I have always held a singular fascination for the spiritual life—perhaps it is due to my generally introverted nature and love of study as a spiritual practice—but the path of the seeker, and the raw, unmediated chronicling of the spiritual journey is one to which I relate deeply, if at times vicariously. It was thus that with great interest I commenced reading Andrew Bowen’s memoir, “Project Conversion: One Man, Twelve Faiths, One Year” in which he chronicles a year spent living as a member of twelve different faith traditions to which he had previously little to no exposure.
I must admit—I was skeptical. We’ve seen a number of memoirs of this sort—the author takes on a seemingly impossible project for a predetermined length of time and at the conclusion of the project writes a book chronicling their experience and the newfound insights they gained which, frankly, may not have been so revelatory to their readers, particularly if said reader came to the book with a wealth of knowledge about the topic at hand. It was with this skepticism that I approached this book. I had also heard Andrew Bowen’s segments for Interfaith Voices in which he was interviewed about the spiritual tradition he was adopting for the month and I often thought to myself that the project, though laudable, lacked depth. What I deeply appreciated about this memoir, then, was the fact that it was so raw and uncensored.
We see through the pages of Andrew’s memoir the difficult toll that Project Conversion took on his family and particularly on his wife, Heather. The fact that Andrew put himself in such a vulnerable place for all to see was deeply moving and took incredible courage. Too often, we jump to judge someone when they allow themselves to be vulnerable in that way with another and that fear of judgment inhibits our ability to form truly trusting relationships with one another. By opening himself up in this way, Andrew aptly demonstrates his deeply felt sincerity regarding this project, and isn’t ashamed to state quite plainly that as a man living in this world and living as part of a family unit, frankly, sometimes, he could not take on all of the practices he wished to or attend all of the religiously significant events he would have liked to. I found that candor quite refreshing.
We learn from the outset that Project Conversion was an intervention of sorts. Having spent time as an evangelical Christian in high school, the horrific events of September 11, 2011 kindled within Andrew a seemingly unquenchable hatred for all Muslims and anything and everything having to do with Islam. After going through a period of disillusionment which so many of us moderns do with our childhood faith, Andrew’s rage at Muslims shifts to a generalized anger towards all things religious. Indeed, he finds it nearly intolerable that his wife, Heather, takes great solace in her Christian faith in the aftermath of a truly devastating familial loss.
We are afforded a rich and raw glimpse into the toll that Andrew’s anger was taking on his marriage. In an act of seeming desperation, Andrew resolves to root out his anger by throwing himself headlong into the world of religion. And thus begins Project Conversion.
As someone who has a decent background in comparative religion, one of the frustrating parts of this memoir was the lack of nuance in some of the chapters. My interest was particularly piqued by the Judaism chapter as this is my tradition. I would have loved to see more of a counterweight to the Orthodox rabbi’s characterization of the heterodox streams of American Judaism and to have been given a better sense of which stream Andrew was practicing. This having been said, however, Andrew’s memoir taught me a great deal about the Dharmic traditions in particular, and my curiosity was kindled by his descriptions of intrafaith tension which exists in numerous communities and how this tension plays itself out in the life of the adherent.
I also deeply appreciated Andrew’s realization from the very beginning that his geographic location would present logistical and practical difficulties, a stark and much needed reminder for me that there are many areas of the United States in which the religious diversity which I take as a given just doesn’t exist.
For those who are interested in the life of the spiritual seeker, or for those who are interested in getting a glimpse into faith traditions not their own, I could not recommend this book enough. For those of us who have gone on our own spiritual and conversionary journeys, there is much that we can take from this book.
I received an electronic copy of this book from the author for this review. Project Conversion is available for purchase on Amazon here.