Friday, February 25, 2011

The Trouble With Conversion Scenes

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?


Mike Dellosso said...

Mike, in my own writing I've included a few conversion scenes but none of them fit into any kind of box. There's no prescribed declaration of repentence, no salvation prayer, no altar call, no "asking Jesus into my heart." The moments my characters have are more moments of awakening and awakening to a need. I've hit rock bottom and I need Christ. I can't do this on my own and I need God's help. Theologically, probably not as sound a conversion as some would like but then again only God knows the state of the heart and that's where true conversion takes place.

On the flip side, I've read some novels that have had conversion scenes of altar calls and sinner's prayers that brought tears to my eyes.

Everyone's conversion experience is different, everyone acts and reacts differently. For some it is a long, messy process, for others it's definitive and profound. Some laugh, some cry, others walk away straight-faced. (My middle daughter laughed hysterically after her conversion, thought it was just hilarious how powerful God was . . . go figure). All of which leaves the door wide open for authors to interpret in a variety of ways.

Anonymous said...

Mike, you say, "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.'"

I'm not saying that you were telling us your own "unspoken expectation" there, but I do think that if that's the only part that "makes our fiction 'Christian.'" then I think we have a lot of shallow Christians in charge of things with their "expectations" of fiction.

What really defines being a child of God anyway? Is it the constant going out and "witnessing" to lead someone to "conversion"? What happens when everyone is finally converted? What then? Once we're all converted, do we suddenly lose our purpose for being?

I think not.

From the beginning (the Garden) we were created for doing what God wants from us which is worship. Everything he has done with us from the temple sacrifices to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us has been to bring us to worshipping Him.

As a believer, living a life of worship (without one being some arrogant prick about it) can be a great witness to those around us, both to believers and non-believers, and can let God do the work that is His alone to do and work on the hearts of those He is drawing to Him.

I'm not against a "conversion" happening in a story, and I like your post here about it, Mike. I just think that if that's the whole point of telling the story, or if it's just thrown in there to make it "Christian", then we have lost the point of what it means to be a "Christian".

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

I've written books that have conversion scenes, but probably more that don't, and my readers recognize them as Christian. It's all a matter of perspective, but I recognize what Mike was saying about some people's expectations.

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

Mike, I like your cover and the premise of your story.

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

Hey, guys, I'm just testing the new settings. I believe they will work.

Jill said...

I linked to this off Mike Dellosso's blog, started reading the article and thought, huh, this sounds like Mike Duran. And sure enough. I find conversion scenes extremely difficult to read or write. I'm a big fan of Mike Dellosso's books--I think his conversion experiences arise naturally from the characters, and I don't always feel that way when I read Christian fiction. I hate the conversion scenes that seem so obvious, that are mixed w/ a healthy dose of friendly pop psychology.