Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Conversion Narrative and Christian Identity: 'How Christianity Came to Iceland'

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Conversion Narrative and Christian Identity: 'How Christianity Came to Iceland'

Article excerpt

Conversion, in the Middle Ages as today, has a range of different meanings: as Muldoon has commented, it encompasses a 'spectrum' of experiences, not one.1 In the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, the root meaning of the verbs used is 'to turn', 'to return', 'to repent'; in his Confessions, Augustine uses a range of word-forms with the root 'vert' ('to turn') in describing his own conversion (e.g. 'convert', 'avert', 'pervert', 'adverse', 'universe').2 In a classic study of conversion in late antiquity, Nock defined it as 'the re-orientation of the soul of an individual, his deliberate turning from indifference or from an earlier form of piety to another, a turning that implies a consciousness that the old was wrong and the new was right'.3 This is frequently quoted in works on conversion in the Middle Ages, with certain qualifications. Many historians have pointed out that this individualizing definition of conversion can hardly apply to the description of the large-scale conversion of whole peoples, for whom Christianity is just as likely to have been a pragmatic choice as a theological one.4 Some scholars prefer to use different terms for the conversion of peoples ('acculturation' or 'Christianization'), but it is not necessarily useful or accurate to reserve the term 'conversion' only for individuals: the biblical call to repent is, after all, addressed to the community as a whole.5 The other qualification is that, while Nock assumes that conversion represents a single turning point, most would now conceive of it as a process: Morrison has shown that, in twelfth-century monastic writing, conversion is predominantly understood as a way of life, a process of 'empathetic transformation' that begins with entry into the monastic life and ends only with death.6 Although one might argue that his definition applies only to an intellectual elite, the idea of conversion as a process has the support of contemporary psychologists like Rambo, who would divide it into stages such as 'crisis', 'quest', 'encounter', 'interaction', and so on.7 Conversion, then, can be individual or communal, personal transformation or institutional affiliation; it can be depicted as a single moment of crisis or as a lifelong process of change.

Just as difficult to pin down is the relationship between the experience of conversion and its representation in narrative, which is often dismissed as derivative and therefore suspect in historical terms.8 It is common for those writing on conversion to distinguish between the experience of conversion, which is 'beyond thought and words', and the narrative of conversion, which is retrospective and rationalized. Morrison points out that the Latin conversio is a metaphor from manufacturing processes in the arts and crafts (the 'transformation of one substance into another'), and thus that there is always an artistic, even perhaps a consciously fictional element to conversion narratives: it is only through the poetic imagination that the ineffable ('the reorientation of the soul') can be expressed.9 Conversion, according to Bernard of Clairvaux, takes place in a supernatural dimension freed from the constraints of language, so concealment is a condition of both the experience of conversion and the narrative that results.10 Some scholars distinguish between 'primary' and 'secondary' conversion, arguing that the religious experience is followed by a second conversion of 'life into text'.11 Yet if conversion is always a 'turning' from and/or to, if it is always a process, then one might argue that conversion can only be expressed and apprehended through narrative, even if the religious experience at the heart of it cannot. As Fredrikson has argued:12

To see a content filled moment of conversion is to have constructed a narrative whereby that moment emerges retrospectively as the origin of (and justification for) one's present.

Narrative is the primary genre used in the Bible to speak of conversion; Szpiech points out that the conversion of St Paul in Acts undergoes 'a process of narrativization' by being told and then retold three times. …

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