Friday, July 03, 2009

Not Another Convert Story

Recent travels and work demands have preventing me from keeping up with the blogs I like to frequent. I've tried to remedy that situation this long holiday weekend. Over at Fr. James Early's excellent blog, I discovered that I had completely missed an on-going series, detailing one couple's conversion to the Orthodox faith. I heartily recommend the blog in general, this narrative in particular, and have links to each section of the story at the end of this post.

That said, conversion stories can be a bit tricky, and should come with lots of cautionary admonitions. Even the word convert comes with some baggage, but until someone comes up with a better descriptor, it will have to suffice. First, each account is obviously particular to the person affected, and their reaction will not be exactly replicated by anyone else. In 2003, I walked into a Bulgarian Orthodox church with my good friend and travelling companion. When I walked out, the course of my life had changed (though I didn't realize it at that moment). My friend was right beside me the entire time, but walked out thinking it merely quaint and colorful. That is how it works--our life-changing experience will go unnoticed by our neighbor.

Second, we are often too quick to broadcast our experiences, either out of genuine excitement about the course we have embarked upon, or perhaps exhibiting some need to validate our decision. When I first started blogging, I posted some accounts of my experience. Today, I would probably leave them unwritten. And while I have often alluded to what happened in my case, I have never given a full-throated, complete account of what actually transpired. I can tell my story--but even after 6 years, am reluctant to pontificate upon Orthodoxy itself, and am careful to steer the narrative away from that angle.

And finally, a bit of perspective often changes our narrative somewhat. As we are first constructing the story, it is hard to resist the temptation to portray ourselves always as "Noble Truth-seekers," and those from whom we come out from amongst as "hidebound and pig-headed traditionalists." In time, we come to better appreciate the foundations we received in our former communions, and the part it played in our becoming Orthodox. In time, we realize that our conversion was probably messier and less noble than our telling of it suggests. In time, we can see the part that pride played in our actions, often even to a greater degree than in the church we left behind.

But these "convert stories" are part and parcel of the American Orthodox landscape, perhaps as in no where else. Maybe this is because the change is or should be so removed from what is normative for our culture. What I have noticed is that while each story is unique, one aspect holds true for most: namely, the catalyst for pursuing Orthodoxy is some exposure to and/or experience of Orthodox worship. That is certainly the case with the story I have linked, my story, and most others I can recall. Those conversions based solely on intellectual inquiry, be it theological or historical, do not seem to hold, in my experience. Clearly this is not due to any deficiency within Orthodoxy itself, but lies rather in the motives and approach of the convert. When someone becomes Orthodox as a mere intellectual choice, one made between competing ideologies and based on their own understanding, then they are free to choose something else later on. And they often do. Simply put, the Orthodox faith is infinitely bigger than that, and choices made under those assumptions may fail to account for the cosmic dimensions of what is actually happening.

Another reason this particular story resonates with me is the fact that this couple came out of the Church of Christ, my former religious affiliation. The young man was a missionary to Estonia, where he bumped-up into Orthodoxy. Leaving the Church of Christ can be traumatic, and not at all the same as switching say from Baptist to Methodist to Assembly of God, etc. For the Church of Christ is a restorationist sect, as are the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses. Unlike the other two, the Church of Christ has mainstream Protestant Trinitarian beliefs (though they wouldn't use the word), but they believe that they "restored" the New Testament church in the early years of the 19th century. For them, church history begins at Pentecost and then stops cold at the end of the 1st Century, going underground (I suppose) until the early 1500s when the Reformation started out right but just didn't go far enough, and then picks back up in the early 1800s with Alexander Campbell finally figured out the correct interpretation of Scripture, thus "restoring" the church. [The irony is that the Church of Christ is distinctly ahistorical in tone, and has failed to instruct its members in even its own particular history. Consequently, modern members are uninformed, unconcerned and/or dismissive of their heritage, causing something of an existential crisis within the church. For without adherence to this narrative, the "distinctive plea," as they used to say, of the Churches of Christ becomes meaningless.] So, when one leaves the Church of Christ, the thinking is (or used to be) that one is not merely going from one Christian denomination to another, but one has in fact left the church. This understanding is not nearly as universal as it was a generation or two ago, but the thinking does persist. When one becomes Orthodox from this kind of background, it can become messy. Such was the case with me. So, this couple's story is of particular interest to me.

