Saturday, September 26, 2009

More on Conversion

Yesterday I posted during the Third session discussing when Peter was converted. Which pointed to one conclusion that many seem to be coming to that conversion isn't necessarily a one time deal.

Frank Macchia, Professor of Theology at Vanguard University, focused on how conversion of one outside the group into the group was from at least a Lukan perspective a call for conversion and renewal of the group. A striking feature of Macchia's presentation was his use of the word righteous in the gospels in an unqualified way. Generally it seems we tend to interpret (or immediately translate) righteous when used of the pharisees or those who opposed Jesus' table fellowship with sinner's and publicans, as meaning self-righteous. We immediately exempt ourselves from the criticism, if we apply the criticism to any one in the church it is always those other people. Macchia in almost astounding but persuasive naiveté, simply insisted that we hear the word righteous in the Lukan text to simply mean that those who opposed Jesus were in fact righteous and those with whom he had table fellowship were in fact sinners. Now he did admit this had a sociological and power function as well, but he did not allow class to obscure the reality of the righteousness. Suddenly, and I think this was a general experience in the room, I as one who had grown up in the church could not wiggle out of being the righteous in the gospel texts.

The hopefulness of this is that Macchia through the parable of "the Lost Sons" (AKA Prodigal Son, Forgiving Father etc.) showed how it was about a call for both the righteous and sinner to conversion, and to be converted to each other. Which leads in a sense to seeing the Christian life as one of continual conversion.

I found it interesting that Macchia as a Pentecostal theologian (Assemblies of God) which draws him to Luke/Acts when he examined conversion lead him to conclusions remarkably similar to those found in the Desert Amma's and Abba's and Benedictine Spirituality in particular. Namely that conversion is something one is never done with, and that judgment of the other is a hindrance to conversion and the spiritual life. Of course for the monastic and desert tradition Luke/Acts is also central and a source of devotion.

The Third session was one long awaited by many, in part because Scot McKnight and used Lewis Rambo's work on conversion to help us sort out whether or not Paul was a convert. Lewis Rambo's presentation in distilling his paper was more an overview of the sort of approaches he uses and is recommending for continued study of conversion. And then concluded on defining conversion. Good but also in comparison dull stuff except that I now have an idea where scholarly and sociological work on is headed at the moment. However, what seemed to touch off a good bit of question and discussion was around pastoral care and therapeutic considerations around conversion. Rambo told a story of a Jewish woman who was a convert to Catholicism and how initially the priest sensing that other things might be bound up in her seeking to convert referred her to a therapist, and it turned out that there had been some familial and abuse issues that were there. He pointed this story out as a pastor rightly recognizing that there are multiple factors that can lead to conversion and can complicate conversion if not addressed. Phillis Sheppard in her response told a story of a Jewish boy from a small town where there were few other Jewish families and his parents sent him to an Anglican boarding school where he eventually was baptized and then regularly received communion. He then after much soul searching after leaving the school (having never told his family about his baptism) continued to identity as Jewish but struggled with whether or not his baptism invalidated his Jewish identity. This exposed the way in which conversion can get messy and perhaps isn't always as cut and dry as a group or even as we may want out of our own sense of self.