So, this time I promised to discuss conversion arcs. This one makes me a little nervous because it’s not so much that I think conversions are a problem as much as how they’re typically handled. For starters, most people don’t actually mind conversion stories. Star Wars Episodes I-III are the account of a boy who is offered the Light Side of the Force and ultimately rejects it for the Dark Side. Episodes IV-VI follow the conversion and maturation of Luke Skywalker to and in the Light Side of the Force and adds in the unexpected redemption of Darth Vader. The Last Samurai contains the conversion of the main character to the samurai way of life. The Matrix is the transformation of Neo from slave to redeemer. Beauty and the Beast: an arrogant prince to a humble king. I didn’t see Avatar, but you get the point.
Conversions are simply stepping into a new life and dying to the old one.
So on the whole, I don’t think anyone really minds these transformation stories. Really, we kinda like them. We’re wired for them.
So, of course, once again, I think cliché altar-calls are but a symptom of a bigger issue.
The original discussion with Stephen went as follows:
Stephen: And while I’m on it, can we also not have so many stories that endlessly fixate on non-Christian characters, and push them toward making a Leap of Faith? I’d love to see more storytellers showing, not telling, how mature Christians — struggles and all — “best” (if that is a “best”) handle their life crises.
Me: I haven’t read many of these lately, but (and this is going to sound funny, maybe) I sort of think of it the way I do kissing scenes in movies (chick-flick hater, btw): If its appropriate to the story, it’s fair game. If it’s appropriate to the situation, it’s fair game. But when the guy has amnesia and is being chased by the CIA and neither of you is sure if he’s a good guy or bad guy after 8 hrs in a car, maybe making out while making your disguise (because you’re running for your life) isn’t a good time. ::cough::Bourne::cough::
Now I’m ranting, so I’ll call it quits for the time being. 0=) Now that we’ve covered a list of personal peeves. Hehe. Apologies for that.
Just as those “romantic arcs” (that’s another discussion entirely) are only appropriate if time, situation, and setting allow for it, so those conversion experiences are only appropriate if time, situation, and setting allow for it. People don’t go from “I might kill you” to “I love you” that fast ::cough::Underworld & Luke & Mara Jade:: and, not that I’m an expert on the subject, but I have yet to hear of that many people who go from either “God doesn’t exist” or “I hate God” to “Okay, now I love him and I’m going to turn my life–heart, soul, mind, and strength–to him that fast.
Okay, so, provided Jesus didn’t knock you off your horse, blind you, and openly confront you for persecuting him. You know.
As I’ve said before, I really didn’t know any such ABA/CBA divide existed until my first writers’ conference as a high school senior. And as a result, I suppose I see most of the arguments as comparable to issues in the Bible Belt regardless.
More or less, I’m left with a few questions.
1. Who is the CBA audience?
I ask this one because I think on the whole Christians (especially when we’re dealing with church structures) tend to either lean toward two groups of people:
- Non-Christians and/or “infant” believers
- “Teenage” or more mature believers (I’m using the life cycle loosely, take it for what it is)
Occasionally you’ll see a church try to appeal to both parties: I tend to prefer these middle-roaders, but even they are going to lean slightly more one way than the other. It’s natural, I suppose. And there’s nothing truly wrong with it. As Christians we’re called to edify, exhort, and encourage the body of believers, and we’re spread the hope of the gospel and make disciples of all men. So, whatever we do, we are to present Christ in all things.
But here’s the thing: If the majority of CBA readers are Christians, I do not know why a conversion arc is necessary. Yes, it’s affirmative. But this is milk for a grown man who needs meat (or, for our purposes, a hungry teenager, at the very least). You wind up creating an entire argument for people who already believe what you’re saying is true. So what you’re winding up with is a book for someone unfamiliar with the gospel given to someone who already knows it. The very audience you intend to reach is never going to see it, most likely. I just don’t know that many non-Christians who find reason to go into a Christian bookstore or visit the religious fiction (Re: Christian fiction) section.
2. What is the purpose of CBA?
There are two types of ministry: Outreach (geared toward non-believers) and “inreach” (geared toward believers). One thing I tend to harp on in church circles is that it’s perfectly fine to have an event geared toward one or the other, however, you must be honest about it. Don’t advertise an event as a great way for the youth group to get “close to God” and then gear everything toward an altar call or tell the kids to bring all their non-Christian friends. It’s not that said friends can’t come. It’s that you’re playing this game where you’re pretending to do evangelism when you’re really doing ::gasp:: discipleship.
If CBA’s purpose is to edify the body, then it needs to think in terms of the edification of the body, not in terms of evangelizing some hypothetical non-believer who may or may not be duped into the religious fiction section of Barnes & Noble.
But if CBA’s purpose is to preach the gospel, I’m really wondering how it intends to do that, because I’m not sure the current M.O. is fruitful. Of course, I’m not exactly known for having the spiritual gift of evangelism, either, so it may not be my place to criticize the point.
Moreover, another picky point of mine in church is that there is a time and place for everything. It’s okay to have a weekend retreat of games and fun. Really. And it’s okay to have a weekend of worship and teaching, too. But just as it’s dishonest to call something “outreach” that’s really “inreach,” so it’s dishonest to say we’re going on a retreat for the study of God’s word when the bulk of the events are games-oriented.
Similarly, I think we as writers need to decide what our primary goal is: Recreation or Theology? (And yes, I know it’s rare to have one to the sole exclusion of the other; I’m suggesting that there will always been an emphasis on one or the other, and that is the important part).
3. What is CBA?
Churches are ministries. Publishing houses are not. A friend and I had this discussion on the subject:
Friend: I think the typical “altar call” conversion is evidence that we have started to view conversion as a single event, and not a new life. And I think the purpose of CBA has become safe recreation. That’s what the publishers are focusing on. I don’t know if that’s actually the original intention. And I think that sticking an altar call in a Christian novel, when it serves no purpose but to meet a quota or to give a happy satisfied feeling, cheapens the grace we’re portraying. So, you’re suggesting that while some insist a conversion arc MUST be in a Christian novel, it doesn’t give anything meaty to the reader?
Me: something like that. I think if your writing is your outreach ministry, you shouldn’t be in CBA.
Friend: And like I’ve said, if publishers want to be entertainers, that’s fine. It’s their choice. It’s a business, not a ministry. But one of my pet peeves is that I think some people look at buying Christian books as a form of tithing. They’re giving money to a Christian ministry…except that it isn’t.
Me: But they’re not focused on business if they’re trying to evangelize. They’re trying to meld two models together and that won’t work.
Friend: So they shouldn’t pose as, or allow themselves to be labeled as an outreach ministry. And I like that: you can’t meld the two. Christians need to be discipled in a way that non-Christians aren’t ready to handle.
In other words, again: Be honest. It’s not a sin for a Christian businessman to make money. It is a sin for him to try to pass his business off as something it’s not. Sure, he should be a godly man of integrity and hopefully not pass up opportunity to speak up. But “do everything as unto the Lord” does not mean “If you tack an altar call at the end, it’s ‘ministry’ and if you don’t it’s ‘common.'” It means, rather, that the CBA writer or publicist must, in all his dealings, strive for excellence, for it is God whom he serves, not man.