The Continuous Conversion, by Brad Wilcox, was a book that came to my mailbox at a good time, a time when I needed some of what he had to share. This is the second of Brother Wilcox's books about the Atonement, the first being a well-known book called The Continuous Atonement. There are few topics I'm more hungry to ponder and read about than the Atonement, and Brother Wilcox again has put his heart into helping Church members and friends of other faiths understand more about what the Atonement can mean in our lives as we come to understand and apply it more.
As is always the case, words can often fall short on such a topic, but there are some powerful words in this book. Many of them for me came in couplets, both ones that Brother Wilcox created and also those he shared from other wise people. An obvious benefit of such a literary tool is that they are easier to remember. Here are a few I liked:
"We are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven.... We are not paying our way into heaven. We are practicing for it" (p. 16).
From Bruce Hafen: "The truth is not that we must make it on our own but that he will make us his own" (p. 92)
From Elaine Dalton: "Our covenants not only define us, they refine us" (p. 95).
I'll just say from the get-go that I would not recommend reading this book quickly. It's the kind of book to pick up and read a little at a time. Each chapter to me almost seems like a self-contained essay, and I'd almost treat each chapter as such. (They didn't always feel connected to me, in fact, but each chapter had a deliberate and important focus and could relate back to his theme of conversion.)
Because I was reading for a review deadline, I didn't have the luxury of taking my time, but there were times when had anyone been sitting next to me, they would have heard a sharp intake of breath or seen some tears forming as a thought resonated with my spirit.
The message that most resonated with me -- one that showed up repeatedly in the book -- was the idea that conversion is a process. We hear that a lot, I know, but it's something I don't think I can ever tire of hearing. As a recovering perfectionist, I struggle against discouragement all. the. time. It was good to be reminded that it's the plan for it to be a "Mighty Slow Change" as one of the chapters declares.
A couplet summarizes this message well: "True conversion is not instantaneous. It is continuous." One day at a time really is a wise way to live.
Other things that I liked about this book:
- Personal stories. He tells a few from his own life (the one from his mission on pp. 27-29) and shares many from various other people. It's clear he's sought a lot of input and has a desire to involve people in his writing projects. To me, there are few things more powerful than personal narrative.
- A good mix of quotes. Brother Wilcox doesn't overuse them, but has enough to provide multiple perspectives and meaningful repetition of important principles. Again, it's clear that he did a lot of research and put a lot of thought into his writing.
- Dispelling some doctrinal myths. I thought he did a nice job addressing some topics like the notion of "binding" God (see Doctrine and Covenants 82:10) [we don't bind Him by faith to get what we want, we learn by faith to accept His will -- He is the Giver of blessings and cannot be bought out by our efforts. Again, we don't earn heaven. I loved the image in a later chapter of ladders vs. train tracks [one calling isn't more important than another; our worth is not determined by what we do; we don't move 'up' we simply move around]. And even as his chapter on wide-awake discipleship felt a little overzealous to me (see below), in that chapter he hit some important topics head-on, such as rules vs. religion, obedience and sacrifice vs. consecration, testimony vs conversion, and cultural Mormonism vs. "the soul-transforming fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ." I think these are important things to have on the table as we ponder what it means to really be converted to Christ.
-Exploring a variety of gospel topics. They are too numerous to list here, but he covers a lot in not very much space. The restored gospel is such a blessing, and there is no question about how he feels about that blessing and all the wonderful facets that can impact our lives (prophets, the Book of Mormon, ordinances/the temple, the Spirit, callings...the list goes on).
Since I think good reviews usually include some gentle feedback/criticism, here are some things I didn't love about the book. (I hope this is gentle enough.)
- A few of the examples/stories felt a little strained to me, like he was wanting to make them illustrate his ideas, rather than just letting the stories speak for themselves. (I'm often guilty of overinterpreting stories, so I'm one to talk!)
- Sometimes the book took on a bit of a preachy/critical tone in my mind. (Again I'm one to talk. I've been so guilty of being preachy so often in my life; maybe that's why I'm sensitive to it in this case?) For example, the chapter on zeal almost seemed to undermine his declared core purpose -- to help people not give up. To be totally honest, I've been in that place of feeling like giving up too many times, and hearing that I should have more zeal has often been exactly the wrong thing for my spirit. Perhaps others would resonate with a little bit of a kick in the pants, so I can only speak for myself there, perhaps. But somewhere in my gut I feel that so often the change from cultural to converted Mormon is exactly where grace really does have to step. I'm not convinced we can work and zeal our way through those kinds of transitions.
- Along those lines, a few of the examples seemed to seek to illustrate when someone was "doing it wrong" and that left me feeling a little uncomfortable. I guess I've just seen too many people come to themselves through the loving invitations of a God who never gives up and the lessons that life tends to teach to be too comfortable with such examples being used too often. I've been guilty of this too often in my life, so again, it could just be my personal weakness and sensitivity showing through, but I would have preferred more positive examples in this context of teaching the hope of the Atonement.
- I didn't love the temple chapters, which is kind of surprising given how much I love pondering the temple. It almost felt like they were a bit (I don't know?) out of place or even forced, even as I understand how important the temple is to our conversion. (!!) I felt like he was trying to cram a lot of *information* about the temple that I think is best sought out and understood through personal study and revelation. (The talk I would recommend for such study is this one.) I think given the tone and focus of the book, I would have liked to hear more personal narratives about how the temple has helped bring change in people's lives vs. trying to explain academically (albeit a bit obliquely) about the rituals.
All in all, though, I would definitely recommend this book. I think the Spirit can always help an individual find the words and ideas that would be relevant and meaningful and personally applicable for that person. No author -- not even our authorized servants -- can capture the magnitude, depth, and breadth of the Atonement, but I think the more we talk about it and share experiences with our Savior's healing power, the more we can learn and feel out what the Atonement really can mean in our lives. The wonder of these truths that Brother Wilcox teaches is that God is there all along the way to help us learn heaven as we seek His help, and look and reach for His hand.
I am grateful for Brother Wilcox's zeal about the Atonement and his desires to help others feel its power and do all they can to reap and enjoy its blessings -- not only eternally but now as we walk our mortal journey.