There’s been a lot of chatter the last couple years over “de-conversion” stories. Most recently, of course, is the story of well-known pastor and author Joshua Harris, as well as the Youtube comedians Rhett and Link.
I’ve written on this phenomenon myself in a number of places, including my recent book, The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity, as well as my my article, “The Power of De-conversion Stories: How Jen Hatmaker is Trying to Change Minds about the Bible.”
So, what exactly is de-conversion? In short, it’s when a person who is deeply committed to the Christian faith ends up leaving the Christian faith and abandoning their prior beliefs. Sometimes this involves a wholesale rejection of Christianity (e.g., Bart Ehrman), but in other cases it involves embracing an altogether different version of the faith (e.g., Rob Bell). So, not all de-conversion scenarios are the same.
The key feature of de-conversion, however, is that the individual was once on the “inside” of the faith, and later ends up on the “outside.”
In theological parlance, this is called apostasy. And the Bible is filled with examples of apostasy, the most famous, of course, being Judas Iscariot. He was the consummate “insider” who abandoned Jesus and effectively left his old life behind.
We can also find examples of apostasy—symbolically and figuratively—in the world of literature and film. Most obvious is the story of Anakin Skywalker, once a Jedi but later wooed to the dark side of the force, becoming Darth Vader. But there are many others (think Cypher in The Matrix).
But, perhaps one of the most remarkable (and often overlooked) examples of apostasy is Saruman in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I’ve been re-reading the books lately in my coronavirus quarantine, and I was struck anew by the role he plays in the overall story.
In many ways, Saruman has always been an odd part of the plot line. With a bad guy like Sauron to occupy the reader’s attention, why does the story even need a character like Saruman? Besides, as my kids always complain, his name actually sounds a lot like Sauron’s which makes everything very confusing.
My hunch, though, is that the name similarity is intentional. Tolkien’s world is more nuanced than just the good guys and the bad guys. Instead, there are actually good guys that become bad guys—which makes things very complicated. It’s a perfect picture of de-conversion.
As such, we can learn a lot about the way de-conversions work through stories like Saruman’s. So, here are a few quick observations: [Read more…]