“A Tale of Two Families”
A review of
Conversions: Two Family Stories
From the Reformation
and Modern America.
by Craig Harline.
Review by Timothy Morriss.
Conversion involves radical change and stories of conversion, whether Augustine’s dramatic courtyard experience or a simple testimony delivered during a church service, are common markers of Christian identity. This is especially true for evangelical Christians who focus intensely on the individual conversion experience as a marker of entrance into the faith. But conversion narratives do not exist for evangelicals alone. BYU historian Craig Harline’s book offers two stories of conversions away from Protestantism, and of the relationships these conversions establish and disrupt.
Harline is a cultural historian of Reformation Europe whose books handle historical detail in a distinctive narrative form. His works on the role of miracles, seventeenth century convent life, and the daily life of a Flemish bishop, take mundane sources and make them read almost like novels. It can be jarring at first as you wonder how he might know these particular details of a character’s thought process, but as a reader you do come to trust his judgments, not entirely uncritically, but assured by the coherent story and the significant time Harline has spent researching in hot and dusty archives across Europe. In Conversions, he offers the testimony of two converts, a Dutch one from the late Reformation era and an American one from the 1970s. But these are not just stories of individual conversion, but also the stories of the families who are left to cope with conversions away from historical family identities.
|A Brief Review of
Reviewed by Zena Neds-Fox.
Renee Wilkinson’s Modern Homestead: Grow, Raise, Create offers above all a spirit of accessibility. Around my urban setting of Detroit I’ve watched many a bearded soul roll up their sleeves, dig in, and turn over hard ground. I’ve looked from afar as raised beds go up, and wild flowers border good food grown by good communities – and I will admit it, I feel a little unwelcome. I think it’s partly my own fault. It just seems like a lot of hard work. But when I get over my laziness and make a few phone calls to the green movements looking for volunteers, I kind of don’t feel cool enough.
The older story concerns Jacobus Rolandus, son and grandson of Dutch Reformed ministers, and begins with his escape from his father’s household. He is twenty-one years old and he wishes to begin a new life as a Catholic. He will eventually train as a Jesuit and serve as a missionary in Brazil. His story is reconstructed primarily from a coded journal, letters, and Jesuit records. The modern story involves Michael Sunbloom who makes two conversions in 1970s California. The first conversion is from his parent’s evangelical faith to Mormonism, and the second from Mormonism to a gay identity.
Harline relates these stories in alternating chapters and they read simply and without elaborate historical background. Just enough is shown to offer context. Jacob’s conversion began with his father’s trials as a Reformed minister and was encouraged by Catholic friends in the Catholic town his father was finally posted in as a sort of missionary. Because he is shy of his majority, which is only reached at twenty-five, he must run away from his family if he wishes to live as a Catholic. After his escape to the Spanish Netherlands, Jacob exchanges letters with his sister Maria, but eventually, despite their mutual affection, the letter writing breaks off amid doctrinal arguments and confessional name calling. He will never see his family again and will die upon arrival in Africa after years of missionary service in Brazil.
The modern story reads closer to a journalistic account and is one that Harline has participated in because Michael is his friend. Michael converted to Mormonism as a young teacher looking for friendship and connection after party days in college. He found the new faith in some ways familiar to his evangelical upbringing as well as appealing in its doctrinal distinctiveness. His personality and creativity made him a leader in his local Mormon Young Adult group, but he also slowly began to realize a different identity as he attempted to fully settle into the marriage and family-centered Mormon faith. Eventually, after years of trying to understand himself, he left home in California for a new life with a gay partner in Switzerland. His parents had not accepted his Mormon conversion and he kept his sexuality a secret from them. But eventually someone else let the secret slip and after considerable anger and alienation, his parents became reconciled to their son and his sexual identity.
These conversion stories include anguished soul searching, but offer no treading down the evangelical sawdust trail. Instead both Jacob and Michael follow more complicated paths seeking connection, community, and personal identity. Each convert undertakes study, both for themselves, and in order to offer a defense of their decisions against considerable family criticism. We hear Catholic criticisms of the Reformed (and vice versa), Mormon doctrinal distinctions, and 1970s psychological and religious arguments about gay identity. These are not the highlights of the text. Instead the highlights are in the family interchanges, where personal testimony is central.
In the Reformation story reconciliation never comes and Jacob leaves his family and eventually Europe to serve the Jesuit order. Michael’s parents never accepted his first, Mormon, conversion, but he remained nearby and available to them. His gay identity took him to Europe and, in part, his parent’s reconciliation with him came out of their desire to maintain a relationship with their son. They continued to attend a conservative Pentecostal church, and never abandoned its general doctrines, but their position on homosexuality altered over time to fit their son’s experience. In part the story includes their conversion as well.
Harline offers the two stories in parallel and it is difficult not to see in this format a didactic tale of progress and improvement over time. Where the Dutch story from the 1650s offers doctrinal intransigence that separates family, Michael’s story offers the hope of change and reconciliation. In this account preservation of family ties is of utmost importance and it can only be accomplished via toleration that privileges family love over any other identity. If the conclusion is not a simplistic call for tolerance, weighted as it is with history and sociology, it is also not a subtle one either. Harline notes in the book’s postscript that the story’s wisdom had helped others in its telling in a way that was different from his “25 years as a historian [where he] had never had much of anything practical to tell anyone.” That seems a sad commentary on the value of history and I would affirm to Harline that I have learned much that is insightful, and even practical, about religious community and identity in the testimony of his other books.