Anxiety And The Terminology Of Conversion

Apart from the sneaky insinuation inherent in the word “really”, the new convert will meet many other sources of doubt about the his conversion. All the terminologies used to describe conversion open the door to retrospective doubt as to the quality or reality of that conversion, but some open it much wider than others.

Labels like “join the church”, “start going to church” and so on are very safe, as it is an easily ascertainable fact whether one attends services. But only so-called “Nominal Christians” content themselves with “going to church”. If the convert persists in denoting the beginning of his Christian life in this language, he will be quickly rebuked and asked whether or not he has Made a Commitment, Given His Life to Christ and so on. Phrases involving the word “Decision” are also fairly factual. Most people can put a date to some sort of decision, and the “always-believing” can be made to give an expression of their faith in the de rigeur datable form, as for instance the day they stood up and delivered a Testimony. To conform to the evangelical preference for a definite event in time, all but the most secure or obstinate will sooner or later see to the production of the datable event, whereupon the subtle or not-so-subtle pressures may cease.

One of the most common phrases, for once actually appearing the scriptures, is “being born again”. Like Making a Decision, it indicates a definite datable event. A Decision sounds cool and unspectacular, whereas Rebirth sounds emotional (and indeed there is a psychotherapy called Rebirthing, which we have the impression involves a lot of screaming). There is, perhaps, no reason in formal doctrine why a new birth must be emotional, but the everyday discourse tends to be a prisoner of the metaphor. How can being born all over again be undramatic or unemotional? The metaphor can also be used to make us expect a drastic change in the person’s life at once; after all, it is not the same life, is it?

With the language of “Commitment” the situation for the convert becomes even more fraught. It is fairly difficult to doubt a Decision, for it was made and here you are in church as a result. The language of the New Birth can give some latitude, for the convert is encouraged to see himself as being as yet only a baby. “Commitment”, however, may be made or expressed many times – and might have to be, if the first time was not good enough. That is, not sincere, heartfelt, deep enough. The permanent question facing the new convert is therefore to wonder whether the unsatisfactory state of his Christian life is the result of inadequate depth in his Commitment. If he sees commitment as something continuous and growing, this does no harm. If, however, he relates it to his original conversion and this conversion was not particularly emotional, he may feel himself obliged to manufacture another, “better”, more passionate Commitment-as-Event. What the discourse of some subcultures in fact requires is a hysterical breakdown in public. For the spectators, this provides excitement and makes them feel they have achieved something. It is therefore rewarded.

If the self-doubting new convert has no talent for histrionics, he may feel himself at a permanent disadvantage, having started his Christian life off on the wrong foot. Watching others Come to the Lord in tears and exaltation, he will not be able to prevent himself comparing notes. He may easily get hung up on the popular verses from Ezekiel about the “heart of stone” contra “heart of flesh”, associating the cardiac transplant operation with the emotional conversion event. And what is his heart anyway? He may have given his heart as best he can, but was it really his heart, the very, very bottom of his heart, or just the surface?

Some subcultures will actually encourage him in this confusion of conversion and sanctification, indicating that his spiritual weakness comes from not having been properly, really converted. There may be quite definite criteria for how this should be done. No steps should be omitted. Sometimes there has to be a written account of these steps – “Where is your Testimony, brother?” In other subcultures the new convert will be brought up sharp for trying to talk about a “proper” conversion, and told that he is saved and that’s that. But the sense of a false start may persist; and so in order to feel that he has got properly embarked and to lift himself into a state in which he can jump about excitedly like the Others, the new convert will continue to work on his “reconversion” – but under another name.

This other name will probably be Recommitment, Being Prayed For, or the Second Blessing – on which more below. Most churches have rituals along these lines, to which people can go for a public reaffirmation, or an emotional boost – or to try once more for a really, finally satisfactory conversion experience.

Meanwhile, the concentration on the initial experience may encourage the naturally self-approving man to complacency; he is Elect and it will not occur to him to poke holes in such a good thing. He may make full use of what can be an implied permission to look down on those who are not Elect, which is generally the main motor of evangelical religion.

Posted on January 6, 2010 at 08:58 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, The Soulbusters

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