When it comes to reaching the “lost,” one of the most tried-and-true methods is the personal conversion story. Whether done privately or publicly, it’s compelling to hear a person’s testimony about how they came to believe in the truth of the Gospel, the truth of the Bible, and embraced the Christian faith. Such testimonies can personalize and soften the message so it is more easily understood and received.
But when it comes to reaching the “found,” there’s an equally effective method—and this is a method to which the evangelical church has paid very little attention. It’s what we might call the de-conversion story.
De-conversion stories are designed not to reach non-Christians but to reach Christians. And their purpose is to convince them that their outdated, naïve beliefs are no longer worthy of their assent. Whether done privately or publicly, this is when a person simply gives their testimony of how they once thought like you did and have now seen the light.
Of course, there have always been de-conversion stories available throughout the history of the church—if one would only take the time to dig them up and listen to them. Christianity has never had a shortage of people who were once in the fold and then left.
But in recent years these de-conversion stories seem to have taken on a higher profile. Part of this is due, no doubt, to the technology that makes these de-conversion stories more available whether through podcasts, blogs, or other forms of media.
But, it’s also due to the fact that many of those who de-convert have realized a newfound calling to share their testimony with as many people as possible. Rather than just quietly leaving the faith and moving onto other things—something that would have been more common in prior generations—there seems to be a new guard that has made it their life’s ambition to evangelize the found.
Indeed, many of these de-conversion stories are told with the kind of conviction, passion, and evangelistic zeal that would make any modern televangelist blush. In their minds, they’re missionaries to the “lost” in every sense of the word. They just have to help these Christians realize they are mistaken and lead them to the truth.
Modern examples of those in the de-conversion business are well known: Bart Ehrman, Rob Bell, Peter Enns, and (as we shall discuss below) Jen Hatmaker.
Of course, it should be acknowledged that each of these stories is very different. Ehrman moved from fundamentalism all the way to agnosticism, with no desire to retain the label “Christian.” In contrast, those like Bell would still consider themselves “Christian” in some fashion, maybe even an evangelical of sorts.
But what all these folks do share is the same background. They were all once what we might call traditional, evangelical Christians and have now come to see the error of their ways. Whatever they embrace, it is no longer that version of Christianity.
I’ve seen a number of these de-conversion stories over the years in the books I’ve reviewed—a number by Ehrman, and some by Bell and Enns (you can find them all here). And a few years ago, I had a number of guest blog posts responding to Enns’ “Aha Moments” blog series (see responses here).
But, I was particularly reminded of the power and impact of de-conversion stories when I listened to last week’s podcast of Jen Hatmaker being interviewed by Peter Enns (you can listen here). This interview has been making the rounds, and I can see why. She’s a friendly, charming and well-spoken woman who is easy to listen to.
And the title of her interview fits this de-conversion theme perfectly: “Changing Your Mind about the Bible: A Survivor’s Guide.” As many know, the main issue Hatmaker changed her mind about is that she now fully affirms the LGBQT lifestyle as consistent with biblical Christianity.
But, Hatmaker’s journey in this interview should be viewed in light of larger trend. In effect, she simply follows the same basic playbook used by Rob Bell, Bart Ehrman and others. The details may be different, but the overall point is the same.
The purpose of this post is to lay out the steps in this de-conversion playbook and offer a quick response to each of them. My hope is to help others who hear these de-conversion stories and struggle with how to respond.
Step #1: Recount the Negatives of Your Fundamentalist Past
The first place to start in every good de-conversion story is to tell about the narrow dogmatism of your evangelical past. You begin by first flashing your evangelical credentials—Hatmaker was a Southern Baptist who went to a Southern Baptist College—and then you recount the problems you observed.
For Hatmaker, her evangelical past included people who are afraid to ask questions, won’t let you ask questions, only give pat answers, and never acknowledge gray areas. She says, “I had no idea that we had permission to press hard on our faith.”
Of course, there are some evangelical groups that are like this. And apparently Hatmaker is from one of these groups. It should be noted, however, that Hatmaker’s language does not apply to evangelicalism as a whole.
