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Reconsidering Deconversion Narratives

Reader: We should be much more careful about criticizing the spiritual journeys of others
Francesco Scatena/Shutterstock

A reader gives me permission to post this e-mail from him, provided I slightly edit it to protect his privacy:

I was gripped by your post today on “deconversion narratives” and how one might go about discerning which of these narratives amount to being blow down the proverbial slippery slope by the winds of culture and which of them represent a more profound sort of questing for truth and reckoning with what one comes to see as the reality of things. I’ve grappled with this question myself, as a deconvert, and with respect to the Ben Op: the sort of questioning and willingness to break with one’s past that can lead to deconversion are among the very qualities that might lead one to seek a lifestyle counter to modernity / the (neo)liberal order, yet these qualities also make it difficult to embrace fully the Ben Op’s communal vision (or at least certain forms of it).

By way of introduction, the basics of my deconversion: I grew up in moderate Southern Baptist churches in [state] and drifted toward Reformed Protestantism in my high school years. I attended PCA churches for a while before moving back to the SBC, this time on the Calvinistic side. I went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville for a brief period (around the time of Obama’s first term) and remained in Louisville for many years, attending seminary-affiliated churches until my wife and I reached a breaking point.

As is often the case, this breaking point consisted of a combination of doctrinal, sociological, and personal issues: I grew uneasy with sola scriptura and an overly forensic view of the atonement; my wife and I both felt constricted by that subculture’s view of “biblical manhood and womanhood”; my marriage was in a rough patch and we had received really bad marital counseling at two churches, attributable in no small part to the “biblical counseling” approach favored in those circles.

Seven years post-deconversion, we attend Eastern Orthodox services (less frequently than I would like, due to some work and family issues, but we are putting down roots near a church and hope to become catechumens later this year). Theologically and culturally, I believe we would be considered small-o orthodox Christians by your definition, and perhaps borderline liberals by people we knew in Louisville. It’s fair to say that my wife and I have experienced both the bad (bitterness, resentment) and good (a better sense of who we are and what we believe) that comes with these deconversion experiences. I’ll withhold judgment as to whether my story is ultimately one of the “good ones.”

In leaving Calvinistic SBC culture and exploring Orthodoxy, I’ve run into more than my fair share of other deconverts. From my experience, there are narcissistic / sociopathic deconverts, wounded / traumatized deconverts, and a bunch of people in the middle.

The sociopathic type have typically left a leadership-type position in one religious context, often for self-motivated reasons, and are looking to rebuild their platform in a different context.  I’d wager that certain “Christian celebrity” deconverts may well exhibit this tendency, though I believe it’s spiritually dangerous to assert that confidently about any particular person from afar. In any event, these types are relatively uncommon.

The traumatized type tends to be someone who has at a minimum been through legitimate hardship, and often who has been a victim of some kind of abuse. In my experience, many of these folks are met with skepticism by the environment from which they deconvert (their personal troubles are regarded as the “real reason” for the deconversion and considered an impediment to their thought process). Sometimes they find what they need in their next religous context, but often they don’t, as like many abuse victims, they can be drawn into other (spiritually) abusive environments. And all the rest of us are sinners and sinned against as well — none of us are perfect, even if we have perfectly legitimate reasons for our deconversion.

The thing is, there’s no heuristic I’ve discovered that can quickly reveal to me how “authentic” one’s deconversion story is. These things are revealed in time, often long periods of time. One pattern I have noticed is among the other Christians with whom my wife and I have connected: they are all people who, at some pivotal point in their lives, have had to break with one of their defining institutions (family, church, career, friend-group) and stand on their own two feet, often at great cost. There’s my wife’s friend who left home at age 15 to escape an abusive homeschool culture; another friend who stepped out of her patriarchal homeschool world in her 20s, to marry (her religious subculture believed fathers controlled who their adult daughters could marry); friends who uprooted their young family to serve as foreign missionaries, despite Christian family member’s insistence that it was more important to remain in the US to give the grandparents a chance to be near the grandchildren.

And all of this is precisely why the post of Dr. Kruger’s that you shared is so, so unhelpful to us laypeople.

