Martin Shaw’s Miraculous Conversion
I try not to go too deeply into religion per se on this blog -- I mean, as distinct from "religion and politics," "sociology of religion," and newsier takes -- but here's a story I just have to share with you. Over on my subscription-only Substack, I've just published an interview I did earlier this week in London with Martin Shaw (pictured above), a specialist in and popularizer of mythology. His books -- learn more about them, and about him, at his website -- are cherished by the international community of mythology lovers he has built over the decades. He was not a religious believer, until a bizarre and miraculous event happened to him one night several years ago, as he was completing a long forest vigil in the ruins of an Iron Age fort. Martin, who I describe as being like the Lost Inkling raised in Tom Bombadil's cottage, is now on his way into Orthodox Christianity. Here's how the interview starts:
RD: Tell me about your conversion.
MS: The whole affair began just before lockdown, in October of 2019. I had an impulse, a strange impulse, that I wanted to spend a considerable amount of time visiting the local forest every evening. Now, my background is in wilderness rites of passage, so rather like the Desert Fathers used to do, I spent an enormous amount of my life going out to wild and desolate places, and simply sitting still and fasting – and then taking other folks through that as well. So in a sense this was nothing new. The difference being that rather than being four days and nights, it was 101 days. That wasn’t 101 days without food. It was like turning up for Divine Liturgy before I had the words for it. I didn’t tell anyone I was going to do it; even my daughter didn’t know. And I would just find a way to slip out of the house for one to two hours a day, and go to this ancient Devonian wood.
The reason I was there is that I had decided that it had been an interesting life. I was looking down the barrel of fifty. I was not ostensibly religious, but I was spiritual, as a mythologist and a storyteller. I wanted to give something back to the place that had sustained me all these years. So I would go out at night and recite some troubadour poetry, or tell a story, or I would just sit and be quiet. The main thing is that I wasn’t there on the take. I wasn’t there to use Nature as a backdrop for some sort of epiphany. I was there to give something back.
It was the final night. I was thrilled it was about to be over, because I was glad to get back to my life. I had a belly full of food in me, I had had a cup of tea, and I wandered into the forest for what I knew was going to be an all-night vigil.
In the center of the wood is the remains of an old Iron Age fort. You can’t see it anymore, but you can see it in the ridges, the remains of this old settlement. The idea was that I would sit up in the dark all night and just give thanks, and then it would be over.
Then something unusual happened. I found myself saying, “Thank you for giving me this time with you” – whatever ‘you’ is – ‘and if there’s anything you would like me to see, I’m absolutely at your mercy this evening.” And as I did that, a very, very strange thing happened.
This does not belong to Blakean visionary, or an ayahuasca moment, where I was clearly in an altered state. I was in no kind of altered state when this happened. I just looked up into the sky. It was pitch-black. I don’t remember seeing any of the stars, but suddenly...
I know, I'm being mean. You have to subscribe to Rod Dreher's Diary, my religion and spirituality newsletter, to see how this story ends. I will publish the transcript of the second Martin Shaw interview I did later. In this, the first interview, Martin says later:
Myth told me everything I needed to know about the conditions of life. Christianity showed me how to live it.
My interviews with Martin are for my forthcoming book on re-enchantment. I tell you, this gifted man is going to make a real difference in the world, even more than he already has. He told me that he has lost a lot of his readership and even friends by converting to Christianity, but that he had to follow the signs where they led him. I love Martin's idea, shared with Paul Kingsnorth, that Christianity needs to be made wild again. These two Englishmen, with their mid-life conversions to Orthodoxy, are destined to become beacons of Gospel light and hope. This is what I believe. I've never met Paul, but having spent the early part of this week with Martin, I have no difficulty at all seeing why he has a reputation as a captivating storyteller.
Along these lines, I asked Christian readers earlier this week to share with me their ideas for how we are going to make the faith live for the younger generations. Some of the emails I received:
The question of how to be weird again is one my wife and I discuss often. I think that small steps toward weirdness are maybe the best, and the more in line with holy scripture, the better.
To that end, this season we are focused on actually keeping the Sabbath holy. I think it's maybe modern American Christians' least favorite commandment. For us (so far) that means no shopping, online or in person. That means not working to the best of my ability. I'm a lawyer and many clients expect to be able to call you whenever and for whatever reason - but I've been able to put up boundaries around Sunday mostly successfully.
