Saturday, September 24, 2011

Craig Harline’s "Conversions"

Craig Harline is the author of Sunday: A History of the First Day From Babylonia to the Super Bowl, and several other books from Yale University Press. He is Professor of History in the Department of History at Brigham Young University.

Harline applied “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of this book, which is about how families of the sixteenth-century Reformation handled religious conversion, features a young man in California in 1973 eager to share his new Mormon faith with others. What in the world? you ask. Don’t worry, I asked myself the same thing.

The Californian is there because when I first found the Reformation story that made me want to explore the topic of conversion (a story featuring a young Dutchman who became Catholic in 1654 and tore his family apart), it all sounded terribly familiar, even personal. Historians often sense personal connection to the stories they write, but I’d never had the desire to actually explain that connection in public. The past is too Other to compare easily to life now, and revealing your reasons for wanting to write a story could be really embarrassing. But just this once I wanted to say explicitly what I thought the Reformation had to do with life right now.

My strongest connection with the Reformation story turned out to be the story of an old friend, whom I call Michael Sunbloom. Like the young Dutchman, he converted to a religion his family didn’t like (Mormonism). They didn’t quite disown him, but close. A typical Reformation story so far. Then came the modern twist: after three years as a Mormon, Michael realized he was gay, and quit the church. His parents were delighted that he left, but more perplexed than ever when they found out why. Yet in the end, they, unlike the Dutch family, found a way to reconcile.

I decided to tell both stories, in alternating chapters, even though they occurred in different contexts and had different endings, because to me they were, once translated---or converted---the same story. I thought they would show nicely the deep connection between even the distant past and the present, and that told together they would each have greater meaning than if told alone, in the same way a conversion table gives deeper meaning both to something familiar and unfamiliar. Thus the “Conversions” of the book’s title refers not only to the usual religious sort, but to a sort of historical conversion. When an old and faraway story starts looking like one that happened right around you, then the past becomes not only more interesting, but more meaningful as well. That’s why California-boy Michael Sunbloom is on page 99 of a book about the Reformation.
Learn more about Conversions at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue