Yesterday on a berry-picking outing with my two youngest, I got to chatting with another mom who I knew was Catholic. I asked her which parish she attends and how she likes the Catholic school where she sends her oldest children (she has eight). “Oh, are you Catholic?” she asked. “No,” I replied, “but I’m a Catholic-ish Protestant.” Weird description, I grant you, but it’s pretty much the most succinct I have to offer. Because over the past couple years since we became dear friends with some earnest, devout, theology-minded Catholics, I’ve learned a ton about Catholicism – I mean, I’ve really dug into it. I understand the viewpoints and the teachings like I never have. And I deeply admire the Catholic church.
And so this – a Catholic-ish Protestant who has theology often on the brain – is my lens, and it was through that lens that I read Something Other than God, the new book just released by Jennifer Fulwiler of Conversion Diary. It’s her autobiographical account of her journey from the atheism of her childhood to the Catholicism she embraced in her late twenties (I’m guessing), as a married mother of two.
Jen has a sharp mind and a philosophical outlook; she’s the kind of person who’s always thinking deep thoughts, even if she’d rather not. The prospect of life being a meaningless exercise that ends at the grave haunted her from her youngest years. She’d been taught to regard religion as both wishful thinking and a crutch for needy people, and the notion that faith could be earnestly intellectual and eminently reasonable didn’t reach her until adulthood.
I like Jennifer. I knew I liked her from reading her blog (it’s hard not to, frankly), so it didn’t surprise me that I liked her in the book. I read the whole thing through in less than a week. I could relate to her and her journey – the hard-driving spirit, the chronic over-thinking, the inability to let go of an idea till she had wrestled it down. And my own parents also met Jesus in their adulthood through a question-asking, rationality-based search that looked a lot like Jen’s, so I could relate to that too. C. S. Lewis’ writings played a significant role in their wrestling, as they did in Jen’s. (The title of Jen’s book is actually taken from a C. S. Lewis quote). So I could relate to the sequential process she underwent of turning over one rock, seeing what it held, and then slowly moving to grasp the next one. Throughout the book it was clear that Jennifer was pretty horrified at the prospect of becoming that which she’d despised – a serious, Jesus-focused Christian. It was the last place she’d ever expected to be. I’m pretty sure my parents had that same experience when they came to faith in their late 30′s (as did C. S. Lewis at his conversion, so clearly that emotional process is far from unique). I admire the intellectual integrity that allows a person to yield to something they have come to see as true, even when it’s not innately appealing to them.
I found the book most powerful in these three areas (a possible fourth would be her musings on purgatory, which had me googling that topic again last night, but I’ll back-burner that one for now):
1. The isolation Jen felt as a girl when her friends and peer group were all Christians, and she wasn’t. First she felt terribly pressured and guilted into becoming a Christian (the other side of the coin, ironically, to the way that Elizabeth Esther, in the last book I reviewed, felt enormous pressure to do the guilting and manipulating to non-Christians. Talk about irony! And Elizabeth’s a Catholic now too…). Then she felt left out and excluded she didn’t share their faith– actually, because she had the intellectual integrity and the backbone to resist the pressure to profess a faith she didn’t believe. The early scenes in the book are powerful, even reminding me of scenes from my own adolescence when several friends became Christians while others didn’t…. yielding awkwardness and some strain, hard roads to navigate. Faith and clubbiness should never be synonymous, and yet somehow, so sadly, they can become that.
2. The atheist’s view of Christianity as overly divisive and confusing, with lack of agreement between many Christians on core moral issues. Jen starts with the question of God’s wrath vs. God’s love stemming from Christian’s teachings following Hurricane Katrina, and then goes on to; “Is abortion okay? Some Christians said yes, some said no, each had Scriptures to back up his claims. Is euthanasia okay? Some Christians said yes, some said no, each had Scriptures to back up his claims. Is gay marriage okay? Some Christians said yes, some said no, each had Scriptures to back up his claims.” This lack of unity, and the absence of a clear moral code that all Jesus-followers corporately accepted, were a large part of what eventually drew Jen into the Catholic church and its unity and unwavering continuity. Fascinating to see it through her lens.
3. The discussion about sexuality and contraception. Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion was anathema to Jen at the start, and I thought she described her thought process and a-ha moments very compellingly and well. For instance: “Every society must create two critical moral lists: conditions under which it’s acceptable to have sex, and conditions under which it’s acceptable to have a baby. And in almost every culture from the beginning if time, the two lists were identical… When contraception became widely used, it caused an unprecedented upheaval in which, for the first time in human history, the lists no longer matched… One solution was to get rid of the message that it’s fine to have sex when you’re absolutely opposed to having a baby, but nobody except Catholics was interested in that. The other solution was to get rid of the babies… All that my generation knew about human sexuality had been founded on a lie.”
I teared up when, on the cusp of the Easter vigil when Jen and her husband would be welcomed into the Catholic church as new converts, her parents overtly supported her and communicated how proud they were of her for the step she was taking. How profound and powerful — such selfless encouragement from atheistic parents who could never have wished for this.
Thanks for this contribution, Jennifer, and for telling your story. It’s one I know I’ll refer back to more than once.
Originally published in May, 2014