If you’ve hung around Christian writers much, especially those outside the publishers who produce books for the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association), you’ve no doubt ran across the accusation that Christian fiction often contains an “obligatory” conversion scene. As if it is a required event.
Yes, much Christian fiction does show conversions.
I’ve even got a couple in my Christian books, and it isn’t through a CBA publisher.
The interesting thing to me is that I’ve written 18 novels for five CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) publishers thus far, and never once has an editor asked me to include a conversion scene.
Adding that the real reason you see so many in Christian fiction is:
Readers of fiction are drawn to stories that entertain them, but they also look for stories that will affirm their beliefs. Readers of romance want their belief in two people finding lasting love to be affirmed. Readers of mysteries want their belief that justice will be done to be affirmed. And readers of Christian fiction want the truths of their faith to be affirmed. Conversion scenes are a natural part of that affirmation.
I’d say yes and no. I get what she is saying: conversion scenes aren’t generally included because a Christian publisher refuses to publish a story without one, but because it is a genre expectation. However, a genre expectation also makes a particular concept or event obligatory.
Like in romance, the happy ending with the protagonists walking away hand in hand and head over heels in love, if not also walking down the wedding aisle, is the expected outcome. In fantasy, the hero is expected to win in the end, even if through great cost. There are exceptions to these, but they are the expected conventions.
But she has a point. Within Christian culture, like much any other culture, we like to have our beliefs and experience affirmed.
That is why Christian novels tend to have conversions, not in the hopes of saving a sinner, but to encourage a saint. This is exactly what so much of worship is about. We sing that song we’ve sung all our life not because we expect it to reveal an unrealized truth, but to affirm our faith in Christ. Much like people sing the national anthem or go to clubs with like-minded individuals.
The bigger issue in my mind isn’t whether a story has a conversion scene or not, but how well it is portrayed.
On one end of the Bell curve, conversion scenes low on motivation and high on author arbitrariness give them a tacked on feel. It happens not because the character is sufficiently motivated to change, but because the author wants it to happen at that point. In essence, the conversion scene isn’t connected as part of the fuller character arc.
On the other end are conversion scenes so organic to the story and character that the reader hardly notices them. Indeed, for the conversion to not happen would make the story unrealistic.
Between those two ends lands the bulk of conversion scenes. I know, I know. I can hear the protest. “No, no. Most conversion scenes fall into the first category!” Or “You’ve got it all wrong. Most conversion scenes I’ve read fit in the second category.”
You know what? You are both right. How?
A reader’s experience will dictate whether most conversion scenes come across as realistic or not.
To a person who grew up in the church, where conversion was more a realization of what they believed than a decision made at one moment, most conversion stories aren’t going to feel as realistic. In contrast, someone who had a radical conversion moment, such conversions are going to feel real.
Someone who grew up seeing people converted regularly will tend to have fewer issues with conversions in fiction. In short, one’s overall experiences will vastly influence the believability of a fictional conversion that lands in the middle of the bell curve.
By way of example, in growing up and through most of my adult life, I rarely spent much time around people who cussed a lot. Sure, I experienced it here and there, but by and large the people I hung out with didn’t cuss. If they did, not around me.
Consequently, a book with a lot of cussing doesn’t feel realistic to me. It takes me out of the story. Meanwhile, someone else whose parents cussed regularly, or most of their friends do, is going to feel like such language makes the story more true to life.
Believability is based on our own beliefs and life experiences.
Take the conversion of the “journalist” in the God is Not Dead movie. The whole movie she is out to prove this whole God thing is nonsense. Within a few minutes of confronting the Duck Dynasty group about their faith, she talks with the singing group and converts, seemingly out of the blue.
From my perspective, that conversion falls into the first category. Not that it is impossible, but there wasn’t much character arc foreshadowing indicating she was struggling with her faith that God didn’t exist.
However, someone who had such a Pauline conversion, or watched it happen frequently at church, that conversion will look quite believable. It all goes back to any one person’s experience and beliefs as to whether it feels realistic.
Can you name some conversions in novels you’ve read that felt real to you? Can you identify some that didn’t ring true? Why or why not?