There’s been lots of discussion about conversion stories over at Faith in Fiction these days. Dave Long, acquisitions editor for Bethany House, will be discussing the finalists of his “conversion story contest” in upcoming weeks, and what elements contributed to their selection. Conversion scenes are typically some of the most difficult to write for the Christian author, partly because of theological considerations (i.e., actions / experiences must square with Scripture) and partly because of dramatic familiarity (I mean, how many different ways can you show someone falling to their knees begging for mercy?). The discussion over there has been lively, veering often into doctrinal dissertations and lamentations about not placing.
Anyway, I tossed my hat into the Faith in Fiction forum several times and the sound of those comments thudding to the chatroom floor was probably heard throughout cyberspace. Still the discussion about conversion interests me, so I figured I’d doodle here.
Dave’s November 11th post, Sanctification vs. Justification, indicates the direction of the conversation. Theology appeared to be a huge issue for most of the participating writers. In the blog and Message Board threads you’ll find references to Reformed Theology, synergism and monergysm, Wesley-Arminians and Calvinists, and various doctrinal grids. The consensus seems to be that the actual conversion event (justification) is not nearly as interesting to fictionalize as are the processes before and after (sanctification).
Now this kinda puzzles me, for two reasons. First, conversion experiences seem anything but uniform and formulaic. Of course, there are some common elements like a conviction of sin and a yielding to God. But even those we tend to see through a Western lense. What of the bushman, the Buddhist or the unenlightened yogi? Can they not take steps to God? And if so, would those steps look exactly like yours or mine? The prostitute and the President both need God. But how they arrive is all the fun. People come from so many different places — different backrounds, cultures and worldviews, bringing different scars, conflicts and potential futures. Even if sanctification offers more fictional possibilities, it’s hard for me to see the conversion experience as lacking creative angles.
Which leads to my second observation: I think we bring too much theology to the discussion. No, I’m not saying that we should ignore or contradict Scripture, but avoid forcing our stories through some doctrinal assembly line. Dave alludes to this in the above-mentioned post:
There is a level of specificity that has come to our understanding of the doctrine of justification. And I wonder if that specificity has made it more difficult to write about. Youâ€™re writing within a tight theological box at that point and the room for two of the hallmarks of fictionâ€”surprise and questionâ€”donâ€™t seem to exist.
Is there “a tight theological box” regarding salvation? Yup. But how much of this box must be fully understood or experienced by the convert, and articulated in a fictional tale?
Most of us worrying over conversion stories and how to write them are Christians. And by the looks of the discussion at F*i*F, we’ve been Christians for a while; we’ve had time to study, grow, listen and construct our “theological box.” However, that box usually isn’t grasped by the converted until well after the actual event. Heck, it took me five years to figure what side of the Calvinism / Arminianism debate I fell on, and the rest of the time wondering if I’d been predestined to fall there.
Soteriology was not a term coined by Jesus. Yes, He laid down some specifics: “You must be born again,” “Take up your cross and follow Me,” and “Whoever loses his life for My sake, will find it.” And then there’s things like this:
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16 NIV)
I am so glad for this, because it introduces something important into the conversation and prevents the concept from being hijacked by academics. Whatever conversion is, it also involves simplicity, innocence and childlikeness. Let’s face it, most people don’t get saved through theological discourse. Though those discussions may inform their decision, much more simplistic, primal forces are at work.
In the end, we are writing about experiences, not theology. And experiences have a way of being enigmatic, untidy and all over the map.
I became a Christian in 1980 and brought a horrible drug problem with me. I’d go to my friend’s pad, smoke pot, and tell them about Jesus. Didn’t know about the theological box, but I was in it. Twenty-five years later, I’ve given up the pot and understand “the box” much better. But to write good fiction, I’ve gotta go back, pre-box, to when a brokendown occultist from an alcoholic home, eating hallucinagens on a quest for God, fell down a rabbit hole and found the world right-side up. Don’t know how that fits into your theology, but it makes for a good, at least unconventional, conversion story.