Telling it Slant: The Problem With Writing Conversions
by Brenton Dickieson
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.
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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…
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