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Past Sins, Redemption and “Moral Torment”: Russian Orthodox Narratives of Conversion
This paper addresses autobiographical narratives recorded during fieldwork in Russia (2006-2007). Theoretically, it draws on the concepts of conversion (Pelkmans 2009, 2010, 2015), “moral torment” (Robbins 2004) and “moral lazarets” (Hann 2010). Narratives are a powerful means of shaping individual identities and self-perception (Ammerman, Williams 2012); believers forge their new moral selves through narratives. The narratives of conversion that constitute an integral part of the life of Charismatic Protestant parishes (‘testimonies’ or ‘stories of healing’) follow an established model; in contrast, Russian autobiographical accounts of conversion (from atheism) can hardly be reduced to a single narrative pattern. While the postsocialist narratives of the Pentecostals sound triumphant (Pelkmans 2010) (as a path from moral darkness to moral rebirth with the discovery of God), the accounts of Orthodox Russian believers are often dominated by the topics of past sins, redemption, and the long road to moral purification (Hann 2010). One type of Russian Orthodox narrative describes conversion in terms of pain and physical suffering. A second type constructs conversion as a miracle (“St. Paul’s model”). A third type testifies to the juggernaut re-evaluation of one’s past life as deeply sinful and the challenging need to save the soul. This paper turns to consider similarity – though not identity – between conversion models within Christianity. In particular, I pick up Robbins’ (2004) concept of “moral torment” to prove that a model of “break” and “rupture” is neither exclusively Protestant nor Pentecostal.