Conversion Stories

There's been lots of discussion about conversion stories over at Faith in Fiction these days. Dave Long, acquisitions editor for Bethany House, will be discussing the finalists of his "conversion story contest" in upcoming weeks, and what elements contributed to their selection. Conversion scenes are typically some of the most difficult to write for the Christian author, partly because of theological considerations (i.e., actions / experiences must square with Scripture) and partly because of dramatic familiarity (I mean, how many different ways can you show someone falling to their knees begging for mercy?). The discussion over there has been lively, veering often into doctrinal dissertations and lamentations about not placing.

Anyway, I tossed my hat into the Faith in Fiction forum several times and the sound of those comments thudding to the chatroom floor was probably heard throughout cyberspace. Still the discussion about conversion interests me, so I figured I'd doodle here.

Dave's November 11th post, Sanctification vs. Justification, indicates the direction of the conversation. Theology appeared to be a huge issue for most of the participating writers. In the blog and Message Board threads you'll find references to Reformed Theology, synergism and monergysm, Wesley-Arminians and Calvinists, and various doctrinal grids. The consensus seems to be that the actual conversion event (justification) is not nearly as interesting to fictionalize as are the processes before and after (sanctification).

Now this kinda puzzles me, for two reasons. First, conversion experiences seem anything but uniform and formulaic. Of course, there are some common elements like a conviction of sin and a yielding to God. But even those we tend to see through a Western lense. What of 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 backrounds, 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.

Which leads to my second observation: I think we bring too much theology to the discussion. No, I'm not saying that we should ignore or contradict Scripture, but avoid forcing our stories through some doctrinal assembly line. Dave alludes to this in the above-mentioned post:

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.

Is there "a tight theological box" regarding salvation? Yup. But how much of this box must be fully understood or experienced by the convert, and articulated in a fictional tale?

Most of us worrying over conversion stories and how to write them are Christians. And by the looks of the discussion at F*i*F, we've been Christians for a while; we've had time to study, grow, listen and construct our "theological box." However, that box usually isn't grasped by the converted until well after the actual event. Heck, it took me five years to figure what side of the Calvinism / Arminianism debate I fell on, and the rest of the time wondering if I'd been predestined to fall there.

Soteriology was not a term coined by Jesus. Yes, He laid down some specifics: "You must be born again," "Take up your cross and follow Me," and "Whoever loses his life for My sake, will find it." And then there's things like this:

13 People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." 16 And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16 NIV)

I am so glad for this, because it introduces something important into the conversation and prevents the concept from being hijacked by academics. Whatever conversion is, it also involves simplicity, innocence and childlikeness. Let's face it, most people don't get saved through theological discourse. Though those discussions may inform their decision, much 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 a horrible drug problem with me. I'd go to my friend's pad, smoke pot, and tell them about Jesus. Didn't know about the theological box, but I was in it. Twenty-five years later, I've given up the pot and understand "the box" much better. But to write good fiction, I've gotta go back, pre-box, to when a brokendown occultist from an alcoholic home, eating hallucinagens on a quest for God, fell down a rabbit hole and found the world right-side up. Don't know how that fits into your theology, but it makes for a good, at least unconventional, conversion story.


Heather Smith said...

I agree with this. We can debate doctrine all day, but in the end the only thing that really matters is if you believe in Jesus as Savior. When the Philippian jailor asked Paul what he needed to do to be saved, Paul didn't give him a jumbled sermon about do's and don'ts. Paul simply told the man to believe. It seems too easy. Guess that's why a child can understand it so easily while grown-ups work to make it difficult. Great reminder, Mike!

Ame said...

Very, very nice. And, when did God ever define Himself or His love as "conventional?" I am sure your conversion story epitomizes why Jesus came - He came for the brokenhearted, for those chained by whatevers . . . I love the unconventionality, undefinability, of God. Thanks for sharing your brief "testimony;" it reveals the depth and intimacy your were able to express in your fif short story.

mike duran said...

Ame, thanks for dropping by. (And you know I'm blessed you do, Heather.) I'm glad to see you've thrown away your theological shoehorns. The road is already "narrow." We needn't make it moreso with our checklists. For me, I'm in the kids camp.

Paula said...

Excellent post. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

Gina Holmes said...

You're story is excellent, Mike, and so was this post.

Melody said...

I feel like I just had this conversation with Jacob. I'm glad that God accepts the simple minded yet he is so complex. I'm glad the simple minded can have a relationship with God and know that he loves and forgives them too. If it wasn’t for this, then how would the pot smokers ever know Jesus.

mike duran said...

Hey Melody, you make it sound like a conversation w/ Jacob is a chore. And I hope you're not suggesting all pot-smokers are simple-minded. I'll have you know, I read High Times from cover to cover back then.

Anonymous said...

Mike, Once again, such good stuff to think about. You are sooo right. My husband Dave came to the Lord 2 years ago. He had NO religious background whatsoever and his only Bible knowledge came from Veggietale videos he watched with our daughters. We were having a terrible trial at the time and he just came to God saying, "Things haven't been going very well with me in charge. I think it's time to let the Big Guy take over." He didn't know how to pray and couldn't even tell you who Abraham was, but God changed his life.
Janet Rubin

michael snyder said...

Gina said: " You're story is excellent, Mike, and so was this post."

I agree with Gina.

Other Mike

Ane Mulligan said...

Well said, Mike. We have to remember God is able to meet the individual where that person needs to be met. Who are we to tell Him HOW He must do it? LOL I can just see it -- Ane, standing with a finger pointed at God's chest, "You can't do it that way -- it's just not proper!" Paul told us he was all things to all people so that he might win some. So goes it with conversions. Again, well put, Mike.

Kelly Klepfer said...

Heck, it took me five years to figure what side of the Calvinism / Arminianism debate I fell on - ha, ha. Define those lofty Bible school terms for me and I'll try to figure out where I am.

Okay Mike, without reading all the previous comments above, what do you do with someone who doesn't know when the actual conversion took place. Was it when I was 6 and said "the prayer"? As a teen when I wrestled with choices, or 7 years ago when I fell flat on my face and gave up "my rights"?

Thanks for the post - now I'll read the other comments, see what you stirred up.

mike duran said...

Kelly, that's like asking a survivor when she got saved. Was it when she grabbed the last life vest before the boat sank? Was it when she hung on, refusing to surrender to the dark ocean, for days? Was it when the fishing boat just "happened" by? Was it when she was physically pulled out of the water? Or was it the months of physical and emotional recovery needed to get her land legs? Okay, so when was she saved? For me, the question isn't about dissecting a specific time, but affirming a specific condition.

Tim said...

Thanks, Mike. Coming from a PK background, I had God pretty tidy for some time. Then God put me into a group of converted Hell's Angels, gays, prostitutes, druggies, and on, and on, and on. I never knew so much fun or cried so much with others. Just another reminder that God loves to mess with our hearts . . . and theologies.