The other day, I was thinking about Christian conversion testimonies. In a lot of ways, they function as narrative stories. However, their similarity to well-told tales mostly ends at having a general three-act structure. They can’t actually stand as good stories because they don’t reflect anything real in the human situation — and they’d be bad that way even if their tellers didn’t try to work miracles into them so often.
Our favorite stories don’t always reflect reality
Of course, nobody reasonably demands that all movies always reflect reality 100% of the time. Just take a look at the top 10 most-watched movies of all time, as ranked by IMDB:
- Titanic (1997)
- E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
- Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
- The Lion King (1994)
- The Godfather (1972)
- The Jesus Film (1979)
None of these movies are actually about real people doing real things in the real world. No, not even #10, which barely even counts as an actual movie.
(Its top user review declares that The Jesus Film is “primitive and flawed for audiences who are familiar with cinematic convention.” Rather, its value rests entirely in its retelling of myths that Christians will find comforting and pleasing. Nobody else will find it of interest except as an artifact of how Christians engaged with Bible myths at the time of the movie’s creation. In this way, it’s similar to The Color of Pomegranates, except that’s actually an absolutely mesmerizing spectacle instead of a tiresome and tedious retread of Low Christian folk beliefs.)
What stories need most
The closest thing to real world/real people/real things on that list is The Godfather. And even that movie bore very little resemblance to the brutish, ugly world of organized crime families of its time. Sure, crime families liked it and quickly adopted some of the movie’s depictions. The same thing happened with Wall Street guys after their movie came out in 1987. But at the time, Vito Corleone and his world were completely fanciful creations.
That doesn’t matter to those who love The Godfather. Nor should it.
The drapings of characterization and worldbuilding barely matter to a story. What matters — and what should matter — is that the story being told is resonant to those receiving it.
That story doesn’t have to be real/real/real.
But it does absolutely need to reflect the human situation.
The true art of the story
Titanic got a lot of details wrong, yes. However, its basic story (or rather, stories) rang completely true. The deep pain of lost love, the regret of old age, and the difficulty of being female in an extremely misogynistic time blended seamlessly with the vivacious sudden passion of young love. Audiences resonated with the gorgeous scenery and chemistry of the two leads, the constant allusions to history (even if they weren’t quite right), and the ache of someone seeing a golden opportunity dangling within reach. The storyline of an aged grand dame looking back at a very formative experience alternated with the raucous energy and unfamiliarity of a time long gone.
It’s no wonder Titanic catapulted into blockbuster status so quickly — and stayed there so long.
In similar ways, The Lord of the Rings shows us a world that is completely based in fantasy. Most of the main characters aren’t, strictly speaking, even human. These characters work magic and wield magic weapons, fight surreal monsters, and deal with supernatural forces that really exist in their setting. That said, the story is what matters. Fairly low-level, underpowered hobbits try their best to help defeat a great evil. Their bravery, general cheerfulness, and determination — even in the face of defeat — are what carry the story.
We’ll buy what these storytellers are selling because the ideas underlying their window-dressing ring true.
Testimonies aren’t resonant, though. They do not accurately reflect the human situation. And so we can’t buy what their bearers are selling.
Testimonies as bad storytelling setups
As I mentioned, yes, testimonies do involve a three-act structure.
First, let’s look at their first act, which functions as scene-setting.
Testimonies can begin with the tellers being rich or poor, isolated or popular. However, these people must be lacking something that they can’t find anywhere else except in the evangelist’s product (active membership in a particular religious group). The testimony-bearer must claim that their life was meaningless, empty, and devoid of true joy, but gosh, they just didn’t know how to solve this existential crisis!
And right there, testimonies fall flat. By now, almost everyone knows that one can find happiness and meaningfulness in a lot of different places. What works for one person probably won’t work for another.
So Christians’ marks know better. They know that unhappiness doesn’t automatically happen if someone lacks Christianity’s product, just as they know that happiness can only come with one’s purchase of it.
Testimonies as Christian infomercials
We see the same errors being made in late-night infomercials, which depict people trying and failing to overcome life’s little obstacles (like draining pasta, opening mail, sitting on their couches, or even just trying to sleep while encumbered by breasts).
