What do Jen Hatmaker, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Bart Ehrman, and many others have in common? They’ve, in some form or another, deconverted from their once “evangelical” Christian faith. We know this because they’ve publicly made it known. Now, they probably wouldn’t call it a “deconversion” story, but nevertheless, they’ve taken to the blog-podcast-video-internet world to make their stories known. Now, it’s in their stories that we find a kind of outline – a few points that they seem to hit on. We have with us this week author and professor Dr. Michael Kruger to help us see the plot line of the deconversion story. He also helps us see the general beliefs of liberal theology, and provides an encouragement and call for people to stand on the only solid truth-foundation – the Bible.
Who is Our Guest?
Dr. Michael Kruger is the President and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC. In addition, Michael is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serve as an Associate Pastor (part-time) at his home church, Uptown PCA. He is married to Melissa Kruger, Women’s Ministry Coordinator at Uptown PCA.
The article we’ve been talking about that Michael wrote is called The Power of De-Conversion Stories: How Jen Hatmaker is Trying to Change Minds About the Bible. Also, here’s the first article in his new series: The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity.
You can find Michael’s blog, Canon Fodder, here.
With me today is Dr. Michael Kruger. Michael is President and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Michael is married, he’s written many books, he’s lectured at various places, and also serves part-time as an associate pastor. It’s good to have you today, Michael.
Thanks so much, good to be on the program.
The first thing we want to ask is simply, who are you? You’re going to be, obviously, educating us a little bit about some of these issues, but before we hear you educating us, let us know a little bit about who you are, maybe how you came to Jesus.
Yeah. My current sketch you laid out just a second ago, which is that I’m the President and New Testament professor here at Reformed Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, and have been here for about 17 years. As far as my background, I became a believer at a young age ’cause I was blessed to grow up in a Christian home and heard the Gospel at a young age, and I have believing parents and a believing brother, and thankful for a Christian family. I never really went to a Christian college or university. I graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and then on to seminary and Ph.D. work, but was grateful to grow up in a Christian family.
That’s awesome, that’s so good.
You’ve written a lot, you’ve done a lot of kind of deep theological work, especially when it comes to early Christianity, but anyways, you wrote an article on your site in February which got some traction. I think Tim Challies posted on his blog which gets sent out to tons of people. But it was about the power of de-conversion stories. Firstly, what is a de-conversion story?
I think the best way to explain it is to kind of think of it as the opposite of a conversion story. We all know what conversion stories are. Conversion stories are when there’s someone that goes before the church, or maybe fellow believers, and tells how they came to a fresh and new understanding of the truth of the Gospel, the truth of the Bible, and the good news about Jesus Christ. Conversion stories, as we know, can be very powerful. They remind people that this is happening to real folks, and you can hear people’s individual stories and it can be very impactful.
When I coined the term “de-conversion story,” I usually use that term just to speak of a similar phenomenon that goes in the opposite direction. This would be a person who comes forward in some fashion and publicly declares the opposite scenario, which is they moved away from historical, orthodox Christianity and now have found a new set of beliefs in the opposite direction. So now they no longer believe what they used to believe. They don’t have the doctrines they used to hold to, and they no longer have the same worldview they used to have.
Now this looks very different, depending on the person, and there are a lot of examples of that out there in the world today. It can be a very dramatic de-conversion story where someone leaves Christianity altogether and goes to agnosticism, and Bart Ehrman would be a good example of that. It can also be a different kind of de-conversion story. It can be a de-conversion away from a certain brand of Christianity where they leave what they deem, at least, to be sort of a narrow version of Christianity and a person embraces a much more progressive or broad version of Christianity. Now that can be exampled by people like Jen Hatmaker or Peter Enns or Rob Bell.
Now, they may not agree with that language because they would still see themselves as Christians, so they don’t think they’ve de-converted, but I use the term rather broadly just to capture this idea of transitioning worldviews in the opposite direction than typically are used to.
So, okay, if I wasn’t a Christian and I became a Christian dramatically, there’s a reason why I want to go and share my conversion, my testimony, because I’m so excited that I believe now that Jesus is the only way and I want people to be saved. What makes these people, whatever kind of de-conversion story they have, what makes them want to publicly share the fact that, yay, now I’m out of this?
