Amazing Grace: How Conversion Really Works

Americans love conversion stories. We love to think that we could be walking down an ordinary road and suddenly see the light. Even if we don't know many hymns, even if we aren't Christians, most of us know the first verse of "Amazing Grace," and at least once in our lives we've sung "I once was lost, but now am found." Some of us know the story that goes with the words: that John Newton, the white writer of the hymn, was a sinner working on a slave ship until God saved him and called him to a righteous life crusading against slavery. In the black church there are countless traditional "testimony hymns" that tell and retell a similarly glorious conversion story: "He picked me up and turned me round, set my feet on solid ground," or "my soul looks back in wonder at how I got over." Testimony hymns often introduce an extended time of "testifying," or telling and retelling stories of how God's grace has changed lives.

And testifying is not just a spiritual practice. Historically, having a conversion experience and sharing it with others has been a requirement for full participation in American life. In the 1600s, New England Puritans had to experience conversion in order to be full voting members of their community. More recently, some political observers have wondered whether there's an unspoken conversion requirement for the American presidency. George W. Bush's story of his religious transformation from irresponsible bad boy to evangelical family man spoke to many Americans much more powerfully than John Kerry's story of growing up Catholic and staying Catholic. As Yale English professor Michael Warner writes, "Americans care about the freedom not only to have a self, but to discard one or two." On TV, we like to watch extreme makeovers and interventions. In religion, we like clear dramatic movements from sin to grace.

The problem with the conversion narrative is that most people have lives that don't fit the classic before-and-after plot. When we insist on the standard story, we fail to appreciate the varieties of religious experience. In focusing on sudden change, we can forget that most transitions happen slowly over time. In attending to individual experience, we can ignore our embeddedness in communal life. And in making one transitional moment bear the whole weight of our lives, we sometimes fail to find a language for the long road ahead.

I was in the audience in 2006 when then Senator Obama gave the most famous version of his non-traditional conversion experience. His undramatic story failed to pass muster with some evangelicals, but it is a moving testimony nonetheless:

I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst. And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well -- that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone. ... It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

Obama's story of religious transformation is gradual and subtle. The grace may be amazing, but it's also everyday. As he tells it, religious transformation is about hope and change, but it's also about what change isn't: renunciations, revelations, ecstasy. For Obama, conversion isn't a prerequisite for participating in community (as it was for the Puritans). Rather, conversion is participating in community. It is "a commitment to a particular community of faith."

Last summer I taught a class at Yale Divinity School on contemporary American spiritual autobiography. When I was planning the class I started out with a list of conversion narratives, but I ended up with a syllabus that reflected a wide range of religious experience. The authors my students and I read wrote about converting, but they also wrote about seeking, staying, straying, lapsing and returning. Like Obama's, their stories didn't fit the familiar pattern of Paul on the road to Damascus.

We need conversion stories, but we need many other religious narratives as well, because conversion is never the whole story. We may convert, but we remain ourselves. We get saved, or we get sober; we fall in love, or fall out of love, or fall off the wagon, and still life goes on. The befores and afters blur into one another. We make and break promises. We gain grace and lose hope. We grow and we doubt. We find ourselves in new "dangers, toils, and snares."

The post-conversion Paul, wracked with internal struggle, exclaimed "Oh wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?" In the years since Obama told his conversion story, he has spectacularly lost his relationship with Trinity United Church of Christ, the beloved community he'd committed to as a young man. He converted for the community, and now he has to practice his faith "alone and apart." And what most people don't know about John Newton is that after he got saved he continued to work as a slave-trader for six years, and he didn't become an abolitionist for another three and a half decades after that. When we tell their stories, and when we testify to our own stories, we need to remember and find meaning in all our befores and afters, and in all the afterwards still to come.