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EPISODE 27: The Power of Story and the Most Reluctant Convert
Stories, whether told in literature or on stage or through film are powerful. Stories about someone’s conversion are especially moving. Max McLean, the star of the new movie “The Most Reluctant Convert” and I discuss his movie as well as the power of story.
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Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and I'm delighted today my conversation partner is Max McLean, the founder and artistic director for Fellowship for Performing Arts. He's also the star of the brand new movie The Most Reluctant Convert. Max, welcome to Questions That Matter.
Thank you, Randy. It's great to be with you.
The Fellowship for Performing Arts
Well, Max, just for some of our listeners who may not be familiar with the Fellowship for Performing Arts, can you give us a little intro as to this great endeavor that you've been involved with for a while?
Sure. I'm the founder and the artistic director of Fellowship for Performing Arts. We're a New York City based production company that produces theater and film from a Christian worldview that can…. The intent, at least, is to engage a diverse audience. And the way we use diverse—the word has been co-opted to mean almost singularly gender and racial diversity, where the way we use that word is more worldview diversity. So what we do is we select material for production that we think articulates the Christian worldview in a way that's real, imaginative, multilayered, doesn't shy away from the tough questions, that can engage the imagination. And we try to execute the work at the highest levels that our budgets will allow us, so we can play the great performing arts venues around the country, and we've extended that to film, and then we ask people to help us do it. We're a nonprofit ministry, and that's why we're called the Fellowship for Performing Arts. It's a fellowship of people that believe art and theater from a Christian worldview can engage the imagination and influence culture.
I love it. And I've had the great joy of experiencing several of your productions, the live ones. I'm looking forward to seeing the film. I don't know if this is too theoretical, but I'd like to go in this direction for a little bit. What is it about the performing arts? What is it about drama that has such an impact on us? Why is it such a powerful medium? And maybe that's too difficult a question to answer. We just know that it does impact us. But are there some insights that you have for us?
Yeah. Well, I'm more of a practitioner than a philosopher of it, but there's a couple of things that come to mind. We're made in the image of God, and God appears to be a storyteller, so we are built in to respond to story. So I think that's part of our DNA at a very archetypal level. The other thing that may help in this is that, something that C.S. Lewis said, that the imagination is the organ of meaning, and reason is the organ of truth. And so by saying that, both are incredibly important, meaning and truth. But I think if you take it a step further, at least my interpretation of what that means, is that the imagination stirs up the raw material of what we think about. That’s the raw material. And then, from that, we exercise levels of discernment to determine what we're going to invest in. So that, if an idea doesn't engage to the point that it stirs the imagination, then it's very unlikely that you're going to use the rational tools that we have, kind of front brain / back brain thing. The rational tools that we have to take it to the next level, to evaluate, to reassess.
And that's, of course… the idea of many stories is many stories have a point of view. Some people are a bit harsh, and they call it an agenda, but regardless of that, it's a point of view. And so that point of view intersects with your point of view, whatever that point of view is. And if it really engages, then it has the opportunity to perhaps alter your point of view. So I think that's one of the reasons the great historian Paul Johnson, in his book Intellectuals, said—he was writing a chapter, I think, on Henrik Ibsen, and he said, “Those who want to influence men's minds have always known that theater is the most powerful medium to make the attempt.” And then the dean of the American theater, Harold Clurman, wrote, “Make them laugh, and while their mouths are open, pour truth in.”
And that makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? You're just relaxed. You're watching. Your critical faculties, they’re not on guard, I suppose. And that's one of the ways that American culture has been shaped by film, shaped by media, shaped by theater, shaped by novels, shaped by story.
Right, right. And I think this idea about meaning and truth a lot of times, or the imagination and reason and logic, very often we've kind of pitted them against each other, that we have to choose one or the other, or one is more important than the other, or one can be, I don't know, ignored or dismissed. But no, we're creatures of meaning and truth, and we do have intellects that God has given us, but we are story creatures. And I love the way you put it, that God Himself is a storyteller. And so what you're trying to do is capture how those things fit together in a really powerful way.
Right. And you're representing the C.S. Lewis Institute, and I represent Fellowship for Performing Arts, and in both cases, we are acolytes of C.S. Lewis, who I think is perhaps one of the greatest examples of the merger of the integration of imagination and reason.
