“We are foolish to forget the power of the written word,” Deal Hudson writes in his latest book, An American Conversion: One Man’s Discovery of Beauty and Truth in Times of Crisis. Today he’s the publisher of Crisis magazine, adviser to the Bush White House, and all-around lay evangelist. How he got there has a lot to do with the power of love, reason, and a high-school janitor.
An American Conversion is about the blessing of conversions, with all their adventures, trials, and joys. The book is all-encompassing love story with heavy doses of history, theology, and even subtle hints of “self-help.”
At age 19, as a philosophy student at the University of Texas, Hudson took the first step to where he would end up–a Catholic–by becoming a Southern Baptist. On his journey he would become a Baptist minister, a philosophy professor (including in a Georgia prison), and, after 16 years, a confirmed Catholic. His long route to Rome has lessons for us all–Catholic and Baptist, Christian and non-Christian.
Although attracted by “their strong sense of fellowship, their congregational singing, the impassioned personal prayers, and their forthright confession of moral failure and repentance,” Hudson was never entirely comfortable as a Baptist. He writes, “When I became president of the Baptist Student Union at the University of Texas-Austin, I began to confront aspects of evangelical culture that eventually caused me to look elsewhere in the Christian tradition for my spiritual home. The fact that I studied philosophy was itself, to some Baptists, a reason to doubt my sincerity about Christ.” He took the warning that “everything [he] would need to know about life, morality, theology, and even some science was to be found in the revealed Word” seriously, but did not dive too deep into fundamentalism, as he kept reading Plato, Aristotle, and Kant. (Hudson has been asking the fundamental questions of a philosopher since a janitor at Arlington Heights High School in Fort Worth lent the high-school senior his copy of Plato’s Dialogues.) Over lunch with the president of the campus chapter of Campus Crusade of Christ he was told, “if I continued to study philosophy I would likely to go to hell.” (Of course threat of damnation was far from every Baptists’ view of Hudson’s scholarship–if it were, he would not have found a home among them for 16 years.)
It was while reading Thomas Aquinas in his backyard one spring afternoon that he discovered in the Catholic tradition a love of Truth and beauty that resonated with his own humble quest for knowledge. At age 30, the Summa Theologiae “finally” put him “on [his] way to becoming a Catholic.” He writes, “The new freedom I felt was real; I now knew that the lure of beauty was part of God’s own providence, that the delight of his creation and his artists reflected the inexhaustible reserve of God’s own life.”
Throughout An American Conversion Hudson is careful not to leave readers with a negative impression of the denomination whence he converted. He writes: “During my Baptist years, I was always being encouraged to witness, to tell people, preferably strangers, about my faith in Jesus Christ and hope they would be saved as a result. I’ve always admired this trait among evangelicals…. Catholics could learn much from the zeal if their evangelical counterparts.”
He also admits that Catholicism, once he knelt in the pews, was a bit of reality check–there was “a definite irony in the experience of beauty that helped lure me into the Church.” He writes, “I first learned to love Catholicism from books and would inevitably be disappointed by actual participation in the day-to-day life of the Church. Expectations raised by the glories of Dante, Aquinas, Newman, and Maritain are soon disappointed by contemporary parish architecture, sloppiness in liturgical execution, inattentive congregations, [and] the lack of fellowship (compared to evangelicals)….” But he also knew that his new denomination was about more than human constructs and failings. An understanding and belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist at Catholic Mass transcends any lackluster liturgy.
The point of An American Conversion is not, “Hey, Look at Me” but, more “Hey, Look at Us.” Hudson writes his spiritual memoir neither to put down his former denomination nor to hold himself up as a saint, but rather “to challenge readers to recognize the necessity of ongoing conversions in their own lives.” He details his journey of the mind, heart, and soul in the hopes of inspiring readers to think through where they are and where they are going. And Hudson does so while providing a delightful guide through some of the most beautiful aspects of Catholic culture, particularly novels (Brideshead Revisited, Kristin Lavransdatter, and Love in the Ruins, among others). After all, he writes, “Reading, said St. Josémaría Escrivá, has made many a saint.”
Hudson confesses, “I am still converting, no longer from evangelicalism, but from the stubborn self-regard that we all share in our fallen human nature. Conversion never ends, even for those who have always felt at home in the Church.” He writes, “I would rather leave you with the impression that I have been blessed with a constant experience of conversion, one that began in a dramatic way, worthy of public telling. But if any of us, whether converts or not, ever stop converting, then we have all fallen short of the vision we originally received.”
It’s a message right for any day of the week, as we go about our daily chores, trying to meet arduous requirements and deadlines. Hudson is fond of a poem by George Herbert that begins, “Love bade me welcome but my soul drew back.” May our welcome mats be out–even on the days we don’t think we have the time.
–Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.