In this post I want to talk about the Evangelical conversion moment. By this I mean the experience that has generally been a staple of Evangelical narrative since the beginning of the movement’s history. This is usually a moment of crisis, of turning 180 degrees from one’s own way to God’s – often it is accompanied by an emotional experience, something like what Wesley described as a strange warming of the heart.
To begin, I would like to give this moment and its importance in this narrative more due than it gets in some circles. In these circles, this experience gets dismissed as more or less an individualistic after effect of the Enlightenment; in this spirit, Archbishop Schori of the Episcopal church described personal salvation as part of the “great Western heresy” of individualism (for a balanced description of the exchange between Schori and Evangelical Anglicans, see this article, particularly the portion that quotes Radner). But Western though it may be (and even that is questionable), her assertion ludicrously puts all of Christendom under censure from St. Paul onward. Though she is not out of line in critiquing the individualistic bent of Evangelicalism, I would suggest the problem is the other way round; our faith in fact is not personal enough, insofar as we in modern Western society have lost a sense of the breadth and depth of meaning once attributed to personhood.
However, this is in fact not what I want to talk about, but rather it is a prefatory caveat to differentiate the following critique from those of Schori et al. And there is need for a critique recognizing that while experiential conversion crises are not a mere recent innovation, they have in Evangelical circles come to eclipse other models of conversion that have been equally important in the history of Christianity, models that in fact may be necessary to speak powerfully into the current postmodern moment.
Indeed, the particular model I have in mind can be seen if we think about the genre of testimony in Evangelical circles, that is, the relation of one’s initial conversion experience. I think in prior generations, these might have seemed particularly compelling, precisely because these generations were shaped by an Enlightenment view of historical progress complete with watershed moments of change, and a romantic imagination shaped by the idea that something actually happens when one encounters the sublime. Conceiving of faith in these terms thus made sense to a generation that believed in change and progress; the problem now though is that in a postmodern generation that has largely abandoned the Enlightenment and Romanticism, these stories do not feel very compelling. By this I do not mean that there is nothing worth keeping in them, even as I do not mean there is nothing worth keeping in Enlightenment and Romantic thought – surely there is. But in a society continually bombarded by language of change, innovation, and revolution, such things become tiresome and even those instances that do have substance beyond the shallow rhetoric get lost in the mix – our lives will be changed during worship in the evening service, and then changed again by the heart-smart cereal we eat for breakfast, and then changed again by the speed of our wireless internet. Innovation becomes mundane routine, and with it the faith grounded in innovative experiences. So how is one to think about such testimonies in light of this general cultural inoculation against them? I suggest that part of the response must involve realizing the importance of some of the other ways of narrating faith that were eclipsed at the advent of the Enlightenment/Romanticism.
For myself, I know what resonates most powerfully are not those stories of dramatic life changes, but the often more quiet (if equally engaging for those with ears) stories of those who have stayed, particularly those who have stayed Christians even in the midst of feeling the effects of ecclesial frustration and politics. This, I think, is the really radical testimony, for the mark of postmodern society is an inability to stay loyal or faithful for long. To be sure, there is a deep hunger for such loyalty, as evidenced in the enduring popularity of Joss Whedon’s shows, which almost always have such loyalty as their core. But if this loyalty is the thing we fantasize about, it appears equally fantastic to us in our inability to enact it – increasingly, our response to personal suffering, discomfort, pain, and evil is to run away regardless of the other goods we might abandon in the process; many of my friends have walked away from their faith entirely, and I imagine they must think me a fool for staying, a partner in a relationship that justifies abuse under the guise of loyalty. But this I think is why my conversion story can say something to these friends that I think the more traditional testimony form might not be able to. I’ll bet I could match them point for point in frustrations with God and His church – in fact, I think in some cases I could frame these complaints in even more compelling ways. But I have stayed, with eyes wide open, and this because I have known a love stronger than death. Not a love that depends on warming of hearts or sentimental experiences or instantaneous changes, but the kind of love that Job experiences with God, that looks harsh and reprimanding and thankless on the outside to those who have not known the paradoxical tenderness of the whirlwind. Put another way, I feel that I know a little about why Job would have died for God both before and after a divine response that makes so little sense in modern terms.
But the way I know this is not via a dramatic conversion moment, but because I stayed – where others grew up in the church and walked away thinking God and faith were dead, I stuck around to see if there would be resurrection – and I found that there was. Indeed, I like to think of my story in terms of the prodigal son – but not the one you might think.
What I am about to say here is something that probably makes me a bad Christian, but I think it is not in fact counter to scripture because what we are talking about is a parable, a divine riddle: I have never felt a lot of kinship with the prodigal son. I mean, who spends their inheritance on whores and wild living when there are books one might buy (or probably in his case manuscripts)? And parties are noisy affairs at best, even with a fatted calf – I share Flannery O’Conner’s sentiment that her primary function at parties was covering the stain on her mother’s sofa. In some ways, I am not in fact sure that when the elder son takes issue with the profligate’s party it is because he would actually enjoy one himself – rather, it is the unfairness of seeing a brother with a devil-may-care attitude have everything come to him while one constantly wracked by anxiety and responsibility can never let his guard down and feels as if he is barely surviving with little recognition or fruit.
But there is a caveat in the story, and that is that we don’t in fact know what became of this son (in fact, we don’t know what became of either son); what we do know is that he is given something far more precious than a party: his Father tells him, “You are always with me and everything I have is yours,” and if this is not the very thing we long for God to tell us as Christians, I’m not sure what is. What if in fact it is not the prodigal who is given the greatest gift at the end of the story, but the elder son? This would not be to say that the elder son is less sinful or less in need of grace than the younger – it is a very dull imagination indeed that could imagine that his stability on his Father’s property somehow exempts him from this. But the reminder that he is with his father and is his father’s heir is in fact the grace applied to his sin in this situation.
The story never says what happens to this son, but if in fact he embraces what his father says, his “testimony” will be very different from that of the prodigal. His will not be a story of running away and then radically turning to discover the grace of God; rather, it will be a story of still discovering this grace miraculously in spite of his close proximity to it, a proximity that would be easy enough to take for granted. It is a story of someone who stayed, perhaps (like us all) from imperfect motivation and not always with a clear understanding of why, but nonetheless stayed. It is a story of discovering, whether slowly or quickly, that God’s grace is deep enough to love not only the archetypal prodigal, but also those who did not leave. The miracle is not only that He goes off to rescue the one sheep that wanders from the herd; it is also that He stays and rescues the ninety-nine left on the hillside.