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They Were, Perhaps, the Most Surprised

Weekend Book Pick: Chosen’s Conversion Stories


| Posted 7/17/10 at 7:05 AM


The pilgrimage to baptism can be as dramatic as a bolt from the blue or as meandering as a lazy summer day.  Meanwhile, the New Testament and world literature provide a trove of mesmerizing tales of Christianity’s one-time nemeses embracing the Church. Thus, modern readers might well conclude there is little more to be said on the subject.

However, a new anthology from Ignatius Press, Chosen: How Christ Sent Twenty-three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard, provides ample evidence that conversion stories continue to engage and inspire readers with fresh insights regarding the power of grace to disturb our fixed life plans.

Edited by Donna Steichen, author of Ungodly Rage and Prodigal Daughters, Chosen offers simple stories from relatively anonymous authors and dramatic memoirs from well-known culture warriors. During a year marking a bumper crop of new adult Catholics, these “back stories” explain how the Body of Christ continues to draw new souls. Even when great scorn is heaped on Catholicism — not only because of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, but also because rising secularism has deepened resistance to natural law — the Church mysteriously draws forth new sons and daughters in the Son.

The various stories in Chosen confirm the raw power of the Church’s role as a teacher and defender of truth — contra mundum. For some, faith follows an embrace of moral truth in defiance of one’s upbringing or professional ambitions. For others, the struggle to survive familial tragedy and private despair prompt a search into uncharted terrain.

Such was the case of Steven Mosher, who offers one of the most searing narratives in a book chock full of personal, philosophical and ideological crises. 

Mosher’s pilgrimage began with his horrified reaction to a forced abortion in a rural Chinese village. A Stanford University-trained anthropologist, Mosher initially shrugged off China’s one-child policy as a necessary evil and its totalitarian system of government as a promising new vision of the future. But when he found himself in a hut watching the village abortionist cut open the belly of an anguished patient, the “light seemed to fade from the room, as if it had suddenly been transformed into an antechamber of hell.”

He shared his groundbreaking report on China’s regime of forced abortions with fellow scholars at the university. But his testimony didn’t rattle his peers in academia or even “pro-choice” feminists. Their moral justifications “finally awakened me to how corrosive the relativistic worldview was, not just to one’s moral sensibilities, but to one’s common sense as well.”

When Stanford denied him a doctoral degree, he learned a kind of detachment from worldly ambition, a virtue deepened under the patient guidance of Father Paul Marx of Human Life International. Decades later, Mosher is the president of the Population Research Institute and the father of nine children.

It will surprise readers to learn that the noted literary biographer Joseph Pearce experienced a similar ideological and personal crisis. A rising leader in Britain’s right-wing National Front movement, Pearce once honed his skills as an anti-immigrant orator and writer who rubbed elbows with violent extremists.

Pearce’s tumultuous world of racial resentment and anti-Catholic bigotry was subverted by G.K. Chesterton, the great British convert and author of Catholic classics like Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. Searching for an alternative to socialism, Pearce was drawn to Chesterton’s distributist principles —  an economic “third way”  that sought to avoid the depredations of capitalism and communism. When Pearce was imprisoned a second time for publishing material “likely to incite racial hatred,” he was asked his religion and responded, “Catholic,” while barely comprehending what that involved.

In 1989, three years after his release from prison, Pearce was baptized in the Church. “Having spent the whole of the 1980s in a spiritual arm wrestle, in which I fought within my heart and my head between the hell of hatred within myself and well of love promised and poured out by Christ, I finally ‘came home.’”

The author of well-received biographies on Chesterton and Tolkien, he is now the writer in residence and associate professor of literature at Ave Maria University. Yet without the unexpected intervention of divine grace, his journey from the angry streets of London and Belfast to the Florida coast appears highly improbable.

The twists and turns of each story recorded in this book confirm the importance of perseverance amid profound confusion. As Donna Steichen observes in the book’s foreword: “Life is hard, we are told, because we have to live it forward but we can only understand it backward. Catholic history, like all history, charts unforeseen crises, days of disrepute unexpectedly succeeding days of glory. The future for which people were prepared was seldom the one they met.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Washington.



How Christ Sent Twenty-three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard

Edited by Donna Steichen

Ignatius, 2009

340 pages, $18.95

To order: (800) 651-1531