Why Protestants Cross the Tiber or Bosporus Part 1: A Look at Conversion

While I am a rather conservative sort of LCMS’er, I really fit nowhere in the worship wars. I refer to myself as “mid-church,” meaning that I expect decency and order, the use of the creeds, and a general maintaining of the integrity of the Western liturgy; I care nothing for crucifixes, processionals, sanctus bells, and all of the sort of fussbudgetry characterizing those who (wrongly) see themselves as “Evangelical Catholics.”  Then again, if I wanted “shake yo’ booty fo’ Jesus” contemporary worship, I wouldn’t be a Lutheran, as such worship is no fit vehicle for a Word-and-Sacrament sort of Christianity.  Besides, given the ages of our congregants, the broken hips and slipped discs in our superannuated booty-shakers would wreak havoc on our already unfavorable burial-to-baptism ratio.

Yet for me, sitting in church this morning being serenaded by an all-female choir singing pietistical hymns led by a female Haugenista music director, after which the congregation applauded, I began to think of folks like Dr Pelikan, Fr Neuhaus, Rod Dreher, Frank Schaefer, Scott Hahn, Thomas Howard, and an host of others who left the ranks of conservative confessional Protestantism for the murky waters of Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy. Remembering the cacophonic kiddie choir singing patriotic songs after the Nunc Dimittis on Flag Day (“oh, they were just soooooo adorable!”) did little to improve my state of mind.  With each bum note of each bum song I felt I understood the converts’ reason for swapping churches – worlds, really – a little better, and even felt a little sympathy.

So, why are we seeing a stream of Protestant intelligentsia converting to Rome and Orthodoxy?  Entire websites are dedicated to Catholic (Roman and otherwise) apologetics, conversion stories, support networks, etc, and the reasons for people’s conversions are as varied as the converts themselves.  There are, however, some common reasons, which I wish to explore.  My information comes from books, internet sources, personal interviews with converts, and a rather strong attraction to Eastern Christianity.  So, here goes nothing:

  1. Somewhere over the rainbow:  an unsatisfying church life and/or faith experience can be the first step out the door.  As I once heard Dr Laura say when advising a woman whose daughter was leaving her Baptist background for Mormonism, people don’t go from something to something else – they go from nothing to something; ie for whatever reason, the spiritual status quo is rejected and something is sought after to fill the void.  Perhaps the convert had unanswered questions and lingering doubts, an outsider’s loneliness with no social anchor to the original church, run-ins with the powers that be, etc, and is just looking for some acceptance so he can live out his faith in a supportive community. A big problem here is that anger, while a strong motivator, is an awful reason to do just about anything.  Leaving a church over real or perceived mistreatment, a desire to “flip-off” family or foes, or other causes for high dudgeon, may lead to precipitous decisions resulting in unpleasant and irremediable consequences.  If respectful remonstration is met with high-handedness or outright dismissal, that is another matter entirely.

2.  Exhuming Miss Janet:  closely akin to #1 is a longing for the gravitas so conspicuously absent from me-focused and entertainment-focused contemporary worship yet abundantly manifest in the historic liturgies.  The convert need not fear clown or polka services, although Sister Mary Feminazi may still be pushing guitar masses or other such Romper Room antics in some quarters.  Even then, there are congregations using the Latin Mass, providing a niche for those to whom historic and dignified worship is important.  Orthodox churches, Eastern and Oriental, have not abbreviated their liturgies, and are (for the present) refractory to changing them.  Since not all well-educated folk are motivated by doctrine alone or even primarily, aesthetics can play a major role in a convert’s decision-making process, and is really not a subject to be dismissed out of hand.

3.  Old dead guys:  the late Cardinal Newman once (erroneously) quipped:  “To be deep into history is to cease to be Protestant.”  Intelligent people with a love and respect for history can get hung-up on the parochiality of referring only to one’s own group’s theologians from the Reformation forward, as if nothing of any worth happened between AD 33 and 1517 (or later, depending upon the group in question), as if their church were the people and wisdom shall die with them.  The perceived lack of continuity between modern Evangelicalism and the early church can be very troubling to those with respect for the past.

