The Mechanics of Conversion: Cindy in Orange is the New Black

Cindy, a black inmate, wants to convert to Judaism in order to obtain better prison food – that is, kosher food. This is one of the key plotlines in this past season of Orange is the New Black, a popular television show about a women’s prison, which has been by far its most religious season yet.  

While Cindy begins her “journey” of faith by faking a Jewish identity in order to upgrade her meals, by at the end of the season, she is in tears, sitting in front of a rabbi, explaining why she genuinely wants to convert. That scene is the most sincere, purely motivated and thoughtful depiction of religious devotion – or at least aspiration towards it – in the entire show. Why? And what is the significance of this?

   According to religious ritual, the Rabbi first has to reject your request to convert twice before saying, "yes," an interesting contrast to how the eagerness of Christian pastors to get a "yes" in whatever shape or form. 


According to religious ritual, the Rabbi first has to reject your request to convert twice before saying, "yes," an interesting contrast to how the eagerness of Christian pastors to get a "yes" in whatever shape or form. 

The show’s depictions of religion are typically designed to convey a single and simple message: Religion, especially institutional and organized religion, is bad—it propagates hierarchical (especially patriarchal) authority and is morally controlling. Contrast Cindy’s conversion scene with the flashback to her childhood, which seems lifted straight out of a book about fundamentalist horror stories. Her father catches her trying to sneak some food while he is saying grace, and then proceeds to bible-lecture her, ending with a histrionic declaration, “So thou must not sin! Amen!”

Given this backdrop, it is surprising to see the writers of the show take Cindy’s initial faux-conversion and turn it into a full-fledged one. Why? Let’s examine the speech she gives that ultimately convinces the rabbi to give her his blessing.

“I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell. And if I was good, I’d go to heaven. And if I’d ask Jesus, he’d forgive me and that was that,” she says, crying. “And here y’all are saying there ain’t no hell. Ain’t sure about heaven. And if you do something wrong, you got to figure it out yourself. And as far as God’s concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions and to keep learning and to keep arguing. It’s like a verb. It’s like … you do God. And that’s a lot of work, but I think I’m in, as least as far as I can see it. ”

Essentially, she is saying that Christianity tends to promote a lot of fear about eternal moral judgment in which you are a passive actor – God decides your end, even if it is based on your actions. Judaism, on the other hand, mostly does away with the eternal scales of justice, focuses on this earthly life, and places the onus on you, not God, to “figure it out yourself.” And while Christianity is about cut-and-dry rules of who gets in and out, Judaism encourages questioning, learning and argument. (All according to Cindy's experience.)

It is easy to see how this take on Judaism is far more plausible and attractive to Cindy, and perhaps any other inmate, than her experience of Christianity. (For the record, more and more Christian theologians and pastors are moving towards a vision of the “kingdom of God,” or heaven, not as a far-off place in the sky but a reality that begins now on earth to which we can labor towards until its full consummation.)

Our criminal justice system, in a way, is the earthly version of the “scales of justice,” and the show reiterates over and over again that there is little justice involved in who does or does not ends up in “hell” (prison). Who is to say, then, that the afterlife will be much better? Moreover, in prison, it is mainly on you to survive, to hustle, to learn. There is no higher authority handholding you, although there is peer support. And most of the rules, and the enforcement of them, are seen as arbitrary. In light of these conditions, it is no wonder that Judaism simply makes more “sense” – on an experiential, not rational plane – than Christianity for Cindy. Prison provides, as Peter Berger would call it, a “plausibility structure” (a sociocultural context in which certain meanings are made plausible) for Cindy’s faith.

The Church’s doctrine, in many respects, is on public trial and is evolving. But it is not enough for the Church to simply have more accurate or more persuasive doctrine. It has to create “plausibility structures” – of ritual, relationship, etc. – that render the tenets that we profess a little less distant and foreign, and a little more real and believable.

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Sarah Ngu is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she blogs on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses. You can follow her at @sarahngu. 

"Stop Explaining Away Black Christian Forgiveness"

In an article for Christianity Today, I respond to critics who refuses to seriously take the faith of the Charleston Nine Families who extended forgiveness to Dylan Roof.

The confounding forgiveness of the Charleston Nine families has led some to ignore its motivation and propose their own... Hanna Rosin, for instance, seemed to suggest that black forgiveness was a legacy of white supremacy. Others turned the conversation to whether or not forgiveness provided an easy out to the public, allowing whites to move on from the systemic injustices and racist doctrines that permeate much of our society. By the end of Roxane Gay’s op-ed in The New York Times, the autonomous, self-initiated (to our knowledge) motivation of the black family members was replaced with uncited references to “demands for forgiveness” from “white people,” and a universal declaration that “black people forgive because we need to survive.”

