Just as I was heading to bed last night I learned that Howard Zinn, history professor and author at Boston University, had passed away yesterday from a heart attack. When I think about the conversions that have taken place throughout my life Zinn is someone who plays a role. I grew up catholic, started identifying myself as a Christian in high school and became a Quaker in college (and now tend to use that label for myself more than other labels), and have since remained in the Quaker camp but have continued to change and grow in understanding of faith, culture, the world and politics.
Many influences collide to form who we are from our family and upbringing to the books and music we listen too. Converisions happen around whose stories we hear. Every turn in my path has come from being introduced to a new person and their story. For Instance, I cared very little about immigration until, while at Fuller, I sat down with a group of day laborers at a the day laborer center there in Pasadena. After hearing the men’s real life stories I was confronted with a reality I didn’t know existed (or was avoiding in order to keep my own thinking unchanged). Now I had names and narratives, faces burned into my memory. These are real people, who deeply love their families and have given up everything in hopes of something far better. Immigration has been something I deeply care about ever since. In high school I read a number of John Lennon’s biographies being drawn to his own experience as a Beatle and an artist protesting the war. Then I read Keith Green’s biography and was impacted by he and his wife’s radical faith of loving the poor. Green’s book “No Compromise” set me onto Dylan’s music because Green wrote about Dylan becoming a Christian. I thought “wasn’t this the same guy that Lennon and the Beatles so highly admired? I’ve got to check him out!” And it was Dylan’s narratives that tilled the soil in my heart for new ways of thinking about justice, politics and the people we interact with on a daily basis.
When I arrived at Malone I took all the expected classes. One of those was a class with Jay Case who required we read Zinn’s book “The People’s History of the United States” alongside a far more “traditional” history by Paul Johnson. I could barely get past the introduction of Johnson’s book, but I devoured Zinn’s. I couldn’t believe he was so upfront about the perspective in his work, I’d never read that kind of transparency in an academic work before. He starts his history by saying something to the effect of “I’m going to tell the stories of those who’s stories have not been told because the people in power do not want them told.” WOW! So I chewed it up. It didn’t hurt that my step-father was a history buff, so this gave some discussion material (although it wasn’t necessarily his perspective by any means). Zinn’s book, like Dylan’s music, gave me something to draw, something I experienced deep within me but also something to build on intellectually. I’ve gone through many conversions and it is because people like Howard Zinn, Bob Dylan, Keith Green, John Lennon and others who have set out to tell real life stories that often do not get told about people who are not often loved. Being confronted with those narratives, experiencing that heartache can crack one’s conscious if it is open enough.
This is the second part of a series on conversion.