Right. Yeah. I don't know if he was ever asked this question. I just wonder how he would respond about choosing between the two. I think he would think that's absurd.
Yeah, I do, too.
You read his writing, and it's rigorous intellectual wrestling, because he was shaped that way. But then he can't resist just throwing in these imaginative illustrations and analogies that grab hold of you in two ways at once, or at least two ways.
Yeah. And I would argue that the imagination triggered the rationality, and other times the rationality triggered the imagination. So they were supportive in that way. He didn't get locked in. And that's one of the reasons we do like his writings. They are so imaginative in that regard, and yet so, as you say, so rigorous.
Yes. I don't think I have this experience with any other writer. I find myself reading Lewis and understanding something deeply and laughing out loud at the same time. I just love it. I just love it.
Well, you know, he spoke—I believe this is in our film. I know it's in our play, so I know my play better than I know the film, and we can talk about that, because the film is a byproduct of the play. But in the play, Lewis, speaking of his first encounter with G.K. Chesterton, wrote, “I liked him for his goodness. Not that it had anything to do with being good myself.” And I'm trying to get the actual thought. He liked his writing, not jokes, not flippancy. “That,” he says, “I cannot endure,” but his humor was the—I love this. “His humor was the bloom of his argument.” It was like the excess that just, the aroma that emerged as a result of his steady argumentation. And, to me, they’re not jokes, they’re, like he said, the bloom of his argument. And so when you describe what you just said, that's what came to mind.
Oh, I love it! I love it! And there it is again. He didn't say that it was the culmination of his argument or the logical conclusion of his argument, but the bloom of the argument. There it is. And he couldn't stop himself from doing that. That's just the way he was and his mind went. Well, let's talk about this film and this play. It was originally a play, a one-man play, The Most Reluctant Convert, and you delivered it and presented it, I'm guessing, hundreds of times, or dozens of times.
I'm trying to recall what the count was. It's well over 200. I think it's under 300, but well over 200. We did it for three years, until the pandemic. But it really had a solid following, and we had a long run in New York. We had multiple times in DC, and it's a very popular production on college campuses. And then, of course, it all stopped with the pandemic, which was the incentive for us to, when we couldn't do our work, what were we going to do? And the Lord, in His providence, led us to make this movie.
Yeah. Had you been reluctant to do movies and films in the past? Was it, “No, we only do live performances on stage.”
Well, they're two different art forms requiring two different sets of tools and two different skill sets. And so I knew the limitations of my skill sets, though I've always wanted—I mean, the acting part is a relatively seamless move from theater to film. The big distinction between the two is theater, the imprint is the voice, and there's a huge emphasis on the language, the words. In film, the imprint is the image, and there's less of a reliance, or even consideration, for language itself. There's a different kind of language. It's a visual language. And also, in theater, it is exclusively an actor's medium. He's on stage in front of that audience, and it's him and him alone with the other actors. Of course, there's lighting and sound and all that, and that helps, but that's it. Whereas, in film, it's totally a director's medium. Actors, in some ways are really potted plants that get moved around. And of course, we have to say the words and be in the right place under the right lighting.
So I was grateful that I had the experience of doing this play prior to doing the film e because I had all this emotional memory stored in each of the moments that I could quite easily recall at the moment required in the filming. And that's really key, because in theater, you get a continuity from beginning to end that you can build towards. So if the culminating moment is at the end of the play, you have all this time to build to it, and then you navigate your energy and your emotional choices to make sure that that moment is delivered. Whereas in film, there's still a culmination, but the way it's often made, certainly The Most Reluctant Convert was made, you divide the script into 100 different pieces and jumble it all up. And then, “Okay, today we're going to do this piece,” which was maybe in the middle of the play, and then we go back to the front of the play, then we'll do the end of the play or the end of the film. And so the actor has to know, where am I and what am I supposed to do and how did I get here and what's my intention? So those, thankfully, I didn't have trouble with, but I could see a lot of other actors would have.
The Most Reluctant Convert
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I find this so intriguing. You used the word tools, and I've heard other artists talk about that. That different media, different art forms e have different tools. And there are tools in film that are different than tools in drama, certainly different than in painting and music, and they work on us in different ways. And once you grasp that, you start watching movies and films differently, you look at, “Oh, why did we jump from that scene to that scene, but there was 10 seconds of looking at the trees first. What did the director and the filmmaker, the screenplay writer, want to have happen in you as the audience in those 10 seconds?” I love the way you just said it. On stage, it’s much more of the actor's medium, as opposed to the director's medium.
