When it comes to reaching those who feel lost, sharing our story can be a powerful tool. We launched Season 2 of our podcast, The Bible For Normal People, with Jen Hatmaker because she has a way with words and tells a beautifully tragic story with openness, grace, and humor. And her story represents the story of so many of our listeners. It’s what we might call a re-conversion story.
Re-conversion stories, like Jen’s, like Pete’s, like mine, are designed to reach Christians who are on the verge of throwing in the Christian towel altogether and are terrified of what comes next. Though I can’t speak for Jen or Pete, I think it’s safe to say we come week after week with one simple message, “You’re not alone in this.” We tell our story to connect to anyone who feels they are no longer welcome in their church community, a house they helped build through tears, laughter, prayer, confession, breaking of bread, and week after week of showing up to serve. We want to tell a broader story that says “You belong.”
These stories are not for Christians who are quite content with their belief system.
Frankly, they probably aren’t relate-able or interesting. They already belong. I have no beef with Christians who are content with their beliefs and am usually quite happy for them. These re-conversion stories are not for them but for those who have already begun to de-convert and are looking for a path back home.
It seems that Michael Kruger, a New Testament professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, has missed this somehow. In a recent blog post, he claims that instead of a re-conversion, the Jen Hatmakers and Peter Enns of the world have gone through a de-conversion. Not only that, but he claims “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 And their purpose is to convince them that their outdated, naïve beliefs are no longer worthy of their assent.”
Rather than go line by line and disagree point by point (which would probably only be interesting to me and be 27 pages long), I’ll mention a few things here. Okay, it’s 9 things. So sue me.
First, Michael said “when I listened to last week’s podcast of Jen Hatmaker being interviewed by Peter Enns.” Stop right there. I am the ever-loving co-host. No mention of me Michael? I don’t get implicated in this bamboozling? Let’s be honest, it’s not the first time. And it sure as heck won’t be the last. You’re forgiven. #sidekickforlife
Second, I will use the first person plural in this post so that I can feel like I’m part of the Rob Bell, Jen Hatmaker, & Peter Enns club. We know this isn’t true (see #1 above) so please don’t think I’m speaking for Jen or Rob or Pete. They probably won’t take the time to respond to the article so it fell to me. #sidekickforlife
Third, if our purpose is to convince Christians their outdated and naïve beliefs are no longer worthy of their assent (which Michael stated), we are doing a pretty terrible job. I mean, we haven’t even had 1 Christian blame us for them coming to believe their beliefs are outdated or naïve through the podcast, much less give them up. And, anyone else think it’s kind of weird that Michael presumes to know other people’s purpose without asking us what it is first?
Fourth, Michael twice mentions that there is nothing new about this De-Conversion approach and that “Hatmaker’s journey isn’t as original as it might first appear.” Apparently, it goes back to the Garden of Eden where the snake said “Did God really say?” (honestly, surprised he didn’t pull that one out). Who is he arguing against here? No one ever said her story was original. In fact, the point is that there are literally thousands of people with a similar story. So, using the “nothing new under the sun” dismissal tactic doesn’t really work here. That’s kind of the point.
Fifth, Michael says it’s difficult to sift through Jen’s statements that “she was mistreated in ways that were ‘scary,’ disorienting,’ ‘crushing,’ devastating,’ and ‘financially punitive.'” I won’t speak for Jen here except to say: lots of us believe you. We’ve experienced those things too.
What irks me most is that Michael condemns cruel, mean, and unchristian behavior on the one hand and then adds “At the same time, there’s nothing illegitimate about people criticizing her newfound theology. Much of the response to Hatmaker was simply vigorous opposition to her new direction . . .”
Okay, one, how in the world does Michael know what “much of the response to Hatmaker was”? Did he read her mail, email, and private messages? Two, why does Michael think that Hatmaker would find “vigorous opposition” ‘scary’ ‘disorienting’ ‘crushing’ and ‘devastating’? Why not assume the crushing and devastating things came from the “cruel, mean, and unchristian behavior”? And again, why not assume that Michael’s isn’t omniscient and that the meanest and cruelest messages probably came privately, not publicly? Three, why even bother kind of validating someone’s experience when your next statement seems to imply “the opposition wasn’t that bad. She probably shouldn’t have overreacted.” This minimization of someone’s painful experience is bad form. Yikes. I could go on for a while about this one but it’s getting late.
