The Common Good

Conversion Stories and Mary Karr's Lit

I used to live in a world where God was a given and unapologetic faith was the lens through which the world was seen and interpreted.

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I worked on the staff of a church with a large, suburban congregation of educated, well-off families who took their Christianity seriously. It was sometimes difficult to reconcile the "go-and-sell-all-you-have" Jesus with their successful, comfortable lives, but the many I came to know and love were people of surprising (and humbling) depth in their commitment to costly Christian discipleship. To the uninformed outsider they may have seemed like middle-class consumers of religion; on the inside I knew that they desired a robust, radical faith, even as they wrestled with the contradictions of privilege. I feel privileged to have worked and worshiped with them for six-plus years.

Now I live in a world where God is not a given and unapologetic faith is often practiced, well, apologetically, which is a little odd since I teach at a small liberal arts school affiliated with a mainline Protestant denomination. But a college with Christian ties shouldn't be mistaken for a Christian college. (There are plenty of the latter, some impressive in their pursuit of intellectual rigor -- others sadly predictable in their one-sided, short-sighted views.)

At my college there are some students, staff, and faculty who identify themselves as Christians, but the ethos of the place is roundly secular. Saying you're "spiritual" would be okay, as it is in our culture generally; saying you're a disciple of Jesus, especially if you're on the faculty, would raise eyebrows (and maybe red flags, too). Moreover, the suspicion with which the academic disciplines of religion and, worse still, Christian education are generally regarded reveals what has long been a truism in academia: It's fine to study and teach, say, the doctrine of the trinity, but you wouldn't want to confess that you actually believe it.

All of which is to say (and I apologize if I've belabored the point) that my reading of several conversion stories of late -- most recently Mary Karr's memoir Lit -- has been refracted through my own experience of negotiating a context that is mostly indifferent to matters of discipleship and the confession of faith.

Karr is an accomplished writer and well-regarded poet who writes in Lit about her long, slow conversion to Catholicism (Read Sojourners review of Lit here). Her harrowing childhood and young adult years (recounted in the earlier memoirs The Liar's Club and Cherry) were devoid of any religious grounding or guidance, despite being raised in the Christianized culture of rural east Texas. Karr's abusive, absentee mother dabbled in Buddhism and quoted Karl Marx; her father was a union man who believed that church was a trick on poor people. Both her parents were troubled alcoholics.

Karr succumbed to the disease, too, and it's her involvement in A.A. (never mentioned by name in the book) that leads her reluctantly -- no, kicking and screaming -- to contemplate for the first time in her life submission to a "higher power." It's her sobriety-seeking friends who make such contemplation possible: They don't so much talk her into faith as they model for her what a converted life might look like -- in all its fits and starts, flaws and failings.

Karr knows her audience well, so in chronicling this unlikely journey she is forever pointing out the sheer ridiculousness of it: "Those of you who've never prayed before will cackle like crows and scoff at the change I claim has overtaken me. But the focus of my attention has been yanked from the pinballing in my head to south of my neck, where some solidity holds me together . . . The primal chattering in my skull has dissipated as if some wizard conjured it away." In later years as she moves from 12-step generic piety to the particular claims of Catholic Christianity she knows she'll leave many of her savvy, academic friends behind.

I understand this rhetorical strategy in ways I might not have a couple of years ago -- how insider language spoken to religious skeptics or to people who think it's cool to be ignorant of Christianity can make one feel ridiculous and alone. But I do find it a bit wearying. What I suspect is most compelling about Karr's memoir, even to those on the outside of her conversion experience, is not the circumscribed, joke-laden, I-know-this-sounds-crazy descriptions of prayer and the working of providence but the totality of a transformed life, narrated with raw, sober truthfulness.

And this is what I hope might be compelling about my own attempts to take God for granted in a setting where such a stance can be awkward. Not to try and spout wisdom, make excuses or jokes (though humor is always a plus) but to offer the slow witness of a life well-lived

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