I really enjoy a good Christian conversion story. Is there anything as miraculous as an adult who changes his mind? As someone who has been a believer since childhood, I am intrigued by the forces that prompt an adult who is adamant in his unbelief to come to a full stop and turn and go back the other way—that is, to repent.
As much as we Christians try to marshal arguments in favor of Christianity in the hopes of persuading our skeptical friends and family, it seems that intellectual arguments are not usually the deciding factor in many conversions. It is in many ways the arguments of the heart—a desire for love and acceptance or the astonishing tug of beauty that draws us to Him.
C.S. Lewis’ Conversion
Of course one of the most quoted conversion stories is C.S. Lewis’ beginning journey toward faith on the way to the zoo in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Lewis’s imagination had always been tinged with nostalgia for beauty that was never quite attainable—that sense of “joy” he spoke of. It may have been his sad childhood and horrific experiences in WWI that made him decide there was no God. Yet when his Christian friends presented the story in terms that called to his longing for this joy, he was drawn to it and to the beauty of the myth that was true.
Francis Collins’ Conversion
Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and through it found a way to reconcile his intellectual reservations with his spiritual longing. Yet, it was not intellectualism that attracted him to Christianity but rather the quiet faith of the dying Christians he saw in his work as a doctor. His book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief spends only a little time discussing his conversion from atheism to belief. The bulk of the book is dedicated to making intellectual arguments for faith. He takes on evolution and DNA and moral law. While you may not agree with his conclusions, Collins is a man whose the reasoning deserves our review. His book may convince non-believers but it probably will do more to bolster the faith of Christians struggling with doubt. Christians are many times characterized as no-nothing boobs, so it’s nice to read about a man who knows a thing or two and still believes in Christ.
Peter Hitchens’ Yes and Christopher’s No
The book The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith is interesting if for no other reason it was written by the brother of the man who wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. While Christopher Hitchens raged against religion to the end of his life, his brother Peter who had also cast off belief found himself slowly drawn back to it. Peter Hitchens is a journalist and still writes for a British newspaper. His book recounts his early life, his socialistic political leanings, and his rejection of the Anglican Christianity he was raised with. He charts his slow return to the faith of childhood, and it echoes Lewis’ own longing for joy. Says Hitchens,
Two of the arts—architecture and music—move more than any others, not because I know a great deal about them, but because I can feel their influence upon me, almost as if they were speaking to me. I am particularly fond of Philip Larkin’s line about ‘The trees are coming into lead, like something almost being said,’ because this feeling that something is almost but not quite being said seizes me when I encounter certain passages of music and certain buildings.
But the awakening came when he went to the French town of Beaune and viewed the polyptych “The Last Judgment” by Rogier van der Weyden. When he sees the faces of the damned he realizes they are just like he.
But I had a sudden, strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. A large catalog of misdeeds, ranging from the embarrassing to the appalling, replayed themselves rapidly in my head. I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned.
Upon returning to the church, Hitchens finds it much changed for the worse,
The new denatured, committee-designed prayers and services were not just ugly, but contained a different message, which was not strong enough or hard enough to satisfy my need to atone.
Hitchens recounts his reacquaintance with the church and spends the last half of the book offering arguments against communism and atheism. Toward the end of the book he talks a little about his relationship with his more famous brother (not a good one).
Christopher Hitchens most definitely did not convert. He wrote one of a spate of books touting the triumph of atheism. When he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he defiantly proclaimed there would be no deathbed repentance. He did engage in several debates with well known Christians and seems to have found a new friend in Douglas Wilson, one of his debating partners. There is online video of the debate as well as a series of articles written by the two published by Christianity Today. While the arguments tend toward the well trod ground of accusations of Christianity’s irrationality and cruelty, Hitchens reveals a few vulnerabilities that speak of his own longing for connection and love. Alas, he did not find that ultimate connection to his maker in this life. His was the conversion story that might have been.