Studying Conversion: What Stories Count?

I've been thinking a lot about change recently because of the course I'm teaching this semester, which looks at the experience of conversion from historical, sociological and anthropological perspectives.
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As the temperatures start to dip and the days grow shorter, most people begin to think of the end of the year and all they hope to accomplish before Jan. 1. But for those of us in academia, the cooler wind gusts and the lengthening shadows signal the start of a new year and the particular new beginnings that each school year brings. For me, this fall semester offers especially important changes and fresh opportunities. For the past three years I've taught in the history department at Princeton, but this semester I am embarking on a new role as a lecturer in the university's Writing Program. Every student at Princeton, no matter their writing background or their proposed course of study, must complete a writing seminar, the only required class at the university. In small groups of 12, students enter into scholarly debates regarding a variety of topics by assessing texts and writing a series of papers over the semester. Here students acquire the skills they will need in order to be successful academic writers throughout their time at Princeton and even in their professional lives beyond.

I've been thinking a lot about change recently, not only because of the start of the school year and my new professional role, but also because of the course I'm teaching this semester. My seminar, "Conversion Narratives," looks at the experience of conversion from historical, sociological and anthropological perspectives. As an historian of modern U.S. religion and politics, I wanted to develop a course that reflected the interdisciplinary work I do in my own research, so I've selected a diverse set of texts and assembled a variety of writing assignments to reflect the wide-ranging approaches and methodologies scholars have used to understand religious transformation.

In our first unit, students encounter conversion as historians by reading a handful of classic conversion narratives. We began our first class with a close reading of Saul's powerful conversion on the road to Damascus found in Acts 9. Students noted the swift pacing of the text and how it works to effectively communicate a multitude of incredible and important events in just a few short verses. Other students commented on how the authoritative language of the King James Version underscores the power imbalance between the Lord and the blinded and terrified Saul.

The students' close attention to language and their sophisticated analysis of the text made for an especially exciting first day of class, and I was pleased to see how skilled they already were in closely reading a passage. To get the class started, I had distributed the passage in Greek, passing out an English version only after all the students confessed they could not read the chapter in its original language. This was not pure cheekiness on my part but allowed me to raise important questions about originality, translation and other interpretive challenges posed by ancient texts.

While all the students regarded the passage with a respectful objectivity, some questioned the believability of a story where the Lord speaks audibly from heaven and Saul's eyes are blinded and restored to sight by divine commands. Others contended the text had to be trusted as historical evidence of what people believed when the text was produced, even if some of the story's elements couldn't be definitively verified. I imagine several students regarded the passage as literal truth, though none ventured to share such a belief with their classmates.

After our first meeting, I sent my students away with three more conversion narratives to read: Joseph Smith's account of the visions that led him to the golden plates he translated into the Book of Mormon; Malcolm X's tale of his conversion to the Nation of Islam during his time in prison and a pamphlet by G. Vincent Runyon, a former Protestant preacher who at the height of the Cold War published a spirited defense of his leaving the ministry and becoming an atheist.

When we met again, the class seemed universally doubtful of Smith's visions, a few even calling him "crazy" or "deceitful," but after I pointed out that none of them, even those who had doubted the account in Acts, had used such language to describe Saul, they recognized how their critical assessment of the text had instead become a moralizing judgment about the credibility of Mormonism. We talked about what it meant to respect a source even if we didn't believe what the text had to say and the students then performed a close reading of Smith's story as thoughtfully and engagingly as they had two days before with Saul's.

In a way, it was good to have that brief moment of resistance and disbelief in the second class. This is a class about religious conversion, and it shouldn't be surprising that such a topic might elicit a variety of strong and even personal responses. Some students have told me that they are atheists, while others have shared that that they are Catholics or evangelical Christians, but most of them have given me no sense of their religious or non-religious backgrounds. Perhaps some aren't quite sure exactly who they are at the moment, uniquely positioned as first semester college students between the traditions and obligations of their life at home and the future of independence and self-direction that awaits them.

As we continue to study the conversion experience throughout the semester, I imagine my students also will be thinking about this significant personal transformation in which they find themselves. Becoming a college student can be a scary process, but it is also an exhilarating time filled with new people, strange ideas and unfamiliar questions. Like any other conversion, every personal story is unique, but the shared bond of the freshman year can be a powerful uniting force.

For my students, I hope they will find sustenance for their own personal, intellectual and perhaps even spiritual journeys through the texts we read, the questions we ask and the debates we engage in. In becoming collegians, they will encounter a world more complicated and confusing than the one many of them knew from the safety and security of their lives at home, but they will also acquire the skills to critique and contribute to the new world around them. In reading and writing about the conversions of others, I hope they will better understand the important transformations in their own lives.

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