Paul Prather

I can point to my moment of conversion

On the long list of the books I hope to write someday (but likely never will) is one about how and why people experience religious conversions.

Part of my interest stems from having been raised in Baptist churches where dramatic altar calls importuning the lost to come forward and be saved were part of nearly every worship service.

Part of my interest derives from my own conversion.

I was 19, the rebellious son of a preacher. I'd grown angry and alienated.

After my first year in college, I came home for the summer. Bored, I read a lot.

In a box of used books my parents had bought at an auction, I discovered a dusty collection of the writings of Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century agnostic. I also read Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger, a sharp criticism of organized religion.

Since puberty, I'd not had much use for religion myself. In my myopic, teenage view of the world, its central intention seemed to be to prohibit all my favorite excesses of the flesh.

Ingersoll and Twain gave coherence to my own nebulous feelings that Christianity was a sham for fools.

So I decided to confront my father, the minister. One evening I laid out my questions: If there is a God who wants us to believe in him, why would he remain invisible? If God is good, why does he allow babies to get cancer? And so on.

When I was finished, Dad said, "Son, I don't know the answers. What I do know is that any time a person wants to find the truth of a situation, he explores both sides. You've only looked at reasons for doubting God. Shouldn't the Lord get a chance to respond? Why don't you go off by yourself and ask God, if he's real, to show you?"

I thought about that, but I couldn't figure out how I'd go about asking God to communicate with me. Later that night, I sat on my bed, the door to my room closed.

I had a Bible that my dad's church had given me as a high school graduation present. I retrieved it from a shelf and returned to my bed.

I spoke aloud to the nothingness: "I feel like a fool, sitting here talking to myself. But it seems that if you did exist, if you did love me, you'd want me to believe."

I paused to gather myself.

"Here's what I'm going to do," I said. "I'll ask you one question. Then I'll open this Bible and put my finger down on a page. If you're God, you can make the specific answer to my question appear at the end of my finger. If you do that, I'll believe in you. If you don't, I'll know you're a myth."

To keep myself from cheating, I shut my eyes. I turned the Bible upside down.

"Here's my big question, which is the root of all my other questions," I said. "Even if you exist, why would anybody who's intelligent believe in you?"

I cracked open the Bible, stabbed an index finger to a page.

Then I opened my eyes. At the tip of my finger was Luke 10:21. The book I held was a paraphrase called The Living Bible. Later I lent it to a friend and never got it back. I couldn't locate another copy of The Living Bible as I wrote this column, but as best I can reconstruct it using various biblical translations, this is what the verse said:

"Then Jesus was filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit and said, 'I thank you Father, lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden the truth from those who consider themselves wise and intelligent, but have revealed it to those who come to you as simply as children.'"

A direct answer. Being brilliant, which I assumed I was, wasn't important. The key was to remain childlike enough to trust a God I couldn't explain. My breath hitched.

"Lord, I believe," I said.

When I uttered those words, I felt my deep anger and resentments suddenly wash out of me. It was a powerful, physical sensation. And then I was flooded with a warmth, a peace, a cleanness I'd never experienced before.

That moment changed the course of my life.

I know well what skeptics would argue: that I reacted to the Christian script programmed into me by my upbringing. That I saw the answer I wanted to see. That my physical sensations were merely the results of my emotions.

Perhaps. We do easily delude ourselves.

But the Bible contains more than 31,000 verses. Only two verses say anything like what I found at my fingertip — odds of over 15,000-to-1 against my receiving that particular message. I suppose it could have been luck.

However you explain it, though, something major happened to me. My heart changed in an instant. For 34 years, I've continued to believe, in good times and bad.