21 Jun 2012

The King of Conversion

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Blog | J.D. Bale

Something like 700 years ago there was this monk—his name and identity are lost to history, but I like to imagine that he got kicked out some abbey, probably for asking too many questions and loving irony more than piety. He had a lot on his mind about the divisiveness of religion and how going to war over it was probably a mistake. So he wrote a story and slipped it into the first “secular” (not produced by the Church) manuscript that was ever written in English.

That story was a “crusade romance” (already with the irony!) called “The King of Tars.” It appears to be a story about the politics of race and conversion, but with all the trappings of modern melodrama that we love—opportunistic fathers, lying princesses, deviously possessive husbands, a hideously deformed lovechild, and all kinds of beheadings. It was kind of a big deal.

The story goes a little like this: The beautiful princess of Christian controlled Tarsus (Tars) arouses the interest of the Sultan of Damascus. The sultan attacks the city and kills 30,000 Christian crusaders (martyrs?), and then makes an indecent proposal: Let me marry the princess or I’ll kill everybody else.

The “king” of Tarsus really liked being king, so he gives his daughter over to the sultan. Before they consummate the marriage the sultan demands that the princess convert to Islam, which she at first refuses to do. But then the princess has a vision in which a black dog transforms into a white knight and tells her that Jesus will make everything ok. The next morning the sultan ups the ante saying, “If you don’t convert, not only will I withhold sex, I will kill your parents.” So she fakes her conversion, all the while “holding Christ in her heart.”

Nine months later they have a kid, but it comes out “a formless deformed mass.” The sultan is distraught and blames it on the false faith of the princess. The two parents then wager their child’s well being on their own faith, pitting their gods against one another. If the sultan’s “gods” can save the baby, she will believe—for real this time. But nothing works, and the sultan in a rage smashes all of his idols. So then the princess asks the sultan if they can baptize the baby and he agrees. During the baptism the Holy Spirit transforms the baby into a healthy child and it is christened John.

The sultan then converts and is himself baptized, at which point he also transforms, turning from black to white. He then proceeds to tell his entire kingdom to convert, just like he did, or get their heads cut off. In an expanded variant 30,000 “pagans” refuse to convert and are beheaded.

On the surface the story seems like pro-Crusade propaganda, but it’s actually the opposite—an honest and critical look at what was absurd about the concept of “crusade as mission” in the first place. It asks the question: How do people change and how do changed people change the world?

It starts with questioning what they knew about “the enemy.” Most medieval European Christians knew nothing about Islam outside of the fact that they were “not Christian.” They just grouped them within the biblical category of “pagans” and imagined that they were like the enemies of God’s people in the Old Testament—idolaters. From what most had heard, these “Saracens” worshipped Mahoun (Muhammad), “The Hound,” a “Gentile dog.” Instead of a golden calf, Christians were told that Muslims worshipped the blackened image of a rottweiler.

But Muslims are not idol worshippers. In fact their religion much more strictly forbids the use of imagery in worship than Christianity does. The author of the story used the “cover illumination” inserted before the text to showcase this irony– it depicts the contrasting images of a man bowing down before a dog on an altar and a couple bowing before a crucifix. It poses an important question: “Why are we killing all these people who supposedly worship idols when WE are the ones counting on magical crosses and other relics to ensure our victory?”

In pointing out this irony the author also challenges readers to question what they really know about Christianity itself. What does it mean to be “Christian?” Is it just something that you call yourself and declare to others, or is it something that you believe and keep in your heart? Do you confess it, or just profess it? Can you do one and not the other? Where does the integrity of our beliefs come from? Is it something that you are born into? Is Christianity a place? Is it a nationality? Is it an ethnicity—a skin color?

Is it just a religion?

Finally, the story questions the true authority that can bring peace over all these things. Who is “The King of Tars?” Is it the father who sells out his daughter to “evildoers” in order to retain his status as the ruler of a nation that can’t even defend itself? Is it the sultan who can’t control or even lead his wife, much less his people? Or is it the baby, uniting two kingdoms, two religions, and two families in one body?

Can the birth of one baby or the wavering convictions of any individual tear down the “dividing wall of hostility” and bring peace to two worlds that had been taking turns murdering each other for hundreds of years?

Obviously, the answer to all of these questions is: NO. The rogue monk, whatever his name was, wrote the story as a subversive means of pointing out that absolutely everything about the mission behind the Crusades was deeply flawed.

But there is an answer. In case you didn’t notice, Tarsus and Damascus have special significance in the New Testament, particularly when talking about conversion. Saul OF TARSUS (Tars) is converted into Paul the Apostle while walking the road to DAMASCUS. The transformation happens when he meets Jesus.

And that is the point of the story: Jesus is “The King of Tars.” Religion doesn’t save or even change people. Jesus does. Regime change doesn’t save people. Jesus does. Socio-political revolutions don’t save people. Jesus does. Cultural traditions don’t save people. Jesus does.

The original story ends abruptly with a bunch of “pagans” being threatened with death if they don’t “change,” and the elaborated variants just make it clear that a great many of them don’t. Because they can’t. But the short ending does a great job of pointing out that Christians can’t change themselves either. Leaving the story open puts readers on their knees and under the sword– ready to be instructed through asking an important question: “Do I have something more than religion, or do I need to change too? Am I under the sword just as much as they are?”

The only sword by which one Person converts another is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). The manuscript containing “The King of Tars” was meant for teaching, and the point of the lesson is to lead students back to The Bible. Perhaps this nameless monk had Romans 3 and Ephesians 2 in mind—two great examples of one converted man proclaiming the only truth that could bring peace. In any case, it does a good job of pointing out that the problem of the Crusades was that the solution was the one thing that nobody seemed to be fighting for: Jesus.

Only Jesus is the King of Conversion and only Jesus is the King of Peace. This was just as true in the 1st Century as it was in the 14th Century, and it is still true in the 21st. Christians and Muslims still don’t get along because they spend more time fighting over religion than talking about Christ.

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