Converting People: I Don't Buy It

By Virginia Pasley 12-22-2014
photo by Jeff Few, via Flickr.com
Man preaching at the Chinatown metro station in Washington, D.C., photo by Jeff Few, via Flickr.com

I was recently talking with friends about looking people up online. I told the story of being unpleasantly surprised to find, on someone’s Facebook profile, that he was affiliated with a sports-themed summer camp in the Middle East run by Christians with the not-as-subtle-as-they-think motivation of converting (or at least … influencing) young Muslim campers. As I told the story, I could see that I had probably picked the wrong audience: friends who, while they might not have signed up for such a project themselves, certainly knew people who would. I trailed off lamely, debating with myself whether to bother noting the obvious as an excuse for my reaction: that they had grown up in conservative churches and I in a liberal one.

But thinking about it later, I realized it was more than that. “I don’t believe in converting people,” I wanted to go back and say to them. “Not in the way that I don’t believe in wearing white after Labor Day — like a personal preference or moral objection — but in the way that I don’t believe in Santa Claus.” I do not believe it happens.

To be more specific, I don’t believe in people converting people. Conversion, obviously, happens. And other people may be there, even standing by and handing the convert a pamphlet. The convert may even be saying, “Because of you, I am converting!” But I don’t buy it.

I didn’t always feel this way. I am one of those Episcopalians who, despite our occasional differences with him, hero-worships C.S. Lewis. I find it difficult to say anything coherent about theology without falling back on an attempt to paraphrase something he said. When I first heard about how one conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien had converted Lewis — overnight — I was very curious about what had been said. What could you say to someone — let alone someone so brilliant — to change their mind about something so huge?

If I had read C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, by Joseph Pearce, I would have found out that, in September of 1931, Lewis went for an evening walk with Tolkien and Henry Victor Dyson, during which they discussed whether myths or stories like myths could ever be true — whether God could have used humanity’s tradition of mythology to tell the truth about God’s self:

“As [Lewis] expressed it to Tolkien, myths were 'lies, even though lies breathed through silver.'

'No,' Tolkien replied emphatically. 'They are not.'

Tolkien resumed, arguing that myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. 'We have come from God [continued Tolkien], and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of true light, the eternal truth that is with God.' Since we are made in the image of God, and since God is the Creator, part of the imageness of God in us is the gift of creativity. The creation — or, more correctly, the sub-creation — of stories or myths is merely a reflection of the image of the Creator in us … Tolkien developed his argument to explain that the story of Christ was the True Myth, a myth that works in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened — a myth that existed in the realm of fact as well as in the realm of truth.”

Put that in a pamphlet.

The story of one famous, beloved author converting another — before either of them was famous or beloved — is hard to resist. If I find Tolkien’s argument to be somewhat difficult to wrap my head around, it is surely a reflection on me and not him. But I can’t help but find the details of the conversation a bit disappointing: I had really wondered if there were some magic words that someone could say that would have power for anyone — not just Oxford dons who like reading Icelandic myths in the original Old Norse.

But when I read Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, I found a rather different story. He mentions Tolkien and Dyson only briefly when discussing his long road to theism, and spends more time talking about reading G.K. Chesterton, and debating friends who had become anthroposophists (defined as the belief in “the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world accessible to direct experience through inner development.”) He does note that Tolkien and Dyson “were later to give me much help in getting over the last stile.” After that night in 1931, he had written to a friend that the discussion had had “a good deal to do with” his conversion. But the conversation is not specifically mentioned in his book. Instead he says this:

“I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out … I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on … The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done.”

Lewis clarifies that this was not the story of his conversion to Christianity, but to theism. He came to Christianity later, and describes it as a rather similar experience:

“I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. ‘Emotional’ is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”

Lewis later sardonically notes, “They have spoiled Whipsnade since then.”

