Damascus Road Redux
The deadline for entries in the Faith In Fiction Conversion Story contest is today at 5:00 PM Central, and there's already a thread online with links to a number of the entries, if you'd like to get a taste for what's been submitted. The challenge in a contest like this is to take someone else's criteria and make it your own, so you write something that fits within your own body of work. That's hard enough, but in this case the struggle is amplified by the fact that unearned conversion scenes are the bete noire of Christian fiction. It's one thing to rail against the contrived, cheesy conversion scenes of other people, but quite another to write one yourself. Conversion scenes are hard -- as difficult as any literary epiphany, if not more so.
But you have to wonder why. After all, as Christians, we all profess to have been converted in one way or another. We haven't all been blinded by light on a Damascus Road, but we've somehow come to faith, and that experience ought to give us special insight into the matter. Write what you know, the rulebooks say, and this is one thing Christians should know about. So why do we write conversion scenes so badly?
Maybe we don't.
Think about it: because we "know" Christian fiction is full of hackneyed conversions of one and all, and that every knee bows by the time the curtain falls, we're pre-disposed to read all conversion scenes through that lens. Somebody mentions God and we roll our eyes. Somebody gets saved and we shake our heads. The only conversion scene that could satisfy us is one so subtle and ambiguous that nobody but the author knows a conversion actually occurred. I am the chief of sinners in this regard, I'm sorry to say. One of the things this contest has done is open my eyes to that fact. Realistic fiction won't see everybody saved by the final chapter, but can we honestly describe fiction where nobody comes to faith as realistic? No, conversion is one of those experiences that many writers will exclude from their reality because it isn't dreamt of in their philosophy. Christians, having experienced new birth, ought not to be shy in writing about it.
Of course, there are cheesy conversion scenes in Christian fiction. They savor more of the Chick tract than reality. One of the reasons such scenes exist, I suspect, is that writers approach the topic of conversion through the lens of evangelism theory rather than experience. We don't write about the conversions we've been through and witnessed; we write about the ones we imagine while sitting through an evangelism training class or hear about from the pulpit.
A Hell's Angel biker takes a break from beating the wife and kids to answer the door, only to find a preacher there in wingtips with a big King James Bible, waiting to convert him. The biker kneels, he prays the prayer, and by the time the story makes it into the sermon he's a deacon and his kids are all at Bible college. A tale like this captures the imagination -- it's so dramatic, it gives off the aroma of the Damascus Road in its dark to light antithesis. It has an iconic, almost mythic quality to it. Do things like this happen for real? Sure they do. But God works in other ways, too, and perhaps the ones you've actually seen make for a better starting point.
As I said, this is an issue of writing what you know. If the Master's Artist stands for anything, it is writing honestly and authentically about the Christian life as we've experienced it. Tapping that rich experience, in all its complexity, is the key to writing with authority about spiritual things -- including conversion.
When Dave Long first announced his Conversion Story contest, I admit that I rolled my eyes and shook my head in stereotypical fashion. "Oh, no," I groaned. "This will give licence to our worst tendencies!" I was right, but not in the way I thought. My worst tendency isn't naive transparency; it's know-it-all cynicism. Now, after seeing some of the entries and slogging my way through a story of my own, my attitude is different. I'm looking forward to this as a convergence of diverse artistic visions focused on one of the worthiest of subjects. If you haven't already written a conversion story, it's probably too late to whip one out now, but I encourage you to follow the link above and read some of the entries, and to follow the contest as it develops. Your eyes may not be as blind as mine, but perhaps what you discover in these stories will open them a little farther, too.