Tin House

Correspondent’s Course: Books About Conversion

Christopher Beha’s debut novel, What Happened To Sophie Wilder, is in bookstores now, and already receiving rave reviews (such as this one). Sophie should already have secured a spot on your summer reading list, but Christopher’s here with a couple more volumes worth your time.

The title character of my novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, is a young writer who converts to Catholicism. This may seem to some readers like an odd thing for a young writer to do. It certainly seems that way to the book’s narrator, Charlie, who knew and loved Sophie before her conversion. But throughout the modern era the literary convert to Catholicism has been a common enough figure to represent a recognizable type, and a substantial literature has built up around this type.

Of course, the archetypal religious conversion in the Western tradition occurred in the open air, without a book in sight. Saul of Tarsus, one of the most energetic persecutors of the early Christians, set out for the synagogues of Damascus with the hope of rooting out heretical Jews who “belonged to the Way,” so that he could bring them back as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared the city, he saw a bright light flash from heaven and heard the words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The experience left Saul briefly blind, but after the scales fell from his eyes he became Paul the Apostle, the greatest proselytizer in the Church’s history.

Once he had converted, Paul’s primary mechanism for spreading the faith was literary—specifically, the letters to various far-flung communities of believers that remain among the central documents of Christianity. And we wouldn’t even know about the original “road to Damascus” moment had it not been preserved in another document of the early Church, the Acts of the Apostles. The process of conversion has been a common topic for literary treatment ever since. What follows are some literary depictions of conversion, some of which are mentioned explicitly in my novel, others not, but books that a “literary convert” such as Sophie would likely have read along the way.

Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

After St. Paul, Augustine may be the most significant convert in the Church’s history. In many ways hisConfessions created a template that conversion narratives have been following ever since. It’s all there: a wild youth, a worried mother, years of intellectual and spiritual searching. Within the heart of the archetypal convert the desire for sensual pleasure is at war with the knowledge that such pleasure won’t finally satisfy, and this war was best summarized by Augustine’s famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” When Augustine did finally give up the worldly life, it was through books: in a moment of particular torment he heard a child’s voice telling him, “Take up and read” (“Tolle, lege”) and he opened the Gospels. Finally, it’s what he did after he took up and read that makes him the exemplary literary convert: he wrote this book, the first autobiography in modern history.


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