Love the idea of re-enchantment that you're pursuing for your next book. I think re-enchantment is a gift from God. I walked around like a corpse for three years in the wake of the failure of my first marriage. Then on a whim I went to Iceland and surrounded by all of that beauty, by God's grace all of the magic rushed back into the world. Re-enchantment is possible.
Another, this one from an Orthodox monk:
You ask how young people can be convinced that Christianity is more than moralism or emotionalism. Simply put, young people need to be taught how to pray, and how important it is to pray. And not just young people, either—really all of us in the modern world.
This touches on the Philip Sherrard quote you included. He says a sacred tradition is essentially the transmission of particular form of contemplation. Within Orthodoxy, this is clearly hesychasm (noetic prayer by means of the Jesus prayer). The same thing existed in the West in previous times as well. Not all of us are going to be hermits, but all of us have to partake of the tradition of genuine prayer to some degree if we’re going to rise above the chaos of contemporary life. That’s always been true, but it’s especially true now in the age of the internet and the smartphone.
Attention seems to be a recurring theme in your writing about your new book, and I think that really is the key. I’m not sure if you’ve read it, but “The World Beyond Your Head” by Matthew Crawford is a great non-religious resource for clear thinking about that subject. But whether you’re talking about prayer or any other skilled human activity, attention is the essential ingredient for success. And it’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop—the fruit of attention naturally draws our attention further towards the object of our interest.
In terms of how to make Christianity strange again, I think it’s simply a matter of recovering the monastic ideal. Your Protestant readers won’t like that, but that’s too bad. It was precisely the loss of the monastic ideal (and then the actual monasteries themselves, as in the English Reformation) that has given rise to the modern West. For me, it was encountering the writings of the first desert monastics in college that clued me in to the fact that Christianity had so much more depth than I had ever imagined. Read Evagrius Ponticus, for instance. That’s strange Christianity. Most of my family (excluding my parents, who left church altogether) is Pentecostal, so that was my only in person exposure to Christianity growing up. I had a pretty cynical view of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as a result. The Desert Fathers overcame it, though.
I know you’ve got a broader audience than just Orthodox Christians, and that you don’t want to alienate them too much. But at the same time, there are certain things you just can’t get around. They can’t just be sidestepped or watered down. It would just require a Protestant to rethink certain foundational assumptions to encounter the genuine “strangeness” of true Christianity. It seems like you’ve had a chance to talk to a number of experienced Orthodox monks for this book, so hopefully you can slip some real meat in there without scaring off the non-Orthodox. God continue to bless your labors. I hope you can find genuine comfort in the midst of your personal troubles knowing that you’re doing meaningful work that can really help a lot people.
Yes, Crawford's book is key to the one I'm working on now. It is true that I don't want to alienate my non-Orthodox readers, but it's not from financial considerations. It's because I truly cherish them as brothers and sisters in Christ, and have been blessed by their prayers and friendship. Still, the monk is right: there are certain things you just can't get around. I always struggle over how to present what I believe to be true, but in a way that also conveys the respect I have for non-Orthodox Christians. Then again, the greatest respect one can have for another is to be honest with them, in love. It's hard to figure out how to do, though.
I suppose that people will always generate a culture, even under adverse circumstances. The current secular anti-culture of the West appears to be forming a new culture based on sacred victim groups, as you have noted already. The age that Philip Rieff identified and characterized may already be coming to an end, and observers like you are identifying the congealing of a new culture around a new system of taboos.
The 1970s, so often joked about, really need to be studied more seriously. I was a teenager for most of those years (born in 1961), and I well remember how cheesy they seemed even then. I couldn't wait for styles to change back to something a bit less cheap. And they did, sort of, I suppose, but the damage had been done. That was a decade in which suburban homes began to lack character almost completely. I used to complain about how boring the architecture was then, compared with what had been built even in the 1950s and earlier 1960s.
