The Problem with the Evangelical Story Structure

Cover of The Problem with the Evangelical Story Structure

Before I started writing memoir, I was trained in a different narrative form: the evangelical testimony. 

In evangelicalism, a testimony is each person’s story of how God saved them. First I was sinful, the template begins, and I suffered because of my sin. Sin is brokenness, and brokenness causes suffering. The ideal testimony starts here, in medias res: sinking in the slimy pit, from which the Psalmist calls upon the Lord. I cried out to God, and he rescued me. 

Testimonies take their shape from Psalm 40: “He lifted me…out of the mud and mire; he set my feet upon a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.” 

As a narrative form, the testimony is a discrete entity, separate from whatever religious beliefs it might summarize. A testimony is to belief as a national anthem is to patriotism: related, but not equivalent. 

Testimonies follow the standard narrative arc. Psalm 40 contains each stage: conflict (mud and mire), climax (he lifted me out), and denouement or reversal of circumstances (a new song in my mouth). A testimony must include these elements and allows space for little else. Its formal rigidity precludes narrative possibilities. The testimony confines. 

Furthermore, the testimony is a narrative form with an ulterior motive: testimonies exist to compel conversions. The “many will see” clause in Psalm 40 names the intended outcome—that those who hear this story of redemption will enact it themselves, similarly offering their lives up to God. In this way, evangelical testimonies serve a set external agenda that influences the story. 

The testimony is a coercive narrative that advertises Christianity while reiterating its fundamental beliefs. Because testimonies serve as marketing material, life with God must be painted as desirable, and life before God as riddled with suffering. Jesus, and the salvation he offers, is presented as a product the hearer can acquire. The salvation arc invokes the ultimate deus ex machina minus the machina—a magical godhead emerges from the clouds to solve everything. 

The narrative structure is fixed, as are the values within it. God’s role is necessarily that of benevolent redeemer. The axiomatic dictates of the testimony cannot be questioned: God is good; whatever redemption the protagonist experiences is unearned grace; whatever suffering they encounter, they deserved. These recitations center God’s agency and leave all else in shadow. The stakes are existentially high: not just life and death, but eternal life and eternal death. 

With this formula so firmly in place, what creative work is left for the storyteller?

This reliance on testimony as guiding narrative fosters a posture of disengagement toward life. The testimony reproduces the binary thinking that saturates the rest of evangelicalism: everything is chopped up into good or bad, light or dark, Christian or otherwise—code for saved or damned. 

Whatever has been saved can be taken for granted, and whatever is damned can be dismissed. One’s pre-conversion life is buried with the crucified Christ, and after salvation, one walks cloaked in his righteousness. From this vantage, what is left that remains worth examining? What scrap of our embodied existence continues to hold value, incite curiosity, or provoke prolonged consideration? 

The testimony becomes a way of refusing the world. After you’ve been saved and whatever evil that could assail you has been condemned, the stakes are eliminated. Nothing else can happen to you. Everything is resolved. The story’s over.

In some cases, your story is resolved before it’s even begun. 

I was six years old when I asked Jesus Christ to save me. Which means, by age six, I supposedly possessed a testimony that matched this narrative form. 

Throughout childhood and adolescence, I felt intense pressure to make my story conform to this model. Conflict, climax, denouement. The best testimonies were sensational—the more salacious the sin, the greater the transformation wrought by Christ (the “reversal of circumstances” stage of the narrative arc). I struggled to claim that my circumstances, too, had been reversed by salvation. To imply anything else was to diminish God’s intervention.

Countless times throughout my adolescence, leaders called on me to deliver my testimony for the edification of others. The expectations were clear: that I would corroborate the salvation arc by reiterating that Jesus had rescued me from my own depravity. I scoured my life for sin like an overzealous housewife inspecting the bathroom tiles for mold. In my testimony, I reported my findings—that when I acted out of my sinful nature, I was judgmental, prideful, and selfish, but when I submitted to Jesus, he helped me walk in righteousness. The sins I cited, while abstract, evidenced my need for God. Without a self-evident reversal of circumstances, I ended my testimony with a Bible verse repurposed as a cliché: that my weakness revealed God’s strength. 

What happens if your life doesn’t fit the narrative arc? 

How could I testify to God’s transformative power when I hadn’t really been transformed? How could I say Jesus redeemed me from suffering when I hadn’t truly suffered? I experienced the climax before I experienced any conflict. Is a climax that occurs out of sequence still a climax? 

The testimony—the tale of Jesus’s intervention—justifies why someone became a Christian. According to the party talking points, the reason anyone becomes a Christian is because God reached into the current of human foolishness and pulled them out: a divine lifeguard. He lifted them out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire. But this doesn’t account for those of us who were born into the Christian context, who chose faith because it was the only narrative we knew. 

