Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: Project Conversion

I'm fairly possessive of my favorite books.  When I read a book that strikes a chord deep within me, it becomes "mine" in a far truer sense than can be conveyed by simply owning a collection of papers with words printed on them.  So when I say I feel more ownership of Project Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year than I usually do over my favorite books, it means something.  Project Conversion fundamentally changed the way I view and approach those of other faiths, and deepened my appreciation for my own.

As I mentioned in my last post, I found Andrew Bowen and his Project Conversion website in the middle of January 2011.  He was about halfway through his first month and Hinduism was the focus.  I had some vague impressions of Hinduism - I'd heard that they believed cows were sacred, and wasn't there a god with lots of arms? - but to my knowledge had never known a Hindu personally and certainly had never made a study of their religion.  I jumped back to the beginning of the month to catch up on the blog posts I'd missed - fortunately not too many at that point - and then read every single post as it came out for the entire year.  Hinduism switched to Baha'i, which faded into Zoroastrianism, and then to Judaism, and on and on.  Some of the religions and I had a passing acquaintance already, some were brand new introductions, but each month Andrew's sincerity and commitment drew me in completely.  I waited for July, the month Andrew would be delving into my religion, with great anticipation.

Now, I'm the first to admit that we Mormons can be an odd people.  We have an almost ambivalent personality regarding sharing our faith with others.  On the one hand, we are unapologetically a proselytizing religion.  Since the earliest days of the Church, missionaries have been called to travel all over the world preaching the gospel.  Today we send out young men, young women, and senior couples by the thousands to teach and serve, with the frank aim of conversion.  We can get awfully excited when people want to learn more about our faith.  On the other hand, we have a history of being persecuted (Missouri's extermination order was only rescinded in 1976, after all) and a cultural insularity that can make us defensive and hesitant to share our faith with others out of a desire to protect what is so precious to us.  It's a little scary knowing that your faith is going to be on display, with lots of people asking hard questions.  Watching Andrew's interactions with other faiths eased my anxieties quite a bit, and I grew to trust that he would treat my faith with the same integrity and kindness he displayed towards the other faiths, and that he had created an community of others who would be gentle as well.  I was not disappointed.

Having followed Andrew from the beginning, I wondered if his book would be a rehash of all of his posts.  Perhaps the book would be a great read for those who hadn't discovered the blog, but just a review for those of us with him from the start.  Instead, Project Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year provides deeper insights into his personal journey that enhance the blog and facebook community experience, but the book also stands alone as the story of one man's fundamental transformation.

The Andrew described at the beginning of the book is lost.  He's angry and bitter.  Although Andrew had been active in an evangelical Christian church in his youth, that zeal had cooled in adulthood to a vaguely antagonistic agnosticism. Then, fanned by the terrorist attacks on September 11 and deepened by a heartbreaking family tragedy, Andrew's "attitude toward religion dramatically shifted from casual indifference to abject hatred."  While his wife Heather found comfort and solace in her Christian faith, Andrew's anger and hatred grew.  Struggle and strife became constant companions in their marriage for the next two years until Andrew had an epiphany.  "I realized that my anger over the loss of our child had developed into an addiction.  Hate helped me feel, even though I burned myself and those around me.  Hate made me feel alive, although I siphoned the life out of my home.  Hate gave me purpose, a goal, an outlet, although the fuel would eventually burn out and leave those I loved reduced to ashes."  He determined that to save his family and himself, he needed a personal detox program: "I had to become those I hated most." And the idea for Project Conversion was born.

Each chapter tells the story of his month with a different religion, but rather than a textbook description of the faith's basic tenets and practices, Andrew focuses on the personal growth he experienced and the many challenges he faced as he dove into the figurative deep end of the pool.  One of the first lessons he learned, from Hinduism in January, was that "neither I, nor anyone else had the market cornered on spirituality."  He began to see similarities between religions and to appreciate the truths found in every path, holding on to aspects of each faith along the way: vegetarianism from the Hindus, Shabbat from the Jews, Family Home Evening from the LDS.   While I was deeply touched by his account of my faith, I found each religion fascinating and was frequently moved to "holy envy".

Andrew openly chronicles his struggles along the way, from the difficulty of switching gears at the turn of each month, to trying to balance this time-intensive personal intervention with his family's needs and his school assignments, to a particularly painful episode where Heather finally reached her breaking point in November.  He makes no attempt to present a "pretty face" to the reader; the ups and downs, the frustrations and occasional failures of the year are all there, written with raw and sometimes painful honesty.  And that's one of the major strengths of the book.  Andrew holds nothing back and shows by example that rooting out hatred in oneself is worth the price you pay; the Andrew at the end of the book is a new person.  Notwithstanding the name of the book, the ultimate lesson of Project Conversion isn't conversion to a specific faith so much as a personal conversion to humility and reconciliation.

With Andrew, I can say, "I have so much to learn...and unlearn."  While not all of us may be capable of the full-throttled immersion he described as "moral, spiritual and emotional chemotherapy", the openness, curiosity, and vulnerability he displays are worthy of emulation.

(Full disclosure: I believed in Andrew and the message of this project so strongly that I contributed to his Kickstarter project to support this book's publication and received a free copy of the ebook.)

Project Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year
by Andrew Bowen
ISBN: 9780615741598
Buy the paperback from Amazon here.
Buy the ebook for Kindle here. (FREE until midnight Pacific time on Wednesday, February 6!)
Check it out on goodreads here.

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