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One of the crossroads of my life occurred on a couch in the central foyer of the English Building at the University of Illinois in between classes as a freshman in college. I was wrestling with deep questions about my identity and my future. Was it time to disown the “good kid” persona of my youth-group past and embrace the hedonism of my college classmates? Or was it finally time to embrace the reality of the Christian faith for myself? Sitting there alone, headphones warding off all potential distractions, I listened to the words of the hymn “Awake My Soul”:
I trust no other source or Name
Nowhere else can I hide
This grace gives me fear
And this grace draws me near
And all that it asks it provides
No one is good enough
To save himself
Awake my soul tonight
To boast nothing else.1
The words to the old hymn echoed in the depths of my soul, offering grace and hope when I needed it most. The singer was Derek Webb, one of the vocalists from the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) band Caedmon’s Call, whose music would come to have an enormous influence in my own Christian journey. His vulnerable, sincere, and at times provocative lyrics painted a picture of earnest and authentic faith — the type of faith that had eluded me up to that point in my life. On his live album The House Show, Webb argued that the thing Christians need more than anything else is to come out of hiding and experience rich and real grace — the very invitation I was so desperate to hear on that couch in the English Building.
As of late, however, Derek Webb is the author of a podcast called The Airing of Grief,2 where he has described his own deconstructive journey out of Christianity into doubt, uncertainty and, yes, denial of its veracity. Webb’s exodus from the faith he once so beautifully depicted is complex. After leaving Caedmon’s Call to pursue a solo career that would allow him greater songwriting freedom, Webb used his platform to offer piercing critiques of some of evangelicalism’s pet idols: politics and materialism, among others. In the years to come, he would continue to take on the voice of the truth-teller, swimming against the stream of more comfortable and typical CCM fare by singing about the issues others would not. He would criticize contemporary worship music as well as the Christian response to homosexuality. Along the way, he would lament an affair that led to the end of his marriage.
In his most recent album, 2017’s Fingers Crossed, Webb’s characteristic raw lyricism describes the process of losing his faith.3 In “Goodbye for Now,” Webb seemingly says farewell to God Himself:
So either you aren’t real
Or I am just not chosen
Maybe I’ll never know
Either way my heart is broken
As I say, goodbye for now.4
THE DISORIENTATION OF DECONVERSION
Watching a respected Christian walk away from his or her Christian faith (the theological term is “apostatize”) can be deeply disorienting. It leads us to ask all sorts of questions: What argument against Christianity did they find so persuasive, and would I be persuaded by that same argument? What happened to them to make them exchange the Christian worldview for one so radically different? What does their deconversion mean for the things we’ve learned from them? Can I still count Derek Webb as one of the most influential artists in my own Christian journey, or is it time to click “unsubscribe” on my Spotify playlist and unfollow him on Twitter? Was he or she even a Christian to begin with?
This disorientation and the subsequent questions that arise are natural expressions of the sense of loss that we feel when someone who we respect and have learned from has seemingly failed us. We feel as though the rug has been pulled out from underneath us, and we must quickly move to restore our footing, grasping onto something to restore our balance. So what do we do? What does this grasping look like in the life of a Christian whose childhood best friend now identifies as agnostic after a year away at college? For a Christian whose brother embraced homosexual sin and then left the church a few months later?
THE DISMISSAL OF DECONVERSION
Oftentimes our initial response to this sort of disorientation is to attempt to avoid it altogether. If we can circle the wagons and quickly dismiss someone like Webb as a heretic, we can avoid the difficult task of wrestling with the details of what actually drew someone so seemingly rooted and grounded in the faith away from it. Often we mask our disequilibrium by a faux righteousness, wherein we regain our footing by quickly reaffirming our commitments to what we believe without seriously evaluating any of the questions posed by the deconversion of someone such as Webb.
This approach has the allure of appearing particularly righteous or mature, especially if we measure maturity in terms of certainty instead of doubt. Unfortunately, when we avoid substantial engagement with doubts, we are plugging our ears, shouting “la la la” to avoid the possibility that we might hear something disruptive to our worldview or, even worse, something persuasive. If I pursue an honest conversation with my brother and then find out that his decision to leave the church was precipitated by hurtful, destructive interactions with church leadership, it becomes much harder to dismiss his decision to leave as petulant and rash. When we engage with our doubts, we run the risk that the small foothold they gain in our thinking will become a beachhead, and then a full-on conquest.
While this risk is real, the self-righteous dismissal of doubts brings its own set of dangers. We may be reassured temporarily of our faith because we’ve dismissed straw men arguments or because we haven’t encountered the same experiences of pain and suffering at the hands of fellow Christians. What happens, however, when we encounter the best arguments against the faith, or when we inevitably experience pain at the hands of fellow Christians? How will we see our faith when we get the phone call that reminds us with a sharp stab of pain that the world is not how it is supposed to be?
THE ROMANCE OF DECONVERSION
Another way to restore our balance is to embrace the stories of Webb and others.5 Perhaps we might find their reasons for deconversion persuasive: what are we to make of the atrocities committed in the name of Christ, the hypocrisy of God’s people, or a worldview that can seem overly restrictive? My newly agnostic friend starts to seem all the wiser as I hear the way she talks about faith with a refreshing skepticism and openness instead of a closely guarded adherence to one God whose followers often don’t seem very Christlike. These are understandable objections, and at least part of their attractiveness is rooted in the honesty with which they are confessed.
