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Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels Paperback – January 1, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
The Sociology of ReligionAlthough everyone comes to Christian faith in different ways, says religion professor Scot McKnight in Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels, conversion stories don't typically reflect that diversity. In fact, each Christian group "shuffles all oddities to the side and sanctifies only a certain ordered experience." Drawing on the personal stories of 19 men and women who embraced the Christian faith across a wide variety of traditions (mainline Protestant, Catholic and evangelical), McKnight pleads for "each of us to pause long enough to hear the stories of all Christians and not just those who frame their stories as do we." This is a well-reasoned, persuasive call to recognize "diversity" in a rather unexpected way.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
About the Author
Scot McKnight is Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois.
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1) Conversion is an individual process.
2) Conversion involves formation of the self aligned with central claims of a religion.
3) There is no uniform pattern of conversion.
4) Jesus knows conversion is an individual process, which is why he guides people in the Gospels in sick diverse ways.
5) There are three models of Christian conversion: socialization, liturgical process and personal decision.
Point one is the main point. Even though he treats the three models evenhandedly, McKnight really wants to politely challenge the personal decision model. It's quite dominant in the U.S. and prone to misuse.
The book was a tough go because it seemed poorly organized. One minute we're swimming in sociological theory, the next personal biographies. It was whiplash.
Read the opening chapter and conclusion. If you're interested in sociology and conversion, read the Rambo book McKnight is fond of.
Early in the book, McKnight points out common approaches to conversion, which he labels socialization, liturgical process, and personal decision. Though I will not explore each category here, as someone who has moved from the Baptist world into the Methodist world in America, these distinctions helped me to more clearly delineate between different traditions and their understanding of conversion. McKnight evaluates these categories in light of Scripture and the Christian tradition, and notes the sociological ways of understanding these approaches to conversion in clear, readable prose.
McKnight draws predominantly on the work of Lewis R. Rambo and Gauri Viswanathan to support his sociological approach to conversion, noting that there seems to be a line along which people move in finding themselves "converted." This progress, outlined by McKnight, is that of context, crisis, quest, encounter, commitment, and consequences. McKnight is clear that this process is not always linear, and lacks uniformity between one person and the next. Any stage could be experienced for days, months, or even years. However, in examining the conversion stories of his students, of those who encounter Jesus in the gospel accounts, and in the lives of prominent leaders throughout church history, McKnight demonstrates how each of these factors or stages somehow come in to play. This way of describing the movement of conversion is helpful as a sort of map, and can be used to chart our own conversion experiences.
Returning to McKnight's classification of churches who approach conversion as socialization, liturgical process, or personal decision, I will note the one particular area where I think McKnight's work is critically important for the church. McKnight, near the end of his work, notes how these understandings of conversion, in their own way, are conducive to some types of people rather than others. He advocates for a broad understanding of conversion that can somehow encompass all three understandings, so that the church might connect and bring to conversion the broadest range of people. There is wisdom in this insight, and I think it is one of the key contributions of the book. Some people have a conversion "moment", others find themselves identifying as Christian as they participate in the liturgical life of the church, and others cannot recall ever not understanding themselves as in a saving relationship to Jesus. McKnight affirms that we are to all be "born from above", but that our births vary in time, duration, ease, or difficulty. Broadening our understanding of conversion enhances our witness and our ministry.
As is common for McKnight's writings, he is deeply immersed in Scripture, and commonly returns to the narrative to support or illustrate his key points. He finds within the Scripture support for conversion as a key theological and practical idea, and notes the many ways conversion is an undercurrent to many of the encounters Jesus has throughout his ministry. McKnight notes that here, in the life of Jesus, a picture of conversion not widely acknowledged is featured, in that Jesus appeals to individuals, and along the way seeks to intensify their commitment to Jesus's understanding of Israel's calling as a light to the nations. Therefore, Jesus does not overtly begin a new religion, as is commonly presupposed, but instead recasts for his disciples a newfound understanding of what it means to be the people of God. This process, in many of Jesus's interactions, leads to a conversion that takes root over time, rather than in an instant. And while McKnight does acknowledge that Paul's Damascus road experience has gripped the imagination of many Christians throughout time, it is Peter whom McKnight heralds as a prototypical model for conversion in the New Testament. Peter spent time with Jesus, came to a gradual understanding of his mission, was converted many times over to deeper understandings of this mission, and eventually became transformed into someone who was radically committed to the way and message of Jesus and his Kingdom.
A final word: This book is very readable, but the subject matter is a bit complex. If you're seeking to better understand conversion as it is presented in the Scripture, and if you're seeking to evaluate your own tradition's understanding of conversion, this book is helpful. McKnight, per usual, demonstrates his grasp on a broad range of scholarship, a commitment to Scripture, and a heart for the church. Readable, enjoyable, insightful, and helpful.