I now have very few remaining associations with my old Church of Christ friends (and family). Undoubtedly, there is enough blame to go around on both sides. But I do know some of them used to check out this blog to see just how far I had fallen. Perhaps some still do. It is my prayer that they read this couple's story.


Fr. James Early said...

Great thoughts, Terry. I agree totally with what you said. Books are helpful, but in the end it all comes down to the worship.

Thank you for the kind words about my blog. And for those readers who don't have the time to read all the posts about the Hales' story, I encourage them to check out the interview of them that I did for the "Journeys to Orthodoxy" podcast on OCN. Here's the link to that interview:

Oops, I just noticed that you also put a link to the podcast. Well, the more the merrier!

Steve Hayes said...

I like what you say about conversion stories. People sometimes push me to tell mine, and I find I am often reluctant to do so, and tell it differently to different people. As you say, looking back, one sees it differently, and things that didn't think were so important at the time seem more important with hindsight.

One thing that I think might make it easier for people in the Church of Christ to contemplate Orthodoxy is that they teach baptismal regeneration, though in my experience they seem to find it hard to believe that anyone else does.

Clint said...

Thanks so much for your kind words. I don't go out of my way to hound people with our conversion story, though I am not reluctant to share it if asked. Perhaps that is the "newness" of our final conversion. We still have that "new convert" enthusiasm, I suppose.

Oh, and Steve, yes the CoC does teach baptism very closely to how the Orthodox Church does, and they also do not use instruments in worship. In fact, way back when, the instruments issue was the first time I EVER noticed that the Orthodox Church existed, because I could point to ancient Orthodoxy and say, "see, even they never picked up instruments!"

Now I feel like an idiot for not continuing on with the search back then. Of course, it all worked out, so I guess I won't beat myself up too badly.

Anyway, thanks again.

John said...

Steve and Clint,

Yes, the baptismal regeneration should be a natural hook for people in the CoC. I remember having this discussion with my wife (still CoC). She was with me when talking in terms of immersion for the remission of sins, but threw up her hands when she found out we baptize infants! The difference, I suppose, is that to the CoC what is happening is happening in the mind of the believer, whereas for the Orthodox it is a sacrament to be received from God. Actually, it was a distant uncle of mine, James E. Matthews, who first articulated the Church of Christ doctrine of “baptism for the remission of sins” in a series of articles from either 1827 or 1829, and quickly adopted by Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott and others. This became a standard CoC talking point thereafter. Anyway, I find it ironic that they think they rediscovered the concept. They also thought that they were the only ones to every come up with the idea of “restoring” the church.

The only time Orthodoxy ever entered the radar screen of a CoC class was in noting that the Greeks knew that the word baptizo meant immersion, and that they also didn’t use instrumental music. So, we referenced them when it helped our case.

Clint, in my mild rant against conversion stories, I hope I didn’t obscure what I was trying to say about yours. I included the link to your story exactly because it is the way I think it should be done.

On another note, back in your CoC preaching days, did you ever apply for a preaching job in East Texas? Your name sounds vaguely familiar.

Finally, I’m sure you remember the old CoC standby "Why I Left." For others, this is a book from the 1940s or 1950s where each chapter tells the story of someone who left one of the “denominational churches” for the “Lord’s Church.” (This is the way they used to talk in the CoC.) I figure you, s-p, and I could get the ball rolling on a version of this, only in reverse: CoCers who find Orthodoxy. I am suggesting this only half in jest—there’s a bunch of us out here (though we would have to ditch the shallow triumphalism of the original.)

Thanks again.

Clint said...

heh, heh. Yes, I remember that little book... (Why I Left).

There is a decent .pdf of a Church of Christ convert to Orthodoxy that I have somewhere. It is like 200 pages long. I will have to go dig it up and let you know see it. It addresses many of the CoC issues.

Oh, and yes, I actually worked in Marshall, Texas with a CoC for a little while. I don't think I applied anywhere else in East Texas, though.

elizabeth said...

Fascinating. I understand a bit of this mentality; it seems that a lot of Protestant Churches see themselves as the best or better than most other churches.

I agree that it takes a while to understand or see most of the reasons for one's conversion to Orthodoxy; I am coming up on my 5th anniversary of my chrismation and still feel that I am discovering the reasons for my conversion.