Is it really that difficult to imagine that these families forgave for reasons other than to please white bystanders or advance a social cause? If the family members identified their forgiveness with their faith, is it right to insist that their willingness to forgive is a result of their race? They did not forgive to express the values of their race or to represent the character of their country, but to be faithful to their God.

... Explaining away black Christians’ exercise of their faith, and equal access to Jesus, has deep roots.

Read on here.

What Tim Keller & a Los Angeles LGBT Center Have in Common

Since this post was published, the study about canvassers for gay marriage turns out to relied on falsified data. Read more here.

Imagine reading the following pointers on a pamphlet: 

·      stop trying to teach people

·      talk personally about your experiences

·      don’t try to direct the conversation

·      most importantly: listen to others. Find out what seems real, important and emotional to them.

Guess the topic of the pamphlet. And no, it is not about evangelism.

These four pointers are actually the lessons learned from a Los Angeles LGBT center, when it sent hundreds of volunteer canvassers into neighborhoods to convince people to vote for gay marriage (source: This American Life podcast). At the first canvassers tried to appealing to higher, idealistic principles, but they discovered that moral reasoning was not an effective method. What they needed to do, they realized, was to “stop telling people things,” and to start talking “personally about their own experiences.” The most important thing they could do? “Listen.”

 The results are significant: more than a year later, the percentage of canvassed voters who chose to support gay marriage had increased by 15% (this was true only if the canvasser was gay; if straight, the voter would change their mind within a few weeks).

Compare these lessons to some of Tim Keller’s best practices for evangelism:

·      Ask friends about their faith – and just listen!

·      Listen to your friends problems – maybe offer to pray for them

·      Share your problems with others – testify to how your faith helps you

·      Share your story

 Note Keller’s repetition of the words “listen” and “share.” It seems that the same behaviors underlie both effective evangelism and canvassing on gay marriage: listening and sharing. These are fairly simple behaviors—the kind of things you might learn in kindergarten—but it is worth underscoring that they are far more personal than simply demonstrating a “winsome witness” or having a “civil conversation,” which are the phrases that tend to be thrown around when in discussions about the “public square.” To be winsome is, by definition, to be attractive or appealing, and to be civil implies politeness as well as the absence of hurtful or fear-mongering language. Winsome civility is certainly important, but “listening” and “sharing,” frankly, go much deeper and imply a level of vulnerability and care. So whether you are trying to persuade someone about God or marriage, while rational arguments can certainly go a long way (Keller is, after all, known for his apologetics), both activities seem to require a certain level of vulnerability and human connection.

 All of this gives hope that we can achieve “confident pluralism,” a vision for what it means to live together in a pluralistic society, which John Inazu, associate professor of law and political science at Washington University in St. Louis, has sketched out.

In Inazu’s vision, confident pluralism “allows genuine difference to exist without suppressing or minimizing firmly held convictions.” It is about finding “common ground even in the absence of a shared common good.” Inazu cites a few examples, such as “the unlikely friendship between Chick-fil-A founder Dan Cathy and Campus Pride founder Shane Windmeyer.”

Finding common ground, he stresses, is not about compromising beliefs, but “lessening relational distance through the civility, trust, and friendship that emerges through shared experiences.” This is the only viable way to find common humanity (Alexis de Tocqueville would agree).

 Ironically, if the traditional church and the LGBT movement try to genuinely convince each other by employing the lessons and principles that they know are effective, they might actually find many opportunities to identify such common humanity. But listening and sharing is something that cannot really happen through advertisements or op-eds, but is truly best done – and perhaps can only be done – face-to-face.

It’s important here to note that many of the canvassed voters who opposed gay marriage knew someone who is gay, but had just never had a heart-to-heart with him or her. So confident pluralism not just about knowing someone who is ____ (gay, evangelical, Christian, liberal, etc.) and coexisting in a friendly manner, but having a open-hearted conversation with her or him about the issues that divide you. (Some say that there cannot be genuine conversation unless both parties are open to the possibility of changing their minds, and I would tend to agree.)

Ira Glass comments that this method of changing voters’ minds is expensive. The Los Angeles LGBT Center spent nearly $2.5 million over four years and reached just 12,000 voters. It would be, he soberly reminds us, far cheaper to run a scare ad and rally the base, which is exactly what politicians tend to do.

But the good news is that political volunteers do not have a monopoly on genuine and real face-to-face conversations. Anyone can have them. After all, and most importantly, listening and sharing are not just effective tactics, but fundamental to what it means to be human (and to be Christian).

Dispatches from Europe #3 (UK): My Remarks on Faith, Government and Society

Michael Wear third blog post related to his trip to UK/France. This post includes his remarks from events with government and religious leaders in the UK.