Many evangelicals believe what they believe not because they are backwater bucolic yokels who are scared to press hard on the text, but precisely because they have engaged the text and are persuaded it teaches these truths.
Indeed, it’s usually evangelicals who are actually reading both conservative and liberal arguments and weighing them against each other. There are plenty of liberal seminaries and universities that never have their students read a single conservative book. And it’s supposedly evangelicals that are in the intellectual echo chamber?
It is not fair to suggest, then, that evangelicals give “pat answers.” No doubt this is sometimes true. But, liberal complaints against “pat answers” are typically just veiled complaints about answers in general. It’s just another version of the oft-repeated idea that “Religion isn’t about answers, it’s about the questions.”
This is why Hatmaker often describes herself as merely exploring or on a “journey”—it’s a way to disarm a postmodern world who wants there to be no answers (all the while she is happy to sneak her own answers through the back door—more on that below).
Step #2: Position Yourself as the Offended Party Who Bravely Fought the Establishment.
One of the major themes of Hatmaker’s interview was the relational-social trauma she experienced as she left the evangelical world. She says she was mistreated in ways that were “scary,” “disorientating,” “crushing,” “devastating” and “financially punitive.”
Of course, it’s difficult to sift through these sorts of statements. No doubt there were people out there who were cruel, mean and unchristian in their response to her. And such behavior should be called out for what it is. It’s wrong.
At the same, there’s nothing illegitimate about people criticizing her newfound theology. Much of the response to Hatmaker was simply vigorous opposition to her new direction that many regard as fundamentally unbiblical and out of sync with the entire history of Christendom.
Regardless, the tone of the interview very much set Hatmaker up as an oppressed minority fighting against what she called “commercial Christianity.” She is the victim of a powerful evangelical world bent on revenge.
Needless to say, this portrayal needs to be balanced out by an acknowledgment of the current cultural climate where LGBTQ-affirming people are embraced as heroes (including Hatmaker herself), and evangelicals are being fired and sued for enacting their convictions that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
And if we want to talk about “satire” and “outrage” and internet “hit pieces,” we need to also acknowledge the intense level of vitriol displayed by the LGBQT community, and its advocates in the mainstream press, toward any Christian who shows the slightest hesitation about our culture’s new sexual direction.
Step #3: Portray Your Old Group as Overly Dogmatic While You Are Just a Seeker
In our current postmodern culture, there’s nothing more offensive than being dogmatic. Just about anything is allowed except certainty.
Thus, the quickest way to win points in a de-conversion story is to admit you used to commit this cardinal sin but now you know better.
Hatmaker states, “For a season that sense of certainty was wonderful…but of course upon scrutiny it breaks down because, as always, we come to Scripture and the things that we say are certain are obviously not certain to other people . . . certainty really only works in an echo chamber.”
In other words, Hatmaker now believes that certainty is not consistent with the way religion works. All of us who have a deep conviction about the truth of our beliefs just need to realize how wrong we are. It turns out we can’t really be certain about what the Bible teaches after all.
Of course, there are numerous problems with this sort of position. For one, it’s profoundly self-contradictory. Hatmaker seems certain this is the way the Christian religion works. She’s dogmatic in her condemnation of dogmatism.
Even more than this, later in the same interview Hatmaker is certain about what the Bible teaches on a great many things. In particular, she is sure the Bible accepts the LGBTQ lifestyle and that the historic evangelical position is wrong and harmful.
Apparently she is not uncertain when it comes to that issue.
And there are additional issues beyond this. If we’re all required to be uncertain in our interpretations of the Bible, then what doctrines can really be affirmed? On those terms, aren’t all doctrines uncertain? And if that’s the case, then we cannot affirm with assurance even the most basic Christian truths—e.g., the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection from the dead, the forgiveness of our sins.
I doubt Hatmaker is willing to abandon the certainty of these basic truths. But, that just reveals that her commitment to uncertainty is being selectively applied. The appeal to certainty seems designed mainly to justify belief in homosexuality.
Step #4: Insist Your New Theology is Driven by the Bible and Not a Rejection of It
Hatmaker wants people to know that her newfound theology is due to rigorous Bible study: “It was a lot of work, a lot of labor. It wasn’t just a feeling, it was an incredible amount of study and inquiry.”