What are some of your biggest hopes for this film? It's going to be coming out in just a few days. My guess is, by the time people are listening to this, they will have already seen it, or it has been in the theater. But what are some of your hopes? As the opportunity came about to make the movie and then as you were making it, I'm sure that there was this sense of… What is it you're hoping the Lord does with this film?
Yeah, well, one of the things that I found in my experience with C.S. Lewis, which began in my 20s as an adult convert, and then much more recently, in the past 20 years, living with Lewis in terms of adapting many of his works from the page to the stage, one of the things you realize is you just never get to the bottom of him. It's a very, very deep, profound well, and one of the things I discovered was that, here's a man that read everything from the Greeks to the moderns. He had a steel trap mind that could recall almost instantly anything and everything he read. And then he had this extraordinary ability to articulate it into magnificent prose and speech. I mean, I would have to argue that he is not just one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. I think he's one of the greatest writers in Western civilization, in terms of the constellation of ideas he comes up with. And it all comes from a Christian worldview. That he recognized the reality of the Christian revelation, that either the crude beginnings of life on this planet were dropped by a fuller, more perfect life, or it all begins with the idiocy of the universe.
And I also like the fact, too, that in reading him, he always answers the question, or he seems to answer the question, “Compared to what?” And I've come to find that that's a very important question. When somebody makes a declaration like, “There is no God,” or what's wrong with the Christian religion, and most of the time, it's because they're concerned…. I rarely hear people speak about the Christian religion or the Christian revelation in true or false terms. I always hear it in terms of the Inquisition or the income of bishops or the scandal in this place. So it's like it's basically saying Christians behaving badly, and so therefore you give it up, but not in terms of the actual truth claims of the Christian gospel. And of course, Lewis himself said, “My argument against God was that the universe was so cruel and unjust,” right? And then he says, “Where did I get this notion of cruel and unjust?”
“I call a line crooked because I have some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing the universe with when I called it cruel and unjust?” He goes on to say that Christianity does not solve the problem of pain, it creates it, because pain would be no problem if the world was arbitrary and what was behind it was not loving and not just. It would just be the natural outcome of a capricious universe. Right? And Lewis says it's a problem because we have assurances that ultimate reality is loving and just. So then we have a problem.
But without that, you don't have a problem.
And he says, “If the world has no meaning, if the universe has no meaning, we would never know it has no meaning, because meaning wouldn't exist.” These are fundamental ideas that people just go through their life just not thinking about and making eternal decisions based on very faulty evidence. I read something somewhere, and I think our film addresses that—you asked me what I hope. I hope the film addresses these issues. I read something recently that I've been noodling in my head, that our culture has exchanged freedom, the perceived ability to do whatever we want, whenever we want, in exchange for purpose and meaning. And I think there's a lot of truth in that, because complete freedom makes you your own god. So, anyway, I can go on a lot about that.
No, I do love it. I'm pretty sure it was in an introduction to a collection of Lewis’s essays where Walter Hooper said that he thought Lewis was the most thoroughly converted man he ever met and that Lewis’s brilliant mind that was so thorough in thinking, when he became a Christian, he then thought deeply, thoroughly about everything, and so that, whatever topic it was, he had thought deeply and Christianly about it. And I think that that's a great challenge for us, both believers and nonbelievers. I hope that your film will be seen by both Christians and non-Christians, and the Christians will be challenged to become the most thoroughly converted person they could possibly be, and that nonbelievers will say, “Oh, I need to be as rigorous in examining my doubts or my unbelief or my questions as this person was.” So that's always the dual challenge I want to point people to with C.S. Lewis, to be as rigorous as they can be and to doubt their doubts, as he did.
Yeah, well, he, in terms of hopes, Lewis wanted Christianity to be positioned, not because it's comforting. He thought that was not helpful. It's just simply whether or not it is true. If it is untrue, he says, “No honest person would ever want to believe it.” And it all hinges on the person of Jesus. Is He who He says He is? If His claims are false, Christianity is of no importance. If true, it is of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important. So you really have to investigate the claims of Jesus, and even beyond that, Lewis’s assumption in almost all his writings is simply this: We come from another world. There is another world, and that is where we come from.
