I grew up as a Baptist in south Louisiana where most of my friends were Catholic.   I went to church weekly from preschool to 12th grade.  As I recall, every church service I attended included two things: an offering and an invitation.  For those who aren’t familiar, as my Catholic friends were not, the invitation is a time near the end of a worship service designated for people to respond publically to a call to Christian faith, or to make other public decisions of somewhat lesser importance.  The invitation represents a key feature of evangelicalism and is tied closely to what I call conversion theology.  Mark Noll describes this theology as a key feature in American evangelicalism with its emphasis on life-changing religious experiences.[1]  The invitation to conversion was such a prominent part of my formative church experiences, that I was converted twice, once at age 7 when I had no idea what I was doing, and again at age 13, precisely because at age 7 I had no idea what I was doing.  This two-step conversion process, I have learned during two decades of work among students in the Bible Belt, is an incredibly common phenomenon.  From time to time, I ask students if they have a conversion story similar to mine.  I estimate that approximately 75% of students say yes.  These admittedly unscientific observations illustrate, I think, that many Protestants obsess about identifying the specific point in time that they crossed the line into faith.  They want to know the moment of conversion, the exact date and time, and to keep it in their memory.  Many write it in their Bibles.  My intent here is not to debate the relative theological value of conversion theology, but rather to point out that a great many sincere believers, C. S. Lewis included, could not tell you exactly when they crossed the line.

Lewis describes his conversion to Christian faith in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy.  There he gives details about his commitment to atheism as a young adult and the slow process by which he came to believe in the existence of God.  He writes of his 1929 conversion to theism, “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.  I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.”[2]  His acceptance of Christian belief came nearly two years later, following a late night conversation with J.R.R. Tolkein and Hugo Dyson, and on a bus ride with his brother to the zoo.  He writes, “when we set out [for the zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.  Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought … It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, becomes aware that he is awake.”[3]

Rumor has it that years later, Lewis was asked by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to give testimony to his Christian conversion at a 1950’s crusade and Lewis refused, believing that his own story failed to conform to the stories typically told at such events.  For his own part, Lewis once met Billy Graham and liked him sincerely.  Lewis supported offering people a clear call to conversion.  But in an interview recorded in God in the Dock, Lewis was asked whether it was his personal aim to “foster the encounter of people with Jesus Christ,” and his response was “You can’t lay down any pattern for God.  There are many different ways of bringing people into His Kingdom.”[4]  D. E. Myers argues convincingly that much of Lewis’s writing reflects a style of Anglicanism that emphasizes gradual spiritual formation rather than sudden conversion.[5]  I suspect that Lewis would be deeply uncomfortable with the formulaic manner by which Christian commitment is promoted within southern evangelicalism.

As a teacher and campus minister, I have known literally hundreds of students whose experiences do not fit the formula.  For my own part, I cannot identify clearly the exact point in time that I crossed the line into faith.  I know that prior to age seven, I cannot rightly say that I had any genuine Christian commitment.  After age 13 I can.  In the interim, God only knows.  This used to trouble me, as it does many students with similar stories.  Lewis was the first of many to show me that there are other ways of thinking about Christian commitment than the conversion theology of my home church.  Be comforted if the story of your spiritual formation is much messier than the perceived norm.

[1] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[2] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 228-29.

[3] Ibid., 237.

[4] Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Edited by Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids: Macmillan, 1958), 262.

[5] D. E. Myers, “The Complete Anglican: Spiritual Style in the Chronicles of Narnia,” in Anglican Theological Review 66 (April 1984): 148-160.

[The featured image for this blog is a photo I took in June of 2010 of New Building at Magdalen College, Oxford, where C. S. Lewis lived and taught.]

One comment

  1. I have enjoyed reading your recent blog posts. I remember discussing this particular topic with you in your Toyota while driving somewhere for something. I believe our conversation was interrupted when you said “What am I doing?!?!” followed by “I don’t have any gas?!?!”

    In any event. You can source me as a conversion process rather than an event. That should make it more scientific.

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