In 2005, Jennifer Fulwiler began reading — and blogging — her way into the Catholic Church. For the lifelong atheist, who spent much of her childhood in the Bible Belt, Catholicism was unfamiliar territory, equal parts confounding and unsettling. Yet, she persevered, and in 2007, along with her husband Joe, found her way home.
Fulwiler’s first book, “Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It” (Ignatius Press, $22.95), tells the tale of that journey. Published this past spring, it offers guidance both for those seeking truth in the Catholic Church and for Catholics looking to help the seekers in their quest. Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Fulwiler about the book and the lessons in evangelization it offers.
Our Sunday Visitor: On your blog, ConversionDiary.com, you write on a wide variety of topics related to faith, life and culture. Any one of them would have made a great focus for your first book. But you went with the story of your conversion. Why?
Jennifer Fulwiler: The simple answer is that I thought it was a good story. I come from a long line of Texas storytellers and have always loved a good story. As I was thinking about what I wanted to write, I stepped back, looked at my life, and asked, “What is the most profound, transformational thing that has ever happened to me?” My conversion was the obvious answer.
OSV: As you were going through the process of conversion, how much did conversion stories help you?
Fulwiler: They played a huge role. When I would read the work of people who told me what was right or wrong, that immediately led me to put up my defenses. It’s psychologically distressful to admit that you’re wrong. Nobody wants to admit that. On the other hand, when I read people’s conversion stories, I didn’t have that same defensive reaction. I was just observing what had happened to somebody else. It became a way for me to get at the truth, but without needing to get defensive.
OSV: What else helped you through the process?
Fulwiler: So many things: blogs, social media, just the Internet, generally. Coming from an atheist background, I didn’t feel like I could share with many people in my life that I was exploring this topic. There was a fear of looking stupid or being laughed at. I also didn’t want to ask people a lot of questions in person, because I was self-conscious about the direction my life was taking. Talking online with people made it possible for me to get answers to all the questions I had in a way that was comfortable.
OSV: What did you find unhelpful along the way? What sort of things did people say or do that hindered your progress towards the Faith?
Fulwiler: Anytime someone treated me without love, it pushed me away. At the time, I told myself that my conversion was all about data and seeking the truth, that it wasn’t about emotion. But looking back, I see that wasn’t strictly the case. I’m human, and we all long for the love of Christ, even if we don’t know how to articulate that. When people were trying to correct me or steer me on the right course, but didn’t do it in the spirit of Christ, that set me back. That happened even if what they were saying was true.
OSV: What other mistakes did people make when they were trying to be helpful?
Fulwiler: Probably the biggest word of caution I can offer is to not buy into the image that the New Atheists project about their beliefs — that their atheism is all about logic and reason and that interpersonal factors don’t play a role. Richard Dawkins and his followers would say, “I don’t care if Christians are nice to me or not. My beliefs are all about data.” Because they say that so often, we’re tempted to think that’s true and approach them in a very argumentative way. We’ll say, “Look at what the Church Fathers said at this council, or look at this argument for such and such teaching.” Those discussions are important. It’s good to have them at some point. But we’re making a huge mistake if we forget that these people yearn for the love of Christ as much as anyone. Catholics especially are prone to this. We think, “You like logic and reason? Well, so do we.” And then we launch into talking about facts. But in the process, we often forget to check ourselves and ask if we’re showing the love and acceptance of Christ as much as we can. Whenever you don’t show Christ as much as you talk about Christ, you’re going to have problems.
OSV: In the years since your conversion, what has surprised you the most about life as a Catholic?
Fulwiler: That life could get both harder and more joyful. If, at the outset, someone had told me the things we would go through as a Catholic family, I would have run away screaming. But the reality is, I’ve never been filled with so much joy, even though we have a lot more problems than we did when we were trying to live the perfect worldly life.
OSV: What have been your most difficult moments since entering the Church?
Fulwiler: If I had to pick just one, it would be the first few times I had fellow Catholics let me down in a big way — when Catholics turned their backs on me, said something hurtful, or did something unfair. In the beginning I was a little unrealistic in my expectations about others and have since adjusted those.
But I’ve heard from a couple people that similar letdowns were the trigger for them falling away. Faith is all about Christ. At least, it should be all about him. But the reality is that what the members of the body of Christ do impacts our faith.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
Learn more about evangelization from these great Catholic books:
◗ “How to Share Your Faith With Anyone: A Practical Manual for Catholic Evangelization” by Terry Barber (Ignatius, $14.95)
◗ “Evangelizing Catholics: A Mission Manual for the New Evangelization,” by Scott Hahn (OSV, $19.95)
◗ “The Real Story: Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible,” by Curtis Martin and Edward Sri (Beacon Publishing, $13.95)
◗ “The Seven Deadly Sins of Apologetics: Avoiding Common Pitfalls When Explaining and Defending the Faith,” by Mark Brumley (Catholic Answers, $12.95)
◗ “Search and Rescue: How to Bring Your Family and Friends Into — or Back Into — the Catholic Church,” by Patrick Madrid (Sophia Institute Press, $18.95