Oranges and Archie
I never went to church much growing up. There was a little white church a mile or so from my house that gave out free oranges and Christian Archie comic books at Christmastime, so sometimes I would go there. Occasionally, when I was very young, my grandmother would scrub the farm off of me, squeeze me into an ill-fitting suit, and slide me into one of the hard wooden pews. I still remember tilting my head back and staring at the intricate pattern of woodworking in the ceiling as word and song filled the sacred spaces around me.
When I was nine or ten, a new ministry couple came to my grandparents’ church. They were go-getters, and I soon found myself on one of those short, fat orange school buses in summer on my way to VBS, or invited to a party at the church. On one of these occasions a fleet of vans left for the movie theatre “in town.” We were poor growing up, so I had missed E.T. Star Wars, and Back to the Future. The only movie I had seen in the theatre was Phar Lap—anyone? anyone? no?—so when it was movie night I was anxious to sign up.
Enter Billy Graham
I don’t remember much of the film. I think it might have been Cry From the Mountain, an 80s Billy Graham feature. I remember there was a boy, and a mountain, and a tearful conversion scene.
I don’t remember the bad acting or stock characters, but I do remember being puzzled by the conversion. Growing up, there were only Catholics, Protestants, and “others”—people like my family. I didn’t know why the people on screen were crying, or even the shift of one temporal moment to an eternal one as the person knelt.
Now, so many years later, I have seen many conversions. I would argue that we are a conversion generation. When I survey my students, about three-quarters of them say they believe differently than their parents. And I see it happening in the hallways and in the classroom. I see students shedding carbon copy religion. I see their tender faith tearing apart. I see fundamentalists challenged by the sheer testimony of human experience, and I see liberals have their illiberality tested. I have seen people weep at both the loss of faith and the loss of unbelief.
Clearly conversion is a core human experience. Why, then, is it so hard to capture authentically in print or on film?
Billy Graham films aside, I have almost despaired the art of the conversion moment. Thinking more broadly of conversion as the great, transformational shift of how we view the world, I am still left with the question of why writing conversion is so difficult if it is such a core human experience.
I think it comes down to two reasons.
One of the reasons that fantasy books fall into info dump—the piling on of contextual data—is because the author has to create a shift in worldview for the reader, very much like a conversion. The reader needs to go from a possible world—Fargo, North Dakota in 1972 or Heart’s Content, Newfoundland in 2013—to an impossible one, like Earthsea or Narnia. The process is much like an unbeliever leaving her material world behind for a universe alight in the process of becoming a Christian.
When writing transformation of any kind, the writer has to avoid info dump. I searched long and hard to find what I think is the best example of info dump in a film. I chose the Teabing discussion in The Da Vinci Code.
The film is a puzzle. It features Tom Hanks—one of my favourite actors—and the intrepid Sir Ian McKellen. Besides this amazing cast, Ron Howard is directing, the film is filled with incredible art and architecture, and the screenplay is based on a fun pulp fiction conspiracy theory adventure novel. This should have been a hit.
But it was terrible. Really bad. And one of the worst scenes is where Sir Leigh Teabing (McKellen) explains to the protagonists (Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou) that everything they know about history is wrong. Jesus’ divinity is a Constantinian invention, there are super secret suppressed documents in history more accurate than the ones generally accepted, and one of Jesus’ descendents works at Starbucks downtown.
What makes me angry isn’t the approach to history—this film allows me to teach how to do history badly more effectively than any other teaching approach I can imagine. But it is maddening that they blew it, isn’t it? Watch this painful scene in Teabing’s mansion:
The writing is so very bad, and the lovely and intelligent Audrey Tautou becomes a stunned interlocutor, dividing her lines between, “Huh? What? Really?” and various moralistic statements, followed by reverential pauses by McKellen and Hanks.
There are so many things wrong with this scene, but the biggest problem is twelve minutes of data. The result is info dump that does not convert the audience as it should. Instead of the slow discovery of the impossible world, we have a conspiracy lecture, a set up.
We will not be converted by the info dump. This is an essential rule for filmmakers. Novelists, however, take note: a dozen pages of the tragic heroine reasoning through the same material in her head can have the same effect.
The second reason for the difficulty with conversion experiences is harder to name. But I think it is when artists, filmmakers, and writers create an emotional experience for a character that has no authentic connection with the audience. True religious conversion is often an emotional thing—a life-changing moment where all of history and all possible futures collapse into a single moment. Anyone who has sat with someone in one of these moments knows its power. Anyone who has experienced it never sees the world the same again.
So, if we are a conversion generation, why is this so difficult to connect with on screen?
