Conversions in literature used to be so common that a person could hardly stroll into a Christian bookstore without the gospel screaming at them the instant they opened a book. One out of every five novels seemed to be another Pilgrim’s Progress (with the rest being Amish romance).
Thankfully, with the focus of Christian fiction changing, this is less of a problem. However, you may still be wondering: Should conversions in Christian fiction be eliminated completely? Why was conversion a prominent theme in the past? And why has it remained somewhat prevalent?
Christians tend to write redemption-based stories because salvation is the turning point in our lives. God transferred us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, and we want to share that momentous event through our characters’ lives. But conversions shouldn’t be dumped into every book anymore than we should spout our personal testimony to every person we encounter. However, spiritual rebirth is a part of life, hence the need to occasionally include it in our stories. Unfortunately, we often paint an unrealistic picture of it.
What better place to look for true-to-life regenerations than the pages of Scripture? It contains story after story of redeemed sinners, but for this article I’ve chosen Paul as my example because his salvation is one of the most amazing and detailed accounts.
A notorious bank robber kidnaps a young girl who leads him to Christ, and he abandons his life of violence to serve others.
When a lustful, arrogant rockstar is seriously injured, he finds the true purpose of life through the worn pages of his mother’s Bible.
Those are classic conversion stories. Writers like to make the characters as big and bad as possible. That glorifies God more because it proves He can save the worst of sinners, right? God can save anyone, but the salvation of an average, law-abiding citizen is more powerful because it demonstrates that we are all sinners, regardless of how “good” we are.
But Paul was the chief of sinners! He sought to kill people and dragged them before the courts! I won’t deny that, but we’re overlooking one factor: He was viewed as a righteous man in the eyes of the world and the religious elite. He fasted, obeying every aspect of the ceremonial law, and was well-versed in the Old Testament.
Before you were saved, was anyone conscious of your sin (including you)? Probably not. Paul assumed he was pleasing God by imprisoning Christians when he was actually incurring displeasure. For instance, maybe your protagonist is developing a drug that could extend human life by twenty years. He firmly believes that this medicine will benefit society, but the project will take several years of testing unless he tries it on humans. So, even though he’s already witnessed negative effects the drug has had on animals, he proceeds with his experiments and asks for human volunteers to expedite the process.
Before a character is converted, he generally shouldn’t appear to be a horrible person. Instead, have him embody the average person who is oblivious to his sin. Better yet, like Paul, have him believe his actions are honorable.
Paul During Conversion
If you were saved by hearing a voice from heaven, please raise your hand. In a crowd of ten thousand, I bet only lunatics or people who misheard me would respond. Even in Paul’s days, conversions through miraculous means were rare. So how is Paul a paradigm of realistic salvation? While the mode of his transformation was unusual, the circumstances surrounding it are similar to what you and I have experienced.
Firstly, note that the Bible never records someone directly witnessing to Paul. Granted, he had undoubtedly heard the testimony of Stephen (Acts 6:8–7:60) and others, which likely planted the seed for his redemption. However, at the moment of his calling (Acts 9), he was not listening to a sermon, nor does Scripture indicate that someone had witnessed to him any time recently. Your characters should have exposure to the truth (Romans 10:17), but in the moment of salvation, don’t place them beside a pulpit. Let God speak to their hearts during their everyday activities. God is magnified more if your characters are saved apart from blatant witnessing since you’ll be pointing readers to the true source of salvation.
Some might argue that Paul’s conversion occurred when Ananias told him to “get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16), in which case, he would have been saved due to witnessing. Even if that’s true, the witnessing part was not described in detail because readers were familiar with that message. Likewise, Christian readers have heard the gospel, so evangelism should typically be kept to a minimum.
Secondly, Paul’s conversion was completely unexpected (at least from his point of view, because the Author orchestrated it). Your characters shouldn’t have any inclination to change—according to them, they don’t need salvation. They should be going about their merry lives, making big plans for the future and pursuing their desires.