In any case, the 1970s were a period that introduced an easy-going pop cynicism, often blamed on Watergate and Vietnam, but in reality, I think it was just the outworking of what Rieff had already noticed. The collapse of the sacred in religious practice and feeling was gaining speed in the 1970s in the Protestant churches (which is what I knew, as a Presbyterian). Ministers seemed increasingly frightened of making demands on their flocks, although some were still preaching the hard things. By the 1980s and my college years, though, the softening and the cheap cynicism only seemed to spread more widely, even though the Moral Majority and other forces appeared to be at work. The very fact that "traditional morality"--presumably the hard truths—had a political movement touting it meant that it could be dismissed by the wider culture as just another option. I was in graduate school in English literature after 1983 and that was a wholly secular environment except for one friend who had become Orthodox and a few others who had become Episcopalians, in part on aesthetic grounds. I myself slept in on Sundays during those years, spending Saturday nights in the bars near the university. Christianity seemed strong enough to me "out there" in the non-college towns and cities, but it was weak wherever I was. I didn't realize then that it really could actually dissipate (and was doing so in those other places). But certainly, whenever I did attend church, either back home or near my university, there was very little of the awe I felt as a child in the sanctuary, even terror. The ministers were routinely soft-spoken men (and increasingly some women) who were trying desperately to appear nice and understanding, but the old certainties were no longer laid down at all. No one spoke with any conviction about moral matters, unless it was in terms of kindness and niceness.
Anyway, it was the collapse of any sense of awe and, frankly, terror, in the sacred that has been going on for 50 years. Now, that seems to be coming to an end as, once again, there are things "you just don't say".
Christianity is strange – Our God came to live with us as one of us. Our God died and rose from the dead, not figuratively, not spiritually, but bodily! Our faith is based on reality, but a reality filled with the miraculous, a reality that defies reason and logic, but is much more real because of that. Our faith is strange; in a world of instant gratification, you and I share a faith that tells us to deny our passions and desires for the sake of our true nature. We deny our earthly passions to become more Truly Human. Not only did our God come to live amongst us as one of us, but He also lives now in each of us, with us becoming more and more like Him through consuming His body and drinking His blood. Angels and Demons fight over us, among us, and in us. Our parents, my brothers, and your sister, all of whom are dead, can ask the King to have mercy on us. We know our government is a joke, a bad joke perhaps, but a joke, that the real government is in the hands of our King. But how many Christians really believe all that strange stuff? Not enough, I’m afraid. But like you, I am not optimistic but ever hopeful and full of inner joy because I know we are living through Satan’s long defeat, sad though it is to live through.
The statistics and the state of Christianity beg for answers as to how to make disciples and change things. I was reading in the Gospel of Luke chapter three this morning and was intrigued at John the Baptist's statement to the crowds coming for baptism. "So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him; 'You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'" You can read it for yourself. Amazing that the crowds were going out to be baptized by him. There was a sense of spiritual hunger not being fed by the priests, the scribes, the pharisees, the seminary educated! John was rough but he had what they needed......connection to God. By the way, a recent poll revealed that 17% of people who identify as Christians actually read from the Bible each day and, among them, they read an average of 2 verses per day, not two paragraphs, not two chapters......2 verses. We live in a nation starved for truth as you pointed out in your book "Live Not By Lies"
From the UK:
"How do we convince them that Christianity is so much more than moralism and emotionalism, but not just intellectualizing either?" So the world kind of does that for us. What I mean is that since we now live in the negative world anyone who comes to Christ and joins a church knows that there is a social cost to doing so. They know it's not cool, it's politically incorrect, it is something that some of their friends and family would disapprove of. They know that it involves suffering (even if they don't use that word) because they suffer rejection from friends and family to merely make it through the church doors. So if they come and keep coming they are serious right from the start. The hard bit is keeping them - encouraging them to pay the price and to keep on paying the price, to be the seed that bears good fruit in the parable of the sower. Those who grow up in the church are no different - they go to school, they are on YouTube, they know which way the wind is blowing. They work out in their teenage years that there is a price to be paid to follow Christ - some pay, some don't. So what we are left with is the long hard slog of discipleship - to use the evangelical word - where we get people to develop their own devotional life, to reach maturity, to give, serve and love as Christ did. There's no shortcuts.
Another thing that I take comfort from is the slow and steady rate of growth that the early church enjoyed. The way the church grew despite waves of Roman persecution during its first three centuries must be our inspiration - they had even more opposition than what we face today. But they grew. Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, says that the early church grew at 3.5% per year. That's not a lot. It means doubling every 20 years. So as long as there is slow, steady growth that's OK. That's what brought Rome to its knees. I'm a Pentecostal, and many Pentecostal churches are growing at about that rate. It's not spectacular, but it is growth, and hardly any Pentecostals are liberalising. So even though I want things to be better than they are, the tortoise really does beat the hare, and there are many tortoise-like churches around. Long may they slowly shuffle forward!!
