Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Trouble with Conversion Scenes #1

by Mike Duran

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” -- the point in the story where the non-believer or backslider repents and finds faith. 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 define Christian fiction, there is still an (often 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, then acquisitions editor for Bethany House, as a finalist in his “conversion story contest.” That short story When Bill Left the Porch was later published in Relief Journal's second edition. (Dave's Faith in Fiction site was all the rage back then, a place for great discussion, and a hangout for many newly and now-published authors. I wish there was something like it now.)

Anyway, the theme of “conversion stories” inevitably led to some interesting dialogue among the participants, dialogue 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)

Not only does Dave reveal what he found lacking in those conversion stories -- the “hallmarks of fiction—surprise and question” -- but he suggests an important reason why those elements were missing: Christian authors are “writing within a tight theological box,” we bring "a level of specificity" to the issue of conversion that actually makes it "more difficult to write about." But is it possible to write a “conversion story” without a "level of specificity" and 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. As Christian authors, we know first-hand about the life-changing, transformative power of Christ. So when writing a conversion scene, we cannot help but bring our experience to the table. Furthermore, as we grow spiritually and become more biblically literate, we develop a doctrinal grid to understand and measure our experience (and those of others) against. But when it comes to writing conversion stories, our personal experience and our understanding of doctrine can have a downside -- it potentially obstructs the “hallmarks of fiction—surprise and question."

In one sense, our "level of specificity" and “tight theological box” is what marks Christian fiction. But in another sense, our "level of specificity" and ”tight theological box” is what mars Christian fiction, removes elements of “surprise and question.”

I have lots more to say on this subject, but I think I'll stop here. Some questions for you: Do you agree that many Christian conversion scenes seem similar, predictable, and often contrived? What is the biggest challenge a Christian writer faces when approaching a conversion story? And when it comes to conversion stories, do you think our "level of specificity" and “tight theological box” help or hinder Christian writers?


Dan Walsh said...

Interesting post, Mike. Read along waiting to see what else you had to say, then I read: "...have lots more to say on this subject, but I think I'll stop here."

In past years, I've read conversion moments that did feel contrived and forced ("obligatory"). With some recent books I've read, seems Christian authors are working harder to avoid this. Make it look like something that actually could happen.

I know in my first novel, The Unfinished Gift, I worked real hard to avoid that snare. Went for more of a Scrooge-like turnabout, which seemed to work, but left some wondering..."Now, did he get saved, or what really happened there?" (You can find out in the sequel, coming out June 1st :)

Speaking of Scrooge...what's up with that? Did he get saved that infamous night? Or just allegorically so? Or did he just decide to become a better person in really big way for the rest of his life? Does that ever happen to people in real life apart from a genuine conversion? I've been around a good while, haven't seen such things too often, except in books and movies.

Don't the experts insist people's personalities can't change after a certain age (like 6-7?). I know a lot of women found this one out the hard way. Guess that's why they call it fiction.

Mary Hawkins said...

Excellent post, Mike. In my very first inspirational romance, I encountered this problem. The hero had good motives for not marrying a non-Christian so how could I let not only the hero but the reader know when she had a genuine conversion and became a Christian? I tried hard not to be 'preachy' and sprinkled the information throughout the book in showing in the lives of characters about a personal relationship with Christ. But how to make sure the reader knew she had become a Christian was so hard and I guess this section was rewritten and rewritten a million times! I've just written several sentences saying what I ended up doing but the comment became too long and I've deleted them. And even now as I do the final edits all these years later on my 16th inspirational romance, finding various ways to SHOW and not tell of the conversion to the readers is still not easy. I just try my hardest not to be "preachy" but show some change in the characters - especially that sense of peace and assurance from the scriptures as a reality in their lives. Because in romance the reader's expectation is to have that "happy ever after ending" my heroes and heroines need to both be Christians by the conclusion - and I do try and make the distinction that going to church does not automatically 'make' a person a Christian and that becoming a Christian does mean that while sin is forgiven sometimes the consequences, the fall-outs, still have to be dealt with. I feel so inadequate trying to put this into words because I think you are blogging about one of the most important concerns we as writers who are Christians should try and come to grips with! There is so much that should be said about this and I look forward to other comments with keen interest.

Mike Duran said...

Thanks for your comments! Dan, I think there is a biblical basis for a "sudden turnaround" conversion, like Scrooge (although, I agree it's unclear whether we can categorize the miser's change of heart to God or ghosts!). Saul persecuted the early church and, at the least, condoned the execution of Christians... that was until God knocked Saul off his horse and renamed him. So I think there is a biblical basis for sudden conversion or change of heart. In that case, however, portraying the miracle might be the hard part.

And Mary, I think you describe the tenuous nature of conversion scenes well. In Christian fiction, our "expectation is to have that 'happy ever after ending'" and our "heroes and heroines need to both be Christians by the conclusion." Truth is, most conversions are not so cut and dried. It's often a process of wrestling with God that often doesn't result in immediate behavioral change. Which puts us writers in the unenviable place of needing to make explicit what often isn't upon conversion, and tie up our stories far too tidily.

Dan Walsh said...

Mike, totally agree. I think one of the challenges could be the target audience of our work. I know these are generalizations, but it seems some of the "already-saved" might expect that big conversion moment, not so much for their sakes, but for unsaved friends they'd hope to give the book to.

For the "not-saved" folks, such scenes can come across as over-done, preachy, and "too religious."

Most people don't have a sudden Scrooge moment or a conversion like Paul. I've been a full time pastor for 25 years. For most the folks I know, when you hear their story, God really led them on a journey that was months, even years long, before they had that moment.

The span of time within a novel can matter. My first book took place over 2 weeks. My 2nd spanned a year-and-a-half. Much easier to weave together a more credible spiritual journey with that one.

