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.


  1. There's a lot going on here, all of it very interesting, and I think your central point is absolutely right: this is, at least as a popular form, a new phenomenon among Catholics. I wonder how much of it is a result of Vatican II's reminder that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, and its exhortation that we should read the Bible more. Certainly, there's a level at which this must simply be a response to 1 Peter 3:15's mandate that we should always be willing to say why we believe what we do.

    Telling how we became Catholics is something obviously has an ancient pedigree, perhaps most famously in the example of Augustine, and over the last couple of centuries has been echoed in the well-known spiritual autobiographies of such individuals as John Henry Newman, Josephine Bakhita, and Thomas Merton, but yes, as a popular phenomenon it's quite a new thing.

    I think you put your finger on a key issue when you say that Catholic conversion stories are so evangelical, because as far as I can see they tend to be formed in large part by American Evangelical culture: I'd be very curious to know the extent to which this new trend towards Catholic spiritual autobiography is a specifically Anglospheric phenomenon, rather than a universal one.

    Certainly, when I think of such prominent contemporary apologists as Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Jimmy Akin, Mark Shea, Peter Kreeft, Dwight Longenecker, John Howard, and Francis Beckwith, all of whose spiritual autobiographies are well-known, it's striking that the common factor in their stories is that they all were Evangelical Protestants who, after years of reading, thinking, and praying, eventually became full members of the Catholic Church -- or, in the case of Francis Beckwith, returned to full communion with the Church. Their stories, in essence, are Evangelical conversion stories, albeit ones that go one step further further.

    Their influence in terms of apologetics and their personal examples surely play no small part in the striking growth in this sub-genre, so that nowadays we'll hear of former atheists such as Dawn Eden explaining in quasi-Evangelical terms why they became Catholic, and also of Catholics who'd strayed writing accounts of their reversion to Catholicism.

    I have grown somewhat used in recent years to recounting my own reversion to the faith, as I'd been raised Catholic but become ardently atheist in my teens, after much thought and research grudgingly accepting the truth of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular in my early twenties, and only fully returning to communion in my late twenties. I've often over the last year or so also accompanied friends to their Evangelical Anglican church, and chatted with people there afterwards, and when my story's been told it's often been met with the thrilled response: 'That's like C.S. Lewis!'

    I think Lewis, with his reluctant conversion and submission, may well be a kind of mentor for this kind of storytelling. Certainly, he's an influence on so many Christians of so many stripes that I don't think we should discount the possibility that 'Surprised By Joy' may influence Catholic self-identification at least as much as any specifically Catholic writer.

    I happen to think this is a good thing. One thing lots of those apologists I mention tend to come back to quite often is that denominationalism is perhaps the greatest scandal of the universal Church, and that we must work towards the unity for which Christ prayed. In light of this, they often talk of how, just as they'd believe Evangelicals should become Catholic, so Catholics should become Evangelical. This entails, among other things, a deep familiarity with the Bible as the word of God and the ability to explain to the best of our abilities why we personally hold the hope we do.

    More, I'm afraid...

  2. I would distinguish between what should happen when a Catholic is asked 'why are you a Christian?' and 'why are you a Catholic?'

    Catholics don't necessarily see being a Christian as based on what you believe; rather, it's about what you are. Baptism, we believe, is the new circumcision, something that ontologically changes us so that we are adopted into God's family and belong to Christ. In that sense, it's baptism that makes us Christians. In the case of adults we must make a personal confession of faith, but even so, it's not our personal confession that makes us Christians, so much as it is our being baptised. Obviously, Catholics believe in infant baptism, where parents guarantee that they will raise the child in Christ, and on the basis of their faith the child is baptised.

    The point being, that there's a sense that even when I was an atheist I was still a Christian: I didn't believe, but I had been sacramentally adopted into God's family, and belonged to Christ regardless of what I did.

    As such, if someone asks me why I'm a Christian, I sometimes feel the need to point out that that question has two answers, depending on whether the question is meant sacramentally or intellectually. The more I think about this, the less important the latter explanation seems.

