The Power of a Story

“When the facts fail, resort to emotional blackmail.”

Probably one of the most misguided elements of the modern evangelical movement is the appeal to personal testimony. Now, while some measure of it is meaningful, unless there is a witness that can substantiate the claims, telling a stranger about your feelings about your beliefs can be unconvincing at best and ridiculous at worst. This is not to say that there isn’t some benefit to it, but if the facts don’t convince, not saying that they do in and of themselves but that God uses them as the means to call his people, then all that you’ve done is engaged in emotional blackmail.

Just as a side note, this semester I am taking a class on the religious history of America, and while the primary texts are largely steeped in postmodern narratives about “power” and “race”, what the authors criticize the previous generations of historians of doing, they are doing in their own way—unreflective much? Any way, we are looking at the role that Christianity played in justifying and maintaining the estate of slavery in the antebellum south and one source, a primary source of an escaped slave’s testimony, he recounts that what he was taught as a slave about what the Bible said and what he saw for himself when he learned to read had tremendous disparity between the two, something I demonstrated in a discussion by citing two Old Testament laws that criminalized the murder of slaves (something I’ve blogged about here) as well as protected runaways, something that none of my discussion partners in the class knew of. Call it, “surprised by the facts.” The reason for telling you this is that stories have power, and the fact that Christians had to distort the facts in order to maintain an unjust system proves what Scripture says about man is true: the heart of man is desperately wicked. 

The fact that it is wicked, that it will even deceive us, is often seen in those who claim to be Christians, who claim to believe Scripture, and yet will compromise because of a story. This is something that Michael Kruger discusses on a recent post over at his blog titled, “The Power of De-Conversion Stories: How Jen Hatmaker is Trying to Change Minds About the Bible.

In case you’re wondering just who Jen Hatmaker is, she’s a “[…]Christian author, speaker, blogger, and television presenter.” She has caused a stir in the evangelical community at large by, “[…]calling same sex relationships holy in the eyes of God.”

jen-hatmaker

Dr. Kruger begins by noting that,

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.

Conversely he notes,

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.

It’s interesting that someone who still considers themselves to be a Christian would have a “de-conversion story”, but Dr. Kruger says of them that,

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.

He notes that,

Modern examples of those in the de-conversion business are well known:  Bart Ehrman, Rob Bell, [and] Peter Enns…

Bart Ehrman being now a self-described “happy agnostic” known for his works such as Misquoting Jesus, Forged, and How Jesus Became God, all of which are decidedly anti-Christian, but curiously enough has authored a defense of the historical Jesus titled Did Jesus Exist? Rob Bell founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church left orthodox Christianity following the publishing of his book Love Wins, where he dismisses the historical position of hell. Peter Enns whose seminal work Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which questions and, some might argue, outright denies in matters of scriptural doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy, caused his ouster from Westminster Theological Seminary.

What Dr. Kruger notes is,

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.

What Dr. Kruger ultimately notes in his post is that there are, at least, five characteristics of “de-conversion stories”:

First, they all “recount negative experiences of [the] fundamentalist past”. A past that often includes a “narrow dogmatism” or a fear of asking questions or being able to ask questions. One of the problems that Kruger notes is that such claims are largely a, “caricature of evangelicalism as a whole.”

The second is that there’s a “positioning of [oneself] as the offended party fighting against the establishment.” Kruger, quoting an interview that Hatmaker gave, notes that,

She says she was mistreated in ways that were “scary,” “disorientating,” “crushing,” “devastating” and “financially punitive.”

He rightly notes and I agree that there were most likely those, “[…]who were cruel, mean and unchristian in their response to her,” but, “[…]there’s nothing illegitimate about people criticizing her newfound theology.” It’s essentially a victim narrative.

Thirdly, there’s the tendency to, “portray [the] old group as overly dogmatic while you are just a seeker.” What Kruger notes is that there is a constant vibe that says there are those, “[…]of us who have a deep conviction about the truth of our beliefs just need to realize how wrong we are.” Of course the problem with such arguments is that truth should dictate beliefs and truth must cohere to something in order to convince that they are somehow wrong. This takes us to the fourth characteristic.

Insist your new theology is driven by the Bible and not a rejection of it.” That sounds good, especially to Christians. In fact, Kruger notes that many will claim that they have come to their conclusions, “due to rigorous Bible study.” Those who take positions like Hatmaker in an affirmation of sexual rebellion have to argue that either the writers of Scripture were ignorant or they have to “contextualize” the clear teachings in such a way that it removes it authoritative nature.

Lastly, the “de-converted” must “attack the character of [the] old group and uplift the character of [the] new group.” Kruger quotes Hatmaker at this, who says,

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…

Kruger’s response,

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).

Dr. Kruger goes into greater detail in his post, so be sure to check it out.

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