Surprised by conversion’s image in the mirror
“Next to pride,” wrote the Covenant historian Karl Olsson in Seven Sins and Seven Virtues, “envy is traditionally considered the ‘worst’ sin, not because it is less loathsome than pride, which it is not, but because, unlike pride, envy does not pretend to godlikeness. It is, in fact, an admission of the opposite.”
I shudder to think, then, how Olsson would assess my ugliest envy: that of fellow Christians who have dramatic conversion stories to tell.
No light blinded me on the road to Damascus (or Des Moines, for those of us on the I-35 corridor); no children’s choir told me to “take up and read.” I had no altar call or Moment of Decision, and my heart wasn’t strangely warmed on any evening that I can recall. I grew up as a Christian in a Christian home, have always attended church, now teach at a Christian university, and even married a pastor’s daughter. I dimly see myself as a five-year old, kneeling next to my mother, and praying that Jesus would enter my heart. But before or after that moment, I can’t remember not feeling loved by God and desiring to love Him back.
So I envy Christians who have epiphanies to share, who never have to worry that their faith is an accident of birth (If I’d been the son of Richard Dawkins instead of Richard Gehrz, would I still be a Christian?), who know Christ with all the passion and thrill of new love instead of as a familiar but easily forgotten presence.
Intellectually, I know that that my conversion is not just sufficient, but like any reconciliation of sinner to Lord, a miracle of God’s redeeming grace. And I appreciate how our executive pastor reassures applicants for membership worried that they don’t have much of a faith story to share: “We don’t remember when we were born, but we know that we’re alive.” Like me, Kay grew up in a Christian home and can’t tell of any single conversion experience. She and I don’t remember our new births, but we know that we have new life in Christ.
Seen from that perspective, conversion is more of a process than a moment: the lifelong turning from love of sin to love of God and neighbor, bound up with the transformation of all that we are into all that we’re meant to be.
And yet... the envy still slumbers, ready to wake and ask me questions I ought not worry about. As Olsson continued, “To be envious is to be fearful, to sense that I am not ‘up to it’ and to do the wrong thing about my inadequacy.” All the more so for someone who has spent his entire life in Christian churches and organizations most strongly influenced by the conversionist traditions of Pietism and Evangelicalism, whose histories are replete with dramatic testimonies of lives suddenly turned towards Christ.
Testimonies like that of Carolyn Weber, author of a wonderful new spiritual memoir, Surprised by Oxford. While there are clear parallels (from the title on down) with the autobiography of another disbelieving literature scholar who became a Christian in that great university town, Weber’s conversion little resembled that of C.S. Lewis, who remembered himself “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England,” thankful in retrospect for the “Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms” (Surprised by Joy, Lewis).
Weber’s moment of conversion did not happen alone on her knees, feeling worn down into intellectual agreement. Instead, it arrived during an unusually reflective morning run when she turned a corner (really) and, she writes, “was almost blinded by a final field ablaze in frost-defying flowers of every color. Phoenix-like, Christ Church rose up from the floral flames, and behind her lay the gate. The last stretch. It was then that I began to breathe more deeply. To breathe Him in, and to breathe me out. And then, I began, ever so slowly, to transform.”
That Weber’s luminous description doesn’t wake my envy is testament to her abilities as a writer, but more so to a kind of grace that the ever-perceptive Olsson observed. “Envy melts before the truth of God’s generosity. Everything I envy is God’s gift to someone: intelligence, grace, wit, artistic genius, personal attractiveness.”
Still, I had to read on in Surprised by Oxford to understand Olsson’s next sentence: “And what others find enviable in me — that is also a gift.”
What could Carolyn Weber envy in my own humble story? Flip ahead about a hundred pages and we find her sitting alone one night in St. Mary’s Church, wrestling with her insecurities by the flickering light of prayer candles (hers on the lowest rung of the holder: “Somehow the lowest rung seemed to be where I belonged.”) At this point in the story, Weber’s sometime mentor/confidant and possible object of affection, the American theology student she calls “Tall, Dark, and Handsome” (TDH), has been seeing another Yank, a former beauty pageant contestant “whose loaded presence threw my perceived inadequacies in my face.”
Among other things, Weber finds herself envying this “Miss Georgia” for having been a Christian her whole life:
How my friends who grew up in Christian homes took their gifts of faith from their parents for granted! How prayer came as second nature, an obvious problem-solver or comfort or alternative to panic, anxiety, and fear. They took for granted the powerful pause of grace before meals. How oblivious they could seem to the precious and effective armor they had been given: to have this gift of faith from your childhood, to lean into it and grow into it… to even have the luxury to rebel against it.
Mourning came in like a wave I did not know how to surf. Mourning for a lifetime lost in not having had a faith. Mourning for all the things that wounded, for all the things that I thought I deserved.
Like the best memoirs, Weber’s holds up a mirror to the reader’s own experience, however different it might be. Reading what for her had been a source of inadequacy, jealousy, and resentment reminded me of the rich blessings of having come to faith over a life spent in the nurture of friends, colleagues, pastors, and, most of all, my parents.
As it happened, I finished Surprised by Oxford just before my mother (who now lives in Virginia) arrived for a brief visit last fall. As we gathered after church and sang the table grace we always sing at get-togethers on the Peterson side of the family, I found new comfort in the familiar words: “Be present at our table, Lord / Be here and everywhere adored / These mercies bless, and grant that we / May strengthened for thy service be /
Ever present, even in a split-level in suburban St. Paul, God blessed me with devoted, devout parents who adored Him and strengthened me for His service. We don’t use the word “mercies” often enough in our culture or churches, but these were mercies indeed.
So while I came to the end of Carolyn Weber’s memoir rejoicing again how God surprises people in unlikely places and at unlikely times in their lives, I rediscovered the joy prevailing in my own, utterly unremarkable story. What I envy in others and what they envy in me: all, in the end, is grace.