Paying Attention to What’s Behind the Conversion Curtain

Even in its most secular sectors, our modern society is somewhat conversion crazed. To begin with, there’s a veritable industry of documentary films designed to convert viewers to veganism. One of them—2011’s Vegucated—even centers around the filmmaker trying to convert three “meat-and-cheese-loving New Yorkers” right there on the screen before your very eyes. The film’s website features a “Where are they now?” section, documenting the more-or-less permanent transformation all three individuals made as a result of their participation in the project. The wider diet, yoga, and mindfulness/meditation industries all push similar fundamental shifts in daily attitude and action for physical health and mental wellbeing that have fully converted devotees eager to share the good news like any old school evangelist. The self-help industry, specializing in personal transformation, is an absolute behemoth in this country these days. And growing up, I saw a slew of daytime talk shows featuring inspiring stories of former neo-Nazis, KKK members, and other racist types who had a change of heart, realized the errors of their hateful ways, and repented of former lives in favor of more liberal attitudes toward their fellow human beings.

I may be preaching to the already converted here, but we need to have a conversation about all this raging repentance and how it gets used in both religious and secular spheres for personal and group benefit. As cops take a knee among protestors exercised over police violence against people of color, Republican politician Mitt Romney marches in anti-racism demonstrations, and large companies from Apple to Amazon and beyond put up prominent messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on the splash pages of their apps and websites, it seems an appropriate moment to talk about how conversion can serve as a powerful tool of convenience and even a method of seizing leadership and creating solidarity around oneself.    

Consider, for example, the way famous religious conversion stories like those of “tattooed Mormon” Al Fox Carraway and even the Apostle Paul (Galatians 1:11-24; 1 Corinthians 15:3-11; Acts 9:8-9; 22:11) abound in a curious double-edge to which portrayals of the converts’ former, wayward lives are honed. 

On the one hand, the converts reject their former selves. Fox Carraway, for instance, claims she “absolutely hate[s]” the nickname she coined for herself and wishes she could shake it. In the eleventh chapter of her 2015 book More than the Tattooed Mormon, she equates her ink to “past mistakes, habits, or wrongdoings” that she (and those who follow her) should strive to “move past.”  She writes: “Calling me the tattooed Mormon is hardly any different than calling someone the ‘used-to-smoke Mormon’ or the ‘used-to-look-at-pornography Mormon.’” 

On the other hand, those very rejected former selves constitute an integral and important part of these converts’ personal narratives which they constantly dredge up and use as rhetorical tools. Continually recounting the details of their former mistakes to others, especially those within the in-crowd, only serves to bolster converts’ claims to personal transformation, claims which they can then use as rhetorical leverage to increase their ideological authority and create solidarity around themselves and their leadership. As Paul narrates in Galatians 1:21-24, when he went into Syria and Cilicia “unknown by sight” but preceded by rumors that “[t]he one who formerly was persecuting [Christians] is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy,” those to whom he came to preach, in his words, “glorified God because of me.” 

Back in the secular world, think of all those old Subway commercials featuring Jared Fogle and the famous sixty-two-inch-waist pants he was always trotting out and putting on prominent display. If he could shed those monsters like a sagging snake skin, we were all encouraged to believe, surely we who are only a few pounds overweight can achieve similar lasting transformation through personal repentance and better choices. A 2008 campaign launched by Subway to continue to pitch the alleged health benefits of their fare over traditional fast food even got the punny moniker “Tour de Pants.” Afterwards, Jared was planning on donating the trousers célèbres to a museum! This was all before his arrest and guilty plea on charges of child pornography and sex crimes, that is. 

Following sentencing, though, Fogle continued to ply the conversion schtick, tearfully confessing to the judge that he wanted to become a “good, honest person” and saying that he had gotten caught up in “deception, lies and complete self-centeredness.” In the end he pleaded simply: “I want to redeem my life.” Turns out his adult life was one long, lucrative act of redemption in the literal sense of getting gain for professional repentance and conversion. It worked well, too, until he had finally spent all his social capital and could no longer leverage the power of continual conversion among a public favorably disposed to believing in and accepting him.   

In this first of a two-part post, I examine the Biblical origins of a conversion-convenience connection, tracing how the language and imagery invoked by Jesus in urging repentance and conversion emphasizes timeliness and personal benefit. Perhaps not all converts are suspect, but conversion itself has a long historical connection both within the Christian tradition and in its Greco-Roman-influenced past to pragmatic functions for groups and individuals, functions which usually savor more of earthly advantage than spiritual or even intellectual rewards. 

If you are ready to repent of your past incomprehension and come into the light of a fuller understanding of the opportunistic origins and nature of conversion and conversion narratives, click here to hear the good news.            

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