My Christian Chronicle colleague Erik Tryggestad wrote a column from New Zealand recently in which he lamented his somewhat pedestrian decision to give his life to Jesus:
I’ve always found my own story to be lacking in drama, I told the group. I grew up in the church with great, godly parents. When I was 14 I was baptized. My salvation was an assumption — an expected journey, hardly worth sharing.
Tryggestad's not-so-boring reporting adventures have taken him to 60 countries. ("Plus, y'know ... Canada," he told me. And yes, I'm including that comment just to agitate my friends north of the border.)
Apparently, my Chronicle colleague is not alone in wishing he had a better conversion story.
Enter CNN Religion Editor Daniel Burke with the "Religion News Clickbait Headline of the Week":
The dirty little secret about religious conversion stories
(Here at GetReligion, we're much too sophisticated to ever resort to such a headline. Obviously, we'd never put "dirty little secret" in a title just hoping to gain a few extra clicks. But anyway ... )
Like the CNN headline, Burke's lede takes ample creative liberty (as opposed to an inverted-pyramid approach):
(CNN) There's a strange resemblance between religious conversion stories and weight-loss ads: both rely on astutely edited "before" and "after" images.
To sell slimming products, the camera first shows a man facing forward, flaunting his flabby gut and lumpy love handles. In the "after" shots, the camera is angled to the side, highlighting a newly narrowed midriff.
The goal of the illusion isn't to just make the man look better, of course; it's to make viewers believe that a product has the miraculous power to turn blubber into brawn.
As anyone who has spent time in a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, sangha, AA meeting or prison knows, a similar effect can arise in religious conversion stories. The "before" pictures, in particular, tend to darken. The snares of sin sharpen, the descent into depravity deepens.
Often enough, eye-roll-worthy embellishments are accepted, even expected. What's a little stretch when you're winning souls for Christ, or escaping bad karma? But sometimes converts' zeal can get the better of them.
The questionable content of conversion stories came under scrutiny last week with reports about Ben Carson, the GOP presidential candidate who credits God with his remarkable rise from poverty to renown.
Up top, the story draws more conclusions and relies on fewer named sources (as in "none") than a typical news report. In fact, the piece reads at the beginning more like a personal column than a news story. But it definitely reels readers in.
All in all, I like it. (Of course, I'm on record as being a big fan of Burke and his Godbeat work.)
As for CNN's ongoing fascination with whether Carson had a temper as a kid, I'm not sure I get it. Then again, I've resolved not to pay a whole lot of attention to the 2016 presidential race until at least 2016.
But back to Burke's piece: To me, it really starts rolling once he gets into the meat of the story and starts quoting expert sources. At this point, Burke flexes his reporting muscles:
But since the early days of the evangelical movement, nearly all born-again Christians have been expected to know the exact hour they "made a decision for Christ," in the memorable words of evangelist Billy Graham.
Without a conversion -- and a coherent story about it -- your commitment to the church could be considered suspect, said Bruce Hindmarsh, a professor of spiritual theology at Regent College and author of "The Evangelical Conversion Narrative."
"On the whole, people are trying to bear witness to the fact that God has broken into their lives, that God still acts in the present world," Hindmarsh said. "It's not supposed to be a story about yourself. It's supposed to be about God."
The most memorable conversion stories are often the "stickiest," to use Malcolm Gladwell's popular phrase: easy to understand but surprising and bit counterintuitive. The persecutor of Christians, like St. Paul, who became one of the faith's most ardent apostles. The Oxford atheist, like C.S. Lewis, who turned Christian apologist. The raging boy, like Carson, who matures into an elder statesman.
From there, Burke transitions to a story I've heard — and read — before:
But the apotheosis of autobiography can have its drawbacks, many evangelicals say: the temptation to tell a story that sounds, and might be, too good to be true.
Among the more notorious examples of salvation slipping into showmanship was Mike Warnke, a Christian comedian and evangelist who claimed to have converted after a violent and scandalous sojourn as a high priest in Satanism.
"Exaggeration did creep into some of my stories," Warnke later admitted to an Oklahoma newspaper in 2000, "but my testimony is still my testimony."
The 2000 story to which CNN refers was written by then-Oklahoman Religion Editor Tamie Ross, who served a brief tenure as a GetReligionista. Someone asked if I'm related to her. "Only by marriage," I replied.
Anyway, go ahead and read Burke's full story. It contains a little attitude and a lot of analysis (most of it attributed to named sources).
It's a nice job of writing and reporting, as Burke tends to do.
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