Monday, April 15, 2013

The Infamous Conversion Scene

Christian fiction—particularly Christian suspense—has become a different animal from what it was twenty years ago. It is (with exceptions, of course) less cheesy and formulaic, which is good, but at times less Christian, which is billed as good (more ABA crossover appeal, wider audience) but which gives me pause.

One element that is falling out of favor is the conversion scene, wherein a major character repents and believes in Jesus. You used to be able to feel those coming in decades past (and centuries past, for that matter, going back to Bunyan), even in the work of innovators like Peretti. Now they're considerably more rare. But why? Is it because we've sold out, putting market above principles (not unlike the vague, Bieberish lyrics of many contemporary pop Christian songs)? Is it because the genre is evolving and becoming more nuanced? Or simply because the convention has jumped the shark, a self-parody favored by lazy writers who don't want to develop their characters a little at a time?

Most importantly, do you miss them?


  1. I read a LOT of Christian fiction in my line of work, and I find that conversion is not gone, it's just different. I don't read a lot of teary, anguished confessions of sin to God. (Though I did read a scene recently in which a very "bad" guy did an about face after one short conversation with a very "good" Christian character and it was the most unbelievable scene I have read in memory. Note, this was NOT something from my publishing house.) Generally what I see is that authors seem to bring characters along much more gradually, and often by the end of the book they are close but not quite all the way there. Not having had a moment to point to in my own life when I could say definitively, "There! Right then! That's when I was saved," I actually like the way authors are describing slow changes in their characters because I can relate more. I see a lot of characters who consider themselves Christians, were raised in Christian homes with Christian values, but then realize somewhere later in the story that they had not given themselves over fully to God's control of their lives (and that, they declare, is why they have all their current difficulties). This experience must be at least as common as the life-changing, wow-that-guy-has-an-amazing-testimony conversions are.

    The other part of your question seems to bring into question the audience. Overtly Christian novels by CBA writers are generally bought by those within the body of Christ, so that is the audience they are serving. They are using fiction to help build up the body, which is a great use of fiction. But people who seek ABA crossover have a different ministry. They seek to engage those outside the church and suggest to them another way of looking at the world, hint at possibilities of living with more than just the self in mind. They may not have a come-to-Jesus scene, but if they support their books with websites, media, and other more obviously Christian works, they can use these ABA-friendly books to draw readers into reading material that clearly answers the questions they bring up in their non-explicitly-Christian works. IF these supporting elements are not present and an author tries to hide the fact that s/he is a Christian so it won't "put off" an ABA reader, then I think that is a problem. At that point, "positive but not religious" fiction is just another daytime talk show that promotes positive thinking and the idea of a spiritual world without giving the audience anything real, anything true to hold onto and believe.

    The ultimate question for a Christian writer, then, may be "Who is the audience I want to reach?" I doubt a non-believer often reads an emotional conversion scene and that leads directly to his/her own conversion. More likely they would consider it propaganda. And even more likely than that, they would avoid such fiction altogether.

    Anyway, I think there is room for both as long as the writing is good and the plot develops naturally in that direction.

  2. I think that the Christian reader is, finally, becoming moderately sophisticated -- like graduating from Scooby Doo to X-Files. It's still all pretty turgid, but you don't have to club the reader to death with the Finneyesque anxious bench and literary lens flare. Writers also don't have to make every story about personal salvation -- though making every story the story of King Saul is its own kind of gothic mawkishness.

    I think there's plenty of room for decent, modern prose with Christian intentions in a LOT of genres, and I'm hoping (Zach) that your novel will give you an access point to tell the Christian tale to readers who like Scott Turow and secretly read James Patterson.

  3. I basically agree with Turk and Erin. I think the conversion scene is ok as long as it serves the story and makes sense within the context of the story.

    This begs the question: do we write just to "serve" an audience (as is the case with most/all publishable Christian writing - not just fiction) or is there some kind of artistic/literary motivation at play as well? Is there room within our industry for that kind of motivation to even be at play?

    I wish there was...I hope so...I have my doubts sometimes. Hoping that someday there's a place for a character-driven Christian novel...

  4. The question "should novels have conversion scenes?" rests on another question: what is the chief end of a story?

    Many Christian readers have assumed they know. Usually they answer with one of these three:

    1. Evangelism. In the group of folks who say "I'm a Christian but I hate Chrisitan fiction," they often dislike the conversion scenes. But if you pressed them, they would say things like "I still want better fiction to explore Reality and be Gritty and let us know What the World is Really Like." In other words, they still believe the chief end of a story is evangelism. But they want evangelism without calls to respond to the Gospel (watered down or not). This is just plain strange.

    2. Edification. Some folks think the chief end of Christian fiction is to promote good morality. This is where you get some of the kitschy stuff that it's cool to make fun of, like the Fireproof and Courageous movies.

    3. Entertainment. "What's the big deal?" some Christians say. "After all, It's Just a Story." This is failure-to-discern, plain and simple. It's also insulting to story and creativity and good gifts God gives us. Really now, if it's Just a Story, why are you so emotionally effected by it? Why did Jesus teach in stories? What is the Gospel the true Story of how Christ the Hero saves His enemies and the world? It's never "just a story" or "just entertainment."

    Sure, stories should be entertaining, edify in some way, and (for the Christian) include some "evangelical" purpose (even if this is only at the "common grace" level). Yet all those are secondary ends.

    I'd say that the chief end of a story is similar to the chief end of man. The chief end of a story is to Explore -- to Explore all of God's glories.

    With that as our basis, then, do we need conversion scenes? If the story calls for it, yes. But I'm with Turk up there. It's not conversion scenes but the shallow-theology Finney-esque abuse of them that is the sin. Once again this is a case of abusus non tollit usum -- "abuse [of a thing] does not negate proper use." *

    (* See also: meat that had been sacrificed to idols, social networks and blogs, money, politics, the Harry Potter series, etc.)

  5. "It's not conversion scenes but the shallow-theology Finney-esque abuse of them"


  6. This is all very fascinating. Without naming names, I'm wondering what constitutes the aforementioned Finneyist abuses. (If you don't know what Finneyism is, click here:

    Finneyism must, by definition, reject the idea of conversion as a miracle—instead viewing it as simply the proper application of means. At their most lactose, fictional conversions have been presented as thoroughly miraculous (as lamented by a couple of you above—bad guys going good, etc.)

    In my mind, the real offense comes when the conversion serves as a Deus ex Machina, tying up loose ends with incredibly coincidental timing. But if conversion is a miracle (a dead person coming to life, as Jesus said in John 5:24), should the addition of some providential timing really stretch the bounds of believability? And isn't the idea of Deus reaching down from above to fix what was broken the very essence of the Christian faith?

    I think my slight aversion to the conversion scene comes from my semi-ironic hobbyist collection of Jack Chick comics and tracts, most of which end with exactly the same sinners-prayer-conversion. Any element that makes all stories under a particular umbrella somehow the same is going to become odious to the discerning reader pretty quickly.