Every story of conversion is of interest as each convert has their own unique experience of faith to relate. Nonetheless, Ian Murphy’s Dying to Live (Ignatius Press), with its subtitle, “From Agnostic to Baptist to Catholic”, has a particular readability. This comes from his roller-coaster description of the spectacular nudges of grace he receives and his subsequent backslidings. Clearly the author had an early talent for communicating the Christian message to an audience; just as clearly, he struggled with severe obstacles to conversion. Above all, his book shows the extraordinary way grace can work in the life of one gifted but obstinate individual.
Murphy was evidently a God-haunted child. Reading the Bible for himself at a young age (he grew up in a loving, devoutly Protestant home in the Pennsylvanian backwoods), in the second grade “I asked myself the scariest questions ever; What if there is no God? What if I’m just an accident? What is the meaning and purpose of my being here? When I die is it lights-out – and I won’t remember ever existing at all? Do I have a Creator? If I do, then why did God make me?” These are not the normal worries of a seven-year-old.
He relates that from ages 8-14 he experienced acute anxiety about the existence of God and struggled with agnosticism. Aged 14, in desperation he prayed: “God, if you exist, then I need to touch the spiritual realm for myself, in order to have faith.” This is followed by the most terrifying chapter in the book, “Be careful what you pray for”, in which God allowed Murphy to be subject to a demonic attack during the night. Anyone with a similar experience will recognise the authenticity of this ordeal; for those who haven’t, it provides unmistakeable evidence of the diabolic. When the demon finally flees at the name of Jesus, the author reflects ruefully that God did indeed answer his prayer – by showing him the horrifying reality of the dark side of the “spiritual realm.”
Inevitably, Murphy’s conversion is not an easy ride. A straight-A student who excelled all through school, he is tempted to make academic excellence his god. Fortunately, throughout the book timely interventions and good influences appear in the form of exceptional Christian mentors to guide him, both Protestant and Catholic (and by the end of his story, it seems that the Protestant pastors are either secretly Catholic or about to become openly so.)
What is striking about Murphy’s autobiography is how seriously he takes the Christian command to evangelise. Most Catholics would shrink from asking their agnostic or atheist friends if they want to let Jesus into their lives. Not so Murphy – and his apostolic endeavours are met with surprising conversions of the least likely people, such as a fellow cell-phone salesman in the company he works for during several years when he tries to avoid his vocation: to become a fulltime Christian speaker and lecturer. In his own words, “I ran from the Cross.”
One telling episode is worth quoting as it shows up starkly how powerful an obstacle to faith pride can be. Murphy had successfully put the case for Christianity to an agnostic friend, who admitted that he was defeated by the arguments presented to him. Then he says, “Yet I remain a non-Christian…What happened to you indicates that there is invisible, spiritual reality…I don’t listen to that flippantly. I know what it means. And on top of what happened to you, logically speaking, human reason favours that I was indeed designed. And I may very well meet God, and have to account for my life. I choose to remain as I am because I want to be the god of my own life, and do whatever I currently feel like doing. I don’t want to answer to somebody else. And I take full responsibility for my decision, including its consequences.” Reading this passage, I shivered.
The book also has fascinating vignettes that demonstrate why Murphy’s Protestant pastors and mentors always tried to warn him from reading the early Church writers, telling him such curiosity was the work of the Devil. He relates, “One day I eventually read Polycarp. He sounded Catholic. Maybe that’s why everybody hates his writings so much…but this guy knew John – that’s awesome!”
Much of the book’s appeal also comes from Murphy’s self-deprecating humour. Here is one example: “How does one live persuaded by the truth of the Catholic Church while working as a fulltime Baptist preacher? The answer is simple: by living a double life.”
This book should be on the shelves of anyone seriously wrestling with the question of God and the related question: which Church is most faithful to truth, exercised with authority.