4.  Participatory:  having attended a Tridentine Mass, several Eastern Orthodox liturgies (including in an Old Calendarist church where I stood for nearly three hours) and a Coptic Orthodox liturgy, conventional “hymn sandwich” Evangelical worship looks like a mere spectator’s sport.  Liturgy means “work of the people,” and those people do work.  The church year is replete with feasts, fasts, additional services, traditions, etc. These engage the body as incense does smell; iconography and architecture, sight; exquisite chanting, hearing.  In short, traditional liturgical worship engages the worshiper holistically and with a sense of awe and wonder – exactly how Marty Haugen doesn’t.  A cynic or church-growther might quip that historic liturgies are but the entertainment of the antiquarian curmudgeon and hence the desire for such is but another example of niche marketing, but that argument is about as credible as “I never inhaled” because, well, those liturgies antedate contemporary worship by nearly two millennia, making contemporary worship the exemplar of niche marketing.  One need not believe in capital-t Tradition to reject the removing or altering the historic liturgies for any other reason than fidelity to Scripture; ie “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set (Prov 22:28).”

5.  Appreciation for men:  Outside of the Reformed and Eastern Orthodox churches, conservative Christianity is overwhelmingly a woman’s world despite the restriction of ordination to men.  There’s just something about lilting music sung by women, felt banners, kiddie plays and choirs, effeminate hymnody, bridal mysticism, a laundry list of namby-pamby do’s and don’t’s (eg no drinking, no smoking, watch your language), and an host of other extra-scriptural rules (ie, a “Christian Talmud”) that repel men.  In Orthodoxy men take church seriously, and take the lead in worship.  For a good read pick up Leon Podles’ /The Church Impotent:  The Feminization of Christianity/ and see what I mean.

6.  Appreciation for intelligence:  whatever else one may say of them, priests tend to be educated men, and educated men appreciate education. While this can also be said of confessional Protestant clergy, the same cannot be said of broad Evangelicals, whose colleges and seminaries were accurately lampooned in Sinclair Lewis’ /Elmer Gantry/.  I remember driving one Sunday night through the middle of Pennsylvania’s radio wasteland, where one’s choice of listening spanned the spectrum of country-western to gospel.  A radio preacher was disabusing the audience of the notion that Samson was mucho macho, and that indeed he was a flaming sissy; after all, he had long hair and, rather than go “a-courtin’,” he had to ask his parents to find him a wife.  Res ipsa loquitur. It is understandable how anyone functioning above the brainstem would find such preaching gut-curdling and seek refuge from it.  The RCC has always sought out the best and brightest, and has contributed immeasurably to Occidental learning and culture; there is no gainsaying this.

7.  Let’s go to the hop:  Americans are said to be church-hoppers, and might view the Catholic churches as but other selections on the religious dim sum cart.  While I don’t doubt that people so doctrinally destitute exist, I’m not skeptical enough to believe that they make up anything but an infinitesimally small part of Tiber and Bosporus traffic; then again PT Barnum was right when he said that nobody ever lost money underestimating American intelligence.

8.  Puddle-jumping:  for those who never grasped or bought sola gratia and solo Christo (eg, those who would have said “God is my co-pilot” back in the day), conversion is but a switch from one religion of works-righteousness to another.  One trades ugly modern American rules, rituals, and aesthetics for beautiful ancient European ones, and kisses a papal or episcopal ring rather than a controlling minister’s backside.  Some call this progress.

9.  The last group to consider is that which pollsters and others writing on this topic fail to or just won’t recognize:  those who, despite being well-grounded in Reformation theology, convert after serious study and in all sincerity.  This is the group with which I’m most familiar, and I find it far too easy and ego-tonic to dismiss these people as those who were never real Protestants to begin with. Those who do dismiss them have the annoying habit of viewing converts from the opposite direction as having been sincere and committed, but can’t fathom how or why men like Dr Pelikan could leave Lutheranism for what Doug Wilson called “Roman Catholicism with a beard.”  The bottom line is that they do; Christian charity requires us to assume such sans sufficient evidence to the contrary.

I doubt that my list is exhaustive, and agree that people may fit into multiple categories.  However central worship is to church life, church is more than worship, and other factors – not the least of which is doctrine – can’t be ignored.  Yet, given the emotional emphasis of many conversion stories, the risk is that those who are lovestruck one day may be apathetic or antipathetic the next, given the changeable nature of our emotions.  On the other hand, few people are like Mr Spock and work by logic alone, and GIGO works in more areas than computing.  My next post will, DV, examine some of these other factors involved in leaving Protestantism for the Catholic world.

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Posted on July 19, 2015, in Crossing the Tiber. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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