Capitalizing on Conversion

I should preface this post with the disclaimer that I think it is a wonderful thing that converts to Catholicism are writing and helping create a vibrant community of Catholics excited about faith and evangelism. The growth of this community is a testament to the many people who are finding themselves disenchanted with the shallow ritualism (secular or otherwise) and false and destructive dogmatism by which they have been inundated for most of their lives.

Still, one of the troubling aspects about this movement is the development of what I’m calling the “Catholic Market”. It is the new niche market that has been created primarily around Protestant converts to Catholicism who, once fiery Evangelicals or staunch atheists, have found their home in Mother Church. But they have also found that there exists a certain constituency of buyers willing to consume products ranging from books to curriculum.

Now, is this such a bad thing in itself? A group of people wanting to buy Catholic products and a small group of authors willing to provide them? No, of course not. But the problem that I foresee developing is precisely the same problem that exists in the modern “Contemporary Christian Industry”—you know, the same industry that brought us “Family Christian Bookstores” and the really terrible music that plays on KLOVE and KCMS. The problem is the desire to capitalize on faith along with ability to make a profit from what essentially boils down to another “life choice” amidst the millions of others that exist in contemporary society.

This kind of industry has admittedly already existed for a long time in the Evangelical world: How do you measure success? How do you ‘reach the world?’ You attempt to create a really hip “Christian” product, one that imitates all “cool stuff” in the “secular realm”. Instead of artistic innovation, Evangelicals tend to try and “redeem” all the captivating (but worldly!) stuff that’s already happening contemporary culture. How do we make worship cooler? We write worship songs that sound like Radiohead. How do we legitimize the Christian faith in a sea of other faiths and beliefs in culture? We write a bunch of hot books and market them on twitter.

It may be the case, then, that many of the evangelical Protestants converting to Catholicism have brought their understanding of ministry with them. A Protestant convert does what he or she knows best; validate their own faith-decision by amassing thousands of like-minded people to agree with them. Think about it: how does a Protestant pastor know that he is successful? By how many attendees they have on Sunday, of course. How does a Christian rock star know that God is “really using her music”? By selling double platinum records, obviously. So how does the Protestant convert to Catholicism know that they are on the right path? Well, since they can’t start their own church’s, and since there exists (at this point, anyway) no substantial Catholic music industry, their best shot is to become authors or bloggers. And that’s exactly what is happening.

The problem here is a distinctly capitalistic one (Weber would say a distinctly Protestant one): As soon as a market discovered, it is exploited. Huge amounts of content is produced to fill the demand, and it inevitably happens that the content being produced loses actual value, kind of like food is made with cheaper and cheaper ingredients to make the most profit for the least amount of expenses. This is just what happens in our consumer economy: We look for a demand, and once we find it, we figure out ways to optimally exploit that demand to create revenue. But it often happens that such an “optimal exploitation” involves a watering down or total distortion of the original thing or idea we are trying to sell.

I’m not saying that all mass-production is bad, or that making money in the context of ministry is bad either. The former can actually be a really good thing, like in the case of production of raw materials, and the latter is virtually necessary for the propitiation of certain ministries that continue to proclaim the gospel and do works of charity.

But until recently, it seems to me that Catholicism has not been something neatly packaged into a four-volume set you can pick up on Amazon. Sure, there have always been religious orders—monks and nuns—and some opportunistic business men and women who have tried to earn their bread by selling Catholic-y things like rosaries, icons etc., but what’s the medieval equivalent of EWTN or the collective of emerging Catholic blogging rock stars (each with a book to sell!)? Who are their historical analogues?

I reiterate: I do not think that it is inherently bad that a kind of “Catholic market” exists or is even developing. EWTN and various Catholic publishing companies prove to be invaluable resources for not just Catholics but anyone seeking information or instruction. But when do we, as Catholic writers, producers, or businesspeople, cross the line from adding value to the Church, to adding value to our own pocketbooks? When does a testimony transform into a narrative that can be monetized?

Maybe I just don’t want to see the Catholic equivalent of the “Christian Music Industry”. I dread that Catholicism might be enveloped into a consumer economy that defiles everything within it. But it seems the only way to keep this from happening is to remember the universality of the Catholic faith—it is not and has never been something consigned to a specific “market”. Catholicism cannot be reduced to a genre; it is a genre-creator— it is not capitalized on, it creates capital.