Yes, the dynamic he describes is real, and yes, it can and does beget false teaching that can lead to the abandonment of the faith. But as heuristics go, it’s helpful perhaps for triaging the reliability of a Christian celebrity’s deconversion narrative (but even there, I would err on the side of caution), but in my experience, these steps do not inevitably lead people in the pew to liberalism. What does push people down that road, though, is church leaders who will read an article like Kruger’s and use it to delegitimize and trivialize genuine spiritual searching. When ordained ministers begin to “just ask questions,” yes, they should be assessed according to confessional standards and removed from their positions if they deviate from those standards. Typically laypeople need someone to listen to them. And yes, very often, there is some sin — resentment, bitterness, or simply just a desire to feel a little more acceptable to the culture — mixed in with that questioning, but one need not be perfect for us to have a Christian obligation to listen to them and treat them with dignity. Any husband or father worth his salt does not interject with, “yes, but, don’t let it make you resentful” immediately upon dealing with a distressed wife or child. Why would we be any less kind toward people in our churches?

More troublingly, this wariness towards parishioners who raise legitimate questions, and the tendency to expect them to exhibit perfect Christian morality when raising their concerns, can and does lead to the silencing of abuse victims, as evidenced by the experience of Rachel Denhollander (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/january-web-only/rachael-denhollander-larry-nassar-forgiveness-gospel.html). Yes, I’m painting with a bit of a broad brush, but just look at the way Ms. Denhollander’s former church delegitimized her on the basis of her speaking from “subjective experience.” When one reads an article like Kruger’s — or dozens of such articles, as will often be the case for a pastor in those circles — one can very easily begin to see speaking from subjective experience as the hallmark of a budding heretic, rather than a thing someone does when they’ve been through some seriously heavy shit and no one believes them. Conservative Protestant leaders are fighting an air war against those who they perceive as wolves in sheep clothing while paying no mind to the ground war that pastors fight among doubting parishioners who are by in large more honest actors than the Jen Hatmakers of the world.

The problem is further exacerbated by the sense that the criticisms of conservative Protestants are always lobbed more fiercely at those who are politically liberal, such as everyone Kruger mentions in his article. Rob Bell wrote a book that deviated from certain Protestant confessional standards (to which he as a nondenominational pastor did not necessarily describe) with regard to the doctrine of the afterlife, and the Calvinistic Baptist crowd let him have it, one might guess, moreso because Bell is politically left of center in 21st century America, because his doctrine of hell ultimately differs very little from that of C.S. Lewis, who is revered by that same crowd.

But these same pastors do not show the same level of concern when key figures in the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (the group that penned the Nashville Statement) are accused credibly of significant deviations from Trinitarian orthodoxy (https://www.mortificationofspin.org/mos/housewife-theologian/is-it-okay-to-teach-a-complementarianism-based-on-eternal-subordination#.Wnkqz-dG3IV).  Or to think of it another way, compare a younger Al Mohler’s strong words to Bill Clinton’s “Baptist Enablers” (https://www.sbclife.net/Articles/1999/01/sla6) with his crowd’s reticence to strongly criticize Trump’s court evangelicals, a couple of whom numbered among the Nashville Statement’s original signatories.  Note also the lack of public criticism of Douglas Wilson or CJ Mahaney — conservative pastors responsible for organizations that have faced credible accusations of enabling and covering up sexual abuse (https://www.washingtonian.com/2016/02/14/the-sex-abuse-scandal-that-devastated-a-suburban-megachurch-sovereign-grace-ministries/) — among these circles as well. The cumulative effect is that one might begin to wonder if the concerns about the Bells and Hatmakers is driven more by tribalism and mood affiliation than by purely doctrinal concerns, and perhaps Kruger’s article becomes less helpful for providing spiritual counsel to people one might meeet in real life.

As for the Ben Op — any of us who “opt in” must have a bit of the deconversionist in us, as the Ben Op calls us away from the accommodations to modernity that may be part of the fabric of our daily lives and even of our churches. It is a call to ask questions, rethink our routines in light of the Gospel. Taken to an extreme, this questioning and questing can lead us to be skeptical and cautious, and prevent true community from forming.

Personally, I’ve found it troubling that the Ben Op has been so warmly received by the types of conservative evangelicals whose overzealous heretic hunting would militate against the very habits of mind that might lead many of us ordinary Christians to take the Ben Op. I’m encouraged by the fact that you recognize the legitimate purpose that such habits of mind might serve in the right place, at the right time — sometimes things really do have to change.

Thoughts, readers?



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