Last year, my publisher Ignatius Press took a risk in publishing not one, but two personal conversion stories* - Something Other Than God by Jennifer Fulwiler and Not God's Type by Holly Ordway. One reason this was risky is that conversion stories are an iffy genre. Sometimes the “story” takes a back seat to the “conversion”, and they end up as poorly written tales. Or they can be ponderous, too heavy to enjoy, or cloying and syrupy.
Fortunately, these books avoided these pitfalls. Though the authors write from different backgrounds, they're both able storytellers who produce exceptionally readable works in their own distinctive styles. Both begin from total atheism, but Jen Fulwiler's tale traverses ground that may be more familiar to most readers, involving family, career, and the like. Holly Ordway's account involves academia and fencing competition(!). But far from being heavy or syrupy, they both go down like a pint of Strongbow – dry, crisp, and refreshing.
Dr. Ordway's book pulled me in from the first pages. Her youth sounded so much like mine that I felt I'd found a soul sister. I, too, was a nerdy, solitary youngster who retreated into literary worlds. I sojourned with Mole and Rat, as well as Mowgli and Bagheera (who Dr. Ordway doesn't mention, but I'd be surprised if she didn't visit them occasionally), and – of course – Narnia, as well as Middle Earth in time (high school years for me). So though our external life circumstances differed, I felt like we were citizens of the same literary countries.
One thing that especially appealed to me from Dr. Ordway's account was that she valued honesty over comfort – a stand that, ironically, would come back to bite her as the Hound of Heaven drew nearer. But in her early adulthood she considered Christianity irrelevant not primarily out of scorn or disdain, but from a desire to be honest, and not hunt for what she perceived as an “easy out” from the difficulties of life. This made me stop and ponder. My faith history has exposed me to rigorous Christian thinkers like Lewis, Schaeffer, and Kreeft, but that's unusual even for a Catholic. I need to remember that some who reject Christianity are working from the best position they can muster given what they know – sometimes at great personal cost. Such understanding doesn't come easily to me. I'm more likely to bristle defensively or withdraw from someone who is firm in their unbelief, rather than try to engage them honestly.
One example of one who managed this type of engagement well was Holly's fencing coach Josh. The sturdy Bardia of this face-seeking tale, Josh was a committed Christian who was also committed to excellence in his craft. He meets his student Holly in honesty and mutual respect – even though he probably quickly discerned that she didn't respect his faith. He didn't withhold acceptance from her, nor did he make his dealings with her predicated upon her changing to suit him. He responded to her intellectual and moral integrity with integrity of his own. Above all, he was patient. He related to her as a person, not as an evangelization project. He trusted to God to work in His way and His time, knowing that even He respected Holly's choices.
This was very helpful to me, and an example I will probably return to ponder again and again. In my impatience, I am far too prone to want to see observable (by me) “progress” when I'm trying to help someone toward or in the Faith. Josh's example of being a helpful and available friend reminds me that when it comes to the Gospel, we are the message – not so much our arguments or answers or persuasiveness, but our relating to everyone we meet with dignity and respect (not that arguments and answers don't have their place.) Some might say that Josh “brought Holly to Christ”, but I suspect he wouldn't put it that way. He was simply responding to honesty with honesty, and integrity with integrity, answering her questions and letting the Holy Spirit do the bringing.
In one sense, the story has a “happy ending”, with Holly coming not just to Christ but all the way home to the Catholic Church. But before we Catholics get all triumphalist about this, we need to honestly consider the implications of a conversion such as this. Here is a woman who traveled an unusual road at great personal cost. Certainly there is room in the Church for her – but would there be a place in the average parish? Given her history, parish life would be an alien environment. Expecting her to “find her niche” amidst the usual array of parish offerings would be wasteful of her talents and insensitive to her needs. How would one respond to such passionate integrity and truth-seeking? With a place on the Funeral Luncheon Committee? These are questions we need to grapple with if we're serious about reaching the dark and broken culture around us with the light of Christ. If we're wise, we'll listen carefully to people like Holly Ordway regarding how to welcome passionate converts.
Above all, I found Not God's Type to be both challenging and refreshing. I recommend it highly, not just as a good personal story but as an instructive tale for anyone who takes the New Evangelism seriously. Holly took a risk herself, laying bare some of the most personal details of her life, but it is the reader who reaps the benefits. Travel beside her as she discovers to her delight that she, too, is Psyche.
*They also took a risk publishing my book, but that was a different sort of risk.