2 thoughts on “Capitalizing on Conversion

  1. This is a good insight and one that also bothers me, although I’ve usually articulated the problem as one of Catholics (whether converts or “new evangelization” folks in general) forming an identity in the identity marketplace (and learning implicitly to read certain identity markers as signs of real holiness) rather than one of exploitation of a niche experience…

    Since the time of my conversion I’ve felt the push and pull between my “experience” as a convert being valued and considered particularly powerful (sort of like, I chose this, and I had to reject certain things, so I am proof of Catholic superiority, so I have a commodifiable experience cache) vs. a feeling that what happened to me, or inside me, is not a proof-text even to myself, and I’m hesitant to treat it that way. I don’t mean that some external “Catholic culture” has been pressuring me to capitalize on my experience; I have this tension in my own head and heart.

    Maybe it’s because of growing up evangelical, and never having that official evangelical street cred (a Testimony), but I have this unease with the convert narrative. I started ducking out of mainstream evangelical culture about the same time that “personal testimonies” started being expected of me (high school age). I wasn’t able to provide that narrative of my life for many reasons. So when I DID get a conversion story, at 18, it was sort of ironic, because I was converting out of the culture of conversion. Not long after I entered the Church, a (very well-intentioned) priest said he wished I would write an account of my conversion, and I was kind of flattered by that, but a couple years later when I thought to sit down and try it, I couldn’t get past a few paragraphs without feeling dishonest about it. Maybe I was just not a good enough writer to give my former self her due, but I couldn’t frame it the way I wanted, in a way that would show that all my reasons laid the groundwork for a spiritual change but, taken by themselves, didn’t prove it or validate it.

    I do think Catholics still have a different approach to conversion — when it comes out that I’m a convert, the most usual reaction I get is happiness expressed as curiosity (oh! that’s so interesting, I’d love to hear about that sometime, it always interests me when Protestants become Catholic…), as opposed to happiness expressed as knowingness (oh, praise God that He called you to him; how did God speak to your heart?), because the narrative is so foundational to evangelical culture that it’s kind of The Narrative — we assume we know why and how people become born-again Christians.

    I’m not sure if I’ve really responded to your point, but ultimately what bothers me about making Christianity or Catholicism marketable is that it degrades the virtue of faith from its place as the sound but elusive little barque on the sea of human existence to a gettable provable name-tagged and price-tagged “gotcha” that we assert makes our lives worth living. (And that’s the most “post-evangelical” sentence I’ve ever written…)

  2. First of all, congratulations on your entry into the Church, Aric!

    The biggest voices are also the ones who have the most to lose. I imagine that would make many loathe to challenge the status quo, or risk being thought of as “fanatical” or “insensitive.” Once you have a brand, you tend to want to protect it.

    When I started my own blog, I decided to be anonymous, not that I’m at risk for becoming a “name Catholic,” but I wanted to speak frankly about personal matters such as my prayer life, and never have to muzzle myself because of my professional reputation. (Although for one day recently, I was a big shot blogger with page views rolling in faster than Walter White’s cancer fund website donations on Breaking Bad.)

    I, too, am a convert, but it is so long ago I might as well be a cradle Catholic (about 35 years ago). Something rubs me a bit the wrong way with our Genuine Catholic Convert (TM) personalities. I hope they’re appealing to Protestants. But it rankles just a bit to have someone who is a relatively new Catholic holding forth on how to be Catholic. Then when you open a semi-scholarly popular book and find one of the articles is written by the person’s wife, the branding is a bit in-your-face.

    Protestants think differently than Catholics. Personally, I think the biggest blunder Christianity ever made was to divide the Bible into chapters and verse. That encourages people — and especially Protestants — to look for a pull quote to buttress an argument.t’s like citing a Supreme Court decision. A lot of books by former Protestants rely heavily on Scripture. Now obviously, that is one source of what we believe as Catholics, and holds a unique place as God’s Word. And, again, perhaps that appeals to Protestants. (I bet, however, that if someone is earnestly looking into the Catholic Church it is because he is looking for something really Catholic, not Roman Protestant.)

    But Catholics learn a lot by doing, experiencing. Not in a “having a good time at church on Sunday,” as a Protestant family member puts it. Saying the rosary is an incredibly enriching practice, but it also takes years to fully appreciate. And , outside of the cost of the rosary itself — you could buy a solid gold one, I suppose, if you wanted to — there is no way to market it with a personality’s name. “The Scott Hahn INDESTRUCTIBLE Rosary with NEW Mysteries of My Conversion.”

    I think one of the reasons we are losing Catholic Identity is that one generation dropped the baton on “folk Catholicism,” and today we’re on our own. So what is it today, maybe a little enneagram? Centering Prayer? Gone are the rosary, the novenas, Sacred Heart devotions.

    I have blogged quite a bit about the joys of Catholic gift stores, and contrasted them to Protestant Bookstores. All the books in the latter seem to be some variation of “You’re okay, God loves you just the way you are, broken and everything.” Then there is the big display of whatever is being heavily marketed at the moment. Last time I was in one a few weeks ago, it was a Sailboat. Why? I dunno.

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