I have decidedly mixed feelings not about conversions stories but rather about the idea of talking about one's experience and/or of the Church with the purpose of wanting another to do as I, or another convert, has done.

I admit that my mixed feelings include the fact that the journey is hard and long and I would rather one decide to convert with this understanding, as hard as it is to get beyond the 'honeymoon glow' that hits many at first. Or perhaps I mean go through it all, including the elation that comes at first, but know that the Church still stands for our salvation after the elation fades.

s-p said...

John, Clint et al., Wise words John, that's why Bill and I never did an OLiC episode on our "conversion stories" though we've had tons of requests to do one and why I never used my blog to tell it. That said, I too really enjoyed Clint and Debbie's story, partly because I come from a strong church of Christ affiliation (I was a convert to it from Roman about a zealot after conversion...yikes. Come to think of it maybe that's why I've been reluctant to tell my story, I remember the sins of my youth. :)

Anyway, the church of Christ is quasi-sacramental already for sure. And it was Furgeson's "Acapella Music in the Church" in 1975 or so that planted a seed toward the patristics and church history that bore fruit 25 years later. Anyway, good post, John, and yes, follow the links, folks, especially those who have reluctant spouses.

Kirk said...

If the convert story addresses the subject of reluctant spouses, then I surely will have to read through the links. With all of the information about conversion to Orthodoxy available online, on AFR, in books, etc., the one topic I wish was more often addressed would be reluctant spouses.

On a tangential note, John, I find it serendipitous that you would use the term "hidebound." I just came across that word earlier today in a book I am reading, "Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath." The quote: "For more than a decade the militarist and ultranationalists who controlled Japan had subjected the society to a program of agitprop that, by 1941, had left the Nipponjin among the most parochial people on earth, as hidebound as the 'arrogant' white enemy they had been taught to hate." Interesting coincidence. Thanks.

Clint said...

Heh, yeah, my wife and I do discuss spousal reluctance. Mostly it is what NOT to do on my part...

John said...


I appreciate your wise words. I agree with your sentiments entirely.

Also, the mentality you mention may be common, but the CoC is, or used to be, in a class by themselves. They have their own vocabulary. First, they do not consider themselves Protestant, which I always found to be laughable, even from the beginning. (It is like me saying: "I'm not bald, I'm shaven." Yeah, right.) The term "the Lord's Church" means the Church of Christ and nobody else. Likewise when someone was referred to as a "member of the church." Purists refuse to capitalize the "c" in "Church." Denominations are everybody else, including the Catholics and Orthodox. They are not non-denominational, but un-denominational. And on and on it goes. You get the picture.

John said...


What took you so long?

If the narrative was "How Not to Deal with Reluctant Spouses," then I too could write a 21-part story.

Re: "hidebound," etc. I also have other interesting words. Want to hear them? Ha!

Anonymous said...

I've tried to reconstruct my own story for my own reference, to try to at least hang significant events on the hooks of a timeline so I don't forget some things. Even doing that has been an interesting exercise...

Worship was the capper for me, not the initial draw. My received Protestant theology just ran out of steam. I was looking for a truly good God, and what I found in Orthodoxy took my breath away (who God was and what He was up to and what it all Meant). I did go to a lot of vigil services, because that's where the doctrine gets expressed. I worked through some things with the help of Orthodox friends and good internet sources. By the time I showed up on the doorstep, I didn't need to read too much more. But the worship was definitely what it was all leading to.

So John, I hope I'm the exception that proves the rule :)

Dana Ames

s-p said...

Hi Dana, I'm also an exception. We started an Orthodox mission Church with a collective two Vespers and one Divine Liturgy under our belts. I basically was converted theologically and said, "Whatever I find I'll deal with it." Little did I know... but I'm still here and loving it.

Gabriel Celibataire said...

Your blog is amazing :)) Well done seriously, everybody can only learn from your thoughts :)) I like the pictures too, I can clearly imagine your trip :)

John said...