Apparently, this trip to the zoo was three days after the conversation about myths. But it seems Lewis would have us believe that no single conversation and no particular train of thought led to his conversion to Christianity. A man famous for being able to explain complicated things in “bluff, common man’s language” (as one character teasingly puts it, in the original TV version of “Shadowlands”), struggles to explain his experience. “A fact about myself was somehow presented to me.” “I know very well when, but hardly how … ” And yet this version of the story makes much more sense to me than the other.

It may sound ungenerous of me to say I don’t “buy” stories of person-to-person conversion. But to me, the idea of personally amassing convert conquests and saving souls as an individual smacks of, for lack of a better word, humanism: that is, a focus on what man can achieve and accomplish. Basically, what I’m saying is: You didn’t build that.

In fact, I can’t imagine believing I could build that. Believing that Tolkien built Lewis’ faith on his own, that the perfect choice of words could make all the difference for someone, that one well-crafted argument could convince someone there is an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent Creator — it all seems well above my paygrade, as it were.

Carlton Pearson, a former evangelical megachurch preacher whose congregation abandoned him after he expressed doubt in the existence of Hell, spoke about the enormous pressure he used to feel in believing he alone was responsible for saving everyone in his orbit:

“The guilt of not witnessing to every single person you meet — I'd get on an airplane, having preached my brains out, stayed up all night … I get on the plane; I need to go to sleep. But I should witness to the guy next to me. Somehow I've got to figure out a way to open up a conversation. So I need to put my Bible on my lap so he can ask me about the Lord or wear my cross or something to open up the door, or either I have to basically confront him and say, well, how are you doing, sir? Do you know where you're going to spend eternity?”

In the same interview, on This American Life, Pearson spoke about his crisis of conscience when watching news footage of genocide refugees from Rwanda. He began talking to God about the guilt he felt that he couldn’t save them, and he heard God respond: “Precisely. You can't save this world. That's what we did.”

Pearson is a sharp, funny, dynamic, and compelling speaker. If you have to sit next to someone trying to convert you on an airplane, you could do much worse. It’s no wonder he built a megachurch. But it’s also no wonder it couldn’t last.

When the emphasis is on one person — what one person as a man can achieve, how many souls he can draw in and save — it becomes a sort of cult of personality. It is unsustainable. In Pearson’s case, it could not survive his shift in theological thinking. In the case of the infamous Mars Hill Church in Seattle, the sprawling megachurch and its plant churches are now finding they cannot survive the resignation of Mark Driscoll, after accusations about plagiarism, bullying, and misogyny.

That’s the difference between belonging to a denominational church and a nondenominational church. Nondenominational churches can run the gamut, just like any church: they can be liberal or conservative, big or small, lively or quiet, etc. But if the church is founded by Reverend Bob — with no network or connection to other churches — and a few years later, it turns out that Rev. Bob is embezzling money or having an affair with his secretary, the likelihood of his church surviving is basically nil. Whereas if Rev. Bob was simply the most recent priest to be installed at, say, an Episcopalian church, the diocese could help arrange for a replacement.

For some congregants, that institutional response would not be enough; if the hurt is too deep, they will leave the church completely — especially if the diocese responds with a cover-up and silence. The most notorious example of that, of course, has been the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. But no organization — religious or secular — is immune to tragedy, scandal, or crime.

In the preface to Lewis’ famous theological overview Mere Christianity, he describes different types and denominations of churches as rooms along a hallway. “If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted,” he writes. “But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.”

Maybe Lewis really believed that he, as one man, could bring some people into the hall. Maybe he believed he could only help, as Tolkien and the others had helped him, and that some ineffable thing — without words, images, or emotion — would be what really brought them in. I’m on the side of the ineffable. But even if you do believe that one person brought you into the hall or one of its rooms, I hope that your stay there, with the fires, chairs and meals, can continue even if that person turns around and goes out again.

Virginia Pasley is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area who has been published in The Atlantic, Slate, and Salon among others. She also blogs at www.virginiapasley.blogspot.com.

Image: 'Preaching to the Indifferent,' man preaching at the Chinatown metro station in Washington, D.C., photo by Jeff Few, via Flickr.com

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