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The Trouble with Conversion Scenes — #1

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?


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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Johne Cook September 23, 2009, 2:04 PM

    I admit, I cheat when it comes to this topic. Instead of writing the conversion process / climax, I start sometime after that event.

    In "Blessed Are the Peacemakers," I was more concerned with telling a rousing story that is both frankly Christian and unbashedly SciFI. In my experience, short stories are usually good at one or the other, not both. If you're interested, you can decide for yourself whether I was successful. The story was written for Digital Dragon magazine, and is a pretty spare 2200 words.

    A former space marine is caught between his principles and his duty as he juggles working for an old enemy while trying to forge a crucial treaty with a ferocious alien race.

  • XDPaul September 23, 2009, 3:03 PM

    Here's the thing – conversion is instrumental to all fiction – not exclusive to Christian fiction. In _American Gods_, Shadow simultaneously takes in stride, and is shocked by, the question of his true nature and his place in a very weird world. You don't see it coming a mile away, but by the end of the novel, he is most certainly converted.

    What is the final line of _1984_ what is the upshot for Winston Smith? Complete, dramatic, conversion.

    Name a great work of fiction, or even a passable one, where the protagonist is NOT either converted or deeply affected by the conversion of others.

    So, to me, it isn't a question of "whether" conversion, but of the object of conversion, and its dramatic unfolding.

    Here's the only hint I can give myself: there's a critical literary difference between a testimony and a conversion.

    When Gandalf tells the fellowship about his change from Grey to White, he gives testimony. But the actual actions that surround the fundamental change? That's pure conversion.

  • XDPaul September 23, 2009, 3:12 PM

    Oh one more thing:

    There's no conversion scene in Fireproof. There's a superfluous visual testimony. The conversion actually unfolds around the ongoing conflict with the garbage can, not in the montage.

    This has little to do with Christian v. secular and much more with show and tell.

    Important conversions off the top of my head occur in:

    A Separate Peace
    The Catcher in the Rye
    Of Mice and Men
    Don Quixote
    Going Postal
    The Vampire Earth Saga
    Foundation and Empire
    Interview with the Vampire
    The Shining
    Lonesome Dove

    and on and on and on. The key element is that none of them confine the conversion to a scene, and certainly not in a sort of a tin-eared "before and after" reversal that comes off as too syrupy for Horatio Alger.

    Christians, without question, have access to the most true, documented and mysterious type of conversion: the saving kind. We shouldn't sell it short as an a la carte literary by-product. Our work is harder, because our object isn't merely as high as man can imagine, but much, much higher: as low as our Lord can reach.

  • Kaci September 23, 2009, 7:37 PM

    Good thoughts, Mike and all.

    Paul, I think that's the greatest interpretation of Fireproof I've heard. Maybe it should have been "Saved by a Garbage Can." 0=) (In all seriousness, thinking about it now, I think you're right.)

  • Kaci September 23, 2009, 7:37 PM

    Addendum: I'd say more, but I think the others beat me to it.

  • Nicole September 24, 2009, 3:33 PM

    "Christians, without question, have access to the most true, documented and mysterious type of conversion: the saving kind. We shouldn't sell it short as an a la carte literary by-product. Our work is harder, because our object isn't merely as high as man can imagine, but much, much higher: as low as our Lord can reach. "


    It's in the writing. If it's written right/well/profoundly which is always subjective, it can be done. It even should be done if the story demands it. But that's just it: what is the story about? A conversion scene can be enormous, real, taut, dramatic, or it can be a nod within the big picture. The writer makes it worthwhile. If he/she can. (JMO of course)

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