Tell Me a Story

Sep 11, 2008
(This post has been brought to you by the winning entry for PanGaia's Pagan Fiction Contest. You're kidding me, right?)

If I read one more Pagan conversion story, I am going to scream. "Once upon a time I was not Pagan but I was unhappy and then I discovered Paganism and everything was WONDERFUL." Oh, the Augustinian conversion story, how I loathe you.

I'm not saying that story isn't true for the people who tell it. (I've told a similar one before, and I stand by it as my lived experience. It was indeed what happened.) But – it's like this. When I was in therapy, one of the questions on the entry form was about your religion, and I put "Pagan." The therapist asked me about it – I think her exact words were something like "Tell me about that." And I started telling her my conversion story.

I think a lot of people do this; it's a way of explaining process, making our Paganism seem less strange to cowans because we give them logical reasons for every step of the way. But I've started to wonder if it's really the best model at hand.

For one thing, it's also a hugely familiar story, particularly to the kind of people who like us least (Evangelical Christians). Now, I don't mean to say that something is bad just because Evangelical Christians do it (I for one enjoy oxygen, for example), but I do think there are some theological underpinnings to the conversion story that make it, at best, questionable for Pagans.

The key event in the conversion story is the conversion. It's the climax of the narrative structure: the narrator's dissatisfaction with the religion of their birth is the plot, the conversion is the climax, and the description of their current belief the denouement. This structure makes the religion – the Paganism – the least important part of the story, the aftermath of other, more exciting events. It's a happy ending, but how much do you care about a happy ending to a story other than that it's happy?

Conversion makes sense as a central point for a Christian, because Christianity has a focus on salvation. For Christians, the moment of conversion is a moment of grace, the point at which not only their life changes but literally their entire existence, their afterlife, the fate of their soul is determined. There's not a lot of theological unity among Pagans, but I don't know of any who consider the salvation of their soul to be a key aspect of their conversion.

Sure, the point of conversion is an important time for a Pagan too. It's a moment of self-realization and epiphany, and it often comes with an amazing sense of freedom. But most Paganisms are mystery religions; most of us have other stories of personal epiphanies that are much more meaningful to us than our conversion. Not all of them are suitable for sharing, certainly, but some of them surely are.

There's a lot of talk about Pagans genericizing themselves into meaninglessness in order to "fit in" with the mainstream. And while I'm uncomfortable with the idea of public circles that look more like church meetings than anything else, I'm even more uncomfortable with the idea that the stories we tell about ourselves don't mean anything, either.


Anonymous said...

Great entry. It's only been in the past few years that I've been hearing people describe their move into Paganism as a conversion. I've never used that word to describe my experience. I was always happy, but I got happier when I realized that I was Pagan and that I wasn't alone.

Jenavira said...

Thanks. It's taken me a while to pin down what I disliked about that narrative structure, but one day I was reading Christian blogs and Pagan magazines at the same time and it was like *poof* -- this is probably not the best idea, guys.