And his simplest articulation of Christianity is that God came from someplace else and entered into our created universe and then came out again, pulling us up with Him. That's the Christian story. The alternative is that this man is a raving lunatic, similar to a man who comes to you, looks you in the face, and says, “I am a poached egg.” Right? Or He’s a liar, like the devil from hell. And then he asks the question, “Unless you believe that, either one, that he's a poached egg or liar devil from hell, you turn to the Christian story.” And the Christian story is that this Man is Who He says He is. And let's not have any of this nonsense about Him being a great human teacher. He did not leave that option open to us, nor did He intend to. So all of that comes out very clearly in the film from a very rigorous, imaginative perspective.
New Discoveries while Filming the Most Reluctant Convert
I love it! I love it! Were there things that you realized, maybe not for the first time, but realized afresh, or in a more powerful way, about C.S. Lewis in the process of making the film? I mean, you've been immersed in him and his story of his conversion for quite a long time. Were there things in the filming that came to the surface for you?
Well, I talked to you about you'd ever get to the bottom of him. And I would even say what comes to mind immediately is a comment you just made, not too long ago about him, of what Walter Hooper said about the thoroughness of his conversion. His faith was so strong, and I think one of the big things that plagues the Christian church in America and even around the world is, “I think we believe. Help Thou my unbelief.” Our faith is weakened, and it's weakened by many, many reasons. Certainly the assault of secularism has weakened it, but one of the things that informed Lewis, he knew that rational arguments did not create belief. He knew that something could be proved and not embraced. But he also recognized that what no one defends is soon abandoned.
And that’s what I'm seeing, is that we're becoming less informed to defend, and because we're less informed, we're a little insecure about defending the faith. And that leads us to this sense of, “Well, I'm not going to defend it.” That's what happened in Lewis’s… in Oxford and Cambridge in the thirties and forties. That’s what's happening in America, in the US and Canada colleges and universities here. It's not that Christianity is nefarious. It's simply irrelevant, because the case is never made. So it doesn't graduate beyond a very almost infantile expression, a kind of a straw man Christianity that can't hold up to these powerful professor types who are really, really well schooled in their own individual discipline and know enough about theology to be dangerous and just weaken so many people's faith. So Lewis, he says, “Good philosophy must exist because bad philosophy has to be answered.” So that’s what I hope happens, comes out of this film.
I subscribe to a number of different newsletters, and I read about what God is doing around the world, and frequently, repeatedly, I see and hear pleas for the need for discipleship all around the world. That is the crying need of our time, and that is the specific focus that God has placed on the C.S. Lewis Institute. So we're so very grateful to be involved, and have been for decades, in something that could very well be the greatest need of our world today. So please consider becoming a financial partner with us. It would be at the very core and centrality of what God is doing in our world today.
I have to think that part of why he was so effective and strong and powerful as an apologist is because he was so resistant to it as a nonbeliever. He was a nonbeliever for several decades. He was rigorously trained in how to think as an atheist, and so he had lots of arguments that had to crumble, and he describes it as crumbling. He was the most reluctant convert. That's not just a flippant cliche. It really was reality for him. And I think that's part of the force.
He was so reluctant. You're absolutely right. But so many of his arguments were strictly empirical. Like in the play and in the film, the very first scene is an empirical rationale about why he doesn't believe. Look at the universe we live in. Mostly empty space, completely dark, unimaginably, cold. Who can live here? Most scientists think it's unlikely that any planet in our solar system can sustain life.
He looks at the universe and how it works, and he says, “Either there's no God behind the universe, a God who is indifferent to good and evil, or worse, an evil God.” And that was where his data led him, if you hold it strictly to an empirical perspective.
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I remember that being the force I felt of watching the stage production of it. At the beginning was this very, very strong argument for unbelief. It was unsettling. It was like, “Wait a minute, why did I come to the theater tonight?”
Yeah. “I thought this was a Christian play.”
Yeah, “This could be really dangerous.” But that's part of the power of it, because then all of those things then were met and responded to with both depth and beauty. I think that's the thing about Lewis's conversion and his apologetics, I come away sensing, “Okay, this is true, and it's good. It makes sense, and it's beautiful.” It's not just logical, “Oh, that makes sense.” It’s, “Oh, I'm so glad this is true.”