I think there are two reasons. Many of the converts of this generation are “slow fade” converts. They have discovered their atheism or belief slowly over months of small shifts in thought, relationship, and lifestyle. When people try to capture conversion on page and screen, it comes as an ultimate event. Rather than slowly discovering their new reality, as Truman discovers his caged world on The Truman Show, it comes as an altar call, a single transformative moment.
But I think the disconnect is even deeper. There were a lot of great bad single-moment conversions I could have chosen, but I decided to narrow it down to Kirk Cameron’s character “Buck” in the Left Behind Trilogy. Of the different conversions—and there are many of them in the second and third film—this one is the most famous:
Here we have a seasoned actor who has experienced what I believe is an authentic conversion in his own life. Yet it falls flat on screen. There is nothing transformational for the audience in that moment of moments. There is no authentic connection with the audience.
Do We Have a Deeper Problem?
I don’t think it is bad acting or bad writing alone. I think it is something deeper.
It is intriguing to look at how C.S. Lewis handles the conversion moment. He had two significant shifts near the end of his conversion: as he first began to believe in God, and then when he became a Christian. He describes his first moment most vividly:
“People who are naturally religious find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation [that God is real]. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat…
“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all” (Surprised by Joy, ch. 14).
Certainly we can imagine the turmoil and the despondence. But were there tears? Was there a heart change? Did he experience the next breakfast differently than the last? Lewis tells us nothing beyond the intellectual battle he had lost.
The completion of his conversion, when this famous children’s author and public voice for Christianity first became a Christian, is a moment even thinner in detail. After a couple of hundred pages leading up to this moment, Lewis’ conversion to Christianity comes in a single paragraph, and is captured in a couple of sentences:
“I was driven to Whipsnade [Zoo] one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought” (Surprised by Joy, ch. 15).
That’s it. One of the most significant conversion stories of the 20th century, and then he moves on to complain about how Whipsnade Zoo is not nearly as good anymore.
The Pilgrim’s Regress is Lewis’ first published conversion narrative, a couple of years after his ride to Whipsnade Zoo. But even there he does not dwell much on the conversion itself. He dives in—quite literally in this allegory—and resurfaces a different man. The transformation is captured, but it is layered within the larger allegorical journey.
“‘Emotional’ is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake. And it was, like that moment on top of the bus, ambiguous. Freedom, or necessity? Or do they differ at their maximum? At that maximum a man is what he does; there is nothing of him left over or outside the act. As for what we commonly call Will and what commonly call Emotion, I fancy these usually talk too loud, protest too much, to be quite believed, and we have a secret suspicion that the great passion or the iron resolution is partly a put-up job.”
Lewis is sensitive to the “put-up job,” the inauthentic tone of the conversion story.
Tell it Slant
This could be why Lewis follows Emily Dickinson’s advice. She writes:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
Lewis’ best conversion story isn’t his own, but (perhaps) the conversion of Eustace Scrubb. All of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the conversion story of Eustace Scrubb, but there are poignant moments of transformation. In an unknown valley on a deserted island the sour, selfish, spoiled city boy Eustace wanders off by himself. He comes upon a dragon’s cave and finds himself drawn in to the gold and jewels of the dragon’s nest. Time passed, and he fell asleep:
“Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.”
In that magical cave, Eustace becomes the thing he really is: a dragon. His humiliation ultimately leads to his salvation, though, and the time comes for his un-dragoning at the hands of Aslan. I won’t retell the story, but in Eustace’s words:
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy—oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”
Till We Have Faces is a conversion narrative too, but I am still partial to Eustace Scrubb.
Thinking together of Lewis’ approach to conversion moments and Emily Dickinson’s poignant unslanted truth warns us of the danger of the one-off conversion moment. The Da Vinci Code is too bright, trying to dazzle us in an instant. Left Behind walks too straight, and the audience—unless they have walked precisely the same path—are not where Buck is when he sheds a tear. Some things must be seen sideways, “Or every man be blind.”
What does this mean for the conversion narrative? Is there any hope for authors and filmmakers? I think following Lewis’ lead and Dickinson’ advice is key. And remember that this is a slow fade generation. Tell all the truth—you cannot authentically do art otherwise. But tell it slant. As Picasso reminds us, “art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.”
And remember the complexity of real life. My own conversion came suddenly, emotionally, violently, unexpectedly. But as much of my conversion comes from watching the ceiling tiles in that little white church all those years ago. Perhaps that forgotten Billy Graham film played its part. Who knows? I will leave it up to Truth’s superb surprise to know.