You know, this is actually one of the reasons I wrote my article, because I think there’s, to some extent, a new phenomenon happening in the last 20 years in our country. It’s not really new. There’s always been de-conversion stories on one level, always people saying, hey, here’s how I stopped believing, but typically they’re not so public. Typically they’re not so evangelistic about it. Most people who stop believing just kind of move on, but there’s a whole new crop now of folks who feel like when they stop believing, they feel like they need to tell the world about it and take as many people with them as they can. There’s an evangelistic side of this, which is why I use the term “de-conversion,” ’cause it’s almost like an attempt to convert people. They want to evangelize people, not towards Christianity but away from it.
Now, I can’t psychologize on why people are motivated to do this. I think there are many motivations. I think some people think they’ve found the truth, finally, and they’re just eager to tell people about it and debunk what they think are lies, and so they think evangelicals are believing lies and they want to help people believe the truth. There’s some of that going on.
I imagine psychologically, we can hypothesize that some people maybe feel better about their de-conversion if other people de-convert, too, and you can sort of try to read into that. We just simply don’t know why people do it, but there does seem to be a trend. I think that trend is probably heightened by the rise of social media. Now everybody can tell their story and everybody can hear it. With the help of social media, the de-conversion stories are just much louder than they would have been in years gone by.
Yeah, definitely, and that totally makes sense when it comes to social media especially. Now you briefly mentioned Jen Hatmaker. She was sort of the starting point of your article. What did you come to find, I guess, in the de-conversion story along with the others, like you mentioned Peter Enns and Bart Ehrman and things like that. You talk about these five steps. I think, that would be interesting for people who haven’t read your article, for you to share some of what you found.
Yeah. When I heard Jen Hatmaker’s interview, I was struck by a number of things. This was a podcast that appeared a number of months ago, and she’s given many of these. But this one was sort of making the rounds and I listened to it, and I was struck by a number of things. One thing I was struck by is that she’s a very easy person to listen to and she seems like a sweet person, and friendly, and likable. I got to say that even as I listened to her, I thought, wow, I really can understand her appeal. She definitely comes across positively and likable, and I’m sure she is a sweet person. My post had nothing to do with her on a personal level.
But what I did notice as I listened to the podcast was not just how persuasive it was and compelling when you listened to it, but also it did follow what I call sort of a de-conversion playbook. When I say de-conversion playbook I’m not suggesting there’s some sort of wooden thing they all do and they’ve all collaborated or something like this, but I do think you can observe some trends.
What I laid out in my article is simply what I saw as five things she did in her interview, in her de-conversion story, that a lot of other folks do in their de-conversion stories. I think there’s some validity to pointing that out. Some people thought that by pointing that out somehow I was not giving credit to her personal account, but actually that’s not true. I really am listening to her personal account. I just think that there’s common ground with her personal account and others’ as well.
The five steps I mentioned in my article online, I won’t say everything about each one, but the five steps are: number one, first talk about your negative past in fundamentalism. In other words, talk about how your fundamentalist past was narrow and constricting and limiting and you really weren’t finding answers.
And then two, you kind of position yourself as someone who bravely stood up against it, and that you were courageous enough to fight the evangelical establishment and stand for truth, and then you sort of lay out how you got punitively pushed back for that. There’s a little bit of portraying yourself as the martyr there that I think is interesting. Jen Hatmaker is not the first one to do that. Like I said, others have portrayed themselves the same way, which is, hey, I’m just courageously standing up against evangelicalism and now look what’s happening to me.
Thirdly, you tend to portray your old group as dogmatic and yourself just as a seeker. You’re the one that’s just on a journey. You’re the one that’s just open minded. You’re just trying to find truth, that’s all. There’s a sense in which it’s the other people who are making dogmatic truth claims, not me. I think that’s problematic, ’cause I think even in de-conversion stories there are all kinds of very serious truth claims being made.
Number four is you insist you’re still biblical, that your theology is even more biblical than the people you left. Now obviously not all de-conversion stories include this element, because someone like Bart Ehrman who went even further will now deny the Bible altogether. But if you’re a Rob Bell or Jen Hatmaker, you’re going to at least still claim the Bible, and so you sort of come up with your own explanation for why your new views fit with the Bible.