Let’s return to the drug developer. Maybe he intends to sell his drug and use the profits to send his son to college. But his plans are radically altered when his son shuns him because a close friend has become addicted to drugs. This leads him to evaluate whether his motives are for the good of humankind or himself, and he realizes that the extension of earthly life is nothing compared to eternity.
Lastly, life shouldn’t immediately become perfect when a character is saved. He must face the earthly consequences of his sins. Paul endured three days of darkness before he regained his sight (Acts 10:9). Can you imagine the agony he must have went through during those few days? He didn’t even eat or drink! Salvation is a happy occasion indeed, but before being overwhelmed by joy, we’re overwhelmed by guilt as we finally comprehend the gravity of our sins. Characters need to wrestle with a mixture of joy and sorrow (but not for too long, since it could detract from the story). The drug developer won’t be running around rejoicing when his medicines might be hurting people and alienating his loved ones, yet he’ll feel a sense of relief for stopping his work on such projects.
The need for realism doesn’t stop at a character’s salvation. Too many Christian novels fabricate a sentimental view of the Christian life that isn’t accurate at all. But Paul once again illustrates how to achieve authenticity.
Paul spent several days with the saints at Damascus before proclaiming the gospel. He probably devoted that time to studying Scripture and growing in faith. Furthermore, he didn’t immediately become a full-fledged missionary. Not until after three years of training did he become an evangelist. A sinner won’t turn into a saint overnight; he’ll have sins to overcome and new truths to grasp. Characters need time to mature before they become champions of faith, just like all believers.
Authors also tend to forget that salvation doesn’t equal anything close to perfection. Christian characters should struggle with more than flaws; they should struggle with sins. Even Paul battled sin: “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). A character’s behavior should change—sin will no longer be a defining point of his personality. But his heart is the main place where it will be evident. He will still stumble, but he’ll hate it, unlike before when he contentedly wallowed in evil. He should cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (7:24).
In Maddie Morrow’s article, “Four Christian Practices that Can Kill Your Novel’s Theme,” she pointed out that a character’s personality shouldn’t drastically shift after he comes to Christ. Rather, he’ll manifest his personality differently. An ambitious, glory-seeking doctor won’t evolve into a meek, foot-washing servant. Instead, he’ll strive to suppress his desires for prestige, succeeding at times and failing at others. Paul didn’t cease being a bold, zealous, and outspoken individual after he was saved. He honed those characteristics for good rather than evil.
As I mentioned in the previous section, salvation won’t make a character’s life happy ever after. Even after he’s past the initial phase of mourning his sin, life will be far from smooth. Salvation triggers the start of endless trials. God warned Paul “how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). Paul was often physically assaulted and emotionally distraught. Life is difficult for everyone, but a Christian’s is even harder. We need characters who are burned by going through the fire and hit by temptation to show believers what they can expect from living for Christ.
Use Conversions Wisely
Since the aim of Christian fiction isn’t to convert unbelievers, we shouldn’t always be writing about salvation, but when we do, we need to portray it accurately. The theme of conversion can be an impactful tool for writers, but if done cheaply, it will reduce our stories to empty fairy tales that will chase away rather than lead people to Christ. But the more accurately we depict salvation, the better readers will be able to live out the realities of Christianity.
Mariposa Aristeo is a writer of quirky characters and fantastical adventures filled with heart, humor, hope, and, very often, dinosaurs. If you can’t find her in one of her own imaginary worlds, try combing the pages of a great middle-grade fantasy novel.
At Story Embers, igniting (and sometimes imploding) ideas is her favorite pastime, so she often uses her creativity to make graphics for articles and writing quotes, as well as implement new strategies for SE’s social media channels. Explosions aside, she loves getting to know each and every writer here at SE by running the popular #embersgram hashtag on Instagram and responding to your questions and emails.
Besides being a co-owner of Story Embers, Mariposa is a member of ACFW, a children’s book illustrator, and the host of the IGTV series #middlegrademagicwithmari. You can check out her book recommendations (and shenanigans) on her Instagram page or her character sketches on her art account.