The wonder (and scandal) of conversion

Of course, as the second half of the article notes, conversion is not always so easy — as the passage of recent anti-conversion laws (and an uptick in persecution) in many regions of India make clear. I’ve always found it interesting how the English-language press in India invariably uses the passive voice to describe it — “he was converted to Christianity” — rather than the perky individualist western-style active: “he converted.” One can find echoes to this in different attitudes towards western-individualist choises about marriage, career, etc.

Sometimes conversion is gradual, but quite commonly things come to a head in a single instant, which can be triggered by a text, an image, a ceremony or some private realisation. A religious person would call such a moment a summons from God; a psychologist might speak of an instant when the walls between the conscious and unconscious break down, perhaps because an external stimulus—words, a picture, a rite—connects with something very deep inside.

For people of an artistic bent, the catalyst is often a religious image which serves as a window into a new reality. One recurring theme in conversion stories is that cultural forms which are, on the face of it, foreign to the convert somehow feel familiar, like a homecoming. That, the convert feels, “is what I have always believed without being fully aware of it.”

Take Jennie Baker, an ethnic Chinese nurse who moved from Malaysia to England. She was an evangelical, practising but not quite satisfied with a Christianity that eschews aids to worship such as pictures, incense or elaborate rites. When she first walked into an Orthodox church, and took in the icons that occupied every inch of wall-space, everything in this “new” world made sense to her, and some teachings, like the idea that every home should have a corner for icons and prayer, resonated with her Asian heritage. Soon she and her English husband helped establish a Greek Orthodox parish in Lancashire.

from “The moment of truth,” The Economist, 24 July 2008

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