And then fifthly and finally, you sort of lay out the sort of character flaws with your old group and uplift the better character you found in the new group you’re in. This is something I’ve seen across the board. So I wrote an article thinking, hey, this can be laid out. People can look at this and analyze it and see if they see this in the stories they’re hearing.
Absolutely, and I thank you for doing that. I think it’s important. Something you said earlier on that kind of made me think as you were talking, you mentioned that listening to Jen Hatmaker, it was pleasant. She was easy to listen to. I think about Rob Bell, I also think of someone like Brian McClaren. All these people, they’re very easy to listen to. They have a good rhetoric. They’re good at public speaking. They’re very convincing and it’s almost as if some of these de-conversion stories are just louder because people actually want to hear them and are convinced because of just the fact that they’re really good at public speaking.
Yeah, and you could say the same thing for Bart Ehrman as well. He’s very compelling. Of course, I think there are compelling folks on the other side, too. Certainly, being compelling or not being compelling isn’t necessarily the determiner of whether someone is right or wrong or true or false. I do note that because I think a lot of people are ones who listen to people like her and say, “Wow, she sounds so much like I would love to sit down and have coffee with her, and I probably would like it in a way that she would be my best friend.” I give her credit for that. I think she probably is a very sweet and loving and kind person, and I think she’s probably the kind of person that I and others would certainly enjoy getting to know personally. Of course, my article wasn’t really trying to diagnose her personally, it was more trying to diagnose the methodology of the de-conversion story.
Of course. Yeah, definitely. You mentioned in actually another article you’ve written, a book by J. Gresham Machen which a lot of people haven’t heard of. It’s this book that he’s written called “Christianity and Liberalism,” written in 1923. So many, many years ago. Now you say that his critiques of Christian Liberalism at that time are relevant for today. I’m wondering if you could sort of briefly summarize his argument.
Machen wrote this book in the early 20th century and it really is a paradigmatic book and I think it should be required reading for anybody headed into ministry, and I think just about any Christian would benefit from reading it. In fact, I’ve started a new series on my website where I tap into Machen quite a bit, in another series on progressive Christianity I’ve started. That’s another conversation for another day. But here’s the upshot of what he argued. He argued that liberal Christianity in his day has got a set of beliefs, and that set of beliefs is laid out fairly plainly. They view Jesus as merely a good moral teacher and it’s moralistically conditioned. They think the Bible’s not the inspired Word of God and so on. And what he argues at the end is that liberal Christianity is not just another denominational view. It’s not just a version of Christianity, but it’s an entirely separate religion. He argues it’s an entirely other religion other than Christianity. So, there’s Christianity, and then there’s Liberalism. There’s not anything called Liberal Christianity if you will, because that just is an oxymoron.
What I like about the book is it really just lays out the trend of Liberal Christianity that we always see around us and have for generations. In my new blog series, I point out the fact that it’s still around now. Whenever someone embraces Liberal Christianity, especially if they’re young, you get the impression that they think they’re discovering something new or that they’re doing something new. What’s good about Machen’s book is that he reminds us, no, this has been the message of Liberal Christianity for years. Arguably not just in the 20th century or even the 19th century, but all the way back and long before that.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting, I’m wondering if you can sort of speak into this a bit, Michael, but I grew up in a Christian home in an urban city in Canada. Very well aware of North American church and things like that. It wasn’t until through my Bible college years that I finally kind of realized that there was this other idea of Christianity called Liberalism and Progressive Christianity, and I think there’s actually a lot of people like this.
Now, you’ve soaked in this stuff a lot so it’s very real for you, but I think there are a lot that are kind of blind to it, just like how there’s so many people blind to the whole, God’s sovereignty and free will debate. Can you just sort of give us an idea of how much liberalism has actually affected the North American church?
Oh yeah. Golly, where do you begin? It’s such a big topic. You could point to all the mainline denominational decline. So, whether it’s the PCUSA or the United Methodist Church, or any of the other major, or Episcopal Church. These major declines are all due to theological liberalism. So, you can trace this over the last hundred years, and those denominational declines are not only evident theologically, they’re evident numerically. They’re losing folks in droves, all around the country. You can tie directly to this kind of liberal thought.
