Conversion stories in recent fiction and film
I’m usually reading or listening to three novels at the same time. By “at the same time” I mean concurrently, of course, not literally temporally. And, believe it or not, I occasionally watch a movie. In fact, movie-watching at home has become more frequent as television entertainment has become increasingly bland, boring or offensive.
Maybe it’s divine providence or just coincidence, but recently I’ve read (or listened to) some outstanding novels and seen some interesting movies that include conversions. And by “conversions” I’m not talking about vans. I mean realistic (or at least attempted realistic) accounts or depictions of personal transformations involving the gospel of Jesus Christ and faith and repentance.
So, I thought I’d share my thoughts about them here. It’s a nice break from the usual heavy theological discussions.
First, let me mention one that so disgusted me I had to stop watching it. I rented it thinking it would include some good gospel, spiritual music. I was mistaken. The movie is “Joyful Noise” starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton. (Kris Kristofferson makes a couple of cameo appearances.) I know, I know…some of you are asking yourselves “Why in the world would Roger Olson be watching a movie starring QF and DP? Well, as I said, I was expecting some gospel choir music. I like gospel music.
I was horribly disappointed. The depictions of church services were inauthentic. But worse, the “gospel choirs” sang mostly popular music. Some of it included a phrase or two that could possibly be interpreted as a nod toward gospel, but for the most part they were secular. The few that did seem to be attempts to include gospel were unfamiliar ditties whose lyrics were so shallow as to be meaningless.
Well, needless to say, I can’t recommend “Joyful Noise” unless you’re seriously in the mood to be nauseated.
Second, turning to something better, I watched “Machine Gun Preacher” starring Gerard Butler. Without endorsing the violence, I have to say…wow. A powerful movie. Maybe not exactly great in terms of production values or acting. (I had the sense that many of the “actors” were amateurs.) But emotionally powerful. And a great story of conversion relatively authentically depicted. Of course, Christians (and others) who incline toward pacifism (as I do) will recoil at the scenes of violence, but the violence depicted was not gratuitous; it reflects reality (sad to say). There is one scene where a pacifist confronts the “machine gun preacher” about his use of violence to protect the victims of brutality in Southern Sudan. She makes a good point that the movie brushes off. However, the movie does make one wonder what a Christian ought to do when put into such as situation—where children are being kidnapped and forced to participate in massacres and where children themselves are being massacred. According to the movie (at the end), the Lord’s Resistance Army has been responsible for over 400,000 murders and countless child kidnappings. Why is the West (Europe and North America) allowing this to continue? Wouldn’t we intervene militarily if our “national interests” were somehow at stake? I suspect we would.
Having grown up Pentecostal, I was moved by the depictions of Pentecostal worship and of conversions. That authenticity is rare in movie-dom. Only Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” accomplished it before this.
Third, turning to books, I listened to Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows. If you like historical fiction and gripping crime thrillers, this is one you need to read (or listen to). The narration (of the audible book) takes some getting used to, but once you adjust to it, it’s really quite good. I’m glad I listened to the book (as opposed to reading it). (I was on a very long road trip and it helped me get through eastern Oklahoma where there’s not a Starbuck’s in sight!)
I won’t go over the plot, but it involves an intricate conspiracy surrounding a previously unknown Shakespeare play. Again, there’s a lot of violence and some bad language, but nothing gratuitous. Most interesting to me was the conversion of the main character, a bitter, hardened, cynical and sex-addicted attorney who, partly because of his Jesuit brother’s persistent witness, changes. I won’t say more than that so as not to spoil it for you who have yet to read or listen to the book. I highly recommend it. You’ll learn a lot about politics and religion during the Jacobean era of England’s history. The book contains some marvelous witnessing by the Jesuit priest brother. Some of his comments about life, love, sex, relationships, forgiveness are simply profound.
Fourth, I just finished listening to A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash. (The title is from Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again.) It’s about a snake handling Pentecostal church in the western Mountains of North Carolina in the 1960s. And a conversion. I won’t say who or what gets converted, but you’ll know at the very end of the book. It’s about the power of religion to do both great good and great evil. And, like the very different The Book of Air and Shadows, it’s realistic narrative. The narration of the audio book is also excellent. I strongly advise listening to it. There are three narrators and they are all outstanding. Again, some of the “sermonizing” by one of the main characters (an elderly mountain woman) is simply profound. If you doubt that while listening to the book (or reading it)…wait until the end to judge.
Another thing I liked about these two books is their treatments of father-son relationships. In my opinion, that is the most complicated of all human relationships and its common pathologies account for a great deal of personal and social turmoil.