I think that's so true. The idea of something being true and good. If it's true and good, the bloom of truth and goodness is beauty. That’s what comes with it. And the idea you were saying about the experience of hearing Lewis’s arguments for atheism and how unsettling they were, as Lewis did not create straw men. He created steel men. He would give a steel man argument. This is the opposing team's best shot, and it's good, but it has flaws, and let's look at those.
Yes. And he didn't just dismiss those arguments flippantly, or with, “Can you believe how ridiculous that argument is?” No, he respected the argument because he held them himself for so long. So I think that there's a lesson in that for us, too. Don't just dismiss this as if this is stupid. Very intelligent people hold some of these beliefs, and we need to address them respectfully, but then also show the weaknesses and the flaws, like you just said.
Yeah, yeah. There's a place both in the play, and it's one of my favorite parts in the film…. His move from atheism to theism went in stages. It took many years. The first one was from materialism to what is philosophically called idealism. And that step, it’s a little bit hard to articulate, but probably the closest thing would be a sort of deism, where there is a creator god who is uninvolved. But that was a big step for Lewis, and it's happened when Barfield asked him, “Do you believe that logic and reason brings forth indisputable truth?” And he said, “I do.” “Are your moral and aesthetic judgments valid and meaningful?” He said, “They are.” And then Barfield said, “Then materialism must be abandoned.”
And there's a long back and forth between them about that, which Lewis concluded that that's true because his materialism is rooted in simply blind mechanics, biochemistry and physics. There's no will there. There's no personality there. It's just, as he ultimately said, “atoms colliding in skulls.” So if that's ultimate reality, why should he trust any thought he has?
And then he came to the conclusion as a result of that, that ultimate reality, rock-bottom reality, had to be intelligent. And that led into what we call idealism, which is a god that's out there. It'll never come here and make a nuisance of itself. It was there. But that comforted Lewis. That was the first step. Some might say it's like the god of the philosophers, but from there, it moved from logic and reason to morality. His guilt. Why does he have guilt feelings? Why are the dictates of his conscience bothering him? If conscience is only a social construction, a social construct, if right and wrong is dependent on the leadership of the tribe, then that changes with the next election or the next coup. Right? Yes. And so he said, no, it has to be more foundational than that. And then that caused him to examine his own moral life, and he said what he found appalled him, and that led him to what he ultimately said, “.. . gave in and admitted that God is God, that night perhaps. . .” he knelt and prayed. He knelt and prayed to God. That night, perhaps the most dejected, reluctant convert in all England. But now that sounds like a Christian conversion to most of us. But it wasn't, because he-
No, that’s the first stage.
Well, he says, “My training was like that of the Jews.” It would be Moses before the burning bush in that regard. It’s interesting. I'm not a Hebrew scholar, but I understand the word Israel means one who struggles with God, basically one who fights with God.
Yes, yes, yes.
Right? But finally submits and is willing to do what he is told. But he said, “The God to whom I surrendered was not human. I knew nothing of the Incarnation.” And so that took another step, which the film goes into in quite a bit of detail.
Well, and you know, the evangelist in me or the one who wants to promote evangelism is… I'm thinking I think sometimes we just maybe need to poke a few little holes for some people and then let the dam break and the flow take over. And it sounds like that conversation with Barfield, with Lewis, “Then materialism needs to be abandoned.” And once he did that, it was like, “Oh, watch out, because here comes the flow.”
A young atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.
Yes. Right. Once that force takes over. Well, we could talk for hours, but I'm going to draw this to a close because we try to keep these podcasts around this amount of time. But, Max, I'm so very grateful for our conversation, and I'm really grateful for this film that's coming out, and I really mean it. I'm going to pray that so many nonbelievers get to see it and that God uses it to crumble those strong man arguments they've had against the faith and watch God work to see people delivered out of darkness and to light. So may that be.
Thank you, Randy. It's a pleasure to be with you.
Thanks so very much. And to all of our listeners, again, please go see the movie, tell lots of your friends about it, and please check out our resources on our website, cslewisinstitute.org. Until next time, we pray that these resources and all of our work will help you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.