Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Convert

We return again to the American South. Wandering Jude has so far written about two other conversionist novels set in the Southern United States (Judith Bensaddi and In League with Israel, but this one has a real twist.

Charles Buckner Hudgins was an Episcopalian rector in Rome, Georgia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His only novel, The Convert, was published in 1908.

This novel's protagonists are Judge Reuben Reinhardt, a Jew, and Miss Ruth Rex, a Christian. They fall in love and marry, after Ruth has converted to Judaism (but not out of conviction, only to marry Reuben). In the end, Reuben is convinced by her arguments and he converts to Christianity.

Midway through the book, after meeting the handsome judge and developing a relationship with him, Ruth finally gets around to preaching. She tells Reuben that Jesus died for "you and for me, and to save and to receive us all into the blessed place He has gone to prepare for all who love Him and believe Him to be the Redeemer, the Saviour of their souls " (p. 164).

Reuben responds:

"Ah! Miss Ruth, you are an earnest and forceful preacher, but, alas! I cannot accept your doctrine, because it is of very doubtful origin. Some day, perhaps, you may become convinced that I and my people are justified in not accepting Jesus of Nazareth as the true Messiah. .... I trust and believe that our God accepts all worshipful service rendered unto Him, even that of the Christians" (p. 164).

Sounds reasonable to Wandering Jude.

Later, Ruth makes another attempt at evangelism, this time with a little less tact. She says to Reuben:

"True, Judge, we Christians know that your nation has been blessed far above all others.... but because of their insincerity, corruption in many sins, and, at last, their unbelief in not accepting Jesus as the Messiah, God has, at least for a while, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in, when all Israel shall be saved, withheld His promises to the once so highly favored people, because they have proven to be 'a faithless and stubborn generation.' " (p. 215).

In love with the judge, and desperate to both marry him and convert him to the Christian religion, Ruth decides to convert to Judaism "while secretly she would keep her heart loyal to Christ her Saviour.. She felt sure that she never could deny her Lord Jesus; nor could she abandon the hope and faith in the final conversion of her lover to Christianity.... She... felt willing, if necessary, to make any sacrifice, even to the loss of her soul, to save his" (p. 296).

Ruth is a bit devious in her proselytizing efforts. But her conniving pays off:

"Every night ... they read [from the] Hebrew Bible; and she so often selected the Messianic prophecies to read to him.... Then too he had discovered a copy of the New Testament in her room.... [which] "resulted in his conviction that she had not really, in her heart, become a convert to his religion, but had merely outwardly conformed to all the requirements of Judaism, out of her deep love for him. All unknown to her, he also read Dr. Geikie's great work [The Life and Words of Christ], and read and reread the New Testament, becoming more and more convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was truly the Christ -- the long-expected Messiah. It gave him a peaceful, happy feeling he had never before experienced. He studied and earnestly prayed over it, and read also both Paley's and McIlvain's "Evidences of Christianity." Then he began to study the doctrines and history of the leading Christian sects; for after his secret conversion to Christianity he felt that he must confess Christ before men in some church" (pp. 324-325).

After reading together some of the bizarre [to our modern ears] Talmudic arguments (is an egg fit to eat if it is laid on the Sabbath?) and Midrashic stories, Ruth says, in a somewhat snarky manner:

"Such, my dear Professor, are some of the Talmudic teachings, which these learned Jewish rabbis valued more highly than they did the inspired writings of the Prophets" ... "Take the Gospels of the New Testament, my dear Professor, and read for yourself, and you will see how different were the sayings of Jesus -- how practical and simple, yet how wisely profound His teachings; and you are bound to be convinced that He was more than mere man -- that it is not idolatry to workshp Him as the Divine Son of God the Father!" (pp. 328-329).

After Ruth reads Isaiah 53 to Reuben, he responds by reading aloud a selection from the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, and then he says: "In Jesus, the Prophet Isaiah's words were literally fulfilled --henceforth, Jesus of Nazareth is my Christ and Saviour. He only is the promised Messiah, the Son of the living God!" (pp. 330-331).

Reuben arranges to be baptized in the Episcopal church on Christmas day. "The long struggle was over and their hearts were at peace" (p. 333).

Final thoughts:

This novel raises the question of whether or not it is ethical for a Christian to convert to Judaism in order that s/he might evangelize his/her spouse. Wandering Jude would concur with the majority of readers that it is indeed unethical to engage in such a practice. Perhaps unethical is too weak a word in this kind of situation. Abhorent would be more like it.

Wandering Jude wonders why such a high percentage of pre-1920 evangelical conversionary novels take place in the American South. Perhaps it was easier for a Jew in the South to convert to Christianity given the dearth of Jews and the strong influence of the Bible Belt?

If this story was being pitched as a Hollywood movie, it might be blurbed as "Driving Miss Daisy meets Jerry Falwell."

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