The Novels That Changed My Life


Most people will recall a certain novel (or novels) they read in their earlier years, that was a type of catalyst, or signpost – an unforgettable experience that became the turning point in how they began to think and see life from then on. But among all the interesting life-changing testimonies, there are none like religious conversion stories to fascinate us. This is just one of Paul McCusker’s articles on the topic of his conversion from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in 2007, and which can be found on the R.C. Spiritual Direction blog: 

Paul McCusker is an author. He has over 40 published works, including novels, plays, scripts, and lyrics. 

Life As I Find It

I was raised to be a church-going boy. My formative years were spent as a Baptist where weekly doses of Gospel preaching and Bible teaching told me everything I needed to know about accepting Jesus into my heart. Yet, for all of the sermons and studies and Bible reading, it was a novel that made the Truth real to me: The Greatest Story Ever Told by Fulton Oursler.

Unlike a lot of Protestants, I can’t pinpoint a date when it happened. But I remember vividly reading Oursler’s book one evening in my bedroom and reached the part about the Crucifixion. The potency of the drama took hold of me and I knew I was responsible for putting Jesus on the cross. So I knelt next to my bed and asked Jesus to forgive me for my sins. That was a pivot-point in my spiritual journey.  From there I desired to go deeper in my life with Christ.

Over 20 years later, after struggling with the “Seeker-style” of worship that dominated Evangelicalism, I encountered “High Church” Anglican liturgy while living in England. That liturgy helped me realize I had been looking for something more than a 7-11 spirituality: I wanted transcendence in my spiritual life. The liturgy pointed me in that direction. And a series of novels about the Church of England by novelist Susan Howatch – beginning with Glittering Images – helped me to understand the dynamic of Anglicanism more than most academic efforts.  They weren’t Public-Relations stories at all. On the contrary, they showed the flawed humanness of Henry VIII’s creation five hundred years later. Yet, in many ways, those novels helped prepare me for what would happen next.

Several years ago the Anglican Communion in general, and the U.S. Episcopal Church in particular, began to implode. Amidst the debates, I found myself asking a very basic question: “Who has the authority to interpret Scripture and establish doctrine?” I’d never asked it before. Somehow I had assumed I knew the answer as a Baptist and carried that with me into my Anglicanism – with a modified version that allowed for Anglican tradition as an extension of whatever I assumed my answer had been. But there is was – an obvious question I had never really asked. So a new journey began.

I had no desire to quit Anglicanism, nor was I looking to become something else. Certainly not a Catholic. I figured the answer to the question could easily be found within solid Protestant theology somewhere. By this time I had become friends with Father John Bartunek and he introduced me to the writings of John Henry Newman.

It will seem strange to many that Newman’s non-fiction writing, while meaningful, didn’t impact me as much as one of his obscure novels. Loss And Gain: The Story of a Convert was a semi-autobiographical effort. Father John recommended it to me with the proviso that it was a novel that “shouldn’t work” because it was too didactic, but he wanted to know what I thought of it anyway. Clever fellow.

510W58FftUL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_The novel seemed to capture everything I was thinking and feeling. I saw myself in Newman’s protagonist and his own struggles. And then the unfathomable became fathomable. The die-hard Baptist boy – the dedicated Anglican – moved towards Roman Catholicism. All because of a story that shouldn’t have worked.

Little wonder, then, that Jesus told as many stories as He did. Pastor Eugene Peterson called Jesus’ parables “time-bombs” – planted in the hearts of His listeners under the guise of “Once upon a time…” And the defenses of His listeners went down because everyone loves a good story. But later, when they’re least expecting it, the bomb went off and Truth exploded into their hearts and minds.

As one who writes stories for a living, I shouldn’t be surprised that stories impacted my life as much as anything to bring me to the Truth. Yet I still am. The power of Story to reach past barriers and into the nooks and crannies of the heart is still a mystery to me, one that I relish contemplating again and again. The wonder of it all.


The aforementioned book can be found here:

Are there any novels, plays, films, or just plain experiences, that have changed your life?

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6 Responses to The Novels That Changed My Life

  1. johnhenrycn says:

    I’ve quite a few of Newman’s books, but not Loss and Gain, which I will now add to my Wish List, or at least look up at Project Gutenberg. For Giovanni’s benefit, I’d point out that many of Blessed John Henry Newman’s most memorable sermons were written and delivered while he was still an Anglican clergyman, and a very famous, well-off and influential one at that. It was because of the great courage he displayed in giving it all up that I chose “Newman” as my confirmation name when I too became a ‘new man’ eight years ago. His pre-Catholic sermons are still in print and available through that estimable Catholic publishing house, Ignatius Press.
    One novel which made a great and lasting impression on me and millions of others was The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas, who (again for Giovanni’s benefit) was originally a Lutheran minister, before transferring to the United Church of Canada, with both of which denominations (in addition to Presbyterianism and Anglicanism) I have experience, and which helped make me the person I am today – for better or for worse.


  2. johnkonnor72 says:

    ..i was wondering if the toad still frequents the footnotes of this reedy pond???


  3. johnhenrycn says:

    I’m of two minds when it comes to our friend, the elderly, silver-haired (or bald) Toad:
    (a) Wisdom comes with age.
    (b) There’s no fool like an old fool.
    He says he’s a huge admirer of Lewis Carroll, the guy who invented a word play game called Doublets, wherein a word is changed from its original meaning into its complete opposite by changing one letter at a time, forming an actual new word with each change, until the antithesis is reached, viz:
    Head —> Heal, Teal, Tell, Tall, = Tail 😉
    Let’s see if the old codger can change “White” into “Black”, which he’s been trying to do for as long as I’ve known him.


  4. johnhenrycn says:

    …it’s entirely possible – using standard English – although 7 intermediate permutations are needed.


  5. kathleen says:

    Thanks JH.
    There was a wonderful well-equipped library at the convent school I attended, just right for a child like me who was an avid reader.
    I read “The Big Fisherman” by Lloyd C. Douglas, and quite liked it, but still found it rather weak in places – especially its description of The Last Supper. I never finished reading “The Robe”(can’t now remember why) but I enjoyed the film.

    “Quo Vadis” by the Pole, Henryk Sienkiewicz, that I read when I was already an adult, left a lasting impression on me….. hence my avatar! (The book’s a whole lot better than the film, btw.)


  6. johnhenrycn says:

    Hi, Kathleen: well yes, Mr. Douglas’s novels are sort of middlebrow affairs, but at the time of life when I read The Robe, I found it very moving. Another novel I found astonishly good when I was a callow fellow was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, which if I read it now, I would likely smirk at. Must read Quo Vadis someday soon, especially since Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for it, back in the day when the Nobel still meant something (cf. Harold Pinter).


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