    As for why I'm a Catholic, this is easier, in a sense. I left the faith, after all, and I returned; these were acts of will, in accord with reason, all doubtless powered by God's grace. Even so, though, I don't always respond to this question with a personal apologia. Sometimes I answer after the fashion of a friend of mine who used to be Anglican and is now Catholic, saying, in a drily Newmanesque way, that I'm Catholic because I believe in Christ and I believe that the fullness of Christian truth subsists in the Catholic Church. This, of course, invites the question of why I believe that, and depending on the day I can answer with my own story or with an argument rooted in philosophy, history, and Scripture.

    Now, I feel you're absolutely right to pick up on the corporate nature of Catholic identity, but I think you miss the mark when saying that it's not essentially individualistic too. It is. We may not talk about it, but it is. For most of us who are 'Cradle Catholics' rather than converts, there's still a story there, albeit one that's not dramatic: the question of 'why are you a Catholic?' isn't about why we became Catholic, as why we remain Catholic. Many of us are plagued by doubts and temptations, and yet we remain faithful and hold fast to Christ.

    For most of us, being Catholic isn't about one big Pauline choice; it's about thousands of little ones, a constant war of attrition in the battleground of our souls. Even if we have converted to Catholicism, many of us would be uneasy of talking of our conversion, as we never know if we shall eventually fall: we don't know who among us will fail to finish the race.

    Does any of this help to explain this?

    This was far longer a comment than I meant to write. I may tweak it and do it as a post on my too-neglected blog.

  3. One reason these conversion narratives are becoming more popular is because they are effective. Telling one's story has a certain humility that sharing straightforward apologetics do not (in our philosophical climate).

    The cause, I would argue, is not so much evangelical protestantism, but subjectivism. Being that objective truth is no longer the grounds that most argue their beliefs, subjective experience becomes a powerful tool. Reading someone else's subjective experiences will often resonate with your own and the underlying objective truth will shine through the subjective realities.

  4. @Steven -- I think that's right. My guess is that it's not really evangelicalism seeping in (though there's some of that, esp. in certain cases of converts from other faiths) but the cultural context that makes this medium effective. I.e. the cultural context of religious marketplace and pluralism that gave birth to evangelicalism.

    This is why I find the second question the particularly interesting one.

  5. @ThirstyGargoyle,

    There's certainly a history of conversion narratives in Catholicism -- Augustine, etc. There is a distinction, though, between apologetical story telling and identity formation via these narratives. The latter is explicitly evangelical, and, I think, relatively new to (post Vatican II) Catholicism.

    Of course Catholicism has an individual reality to it. I didn't mean to deny that. But, it's corporate in that one cannot be Catholic without certain formal affiliative rituals marking one as part of the corporate body -- and those are essential, whereas an individual testimony or account or story is, perhaps, good and useful, but not taken by Catholics as necessary.

    The opposite is the case with evangelicals -- obviously they have a corporate identity and reality, but it's not essential in their understanding of themselves in the way that a "personal relationship with Jesus" is.

    It's not necessary, for example, that Billy Graham have gone to Sunday School. Nor that the Pope be able to have a came-to-Jesus story. Necessary being the key word.

    Your personal account of how and why you tell your story is interesting and helpful. Thanks. And thanks for engaging the question, too.

