Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, I learned to associate religious conversion with certain dramatic trappings: the altar call and sensational personal testimony, the decisive moment when you fell to your knees and asked Jesus “into your heart.”
These early experiences gave me a fascination for how faith – if I can put it this way – is acquired. How we find our way to God, or don’t. And what I often wonder about the most is not just that clarifying moment, if it ever comes, when the convert says Yes to God, but what precedes that moment – and what comes after. What about those who fumblingly find their way to God, turning to the divine not with one burst of affirmation but a more complicated and uncertain assent?
Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder grapples with such questions, and does so as compellingly as any contemporary work I’ve read. It’ an engrossing, self-consciously literary effort, the title of which cleverly intimates its theme. Its story is alternatingly told by two main characters, Charlie Blakeman and Sophie Wilder, who first meet in a fiction-writing workshop at a liberal arts college. The novel follows their love affair, separation and reunion, writerly endeavors and striving in New York City, and, among much else, Sophie’s conversion to Roman Catholicism.
The delights of this novel are many, especially if – like me – you revel in the many declarations about books and literature and writing that fill its pages. But what struck me most forcefully about Sophie Wilder is its rather convincing account of Sophie’s turn to religion. Since I owe my discovery and reading of the novel to the late literary critic D.G. Myers, here is his description of Beha’s masterful portrayal of her conversion:
What Happened to Sophie Wilder includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair. Raised by parents who were indifferent to religion (“they lacked the feeling for it, what she would learn to call the capax Dei, the capacity to experience God”), Sophie is not prepared for what happens to her when, by chance, she picks up an old copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. The book does not convert her. She finishes it and realizes, “There had been no change within her yet.” But Merton leads to other Catholic writers, and Sophie discovers “an entire strain of human feeling and thought,” which until then had been “utterly foreign to her.” A literary intellectual, she commences the study of a new literature.
I can’t disagree with Myers’s judgment, or improve upon it – I only can implore you to read the novel for yourself to see what happens next. Sophie’s conversion is not the end of the novel, and what follows her reception into the Church is so unexpected that even now, years after the novel’s publication, it would be wrong to hint too much about how the story unfolds. The final page contains a revelation that transforms all that came before it.
There are few greater compliments I can bestow on Sophie Wilder than to say that, when I finished it, all I wanted to do was read it again: to see what I missed, to understand its beginning in view of its end, and to dwell a little longer on the mystery of faith that this novel so persuasively explores.