Thus, she is bothered that anyone could doubt her commitment to the Bible. How could anyone question “our faithfulness, our commitment to Scripture”?
Well, perhaps, one reason people doubt her commitment to the Bible is because she’s rejected one of the plainest teachings in all of Scripture—that marriage is a union between a man and a woman—and one that has been uniformly affirmed for 2000 years of church history.
Of course, Hatmaker claims to have good reason for her new interpretation of the Bible (an interpretation that coincides with the biggest cultural shift on sexuality in the modern world). And what are these good reasons?
Here is one: “Obviously so much of what is written about homosexuality in Scripture is contextually bound; and there’s not much in there, frankly. But it’s deeply bound to culture…just like a thousand other points in the Bible are.”
But this sort of statement is overly simplistic (and misleading). It is by no means “obviously” true that scriptural teachings on these issues are contextually bound, nor are there a “thousand other points” in the Bible that do this.
Hatmaker makes it sound all too easy. With the mere wave of the hand, she takes the mountain of biblical teaching on sexuality and sweeps it under the rug of “culture.” Easy as 1-2-3. Nothing to see here.
If there were ever a concern about evangelicals giving pat answers, then here is a prime example of one from the left.
Moreover, to say that “there’s not much there” in regard to guidance on sexuality is stunning. The Bible has an enormous amount to say about sexual ethics, male and female, husbands and wives, and the institution of marriage.
But, Hatmaker will have none of it. She insists the Bible is just unclear about such things: “When we struggled to find clarity [on sexuality issues]…the Bible refused to cooperate.”
But Hatmaker isn’t done. She has a second argument: “We have the gift of looking backward to see all the other places where the church collectively decided… ‘I think we’ve understood this incorrectly.’”
And to top it off, she says, “There’s never been unanimity ever on anything.”
Such statements reveal a jaw-dropping unawareness of church history. To portray the last 2000 years as “there’s never been unanimity ever on anything” is not only mistaken but irresponsible. The Apostles’ Creed itself shows otherwise.
Moreover, when it comes to the actual issue at hand, homosexuality, the church has been absolutely unified for 2000 years without exception (for more on that see here).
Step #5: Attack the Character of Your Old Group and Uplift the Character of Your New Group
The final step in the de-conversion playbook is attack the character of the group you left, while upholding the goodness and integrity of the new group you have joined.
Hatmaker states, “When I looked at the fruit of the non-affirming Christian tree, the fruit was so universally bad. It was suicide, it was broken families, it was folks kicked out of their churches, it was homeless teenagers, it was self-hatred…depression, crushing loneliness…If we are being honest, the fruit of the tree is rotten.”
This sort of rhetoric is so uncharitable one hardly knows where to begin. Aside from repeating the cultural trope about evangelicals kicking kids out of the home (with no evidence to back it up), and aside from judging every human heart that believes in traditional marriage as “rotten” (after complaining how judgmental other people are), she actually bases this whole argument on the teachings of Scripture about good and bad fruit (after declaring that Scripture is just not clear about these things).
But perhaps most troubling is Hatmaker laying the blame for suicides, loneliness, depression, and more, all at the feet of evangelicals who believe in traditional marriage. Those are very serious charges. But is not just modern evangelicals she is throwing under the bus. She is condemning two millennia of Christians all who believed the same thing about marriage.
Such language gives fresh meaning to Isaiah’s warning, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil” (Is 5:20).
In the end, there’s no doubt Hatmaker’s de-conversion story will be persuasive to our postmodern world. And I am sure some will adopt her newfound theology as a result.
But, upon closer examination, it is rife with problems. While claiming to be non-judgmental, she declares the fruit of those who believe in traditional marriage as “rotten.” Despite her insistence that the Bible should be read without certainty, she offers all sorts of dogmatic claims about what the Bible teaches. While claiming her views are due to a deep study of Scripture, she offers only simplistic explanations for the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality, while disregarding 2000 years of church history.
Yes, we should not settle for pat answers. But, sometimes the Bible does give clear answers. And when it does, we should be willing to listen and receive them.