  6. A very interesting post! As a cradle Catholic who became an Evangelical who become an Anglo-Catholic, I find the growth in conversion narrative among Catholics in the last few decades to be both encouraging and surprising. From what I'm seeing, I do not think that this phenomenon can be reduced to a singular element, but is evidence of both into the changes Vatican II made within the church, the carrying over of Evangelical culture by many former Evangelical converts as well as the postmodern cultural tendency that stresses, as Steven Lawson pointed out, the importance of the subject.
    Firstly, I think Vatican II's shift to a greater friendliness toward lay Catholics I think have allowed the Church to be influenced more freely by cultural movements. In the first years following the Council, my parents told me of going to folk masses filled with hymns and music somewhat reminiscent of the Jesus Movement occurring within Evangelical Protestantism at the time. While Catholicism has always adapted in some ways or another to the cultures around it, the shift from emphasis on authoritative structures of church governance to the power of the lay Catholics (and perhaps a friendlier approach to other branches of Christianity) allowed for some exchange within the cultural tendencies of Evangelicalism and Catholicism. My grandmother, an ardent Catholic, listened to Billy Graham every Friday afternoon. Only two decades earlier, her own parents refused to attend her wedding because she had married a Methodist.
    Secondly, modernity's use of “proof” for faith seems to be more and more replaced by the importance of “telling your story.” People don't want hard and fast evidence for Christ's resurrection, for why any part of Christianity is better than the other. I think there is a desire to see it lived instead. This is not limited to religion. Think of the rise of creative non-fiction. What is going on with Catholic conversion stories has been done in some ways by Elizabeth Gilbert, Amy Chua, and Mitch Albolm. The importance seems to be placed on the individual's account of the world around him or her rather than on empirical evidence thereof and this is perhaps because we understand that empirical evidence itself contains its own bias and, more importantly, it alone cannot change a life.

  7. Thanks, Jillian. The conneciton to creative non-fiction esp. is helpful.

  8. 1) Your view of the conversion story is not something I've ever encountered. I don't know anyone in who sees the conversion story as essential to being Catholic (or if they do they don't see it as essential enough to bring it up). You ask because you are curious about the person, because they are often encouraging when your are struggling through a dark time, and because they give hope when it seems like everyone is leaving the church.

    2) That the personal story touches the heart more-so than a detailed apologetic argument. I read conversion stories to remind myself of why I believe and to rejoice in the joy of others who have come home. It's also a good time to reflect yet again on why I believe. While it's true being Catholic is simply a matter of baptism and being a faithful Catholic participating in the sacraments, there is an active choice you have to make every day to build that relationship with the Lord. Conversion stories remind us of that choice and encourage us to continue walking the path.

    I have my own reversion story, but I've found that the more time that passes from the "event" the less important it seems. My reversion story becomes more immediate, "I chose to turn away from God this week and he knocked me upside the head with X."

  9. Nihil novum sub sole. The Catholic conversion narrative or testimonial is a constant, particularly since the Reformation. Andreas Raess, bishop of Strasburg, collected many of the post-Reformation narratives in his 13-volume "Die Convertiten seit der Reformation nach ihrem Leben und aus ihren Schriften dargestellt" (Freiburg, 1866-80). David Rosenthal supplemented that work with 19th-century material in his "Convertitenbilder aus dem neunzehnten Jahrhundert" in three volumes (1866-1870).

    Convert narratives were incredibly popular throughout the 19th century. Just to give two examples that predate the Oxford movement: I've counted about three dozen editions in half a dozen languages of the "Account" (1st ed. 1787) of the conversion of John Thayer (1755–1815), the first American Protestant clergyman to convert to Catholicism. Charles Louis de Haller (1768-1854) was a conservative Swiss political theorist. His "Letter" (1st ed. 1821) to his family explaining his conversion went through about 50 editions and was translated into all the major European languages.

  10. If it hadn't started at the Year of St. Paul, then it would need to have started then, to honor St. Paul.

    After all, look at how often he used his conversion story as an evangelical ice-breaker?

    Why shouldn't all the other Catholics (in their own individual ways) do the same? I mean, just because we're called to a "New" Evangelization doesn't mean we have to forgo tried-and-true techniques, especially not ones with an apostolic stamp of approval.

  11. As someone who left and came back, and therefore has a story to tell, I think that: 1) conversion stories have a value in encouraging Catholics that people do come back to the Church after leaving; 2)They also remind Catholics that while being baptized, confirmed, etc. is what makes you a Catholic it may not be enough to keep you Catholic. There is a need for personal conversion to obey Jesus' command "Follow me." 3) Jesus used stories to teach, not apologetics--that was Paul!