The other thing that you see is the type of liberal view of Christianity that’s in these mainline churches is the same thing being taught in universities today. We send off young folks to a college or a university, they need to know that this is going to be the type of thing they’re going to hear. They’ve got to be ready to answer it. They’ve got to be prepared to deal with it. Unfortunately, lots of times when we send off kids to college, we never have even introduced them to worldview issues, we’ve only introduced them to moral issues. We’ve made sure that they don’t do this and they don’t do that, and they live like this and not like that, and by the way, that’s important. How people behave matters, of course that’s important. But that can’t be the only thing we’re doing to prepare people. I think we need to give folks a grounding of what theological liberalism is so they know why they believe what they believe, and they can answer the questions when they’re asked of them.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s so good. A few, I guess, months ago now, I had a conversation with Dr. Owen Strachan. We both watched the new Rob Bell documentary called “The Heretic,” and as we were talking about it and kind of about progressive Christianity, we came to this understanding that many Christian liberals boast of this more authentic, this more beautiful, more socially aware, more, even mysterious and even mystical kind of side of faith. Obviously, when it comes to millennials, which we deal with a lot at indoubt, this obviously attracts a lot of millennials, ’cause they are kind of sick of that … they don’t want to confine themselves to just naturalism and atheism. There is a hunger for something more, and this sort of Christian liberalism offers this very “mysterious faith.”
As you consider that, what would you say to someone who’s sort of dipping their toes into progressive Christianity and hopes to find something beautiful and real?
There’s a quest in our next generation, what’s called millennials, and then even after that, the next generation after that, for authenticity and something they call real. Something that matters. There’s an irony to this new movement, if you call it a movement at all, and that is they’re very moralistic. What I mean by that is, you said it a minute ago. They’re not just going to be the typical atheist, agnostic naturalist. They have some aspects of that, but they very much think they need to go out and do good and stop evil and save the world and help the environment and do away with social ills and so forth. What’s interesting about that is I think they don’t understand that they need a worldview that can support those ambitions. They need a coherent worldview that can account for morality and ethical norms. What they don’t realize is that Liberal Christianity cannot provide it. Liberal Christianity ultimately undercuts morals, because it makes morals arbitrary and relativistic.
What I would say to a group like that is that they’re internally inconsistent. They have a worldview that undercuts their quest for moral causes. Some of their moral causes may be good moral causes, and we’re not even necessarily disputing that, although there’s a larger conversation about some of those things. But let’s imagine that some of their moral causes are good ones. We think that as Christians, but we have a reason for thinking so. Why do the progressives have a reason for thinking something’s a good moral cause, if there are no absolute norms in the universe and Christianity, or rather morals are relativistic? So, I find this sort of intellectual schizophrenia there. They want to have their post-modern cake and eat it too, if you will. I want to say to them, “Look, if you want morals, you’ve got to ditch your post-modernity. It’s one or the other. You can’t have both of them.”
That’s good. Let’s try an example here as we begin to wrap up our conversation. I was recently doing some research when it comes to millennials and how they give to charity and non-profits in Canada, and I found that more millennials will volunteer rather than give to many different organizations, and the top two subjects of volunteer work that they do is, one is poverty work, and the other one is for churches and different para-church organizations. Now when it comes to poverty, how would you, as an orthodox, evangelical Protestant, Bible-believing Christian, how would you be able to portray to a millennial who has this longing to volunteer and help out with something like poverty, how would you be able to say that the Christian worldview can actually help be the best foundation for your work to help alleviate poverty?
Well there are all kinds of ways to slice that up. The fundamental issue I’d want to hit on is, why does it matter whether people are in poverty? Why should I be concerned at all? What I find remarkable about post-modernists is that they seem to treat humans as if they have inherent dignity and worth. As if they’re more important than the animals. As if they require and demand from us that we treat them well and find food for them to eat.
