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The Trouble with Conversion Scenes — #2

Christians can’t escape their theology when writing conversion scenes, but neither can they escape their own experience of it. I think this is what Dave Long meant about Christian authors bringing “a level of specificity” to the subject. Perhaps this is why the discussion generated by Dave’s “conversion story” contest dealt largely with theology. In the blog and Message Board threads there were references to Reformed Theology, synergism and monergysm, Wesley-Arminians and Calvinists, and various doctrinal grids. The consensus seemed to be that the actual conversion event (justification) is not nearly as interesting to fictionalize as are the processes after (sanctification).

But is a Christian conversion story about “arrival” at the point of justification or the “process” one takes to get there? And if it is about “process,” is it really a conversion story (and is it any less dramatic) if the narrative doesn’t climax with the character’s actual “arrival” at said point of justification?

This is an area where, I think, Christian fiction and Christian film suffers: 1.) We seem to minimize the conversion “process” in favor of the actual “arrival” (which is an issue of commercial expectations), and 2.) We tend to make the “arrival”– the conversion scene — look the same: tears, prayer, altar call, enlightenment, peace, restoration, etc. (which is an issue of theology and experience).

I think there’s a number of reasons why leeway is needed when we write conversion scenes and conversion stories.  First, conversion experiences seem anything but uniform and formulaic. Of course, there are some common elements like a conviction of sin, change of heart, and/or a yielding to God. But we American Christians tend to see those through a Western lens. What about 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 backgrounds, 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.

Secondly, I agree with those who think Christian authors bring too much theology to the discussion about conversion scenes. No, I’m not saying that we should disavow Scripture, but rather we should avoid forcing our stories onto some doctrinal assembly line. Is there “a tight theological box” regarding salvation? Yup. But how much of this box must be fully understood or experienced by the convert before it is true? Likewise, how much of this “understanding” and “experience” must be articulated in a story before it meets “Christian” standards?

Most of those writing Christian conversion stories are Christians. They’ve had time to study, grow, listen and construct their “theological box.” However, that box usually isn’t grasped by the converted until well after the actual event. Heck, it took me ten years to figure what side of the Calvinism / Arminianism debate I fell on, and I still have questions! Furthermore, Jesus described the kingdom of heaven as involving childlikeness (Matthew 19:14), more than intellectual rigor. Whatever conversion is, it also involves simplicity, innocence and naivete. Let’s face it, most people don’t get saved through theological discourse. Though those discussions may inform their decision, 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 familial dysfunction, philosophical confusion, and a terrible drug problem with me. At one point during my religious quest, I went to a friend’s house, smoked pot with him, and told him about the evidences for Jesus Christ. As weird as it sounds, I believe the power of God anointed my testimony. There was tears and anger and conviction of sin. And weed. No, I didn’t know about a theological box, but I was in it.

My “conversion process” may not fit into your theology, but it is representative of worlds of other experiences, of people in different cultures, from different backgrounds, with different spiritual components, all sojourning God’s earth. All haunted by Him. No two people “convert” in exactly the same way. So why should Christian “conversion scenes” be so similar?

Now, almost thirty years later, I understand the “theological box” much better (and I don’t witness while high!). But in order to write a true-to-life “conversion story,” in a way, I’ve got to forget what I’ve learned. I’ve got to go back to a time before I knew about justification and sanctification, before I knew about atonement and regeneration, to the time I fell down a rabbit hole and found the world right-side up. And didn’t know what to call it.

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Nicole September 25, 2009, 6:26 PM

    Good follow-up post, Mike. Conversions are all over the map. And that naivete at the point of conversion belongs to all who end up at The Cross. Capturing that in writing without making it "normal" or "methodical" or even unimaginative doesn't do it justice.

  • XDPaul September 25, 2009, 8:44 PM

    That's the problem, exactly. What is conversion? Martin Luther's lightbulb in Romans? Or his long sojourn into apostasy (as judged by the Pope?) Is it John Newton's crisis-inspired prayer, or his lifelong change?

    Conversion often, but not always, has a point of revelation, but revelation and conversion are not the same thing.

    When was the last time you read a character described in this way:

    Bill decided in his heart to eat the sandwich.

    Never (or I hope never.) Instead, we get descriptions of Bill making the sandwich, its ingredients, its crunch, its taste. Somewhere along the line we realize that the homemade bread he used was the last loaf his mother made before she passed away. The sandwich means something, and him deciding to eat it might suggest acceptance, or loss, the comfort of routine, nostalgia, or all of it.

  • XDPaul September 25, 2009, 8:44 PM

    Conversion is bigger than death. We die to our old selves, even as death is rendered stingless. Though a profound moment, it is also rife with a spiritual trauma. The Adversary is grieved and enraged, the convert's most precious things might be put away (or they might intensify their grip), the world changes.

  • Derek Bickerton September 25, 2009, 11:16 PM

    Conversion can indeed happen suddenly (Road to Damascus version) or it can be drawn out over a long period where no-one (especially the person concerned) quite realizes what is happening until it's happened. (Actually, if it comes to that,
    I suspect Saul may have been unconsciously growing more and more disgusted by himself as persecutor for quite a while, especially after the first martyrdom). I agree, you seldom find this second kind in fiction (though I think it's commoner in real life) but I've written a novel that describes it, actually it's a reconversion because the sequence is, boy has God, boy loses God, boy gets God back. Unfortunately no-one has yet agreed to publish the whole thing (it's about 300,000 plus words) and so far I've only succeeded in publishing the first third of it
    (http://www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/The… but I'm still hoping!

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