The Power of De-Conversion Stories: How Jen Hatmaker is Trying to Change Minds About the Bible
[Michael Kruger published an article on his blog on February 5, 2018. It is nothing short of brilliant. If you have not heard of Jen Hatmaker’s endorsement of the moral legitimacy of the LGBTQ agenda and her approval of so-called “same-sex marriage” you probably will sometime soon. Kruger’s response to her “de-conversion” needs to be closely read by all Christians. Please take a few minutes and walk with him through this fascinating issue.]
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 And their purpose is to convince them that their crusty, backwards, outdated, naïve beliefs are no longer worthy of their assent.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, hoping to take with them as many people as possible.
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, each of their stories are 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. . . .
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. . . 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 is not as original as it might first appear. 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 it’s certainly possible Hatmaker is from one of these groups. The problem, however, is that Hatmaker’s language is a caricature of 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’s for these reasons, I grow weary of claims that evangelicals give “pat answers.” Liberal complaints against “pat answers” are typically just veiled complaints about answers in general. It’s just another version of the tiresome trope, “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 dogmatic 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 merely the victim of a powerful and cruel evangelical world bent on revenge.
Needless to say, some of this is difficult to swallow given the current cultural climate where LGBTQ-affirming people are embraced as heroes (including Hatmaker herself), and evangelicals are being fired, sued, and drug into court for simply believing marriage should be between a man and a woman.
And if one wants to talk about “satire” and “outrage” and internet “hit pieces,” Hatmaker might do well to observe the outrageous 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. The PC police are always on the prowl, ready to prosecute evangelicals who don’t comply.
On top of all of this, it’s a bit disingenuous for Hatmaker to complain about harsh and judgmental rhetoric when, as we shall see below, she turns around in this very interview and lambasts evangelicals with language that would make any good Pharisee proud.
Step #3: Portray Your Opponents 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 has now figured out how religion is really supposed to work. 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, the problems with this sort of position are legion. For one, it’s profoundly self-contradictory. Hatmaker is absolutely certain this is the way the Christian religion works. And she is quite prepared to set us all straight about it. She’s dogmatic in her condemnation of dogmatism.
Even more than this, Hatmaker is apparently unaware that later in the same interview she is very 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 has forgotten her commitment to uncertainty 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 supposed commitment to uncertainty is being selectively applied. She uses it to make her case for homosexuality but then conveniently forgets about it when other doctrines are in view.
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 mystified (and offended) 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. Could that possibly be a reason?
Of course, Hatmaker claims to have good reason for her new interpretation of the Bible (an interpretation that just happens to coincide 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.”
For someone who claims to have engaged in a deep and intellectual analysis of scriptural teaching on sexuality, this sort of statement is grossly 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 beyond 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.”
Yeah, that dusty ol’ Bible is really fuzzy about things like marriage. Take for example this conundrum of a verse: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife” (Gen 2:24).
But Hatmaker isn’t done. She has a second ace up her exegetical sleeve. “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 genuinely 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 an irresponsible overstatement. 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. . .
Given that Hatmaker is arguing for a view of sexuality fundamentally out of accord with the entire history of the church the proceeds her (not to mention the Bible), one might think a little more caution would be in order.
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 and over-the-top, one hardly knows where to begin. Aside from repeating the tiresome 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 those believe in traditional marriage. Those are very serious charges. But it 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 rhetoric 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 (and even irresponsible) 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.