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?