You’re supposed to say you’re a Christian because Jesus changed your life. But what if the reason you became a Christian is because someone you trusted told you to? Because your entire cultural milieu was so saturated with God that it didn’t make sense not to? What if you became a Christian because you were told the alternative was to burn in hell? Or because everyone was doing it, and they said you could do it too, and if you did, you would feel cleansed, set free, made new? 


Writer Chris Abani has said, “It is hard to access your pain in America because we are pushed to be in a state of perpetual gratitude.” I was distinctly aware that the expected emotional response to my early evangelical immersion was gratitude. I should be thankful. Faith was a gift my parents gave me, and you’re not supposed to resent a gift. You’re definitely not supposed to resent being saved too early. It wasn’t faith I resented, I would come to realize—it was the expectation that I would shape my story to match the testimony, and that I would abide unquestioningly by the genre’s stringent demands. 

For a long time, I didn’t investigate the incongruity between my experience and the prescriptive salvation arc. I was taught that the only alternative to the salvation arc was damnation, so I had no room to consider other interpretations of my experience. The evangelical testimony, rather than being presented as one possible narrative among many, was pitched to me as the all-encompassing story of existence (though other interpretations of salvation abound, even within the scope of Christianity). Exploration of other narrative traditions wasn’t creativity; it was treason. 

I couldn’t deviate from the salvation arc—the stakes were far too high. Defection would mean risking everything—not just salvation, but also belonging and community, the acceptance and approval of my peers and leaders. 

So for years, I squelched down whatever qualms I had regarding my possible misalignment with the salvation arc. I papered over my concerns with pat answers and platitudes. Moments that had been uncomfortable or confusing at church camp or elsewhere were memories I skimmed over. If my experiences didn’t fit the framework of the testimony, I didn’t know what to make of them.

My loyalty to the salvation arc required me to sustain enormous cognitive dissonance. Any disagreement with testimony’s reductive form was to be squashed, ignored, and eliminated. It was better to betray myself than betray the storyline, which was tantamount to betraying God, I believed—and evangelicalism had already taught me to reject my body and forsake my life, so I didn’t even think I was sacrificing anything of value. 

I learned to ignore my inner voice in order to validate the salvation arc, which had been written for me. But when I started writing memoir, I realized that probing the dissonance was one of the most reliable routes to access a deeper story. I wrote the story, first, as I had been trained to tell it: that my pride and willfulness had separated me from God. I lingered over those traits, trying to crack the shells of their descriptions, and I began to realize that they weren’t the acts of rebellion I’d been taught to see them as. Memoir gave me permission to challenge the automatic value assessments of the testimony. What I’d learned to label “pride” was the part of me unwilling to accept the assertion that there was nothing good in me. The “willfulness” I’d been scolded for was allegiance to my true self in a context that routinely suppressed women’s voices and desires. The ruptures in my experience became tears in the curtain I could peer through. I’m learning to lean into what I don’t understand rather than flee from it. Revision has become an opportunity to identify when I’m still writing from received narratives or outdated scripts.

My quest for deeper understanding led me to the surprising conviction that the testimony, as a guiding narrative, does not represent the full scope of Christianity. The testimony was developed as a storytelling shortcut, because engaging with the full scope of existence is terrifying and unpredictable. Pushing the salvation arc is much easier to control and legislate than actually inviting a wild God to show up. 

Just as the testimony offers a readymade fill-in-the-blank template I could use to overwrite my own experience, rejecting belief wholesale out of anger is another binary refusal to engage with the ambiguity of existence. Reclaiming my story from the demand for a certain outcome gave me the freedom and authority to identify the benefits of growing up in church alongside the shortcomings. Memoir resists immediate conclusions. Writing it invites me to inspect every cobwebbed corner of my story and to linger in the shadowy spaces, without conforming to prefabricated labels or assumptions. 

Melissa Febos, in her craft book Body Work, describes the process this way: “Over the years, I’ve come to look forward to the point in my own writing at which continuing seems both incomprehensible and loathsome… That resistance is a kind of imaginary prophylactic, a barrier between me and a new idea. It is the end of the ideas that I already had when I came to the page—the exhaustion of narrative threads that were previously sewn into me by sources of varying nefariousness or innocuity. It is on the other side of that threshold that the truly creative awaits me, where I might make something that did not already exist. I just have to punch through that false wall” (30-31). 

Now I follow fissures of cognitive dissonance like veins of gold in a mine. The scenes that linger in my memory, the ones I can’t figure out, the ones I’m not done telling yet—these are the cracks to pay attention to. 

For years, I tried to protect my testimony from the pressures that would fracture it, because I recognized its fragility. My testimony was like a sculpture held together by spit and sawdust. Ultimately, my testimony was only mine insofar as I was willing to perpetuate its dominance.

Through writing memoir, I’m learning to excavate my story from the apparatus of control. Many of us grow up with narratives like this: readymade scripts that serve pre-existing power structures. To be a writer is to break that unholy silence. Push on these storylines hard enough and they will crumble in our hands. Creativity compels us to take the remains and craft them into something new. 



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