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The Literature of Conversion

Over at the blog of his publisher Tin House this morning, the novelist Christopher R. Beha recommends six books on conversion to Roman Catholicism, the subject of his novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder. In my review, I had observed that Beha’s superb first novel “includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair.” I was happy to see, then, not only that Graham Greene’s 1951 novel made the list, but also that Beha acknowledges that it “significantly influenced What Happened to Sophie Wilder.” It is not often that a critic’s guess is so authoritatively proven right!

One other book mentioned in What Happened to Sophie Wilder also makes it onto Beha’s list — Thomas Merton’s 1948 autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. This is the book, Beha notes, that “sets Sophie along the path to her conversion.” More significantly, though, it articulates what Beha calls the “common theme” of Catholic novelists: how to “reconcil[e] faith with the demands of the modern world.”

I’d submit that this is not a difficulty that faces Catholics and Catholic novelists alone. It is the difficulty of being religious. Perhaps the difficulty is more glaring, more uncomfortable, for converts than for those who are raised within a faith. (Orthodox Jews refer to the two classes as BT’s, for baalei teshuvah or converts, and FFB’s — those who have been frum [religious] from birth. Too bad Christianity doesn’t have a similar nomenclature.) But it is not this difficulty, in itself, that makes the experience of conversion so inviting a subject for good writers.

Adding to Beha’s list would be easy, especially if it were expanded to include Protestants and Jews. To my mind, the best accounts of conversion ever written belong to John Donne:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday,
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour I can myself sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

Although I am a stranger to Donne’s religious vocabulary (I am often tempted, but not by God’s “old subtle foe”), I admire how beautifully Donne has dramatized the extent of the transformation in a person’s life that is wrought by conversion: behind, before, above, no matter where he looks, the religious person finds the meaning of everything has been transfigured.

William James’s chapters on conversion are the weakest in The Varieties of Religious Experience. James sounds like Rielle Hunter on the subject. Conversion, he says, changes “the habitual center of [a man’s] personal energy”:

It makes a great difference to a man whether one set of his ideas, or another, be the center of his energy; and it makes a great difference, as regards any set of ideas which he may possess, whether they become central or remain peripheral in him. To say that a man is “converted” means, in these terms, that religious ideas, previously peripheral in his consciousness, now take a central place, and that religious aims form the habitual center of his energy.

What James leaves out of account is God (“Only thou art above”). What he gets right is the importance of ideas. In his novel, Beha was also very good on this aspect of conversion, which usually goes unremarked. After Sophie reads The Seven Storey Mountain while a guest in a Catholic home, she discovers an entire literature — a subterranean literature for someone like her who was raised on the Western literary canon — a self-contained literature with its own rules and conventions, its own strategies and expectations, its own classics and commercial hacks. Beha grasps what few outsiders to religion understand: conversion also changes a person’s reading habits. Rilke gives way to Ratzinger, or Hemingway to the Hafetz Hayim.

A special subgenre of the literature is reserved for narratives about conversion to Judaism. The best-known title is Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, in which “After Passover, he [Frank Alpine] became a Jew.” The autobiography of the Holocaust scholar David Patterson, who converted at the age of 42 (“Or perhaps it would be better to say that I stepped across a threshold leading to the path toward becoming a Jew”), is remarkably moving. It’s called Pilgrimage of a Proselyte.

Younger Jewish writers have begun to explore a more uniquely Jewish phenomenon — the experience of “return to Orthodoxy” (as it’s called, even when the Jew who “returns” was never Orthodox to begin with). In The World Without You, his recent saga of a secular liberal Jewish family, Joshua Henkin includes one daughter who has become a baalat teshuvah, a “born-again” Jew. She is also, not surprisingly, the only one of the three daughters with children. The single best account of the Jewish “return,” though, is Zoë Heller’s astounding and under-valued novel The Believers. Anyone who loved Christopher Beha’s first novel should read Heller’s immediately afterwards — for a rich appreciation of the differences in religious conversion, and in writing about it.

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