Caveat lector—shortly after glancing through the early pages of James J. Thompson, Jr.’s accurately but flamboyantly titled Fleeing the Whore of Babylon, I wondered how in this vale of tears I could complete the job assigned to me by Chronicles. How dreadful to contemplate yet another conversion-to-the-One-True-Faith story, this conversion, moreover, from Seventh-Day Adventism. I had recently read the novelist Mary Gordon’s account of her own conversion from Mormonism to the Roman Catholic Church and knew that she had since gone hopelessly trendy; besides, give me good solid converts from atheism, agnosticism, and the general European disillusionment.
American sectarians are the toughest. Barely into chapter two, the one entitled “Gonnye” (a juvenile corruption of “Granny,” the author’s Bible-thumping grandmother and implacable foe of Roman Catholic devils everywhere), I nearly threw the book across the room and decided to tell Chronicles I could not handle the job. But it all came to life for me when Thompson emerges from adolescence and makes contact with the world beyond Comus and Takoma Park, Maryland, especially when he himself confesses that Maryland was indeed a rather curious place for his beloved Granny’s anti-Catholic animus. When books became extremely important to him, he began to read Chesterton, Belloc, Peguy, Maritain, and at one point says that it was Graham Greene who helped save his life. (A most powerful feat by perhaps the least likely candidate for salvific duties in an otherwise imposing roster of Catholics.)
Be it as it may, from the very beginning of adult consciousness, James Thompson, Jr. was a man in search of absolutes. But a man in search of absolutes is one who, in Jung’s theory of individuation, can take a quantum leap towards either the likes of an Adolf Hitler or the more benign fundamentalism of a Jerry Falwell or an Oral Roberts. Instead, Thompson took to the high road of pure abstractionism and sought such idealizations as Southern civilization, laissez-faire capitalism, and finally the Roman Catholic Church. Though all three categories were left relatively unshaken by the encounter, the last of these proved to be the most understanding and receptive. James Thompson, Jr. became a Roman Catholic.
Thompson’s journey into certitude was nonetheless shaky for all that. He subsequently found himself in and out of marriage in almost equal parts to his having been in and out of the church and back again. The attraction of Holy Mother the Church (an old preconciliar term) continued to be so powerful, however, that Thompson soon saw himself as one pursued by the dreadful Whore of Babylon that had once haunted Granny’s imagination. He has written some nice but rather superficial essays for the New Oxford Review, which were later published by Ignatius Press, and which he now admits to have been the products of mere enthusiasm. With this book James J. Thompson, Jr. has obviously matured as a Catholic Christian, though still deprived of the Eucharist because of marital complications and earlier oversights. We are left with a better-than-usual conversion story, and if it still has a long way to go, we wish him exceeding well. Thomas P. McDonnell is a free-lance writer living near Boston.
[Fleeing the Whore of Babylon: A Modern Conversion Story by James J. Thompson, Jr., Westminster, MD: Christian Classics]