Personal testimonies: Effective ways to deepen faith

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 28, 2016

I suppose everyone is interested in personal religious testimonies, whether conversion stories or anecdotes which provide glimpses of the presence of God. Such accounts have a personal element which is not typically present in apologetical arguments or academic theology. For most people they are both more accessible and more inspirational than other ways of internalizing the mysteries of Faith.

There seems to be no end to our thirst for such accounts, probably because they enable us to glimpse God’s action in our lives, they reassure us of the power and attractiveness of our Christianity, and they have happy endings. In a word, they convey an uplifting personal experience which, to some degree at least, we can make our own.

Three new books from noted Catholic publishers offer a fresh supply of religious testimonies. In doing so, they nicely reveal the great variety of ways we can experience—and convey our experience—of God.

Evangelical Exodus

Published by Ignatius Press and subtitled “Evangelical seminarians and their paths to Rome”, Evangelical Exodus presents the autobiographical conversion stories of nine men who all attended and/or taught at the same Protestant seminary. Old hands will think immediately of Scott Hahn and a raft of other Protestants, also educated at the same school, who came home to Rome in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But that was then and this is now. Hahn’s famous generation of converts attended the Gordon-Cornwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Evangelical Exodus deals with the next generation, men who were substantially formed in the non-denominational Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, co-founded in 1992 by Ross Rhoads and Norman Geisler. The conversions in this group have occurred over the past ten years.

They are also part of a larger trend of Evangelicals converting to Catholicism, but the value of the book consists not primarily in the trend but in the personal story of each man. The appendices offer a significant bonus, however: Theological explanations of how Evangelicals have been able to embrace Catholic teaching on four key divisive issues: the Biblical Canon, Christian Orthodoxy, Sola Scriptura, and Sola Fide.

For most readers, the names of these converts will not matter in advance; they will become real enough in their own accounts. But if it makes a difference to whether you purchase the book, the contributors are Douglas Beaumont, Joshua Betancourt, Jeremiah Cowart, Brandon Dahm, Travis Johnson, Michael Mason, Brian Mathews, Andrew Preslar and Jonathan Sonantis. The book is edited by Beaumont, with a foreword by Francis Beckwith. Paperback, 286 pp.

The Walls are Talking

Also new from Ignatius, The Walls are Talking is a second book by the indomitable Abby Johnson, the now very famous Planned Parenthood clinic manager who went from being PP Employee of the Year in 2008 to becoming one of our foremost advocates for life. Her conversion story is found in her first book, Unplanned. Johnson was assisted in writing this new book by pro-lifer Kristin Detrow, a woman who defied her doctor’s advice to abort one of her twins for medical reasons, and who is now the mother of healthy twin boys.

The book’s subtitle is “Former abortion clinic workers tell their stories”. Johnson founded an organization named And Then There Were None to help abortion workers leave the industry. A number of them agreed to be interviewed, and she tells their stories in The Walls are Talking. The dust jacket sports a picture of the proverbial fly on the wall.

Johnson is good with titles, but she cannot—nor does she wish to—hide the horrific character of these accounts. All of those involved played a significant role in a particularly callous destruction of human life. And all of them know that there is no denying their past, even if real forgiveness and peace is possible. The Walls are Talking offers a different sort of drama—not the drama of devoted Christians maturing into the fullness of Faith in the Catholic Church, but the intense moral conversion of those who woke up one day to find that they were ensnared in a voracious, consuming evil.

In terms of the scope and style, this is a lighter book, but it is not lighter (clearly) in its subject matter. Be sure this will be good for you. Hardback, 155 pp.

Practice for Heaven

Sophia Institute Press has weighed in with a different sort of witness, the fifty best newspaper columns by Edward Cardinal Egan, the late Archbishop of New York, who selected the columns shortly before his death last year. Egan wrote these articles for his diocesan newspapers over a period of twenty-one years as bishop in both Bridgeport, CT and New York City. His routine form of journalistic evangelization was to tell stories—true stories—which offered inspiring insights into Catholic spiritual life and faith.

Entitled Practice for Heaven and subtitled “True Stories from a Modern Missionary”, the book is edited by Dr. Joseph McAleer, who provides a brief biography of the Cardinal by way of introduction. (McAleer is worthy of note for many reasons, but none is more important to me than the role he plays as one of CatholicCulture.org’s Boosters. I did not realize this when I selected the book for review, but in editing Practice for Heaven, he has fueled my pet illusion that CatholicCulture.org is everywhere.)

In any case, the book divides the newspaper columns into six sections entitled, respectively, Starting Young, A Priest’s Life, Beyond the Sea, Enlightenment, Holy Men and Women, and Respecting Life. To give you the flavor of these little narratives, often (or perhaps always) drawn from Egan’s own personal experiences, I will extract just one small passage from his account of an elderly man who joined him in the pew in a London church where he was praying his Office:

After a few minutes, the man…began to recite…. Line by line, he read the familiar meditations of Saint Alphonsus Liguori on the Stations of the Cross, and before each new Station, he again fixed his eyes on something ahead. I pretended not to notice…[but] my pew companion evidently decided that an explanation was in order.
“I cannot walk very well anymore,” he observed, “but I make the Stations of the Cross as best I can. I look hard at each Station on the wall, I recite the prayers sitting here, and I ask the crucified Savior to do the walking for me.”
He paused a moment and added in a voice that I could scarcely hear, “He walked the Stations for all of us the first time, Father. I’m sure He doesn’t mind doing it again for me.” [p. 69] [Paperback, 310 pp.]

As I said, testimony can take many forms—and inspire in many ways.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jason C. - Apr. 30, 2016 5:07 AM ET USA

    "in editing Practice for Heaven, he has fueled my pet illusion that CatholicCulture.org is everywhere." Now that right there is funny, I don't care who you are.