On Conversion Stories

If there was such a thing as a Christian genre, the conversion story would be it. Perhaps uniquely, Christianity views the conversion, the turning away from the old life to the new, as the heart of the religious experience. Praxis is secondary to the inward change of art, the “turning away from sin” and being true to the Gospel.

From the early days of the Church the conversion story has had a powerful presence, used for evangelization, apologetics, catechesis, and spiritual reading. Perhaps the first, and certainly the most famous, is St. Augustine’s Confessions. Of all the conversion stories ever written, it has certainly had the most profound effect, particularly as spiritual reading. Throughout the fifteen hundred years since its appearance countless individuals have used it as their second bible, many carrying it around with them wherever they go.

The genre has had a consistent presence throughout history, becoming more or less popular and shifting about in emphasis. There has been something of a popular resurgence in the last hundred years, particularly with new emphasis, especially evangelization and apologetics.

These two aims, while similar, are certainly not identical. The evangelical conversion story seeks to present an example, an experiential model of Christianity. The faith is presented as an encounter, something that changed the author. It is not necessarily meant first to convert others but to provide an honest presentation of what it means to be Christian.

Two grand examples of the evangelical genre our A Testimonial to Grace by Avery Cardinal Dulles and The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. Both are works of conversion but neither has as its primary aim the act of convincing another of the truth of their position. Rather, they all but presume the reader to agree with them (or at least to accept them). These are not particularly “why I converted” stories but “what an amazing thing conversion is” stories.

The apologetic conversion story seeks as its primary aim the “why I converted” and usually the “why you should convert too”. This focus tends to make them the weakest of the two literarily. Famous examples would be Rome Sweet Home by Scott and Kimberly Hahn and the Surprised by Truth series edited by Patrick Madrid. They are not bad books but they appeal to a much narrower audience because of their naturally argumentative character.

None of these categories are truly independent from the others, but the focus of each creates unique narratives. In the end they all point back to Christ and the experiential presence he leaves upon the world, an encounter that is unique for all people. Every conversion story presents this encounter, no two alike, each presenting that moment when the world is ever changed and all things are made new.

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