From a Catholic revert:
I have recently been brought back into the Catholic faith in no small part because of my wife and children. My wife was Methodist for most of her life and recently decided to convert to Catholicism. She feels the church is the best framework to raise our two very young children around. I had been sent reeling from the Church after the McCarrick scandals and the Amazonian Synod. I could not let go of my anger and disgust in the church to be able to listen to anything during mass or take the faith seriously. After a few years of attending a Methodist church with my wife, I began to let go of the anger and hurt and slowly started yearning to be back in the fold. My wife started exploring the faith and decided she wanted to convert. We began attending mass together soon after. I had to learn to focus on my faith and not worry about the church politics that broke my ability to see past the chaos and look towards Christ. I don't know how we are going to successfully navigate the church chaos while raising our children, but we both feel called to stay faithful and lead by example. There is hope for us though: we attend a strong church that doesn't preach woke theology from the pulpit and there are a lot of young families like ours that attend. We are going to build our own little Ben Op community (hopefully) and raise our children in a way that doesn't hide from the culture but offers a different path. A fine line to walk but one we must. Hope that helps!
From a lay Catholic evangelist:
Regarding Vatican II and the loss of faith, I think you have it partially correct.
The implementation of Vatican II was certainly a boondoggle (I love that word).But, in regards to the content, it was really an attempt at reaching a culture which had already lost a Christian soul, if not all the practices yet. Thus, the content was correct, even if the way it was lived out and taught was filled with errors and even heresies.
Faith really wasn't personal or intimate - it was more institutional and rule-oriented. Thus, we did what we "ought to do". Went to Mass, got our Sacraments, sent kids to Catholic classes and/or CCD, etc. This is how my parents raised me, because that is how their parents raised them. The same went after Vatican II. We did what the institutions (and those that ran them) told us to do. We used the vernacular, we had teachers that used us as experiments (that failed), etc.
Fast forward to today. How do we reach an unchurched, post-Christian, post-Institution, and largely bored and apathetic culture?
It certainly won't happen by doing what got us into this mess.
I have a lot of thoughts about where the fix will happen, but it will largely happen from the bottom up - in our homes and in neighborhoods, when we rediscover what community is - through a new implementation of ageless principles Jesus taught. Feed the poor. Pray for each other. Love your neighbor. Preach the Gospel.
But do these things in creative ways that speak to today's people.
It is an age of experimentation still, but this time without the silliness and stupidity of the mid to late 20th Century.
In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a saying....."attraction, not promotion". The gist is that you can't sell sobriety or faith, or preach it, and expect anyone slightly on the fence about it, to really listen. That's why meetings have speakers who tell their stories about rising above their issues, and expounding on how their lives have changed for the better. They dont preach. People hear, identify and are attracted to their story. Then they are inspired to give it a try (because if THEY can do it, so can I).. Then they find a mentor...a sponsor to guide them.
Perhaps the church needs to stop preaching and embrace instagram and social media influencers who can tell their stories of faith. Attract the young to want to be part of the church, then support them one on one. Could this be more realistic than the preaching?
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I love the idea of making Christianity strange again.
I'm a Catholic by choice and it's so weird to me how secular parts of my new community are. It boggles my mind that so many Catholics really don't know how beautiful their faith truly is simply because they aren't taught the truths of our faith.
A few years ago, we moved from a mostly dead mainstream parish to one in the Charismatic Movement and we've been pleased. Mostly because it is a personal parish and the people who are there really want to be there. It's really an 'intentional Catholic community'. I could do w/o the speaking in tongues thing, but the priests are solid teachers of the faith and they use the word sin a lot, so I can overlook that. It's just this one thing that rubs me the wrong way about attending mass there as a former Protestant and I've slowly learned to accept it. It is what it is.
I joined the faith because it feeds me both intellectually and spiritually, so it really upsets me when I see people dumb it down for the public consumption. I feel betrayed by my Protestant faith teachers because they only gave me half my Christian story. They didn't present the full story. So it really bothers me when I hear stories about 'well-meaning' leaders who don't want to offend people. They miss that Jesus offended a lot of people with his persistence and insistence on speaking the truth. There are reasons why the church teaches what she does. Weirdly, or not, one of my favorite books is the Catechism of the Catholic Church because it's so thoughtful as to why the church believes and teaches what she does. That book shows me the Christianity I want to belong to and love. It's so much more than God is love and bird pictures. And that's the vision of Christianity I wish the church would focus on.
I'd rather be in a small community of sincere believers than a large community of fakers.
If you can't post your reactions to any of this below, then feel free to email them to me at rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com. Please put FAITH in the subject line. I am deluged by email daily, and miss a lot of things unintentionally.