Dana and s-p,

That's the problem with making sweeping generalizations like I did. I'm just saying that from my experience, and from what I hear from most people I talk to, there was an experience with Orthodox worship or iconography which happened either initially or very early in the process--something that caused us to think "whoa, this is the real thing." Dana, I agree with your characterization that with most of us our received Protestant theology had ran out of steam, although many of us may not have realized it at the time. I have known 2 cases where people have become Orthodox and then later moved on to something else. In both cases--in my estimation-- they approached it solely from a position of historical/theological inquiry, and it never really sunk in beyond that level. So, there is a danger there. In my case, the inquiry followed close on the heels of my initial exposure to Orthodoxy. So close, in fact, that it would be foolish of me to say that the result would have been different had the order been reversed. Every story is different, isn't it? And praise God for that! One thing I have come to believe very strongly, however, is the following: in this age of slick marketing of everything, including religion, our Orthodox outreach needs to be rooted in some variation of the old "come and see" approach, for in my view, that is where it is where it all comes together.

Dana said...

True that. In my case, it was at a tiny Ukrainian Catholic parish in my town, where I would "pop in" to get my liturgy fix- (and it took me a long time to be able to venerate the icon of the Theotokos). So things were percolating over a few years; it wasn't a hasty latching on to a fad. But I couldn't return to Roman Catholicism (hi Steve, I too was raised RC). It was reading the works of N.T. Wright that opened up a different meaning of scripture- which I came to find out is about 85% the Orthodox view on things. (Wright is not all that familiar with the Fathers, but with his head constantly in the NT text and the other texts of Jesus' day, it's not surprising he comes to the same conclusions.) It finally dawned on me that the path I was on was leading to Orthodoxy, and once I began attending Liturgy I knew I was home (possibly a tired phrase, but that's how it was for me). My priest, who normally keeps catechumens 1-2 years, seemed to think I was ready after four months, and I was chrismated on Pentecost. If I could, I would be in church every day for Matins or whatever else is going on. Unfortunately, it's an hour drive one way, and my husband has been less than enthusiastic about this change. And then there's my job, too...

Well, God is good.

I'm actually with you on running counter to the slick marketing. I have no questions about the motivations of whoever was behind the recent Oklahoma City advertising thing- and it makes me uneasy at the same time. But God is good and He will bring about good things from it somehow.

I suspect we agree on the vast majority of things. As I've said to you before, I feel safe disagreeing here. That's a high compliment.

Blessings to you.

Kirk said...

John, I will agree with you--generally--about the worship thing. My initial inquiry into the EOC was theological; however, I had gone through phases in my life where I read the psalms very regularly. For months at a time I would read the Book of Psalms on a monthly cycle: five psalms per day (plus a chapter of Proverbs). Several years ago I pushed my CoC congregation to read the Psalms in the Sunday morning worship, and they did. Unfortunately, once they completed Psalms they moved onto something else. Now they just read the scripture which forms the basis for the preacher's sermon.

So anyway, with this basis in the Psalms, I already "spoke the language" of the Orthodox vespers and liturgies, and what I experienced at my initial Orthodox services was familiar. Having said that, I think one of the reasons Orthodox services seem so foreign to many is that they are not steeped in the Psalms. Perhaps before we invite someone to "Come and see" we should recommend they read through the Psalms, and then come.

John said...

Good points, Kirk (as always.) One of the greatest contrasts I have found is how steeped in the Psalms our worship is, and of course, our Christocentric view of same.

Kirk said...

Which reminds me--I need to order Patrick Henry Reardon's Christ in the Psalms.

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

(Sorry if this is a double post. I'm not sure the first one took.)

I'm cradle Church of Christ, now experiencing very strong pulls toward Orthodoxy. I've really enjoyed your blog over the last few months, though I think this is the first time I've commented.

I think you're right on the money with the fundamental irony of the Church of Christ, that is, how do you establish a tradition that is a-historical and a-traditional? The answer, as it seems to me, is that you experience dramatic changes in practice and understanding with each generation, without even realizing it. The story of the 20th century in Churches of Christ is a story of dropping distinctive markers every decade or so, with the result being a completely unnoticed yet relentless progress toward the generic American evangelical community church. (Though, to be fair, such a thing did not exist until recent decades.) One of the last distinctive markers, acapella worship, is now starting to fall away in earnest in the "progressive" mainline congregations. (Many others are just waiting for a few people to die.) Baptismal regeneration will no doubt be next, so that we can make friends with the Baptists. Such congregations and their leaders are decried quite loudly by the various publications (I'm sure you remember those), but again, the irony is that, by discarding what they see to be a mere human tradition in light of their completely rational reading of scripture, the progressive congregations are the most fully engaging in what it means to be a Church of Christ.

