[I started this series some time ago but never completed it. I think it is more than worthy of returning to, so I’m going to repost what I posted back then and then pick up where it leaves off.]
Over the next bit, I’ll be blogging through a little book called The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom by Alan Kreider. Here Kreider aims to better understand the changes that took place in the church during the fourth century (when the Christian faith was legalized and standardized by Constantine and his heirs) by examining their practice of conversion. If we look at how the process of becoming a Christian changed throughout early church history, especially with the beginning of the period called “Christendom,” perhaps we will better understand the larger transformation of the church during this time. (And, by extension, we will gain wisdom for our own time of transition back out of a “Christendom” situation.)
In the Introduction, Kreider lays out three goals:
(1) Tell stories of early conversions in an attempt to distill the essence of conversion during this period. He will analyze these conversions in terms of belief, belonging, and behavior.
(2) Attempt to chronicle the changing nature of conversion. He states that as the church gained the power to compel (even force) adherence, the meaning and process of conversion was altered. While some of the words and actions remained part of the package, the relationship of the parts within the package shifted.
(3) Look closely at the phenomenon called “Christendom.” (Generally, by the way, this term is used to describe a world in which Christianity and the ‘secular’ powers of government are wed together and attempt to co-rule the world.)
I’m assuming that all of these posts will involve some type of reporting on what Kreider is saying, along with a few reflective thoughts of my own. At times I will ask an explicit question, but most of the time I’ll probably just offer my reflections and invite reflections and/or questions from you. As for this intro, I am excited about the possibility of understanding these things, and I think studies like this can be very helpful to our current 21st century post-Christian situation. We are for the first time in seventeen hundred years in a situation in which Christianity is no longer ‘dominant’ in the wider culture. I think this is to be celebrated, but it brings lots of scary realities with it too. I’m a bit leery of forcing ‘conversion’ to fit within the boxes of belief, belonging, and behavior; I just hope he lets history bend his boxes rather than the other way around.
Let me end this one with some questions for you to think about: How is conversion practiced in your faith community? (Or in past faith communities of which you’ve been a part?) No complicated analysis needed – just a general description of what is constant and central in the process. How does one cross the line and become a follower of Jesus? If you’re not comfortable with (or capable of) speaking for your entire community, what would you say to a non-Christian who asked you how to ‘cross the line’?