Sixth, Michael accuses Jen Hatmaker of painting Evangelicalism with too broad a brush (which is a fair point by the way – I’m guilty of that too often as well) and then proceeds to list Bart Ehrman alongside Pete Enns, Rob Bell, & Jen Hatmaker (as examples of these Masters of De-Conversion). Bart Ehrman has declared himself a non-Christian for over two decades for crying out loud. When we are overgeneralizing, at least we stick with people who claim the same religion (Christianity) and even the same subset of that religion (Evangelicalism). Michael’s brush seems to go off the canvas.
Seventh, adding Erhman was clearly a rhetorical strategy. Michael calls it a De-Conversion story, after all. Guilt by association and all that. But if Jen has de-converted from Christianity, I’m really confused why he later uses her belief in core doctrines of Christianity as a “gotcha” moment.
He says, “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.”
He seems to undermine his whole “de-conversion” premise by basically saying that Hatmaker believes with certainty the “most basic Christian truths.” So which is it? Has she de-converted and become beliefless-buddies with Bart Ehrman or does she believe the “most basic Christian truth”?
Eighth, did you catch the equivocation in that “gotcha” paragraph? By the way, equivocation just means he swaps out words and assume they mean the same thing. It’s a no-no in logical argumentation. He said, “If we’re all required to be uncertain in our interpretations of the Bible, then what doctrines can really be affirmed?
His argument assumes that certainty and affirmation are the same thing; that you can’t be uncertain and affirming. But that’s simply not true. I believe/affirm all kinds of things I’m not certain about. I even act on my uncertain beliefs in really critical ways every day. For example, I affirm my belief that I won’t die in a car wreck tomorrow. Now, I’m not certain about that belief. It could happen after all. But I’ll act on that belief tomorrow when I get in my car and drive to work. So, we can be uncertain in our interpretations of the Bible and still affirm doctrine.
Honestly? It just requires four little words, “I could be wrong.”
Say it with me: “I believe this thing. But I could be wrong.”
For bonus points also repeat after me: “You believe differently than me?
You must not be a Christ… Let’s grab some coffee sometime so you can help me understand more of where you’re coming from.”
And honestly, that’s the heart of my Re-Conversion story. To go from being afraid of being wrong to saying “I could be wrong.” I don’t think that’s selling my soul to the “postmodern culture.” I think (but am not certain) it’s called “learning humility.”
Ninth, did he really use the “are you certain about your uncertainty” line? Um, have you not been listening? The answer is “no,” we are not certain. We are uncertain, even about our uncertainty. See above: We could be wrong. That’s the nature of uncertainty. So, putting words in Jen’s mouth to say she is “absolutely certain this is the way the Christian religion works” is disingenuous at best, another straw man at worst (or maybe being disingenuous is worse? Who knows.).
Don’t get me wrong. Michael has a few good points. We do tend to broad-brush Evangelicals. So much of my family and friend groups are self-identified Evangelicals and they would never intentionally hurt anyone who believes differently than them (which however, says nothing about how ecclesial systems might unintentionally harm lots of people). And yes, there can be a tendency to give pat answers to complex questions: on the right and the left.
In the end, there’s no doubt Michael’s article will be persuasive to those already convinced by his arguments (same for me in this post most likely). I am not so sure many will adopt anything new as a result of his article since they’re already convinced. But, upon closer examination, it is rife with problems.
This is the logical end of this blog post. I really want to keep going. But I will restrain myself.
*P.S. Michael mentions a “cultural trope about evangelicals kicking kids out of the home” and that Jen didn’t have any “evidence to back it up.” Hopefully, there can be some grace extended given the fact that it was a podcast. So, here is some anecdotal and research-based evidence.