These infomercials need to play up the need for their product in the same exact way that testimonies do. But ultimately, both products are unnecessary. They don’t actually solve the problems presented. In fact, they may only introduce new problems to the people buying them. So the failures being presented look unpersuasive to us.
In testimonies, though, Christians have been trained since birth to accept the idea that meaning and happiness cannot be found anywhere but in their groups. They’ll be the only ones accepting the scene-setting in their testimonies — along with those who are otherwise primed to accept these ideas, like the supremely desperate seeking an easy-sounding solution.
You know, like infomercial-product purchasers.
Of course, if an infomercial persuades people to buy a special gadget to stop their overloaded hands from dropping stuff as they walk from the kitchen to their easy chairs, those folks remain the type to overload themselves. They’re still doing the same poorly-considered stuff in other areas of their lives — and probably wondering if any magical products can solve those problems too.
You know, the more I think about testimonies as infomercials, the more I like the comparison.
Testimonies: the epiphany moment
The second act of testimonies always involves the conversion to Christianity itself. Sometimes this act takes place over many weeks, but usually it’s a swift realization that the testimony-bearer experiences. Often, the second act involves something miraculous happening. The testimony-bearer might even experience this miracle after requesting proof of Jesus’ power.
(In Christianese, this testing is often called putting out a fleece. The phrase refers to a weird little story in Judges 6:37. Christians have a strange relationship with asking for proof of their god’s power. It’s okay if the results are overwhelmingly positive, but not okay at all if the results are negative.)
And here, too, most audiences will not recognize the reasoning involved as persuasive. If the Christian claims apologetics converted them, that’s just embarrassing — because apologetics relies heavily on manipulative, fallacy-laden arguments rather than evidence. If the Christian claims a miracle did the trick, it’s usually not hard at all to figure out what really happened there. And if the Christian claims that they realized that Jesus is totes for realsies love personified, well, it’s really not difficult to untangle that baldfaced misrepresentation.
Of course, people do have epiphany moments. They do make big decisions about their lives. But these moments and decisions don’t usually persuade people who don’t already accept the ideas underlying them. They are, by their nature, subjective. And just as we see in infomercials, they function as very poor sales tools with any other audience.
The grand finale of testimonies: BUY THIS PRODUCT
Finally, we arrive at the third act of a testimony. Ideally, this last act reverses the first.
If the testimony-bearer felt alone and destitute in the first act, by the third act they’re popular, loved, and rich at least in the emotional sense. If the testimony-bearer started wealthy and popular, by the third act they’ve lost all those resources but are super-duper-happy and live a richly meaningful life.
The difference, audiences are told, comes down to the purchasing decision offered in the second act. Because the testimony-bearer bought the product, their life is 100% better and has made the best 180-degree turnaround ever.
This third act comes with an implied promise and a threat, too:
Buy my product, and you too can get what I’ve gained. If you don’t buy it, though, you’ll never get what I’ve gotten! You’ll miss out! And you’ll suffer eternally too!
Christians are supposed to make their third-act lives sound wonderful and enviable. However, as mentioned above, most of us know plenty of Christians — and we know they struggle even to pretend to live as they say they do. Indeed, testimonies reflect what Christians wish Christianity could do for them.
Christians are just people like anyone else. Their product doesn’t actually help them. They just say it does because they know that if they present their lives as they actually are, nobody’d ever want to buy their product. So they gussy it up to make it sound more persuasive.
The tribe won’t object.
Heck, they won’t even notice because they’re all constantly doing the same thing.
Sidebar: A revised three-act arc that actually works
Just consider The Godfather III. In the original finale to the trilogy, Francis Ford Coppola wanted to give Michael Corleone a tragic character arc. But it took a lot to make that arc seem persuasive to audiences. When the movie first came out, audiences thought the ending was very unsatisfying. (And it was. I’ve seen all three movies, but I remember almost nothing of the third.)
