I recently got around to finishing my good friend Alice’s first novel: From All False Doctrine. To say the book is aimed at a niche market would be something of an understatement. How many novels can tell the love story of an aspiring classics scholar and an Anglo-Catholic cleric, set in 1920s Toronto with a healthy dose of Satanic cults thrown into the mix? It’s fair to say, though, that I am certainly part of this niche demographic. I found the story and the characters absolutely delightful and the central mystery compelling. To quote Leeman’s altar ego, the book is a perfect blend of whimsey and macabre. I highly recommend checking it out!
If excessively likeable characters and obscure liturgical references aren’t enough for you, it’s worth noting that the story also serves as a particularly compelling exploration of the process of conversion. Through the course of the novel, Elsa Norqvist, our scholarly protagonist, finds herself drawn from her comfortable agnosticism into the complex and unsettling world of personal faith. I do not want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say Elsa’s journey offers a necessary challenge to the persistent notion that conversions (especially spiritual conversions) happen in a dramatic moment of epiphany or revelation. Instead, Elsa finds her spiritual growth happens almost imperceptibly. It’s not clear at what point she shifts from “skeptic” to “believer” on the Christian spectrum. What is clear, however, is her conversion does not happen in a vacuum. It is relational — born out of her experience of the church and her relationship with those in it, most especially her love interest the Reverend Kit Underhill.
Perhaps Elsa’s journey resonated with me at this particularly moment because current events have me pondering the conversions I have experienced in my own life and faith. Obviously, my most profound conversion occurred in my movement towards a sacramental expression of Christianity from my Evangelical upbringing, a journey which itself took nearly a decade to occur. But I have also been pondering other, more specific “conversions” I have experienced and noting that what connects them all is that they are birthed not wholly in reason or arguments or debate–but in relationship and community.
Take for example the current explosion of media attention calling for the removal of the confederate flag from southern state flags and statehouse grounds in the wake of the Charleston massacre. I can remember winning a number of speech competitions in high school advocating for the presence of that rebel flag on government buildings in my home state of South Carolina. And yet now I join with those crying out for southern legislatures to make this one powerful (if still largely symbolic) gesture to oppose systemic racism. It may not seem like a huge shift in perspective, at least to those not born south of the Mason-Dixon line. In reality, though, changing my views on the use of that flag reflects a long journey, and a journey that was not only about intellectual or rational arguments. Trust me, high school Rachel was fully aware that modern use of the flag dated back to the KKK and pro-segregationists. And while those arguments are true and compelling, it was ultimately learning to listen to others, primarily those for whom the Stars and Bars can only be a sign of terrorism and oppression, that got me to realize “southern pride” is a pretty hollow reason to keep that piece of cloth flying today.
Coming to support the removal a pretty much universally acknowledged racist symbol might seem like a relatively small matter, and one which any person in their right mind should accept. Yet it is indicative of how so many conversions have happened in my life. I don’t know exactly when I became an Anglican, or for that matter when I became a Christian. I don’t know when I finally became convinced that LGBT Christians must have full inclusion in the life of the church. But I do know these changes took place gradually and as a result of theological reflection and, perhaps more importantly, lived relationships with my fellow Christians.
Growing up as I did in a church that valued “born again” experiences, I often had tremendous anxiety over never having moments of conversion to point to as assurance of my “salvation.” I appreciate a story like From All False Doctrine for reminding me that, with notable exceptions like St Paul on the road to Damascus or St Augustine in the garden, most of us do not experience epiphanies that radically change our worldviews in a single moment. Instead, we fumble along, seeing to best comprehend the mystery of God nourished by our own experience of Christ’s presence in our lives. We grow, and we change. By God’s grace we may end up far from where we started. But the journey often happens in many imperceptible steps, rarely in dramatic leaps and bounds. The Holy Spirit is very sneaky like that.