Wayne Scott said...

I always enjoy your topics, Mike. About 5 or 6 years ago, Jeff Dunn (then an editor at River Oak) gave a talk at the Colorado Christian Writers Conference. He said he was tired of Christian fiction being so predictable. Why does the non-believer have to be saved on page 120 every time? Why does the hero's faith have to go from zero to 10 by the end of the book? Give me someone whose faith goes from -10 to -2.

That stuck with me. I don't think Christian fiction needs to have a conversion scene. I think a fine story with a "Christian Worldview" can be told without anyone getting saved. I certainly think it's easier to tell such a story to a non-believer.

Nicole said...

"Christian fiction" is much broader now than it used to be, so much so in fact, it could be divided into two groups: Christian fiction and CBA fiction. CBA fiction includes books which never mention Jesus specifically, rarely even make a reference to church, but attemtpt to capture either a Christian "worldview" without specificity or by referencing a quick prayer thrown up to the heavens in a crisis. No conversion scenes or conversations with the Lord.

Conversion scenes can be written as a result of that preparatory journey if the author has the time frame in his story. And like any scene, the authenticity, the reality which captures "the moment" must be as real as any other critical scene. And it absolutely must fit with the storyline. Or leading up to it can oganically include the gospel and imply the conversion.

So much depends on the audience for the work.

Some secular readers balk at anything that even mentions God in passing, so if a Christian writer has decided to write for the world, they're going to have to be wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove if intending to include any Christian elements.

Mike Duran said...

Wayne, not only do I agree that "a fine story with a 'Christian Worldview' can be told without anyone getting saved," I also wonder if ambiguity shouldn't be an intentional part of some of our themes. For instance, many of Jesus' parables grated common religious assumptions (like the Good Samaritan) and seemed open-ended for interpretation (like the Kingdom of Heaven is like Leaven, the Laborers in the Vineyard, the Unrighteous Steward, the Rich Man and Lazarus, etc.). In fact, this ambiguity led his disciples to ask Jesus directly, "Why do you speak in parables?" (Matt. 13:10). In other words, they wanted a more pointed, clear-cut message. Furthermore, many famous Bible characters were quite flawed and broken (think King David's adultery, Samson's womanizing, Jonah's disobedience, Peter's denial of Christ, and the list goes on). So I agree that getting saved is just a part of the Christian story, and sometimes it actually complicates a person's life. Thanks for your comments!

PatriciaW said...

The problem with conversion scenes is that everyone has a definitive idea based on how they're supposed to happen, based on personal experience and personal understanding of the Scriptures. Change the person, change the experience and understanding. Seems just right to second person and totally false to the first. Isn't that how we read all fiction, not just Christian fiction and not just conversion scenes? Through our personal prism?

Conversion can appear instantaneous because no one can see the inner workings of another's heart. An author might show this through the introspection of the converted character and the disbelief of others. That's real.

Or, a person might come to God after much public tugging on the heartstrings. Is this more believable because the process seemingly has been more visible?

What about the Damascus Road experience, truly instant and complete? Is that to be believed?

And what about the character who is converted but still struggles with sin, both inwardly and outwardly, which is probably the greatest reality. Is that conversion not to be believed?

I think any and all conversions work, except when they are super preachy and all neatly tied up as the story climax--although technically those are somewhere on the spectrum too. Too much energy is spent on judging the conversion, imho.

Lyla said...

I agree that a lot of conversion scenes just feel contrived. But I think that Dan Walsh is right, that authors have realized that and are making an effort to correct the problem.

I think the biggest challenge authors face is that no matter how they write their conversion scene, there's still going to be an element of contrivance to it. They do seem necessary to Christian fiction sometimes. You can make the chain of events perfectly logical, subtle, even deeply moving, but as soon as the character starts saying, "Jesus, I realize I'm a sinner..." there's a good chance your reader is having an internal eye-roll. (Especially with YA fiction. Speaking as a teenager, anyway.)

I think the level of specificity and theological box are a bit of a hindrance because they make writers feel like things have to happen a certain way or they're going to get hate mail from readers along the lines of, "are you really saved?"

PatriciaW said...

It would be funny if it weren't entirely possible and probable, "...hate mail from readers...'are really saved'?" I wonder how many of my favorite authors have received those emails?

D. Ann Graham said...

I think any "Christian scene" (conversion, praying, etc.) is acceptable as long as it is true to the characters and storyline. Formulas are best when kept secret. Even if a particular publisher requires specific actions to take place at certain points in the manuscript, it is up to the skill of the writer to make the story "feel" real and logical enough so that we readers do not sense the formula.

How disturbing would it be to sit down to a meal and catch an overpowering taste of garlic (or whatever) when what we really wanted was delicious? Only cooks care what the specific ingredients are.

The "Christian world view" is another subject. There are as many variations of it as there are Christians. Personally, I think it hinges more on how God interacts with the characters (destiny, intervention, or even reaping what they sow), rather than how a paticular character expresses his/her belief in God. Which doesn't count the levels one might reach for, depending on the Christian maturity of the specific audience one is writing to.

I would love to see writers go so far in the heavenly realms as we have sojurned in the depths of hell to make a point to unbelievers.There are many classics (like Les Miserables, Oliver, or the more modern To Kill a Mockingbird) that have done this beautifully. Some have even managed to change the world's view of right and wrong and produce a unifying effect upon mankind as opposed to a divisionary one.

Maybe we should all just work harder on our own variations of delicious.

Great post, and great comments. Thank you!

Sibella Giorello said...

Great discussion, everyone. And I like Mike's comment that perhaps "the ambiguity should be intentional."

Because maybe the ambiguity is closer to what God wants in fiction, rather than our taking His super-natural mystery and cleaning it up for human consumption.