So later on, Coppola re-edited that third movie. His finished product, The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, shifted emphases around to give Michael a whole different trajectory. Screen Rant liked it much better:
The Godfather Coda streamlines the narrative in a more frenetic manner and amplifies the aura of tragedy that shrouds the end of the film. Michael’s regrets, along with his desire for redemption, are more palpable than ever, along with the dangers that the family has to constantly flirt with. Although the third installment still does not manage to match up to the sublime nature of its predecessors, it does work well as a summation to a rousing saga spanning decades.Screen Rant
Michael’s utter heartbreak over the assassination of his daughter makes his anti-Hero’s Journey all the more tragic. The revision denies Michael the far easier end of the original third movie. Instead, this one condemns him to something far worse. In the revision, he lives with the knowledge of what he’s done to everyone he’s ever cared about.
Why testimonies fail
Christians get taught a lot of false ideas about testimonies, but the worst one of all might center around exactly why they tell testimonies in the first place.
Their Dear Leaders have taught them for years that testimonies work as conversion tools — and that testimonies, in fact, function as the very best and most effective conversion tool a Christian has. Endless resources exist online (like this one) to teach Christians how to hone their testimonies to be effective and interesting. Others (like this other one, oh and this one too) reprimand Christians for testimony-ing all wrong, then offer to teach them a magical method that works way better. Since Christians all take for granted that testimonies are 100% effective evangelism tools, they all assume that ineffective testimonies are just done wrong.
(See also: “The message is always perfect in a broken system.”)
And then, Christians get taught that they’re just gormlessly, artlessly offering up their totes for realsies experiences to others. They act like they’re just disinterested observers presenting a bias-free evaluation without any care about how audiences will receive this information.
We see this mindset on display on Quora, where someone asked:
Do atheists ever consider Christian testimony as being true, considering we have no reason to lie to them?Quora
I loved the top answer:
The anonymous author of this question either doesn’t know some of his coreligionists cheat on the truth, or else he or she is one of the cheaters.Quora
In reality, Christians get enormous rewards from their groups for the mere act of sharing testimonies — and even greater rewards if any marks actually buy the product.
Wrapping it all up: Why testimonies fail
In a lot of ways, testimonies fail as persuasive narratives because Christians use them as sales tools — and hone them accordingly — while pretending that they have no reason at all to act like salespeople or to seek salespeople’s rewards.
But that’s not actually why testimonies fail so hard with Christians’ chosen marks.
The ultimate problem with Christian testimonies is that their product doesn’t live up to a single one of their many claims about it. It just doesn’t do what they claim it can and will do for purchasers.
When a product is as ineffective and unnecessary as Christianity is, salespeople for that product get put into a very uncomfortable position. (And no, I don’t mean like “the back seat of a Volkswagen.”) They have to get creative to sell anything!
But the results of that effort morph from actual personal testimonies to sales testimonies. And once that happens, they stop being persuasive at all. At that point, audiences stop being audiences. Right there, they start being marks.
Nobody likes being sold at, especially under false pretenses. “Listen to this amazing thing that happened to me” can sometimes be interesting. “Listen to my product pitch,” though, not so much.
Why nothing can change
But I don’t expect much to change on this front. Sales-minded Christians have been taught to muddy that boundary for years. Many times, I’ve personally encountered Christians bristling at the mere suggestion that they’re deploying testimonies to sell product. When the salespeople themselves can’t even recognize their own dishonesty and ulterior motives, you know it runs deep.
Worse, even when Christians discover that someone’s testimony contains incorrect or fabricated elements, they don’t usually challenge that person or publicly repudiate them. It takes a lot for any false testimony-bearer to be exposed, and even more for them to lose the tribe’s approval.
Remember how I mentioned earlier that Christians themselves regard testimonies as incredibly effective evangelism tools?
The same Christians that focus heavily on sales also tend to fall into Hell-belief. Hell-belief concerns the existence of Hell as an unpleasant place where humans go after death. Quite a few Christians don’t buy into all of the beliefs about Hell, but Hell-believers tend to feel a certain level of responsibility for those they view as heading that way. Namely, these Christians think their product will keep people safe from that awful place. They market their product on that basis — often pulling out Hell as a last-ditch threat when all their other lovey-dovey approaches fail.
So any testimony that frightens people into conversion is a good testimony. Even if it’s 100% fabricated, if it converts people — or is at least perceived as potentially converting people — then their fellow Christians will embrace it. They will even attack anyone seeking to expose the truth about it. (It’s happened to me!)
Until these things change, testimonies will continue to reflect Christians’ own hopeful dreams about their own product.