I appreciate the Orthodox position that, while the faculty of reason is not useless, it is just as fallen as our emotions, and ultimately just as untrustworthy. I hope to write a post about that soon.

John said...

JM, I agree with your comments completely. I saw the same thing happening before I left, and I'm sure the trend is continuing apace. The problem with the CoC is that the center didn't hold. On one side you have what I call the Circle-the-wagons mentality--the only problem being the circle keeps getting smaller and smaller. One the other end of the spectrum are the progressives who are headed full-steam towards community churchdom, jettisoning anything off a distnctive nature. But in so doing they are eliminating any real reason to be a member of the CoC, as opposed to any other group. These problems, however, are systemic to such a group. Would love to discuss this further with you, but am traveling right now and doing this by iPhone, which limits my responses. Feel free to email me privately at the address listed on homepage. Best, John.

The Ochlophobist said...

The ochlophobist in me would be inclined to chuckle at the fact that the "convert story" post is so popular a thread!

Actually, I do enjoy reading about Church of Christ things, because it is so far off the radar of the Christian world I grew up in (poor Baptists and poor Holiness and poor Nazarenes) and I find the theological ephemera intriguing - Campbellites were just not really present where I grew up. When I first encountered someone from the Church of Christ who explained to me their religious childhood, I thought it sounded like a soft version of a cult, but then again, that girl was a bit bitter about it all....

John said...


I am enjoying the popularity of this particular post, as well. I’m not sure why, but the Church of Christ was never popular in Appalachia, or even many parts of the Deep South, for that matter. It was definitely an upper South/Midwest movement, that found a second home in Texas/Oklahoma. To someone not familiar with the territory, I can see how they could appear cultic. At least that is how it used to be. In the old days they were accused of believing they were the only going to heaven (though even the most knot-headed of the bunch would allow for the stray Baptist here or there making the cut—I exaggerate, but not much.) We always took offense at this charge, but if you listened to the preaching, as well as the language of members themselves, then the accusation was not unjust. I remember my dad joking about his grandmother who always pronounced it “THE Church.” But things have changed, as JM notes in his comments. While there are some circle-the-wagons true believers (my old congregation, for instance), many of the congregations have rejected the distinctive aspects of their heritage--a bit sheepish, I think, about the old harsh rhetoric. Quite a few have even ditched the name, Church of Christ. That said, few have seriously engaged the presuppositions underlying the old attitudes, or exactly what they intend to replace them with. So, with one foot in the community church mold and the other in what’s left of a restorationist tradition, it is not hard to see which one will win out.

Writing about this has reminded my of one of my favorite Church of Christ stories. After the end of World War II, my uncle was stationed somewhere in the Northeast. There, he met and married a stunning Polish Catholic girl from Buffalo. In due time, he brought her to the Texas Hill Country to meet his staunch Church of Christ grandmother and aunts. By the time they arrived, he had finally convinced her not to light up a cigarette in front of the old ladies. Even though his grandmother dipped snuff herself, he knew they would be deeply scandalized by such behavior. They were sitting in my aunt's house, showing the wedding album to the 3 women. A couple of pages into it, my great-grandmohter looked a little troubled and asked, "what church were you married in?" My uncle's bride piped up, "St. Bartholomew's Catholic Church." Upon receiving that information, my great-grandmother slammed the wedding album shut and would not look at another picture. My uncle's wife thought, "Oh, to hell with it," and reached into her purse and fired-up a cigarette.

s-p said...

Great story, John! I may have to post some stories from my church of Christ days on my blog. I basically taught my way out of the CofC once I got the idea that even "speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where it is silent" led to schisms within the fellowship that believed the same hermenuetic. Once you go there, the door is open and the dogs are out. The problem is you realize that going to another "sola scriptura" tradition is the same dead end, so you either just shelf your opinions and say "everyone is OK" or you have to convince yourself that SOMEONE out there has "IT"... but will you know "it" if you see it, and if so, why didn't I think of it if I have to tools to recognize it? Makes my head spin just rethinking about it now.

Kirk said...

Did you say you were waiting for the twenty-fifth comment before you posted the next installment of your Reflections of a Road Trip?

John said...

Kirk, you have hit upon the obvious: CoC-bashing is easy, pulling together thoughts on my road trip is hard. Don't despair, more is on the way.