Is the conversion narrative a genre?

As a part of the project’s ongoing investigation into different sources concerned with conversion it seems pertinent to ask whether the texts we are examining constitute a genre?

The spiritual autobiography has long been recognised as a genre of sorts – one whose intense focus on the individual acts as a precursor to the most heavyweight of literary genres, the novel, (witness the continuities between Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe). But this is a label almost exclusively attached to Protestant narratives of spiritual trial and redemption. In contrast the stories we are addressing come from a variety of faith perspectives and also take many different forms: from prose narratives and theological polemic, to sermons, confessions and recantations.  Some are in print, others in manuscript, some are written by the convert themselves, others by their witnesses or interrogators.

If this is a genre then it is certainly a discursive one. Nonetheless all of these different narratives in some way seek to articulate a process of spiritual change – whether it be a change in confession or an instance of spiritual awakening and renewal. But is this enough to warrant grouping these texts together in a genre?

This will perhaps depend upon the volume of narrative types we unearth, the continuities, repetitions and parallels that we can find between texts.

What are your thoughts? Is any attempt to impose genre status on conversion texts a futile exercise in looking for order where none exists or does it help us to understand the compositional expectations faced by those who wished to document their religious experiences? 

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3 thoughts on “Is the conversion narrative a genre?

  1. I think this sort of research is highly valuable in terms of aiding one’s understanding of another’s religion or way of life. It is through this understanding prejudices can be tackled.

  2. Yes it is. D B Hindmarsh’s authoritative study (The Evangelical Conversion Narrative) assumes it to be a genre and discusses it as such. See his last chapter ‘After Christendom’.

    • Thanks for your comment, Roger. What is interesting, I think, is that Hindmarsh categorises this genre in ways that would exclude much of the material we are studying (see Abi’s original post above). So it’s challenging, I think, to consider how travel narratives, court records, Catholic texts, artwork, and a rich variety of other forms might have some generic continuities but nonetheless resist the tidy generic grouping assumed by Hindmarsh, Mack, Wray and others.

      — Helen

We are keen to hear your views on what we post here. Questions and comments are very welcome. And if there's something you think we should write about, leave a comment or send us an email (conversionnarratives@york.ac.uk).

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