catholicism. There'd be certain acts or facts that would count as evidence in that case.

Asking, even, how he decided to be Catholic might be strange. And more, doubting his Catholicism because he isn't able to say how he decided to be Catholic would be missing the point: it's not about a personal decision.

This is true for a lot of Catholics, but even those who did decide, who did choose and who do have a story about how they became Catholic, how they felt it but denied it but were drawn to it irresistibly until they had to admit the reality they'd been running from and accept it and become Catholic, don't traditionally see that story as central to what being Catholic means. Being a Catholic is not understood as having decided to be Catholic -- even if there was a decision, that's incidental. It's not about that moment of choice, when things clicked and one had to choose.

This is different, obviously, for evangelicals. The conversion story is essential to evangelicals.

The authenticity of one's faith for them isn't evidenced by facts, or participation in rituals, or a list somewhere. Instead, it's evidenced most essentially by the evangelical's testimony.

Asked, are you really a Christian?, the expectation is that evangelicals will be able to give an account of how they became evangelical -- a self-narrative spontaneously given but also well-practiced, which speaks of this moment of decision and choice in the past, but also the reaffirmation of that decision for Jesus in the present moment.

The ability to narrativize one's decision is understood by evangelicals as central to what being Christian is.

If a prominent evangelical -- say, Franklin Graham -- couldn't say how he became a Christian, that inability to narrativize his own history and tell a story about a search and a discovery would be taken as evidence that he was not actually a Christian.

The answer to "are you a Christian?" would not be -- and more, could not be -- "I was born evangelical," "yes, I was baptized," or, "I go to church." Unless those are part of a personal story about how one came to be the Christian one is, which is to say, specifically, how one personally, privately decided to be a Christian.

To be a Christian, for an evangelical, it's essential that one have made a decision -- there has to be this moment of choice. The evidence for that is a story, in this very specific genre of conversion narrative.

There's a long, long tradition of conversion narratives in evangelicalism -- there's maybe even an argument that it's these narratives that bind evangelicalism into a single whole, absent any kind of magasterium. The genre of narativizing one's own life as a story of searching, running, fleeing, feeling and finding God is central to what evangelicalism is.

Nevertheless, it appears that it's now pretty popular with Catholics. There're now enough Catholic conversion narratives out there that, even if it's still not necessary for a Catholic to have this kind of a story ready and rehearsed for a spontaneous delivery, there really is a sub-genre of conversion narratives that are specifically and uniquely Catholic.

There are two questions, then, that arise from the adoption of this genre of personal conversion story by contemporary Catholics:

1) What does this tell us about Catholicism today? Or: what is the felt need that these Catholic conversion narratives are responding to?

2) What does this tell us about about the genre itself?

My suspicion is the second question is particularly interesting.