The hardest thing about writing a “conversion scene” is that conversions usually aren’t “scenes,” they are processes. Often long, messy ones, at that.
One of the consistent raps against Christian fiction and Christian film is the inclusion of the “obligatory conversion scene” (see: Fireproof). But while a character’s conversion to Christ may rally the troops, for most religious outsiders these scenes usually smack of propaganda and predictability, of a conveniently scripted resolution to whatever dilemma is facing the protag. However one might assess the current state of Christian fiction, there is still an unspoken expectation that conversion components, in part, are what makes our fiction “Christian.”
One of my first breaks as a writer occurred when I was selected by Dave Long, acquisitions editor for Bethany House, as a finalist in his “conversion story contest.” My short story When Bill Left the Porch was later published in Relief Journal 1.2 (you can, however, read the entire story HERE).
The theme of “conversion stories” inevitably led to some interesting discussion among the participants, a discussion that often veered into doctrinal dissertations and lamentations about not placing. Dave’s November 11th post, Justification vs. Sanctification – Which Makes for Better Fiction? gave a good indication of the direction of the conversation.
My post a few days ago immediately led to some discussion. But it wasn’t so much about fiction as it was about the nature of conversion itself—which many of you had pretty definitive ideas about. 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. You’re writing within a tight theological box at that point and the room for two of the hallmarks of fiction—surprise and question—don’t seem to exist. (emphasis mine)
Many of the stories I read in that contest, quite frankly, lacked bite. They were missing the “hallmarks of fiction—surprise and question.” The possible reasons for this (apart from the expectations conditioned by the industry) are even more interesting. Dave suggested that Christian authors are “writing within a tight theological box.”
But is it possible to write a “conversion story” without a “theology” of conversion? And how can a Christian author contrive “surprise” when conversion is so well-defined in Scripture?
As Christian writers, two incredibly powerful dynamics steer our approach to conversion stories: Doctrine and Experience. Not only have we come to experience the life-changing, transformative power of Christ, we have a doctrinal grid to understand and measure it against. In one sense, this “tight theological box” is what marks Christian fiction. But in another sense, this “tight theological box” is what mars Christian fiction, removes elements of “surprise and question”.
So when it comes to conversion scenes, does the “tight theological box” help or hinder Christian writers?