Okay, I, as a Christian, agree with all those things. I do think humans should be treated well and with dignity. But I have a reason in my worldview for thinking that. Namely that Christians are made in the image of God, that God set apart humanity as a distinctive part of his creation, that you should treat them with dignity and worth and should not harm, but should help them. So, I have a reason as a Christian why I should care for the poor.
What would be the reason for the progressive? He’s got no sense of necessarily a biblical revelation, what makes humans distinct from animals? He’s got no sense of biblical revelation to tell him what counts as good and bad and right and wrong. Why even care about the poor? Why would poverty even be an issue? I suppose they could try some evolutionary answer like, well, if I help the poor, then I preserve the species, and we all can progress. But why should I care about preserving the species? It just backs the question up one notch. What I want to encourage someone to think about is, you need something more fundamentally grounded if you’re going to have a care for these things.
The last thing I’d mention is, okay, let’s imagine you go out as a progressive and you care for the poor and you help in the soup kitchen and you build a house for Habitat for Humanity. What about people’s eternal souls? Is that an issue? In other words, you’re caring for them in the present, what about the future? You think they live forever? If so, where are they going to live? You think there’s a reward in heaven or a punishment in hell? Do you think that what you tell people matters for the eternal destiny? It’s hard to take seriously somebody who’s concerned for caring for the poor, if they’re not also concerned for caring for something much more important than that, which is their eternal destiny, where they’re going to end up forever.
Once again, there’s this sort of very narrow, tight, help the poor now for who knows what reason, and I think it just doesn’t work on the progressive worldview.
Yeah, and as you say that, it just makes me think that the true evangelical Christian, historical Christian foundation that then stems out to do things like social justice work and all that stuff, in the long term, it is the most beautiful and correct foundation, ’cause I think a lot of times … what you pretty much just did was you made it logically make sense that you would do good poverty work because of your Christian foundation. Makes logical sense in the long term, but for many millennials, they’re just thinking about then and there and just doing a good work just because. It feels good in the moment, but they’re not thinking long term. I think that’s really important how you phrased that.
The last thing, Michael, as we wrap up here, and I like to ask this question to different Christian leaders and thinkers who have done a lot of work in regards to history and looking at culture today. When you consider the general Christian young adult landscape, and I know you’re in America, but a lot of American attitudes and beliefs do trickle into Canada. When you consider the Christian young adult landscape, what do you think is the most important thing that you would say to them, what they should know, what they should believe, what they should really grab onto or let go of?
Well that’s a big question and there are a lot of great things out there. For anybody who knows my own research and writing and work, it’s no surprise that I think one of the fundamental foundations for young Christians today to grapple with and get right is the proper role of the authority and inspiration of Scripture in their life. Every one of these things we can trace back to a misappropriation of or rejection of the Bible, that people don’t believe it’s true. They don’t believe it’s reliable, they think there are other options that are much better. They think that you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to. They think that the Bible’s mistaken and flawed and that we should move on.
Whatever it might be, if a young person today is going to have a coherent Christian worldview, and it’s going to be able to be the kind of worldview that can withstand the progressive movement of our modern world, you got to be standing on something stronger than just good feelings or your own emotions or your own zeal. You’ve got to have a true foundation. And that’s only going to be found in God’s word.
I continue to push people back to re-evaluating and shoring up their foundations, namely Scripture. You mentioned my website Canon Fodder a minute ago, and that site I’ve put together intentionally to try to help people think through the Bible and where it came from and why we can trust it. As you noted, the title “Canon Fodder” is Canon with one “n,” so it’s the biblical canon, not the ‘fire the cannonball’ cannon. If people don’t get that, they’ll miss the pun, but either way I can point people to that as a place to learn more.
That’s so good. Thank you so much, Michael. I really appreciate your time and your wisdom with us today. If you’re listening and you are intrigued of what we’ve talked about, Michael’s already made mention of this new series that he’s started, which I’ve read the first one and it’s very interesting. I would encourage you to check out Canon Fodder, which is michaeljkruger.com. You can go there and you can just find an abundance of resources of these articles, you can listen to different sermons and lectures that Michael has done. Read the blogs, check out his books, everything like that. That link will also be at our episode podcast page for you to enjoy.
Anyways, I wanted to thank you again, Michael, and I hope to have you back on again.
Thanks, good to be with you.