Brief Book Review: A History of Christian Conversion

A History of Christian Conversion
By David W. Kling

As I read this excellent and comprehensive study, a single example of one “conversion process” kept recurring to me. One year, while my family was vacationing at the beach, we invited a friend’s grandchildren to spend a day with us. It was a wonderful day, and the children had a great time. At the end of the visit, when their parents came to collect them, the boy described to his father what a wonderful time it had been. The father, who had been working with his wife as evangelical missionaries, replied, “Yes, but Jesus’s beach is better.” The boy tried again and again to describe this wonderful experience and its almost transcendent nature, only to be stopped by the same refrain: “Jesus’s beach is better.” Finally, defeated, the boy acknowledged in an empty voice that his father was correct, and Jesus’s beach was better than this beach on which we stood.

That demand for agreement to a code of belief in a supernatural world necessarily “other” than the one rooted in personal experience, a belief system distinct from an approach that might consider experience as revelatory of the divine presence, is one approach to conversion described repeatedly in this book as dominant at different periods of Christian history. It differs dramatically from that second approach based on experience, the one acknowledged by St. Thomas Aquinas in the comment that “nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses,” one also described in a comment that Dr. J. Michael McMahon (Executive Director of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada) recently made on Psalm 8: “The very world in which we live, indeed the entire cosmos, gives witness to a God whose love overflows in creative energy.” In other words, to return to the example, this beach reveals Jesus’ beach and, indeed, is Jesus’ beach for those who are open to experience it.

What’s the main point? The main point of this very detailed but very readable history is the variety of ways that “conversion” has been understood in Christian history, both in terms of what the convert thinks conversion to be and in terms of what the “converting authority” considers authentic conversion to be. Kling makes clear that there have been multifaceted dimensions to conversion and its context through twenty centuries of Christian history.

Why does it matter? The criteria for conversion are often taken for granted by people exploring conversion to Christianity or by others engaged in the conversion process. Kling, however, aims “to demonstrate the empirical complexity of the conversion phenomenon, contending there is no unitary model of conversion, no single, easily demonstrable process that accounts for why people convert to Christianity or why they convert to Christianity over another religion” (p. 661).

Who’s it for? In its highlighting of the many ways conversion has been understood and the numerous factors that enter into those perceptions, this would be an important read for anyone involved in the process of conversion, especially those working with adult initiation. However, given the size (852 pages) and price ($150.00) of this book, it is unlikely that parish initiation teams will be buying and reading it in bulk. But it is a valuable resource for diocesan offices or for academic institutions that offer courses on conversion and initiation.

Kudos. Kling’s expertise across multiple fields of study is amazing, from contemporary biblical analysis, through a historian’s view beyond the narratives about major figures (saints and sinners among them), to a carefully critical study of modern imperialism and its associated missionary impulse. Equally impressive is his ability to draw all of this together in a coherent analysis of the multiple meanings of “conversion” through the vagaries of history. What emerges is a presentation of conversion as a key expressive element in the way Christianity itself was perceived and communicated at any one time, place, and culture. Yet, despite Kling’s fine work and his very readable presentation of this detailed analysis, he leads us to conclude that “in the end, conversion remains an inscrutable phenomenon” (p. 23).

Kling, David W. A History of Christian ConversionOxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 852 pages. $150.00. ISBN: 9780195320923.

REVIEWER: Gordon Truitt
Dr. Gordon E. Truitt is the retired Senior Editor of the
National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

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