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Book Review - The Dynamics of Religious Conversion


This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1997, Volume 14, Number 2, pages 314-315. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - The Dynamics of Religious Conversion. 

V.B. Gillespie. Religious Education Press, Birmingham, AL, 1991, 261 pages.

This paperback has 10 chapters, a name index, a subject index, and footnotes of source material on most pages. There is no information about the author's credentials, but he dedicated the book to his students and gave special thanks to a graduate assistant "in the Department of Church and Ministry," which suggests a faculty position at a religious institution.

Conversion is described as a "dramatic religious experience" (p. 3) that can be sudden or gradual, a shift into a "rich type of identity experience providing ideology, fit, purpose, and worldview" (p. 1). It occurs in a context that can include "political, social, economic, and religious centers of a person" and "never takes place outside a cultural context" and is therefore "of almost infinite variety" (p. 3). Though Christian-based, the text includes references to conversion from and to most major religions and overcomes what would otherwise be the disadvantage of too narrow a scope. It examines conversion from both religious and psychological perspectives, with about equal footnotes and references of classic and current literature in both fields.

The book is easily read and flows smoothly with a rich assortment of references such as Augustine and Merton, William James and John Wesley, John Dewey and Paul Tillich, Gandhi and Freud, Jung, Erikson, and Maslow, demonstrating the author's deep understanding and command of the literature, both classic and current.

Chapter I is a comprehensive introduction to the concept of conversion, followed by a chapter describing Old and New Testament examples and exploring historical, functional, developmental, and feminist models for the phenomenon. Chapter 3 delves into psychological factors and features, its unifying quality, resultant behaviors, and its effect on the self concept. Chapter 4 focuses on the qualitative nature of change, cognitive and emotional; Chapter 5 explores growth factors, age and personality, individual, social, and cultural. Chapter 6 concentrates on identity, relying heavily on Erikson and building on the personal growth theme of Maslow and Tillich's insights. Chapter 7 continues this exploration of the self concept, especially in conflict situations, with references to Erikson's biography of Martin Luther, Allport's insights into conflict in personality development, and current developmental psychology concepts. Chapter 8 describes the quality, role, and effect of religious instruction on conversion; chapter 9 focuses on pastoral counseling. The book ends with chapter 10, which offers practical advice on managing change in people and in the church.

Unfortunately, the author sometimes omits risk factors that might point toward negative experiences. "Religious faith," he writes, "provides an identity for believers through ideology" (p. 240). What if the identity is skewed by an ideology that is grossly distorted, such as Koresh in Waco or Jones in Guyana? "le religious conversion may well be a profound and positive life-changing experience, regrettably it has at times resulted in much suffering, violence, and death. More on preventing such extremes would have greatly strengthened this book.

Overall, this is a positive and powerful book-positive because it places religious conversion on a firm foundation of personality development, identity, and personal growth; and powerful because it buttresses the author's knowledge and experience, evident throughout the book with strong references from classic and current religious leaders and psychological theorists and researchers. Future editions should include biographical data on the author, who merits praise and recognition. This book's scope and depth, readable style, generous footnoting and referencing more than compensate for the negatives reported here. If you could have but one book on the subject of religious conversion, this is it. Highly recommended.

Frank MacHovec, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of the Self

Gloucester, Virginia

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1997