The stories that Webb chronicles on his podcast are delivered with raw honesty. One woman describes abuse at the hands of a Christian parent, and later, her Christian husband. Another man describes what it was like to experience same-sex attractions in a church where being honest about his experiences would result in him being kicked out of the church. These stories are tragedies of the failure of Christians to live up to their name, and sometimes to do evil in that very name. The impact of these terrible experiences cannot be explained away or minimized in the lives of those who have experienced this sort of trauma. If Jesus’ followers are capable of such great evil, then is Christianity really credible? This objection to the faith is increasingly common: Christianity cannot be true because Christians have caused great harm to others.
HOW NOT TO RESPOND TO SUCH OBJECTIONS
First, we should not defend Christianity by minimizing the trauma that has been inflicted by Christians on others. A measured response recognizes the real harm caused by Christians and the hard questions that such experiences generate. Christians should empathize with the human propensity to doubt — especially when the source of that doubt comes from the failure of Christian authorities to live up to their lofty calling.
When we feel disillusioned by the failure of one authority,6 we often look toward other authorities for a new source of stability. In such circumstances, it is particularly tempting to look to oneself as the only authority that can be trusted to tell the truth about the world. However, when we do this, we allow our own personal experiences to become absolutized, meaning that our own stories become the new norms and standards — a new source of final authority about what is true. As Alastair Roberts explains, “We cease to be expected to act in accordance with higher norms, principles, and realities, which provide criteria by which our lives can be judged and by which we can be held accountable.”7 These narratives are then used as testimony against the veracity of the Christian worldview.
Michael Kruger describes the deconversion stories as a sort of foil to the the more typical conversation story that Christians often use as an apologetic for their faith: “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. A person simply shares his testimony of how he once thought like you did but have now seen the light.”8
“The light” in this case is often the freedom from previous religious obligations and the ability to chart one’s own course in pursuit of the truth. The deconversion narrative appeals to the often powerful authority of personal testimony to persuade us that the Christian story is not a reliable witness of what is true, good, and beautiful.
Ultimately, our stories and our experiences, though true testimonies to the reality of a fallen world, are not the only or final source of authority. We don’t need to minimize the pain of those who have been hurt by the church to affirm the reality that our stories, whether conversion or deconversion, are not decisive in determining the plausibility of Christianity.
THE FOUNDATION OF FAITH
If the deconversion of well-respected Christians can rightly feel like the rug is being pulled out from under us, we can take solace in the fact that the sureness of our footing is founded on something stronger than that which has been removed. Rather than resorting to a self-righteous dismissal of their concerns or losing our confidence altogether, Christians find that the sureness of their faith is not rooted primarily in their subjective experience of it but rather in the person at its source and foundation: Jesus Christ.
While Christian testimonies can be useful evangelistic and apologetic tools, they are meant to testify to something beyond the experience of the sharer; they are meant to point to the objective reality of a God who entered into history as the God-Man to deliver the cosmos from sin, Satan, and death. Christ became incarnate in time and space — his death and resurrection happened as historical fact and was attested to by many witnesses. This objective reality is what constitutes the foundation of our faith, not merely our subjective reactions to it. Thus, a testimony is only as powerful or sure as the object to which it witnesses. While deconversion narratives witness to the loss of the faith and the elevation of personal experience, conversion stories point to faith in the Christ who proclaims: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20 ESV).
The ultimate foundation of our faith is its perfectly faithful cornerstone, Jesus Christ, not the faithfulness of His followers. Paul’s second letter to Timothy describes something of this reality, saying, “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:11–13 ESV).
The security of our faith is not rooted in fallen, fickle people like ourselves. Rather it is rooted in our union with Christ, the fact that by faith we have been bound together with the One who makes us “no longer strangers and aliens, but…fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Chris Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord (Eph. 2:19–21, emphasis added). Or as the apostle Peter puts it,
Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
A cornerstone chosen and precious,
And whoever believes in him will not be put to shame (1 Peter 2:6).
Christ is the cornerstone of the household of God into which we have been adopted. Following him is like building a house upon rock, so that when the storms come it remains unshaken (Matt. 7:24–27).
Scripture warns us against apostasy (Matt. 10:33; Heb. 6:4–8; 10:26–31; 2 Pet. 3:17) but reminds us that the faithlessness of people is no verdict on His character. It is a truth echoed in an old hymn so eloquently sung by Derek Webb himself that I still find myself listening to it some ten years later on a couch in my living room (I never did unsubscribe from that Spotify playlist), my questions of faith and identity more clear and increasingly though not yet fully answered:
The love of Christ is rich and free;
Fixed on His own eternally;
Nor earth, nor hell, can it remove;
Long as He lives, His own He’ll love.9
Kyle Keating received his MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary and teaches apologetics, theology, and history at Providence Classical Christian Academy in St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives with his wife Christy and daughter Kira, and serves as an elder at South City Church.
- Caedmon’s Call, “Awake My Soul,” Back Home, Essential Records B000084U4G, 2003.
- For a review of the album, see “Curse Your Listeners: Making Sense of Derek Webb’s Fingers Crossed,” Christ and Pop Culture, https://christandpopculture.com/curse-your-listeners-making-sense-derek-webb-fingers-crossed/.
- Derek Webb, “Goodbye for Now,” Fingers Crossed, Derek Webb B075ZL3212, 2017.
- For a similar example, see this video from Buzzfeed on the band Gungor: “How I Lost Faith in the Mega Church,”YouTube video, 7:12, September 19, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-nE-zrIhKc&feature=youtu.be. For critical reflection on Gungor, see Derek Rishmawy, “Should Evangelicals Care about Gungor’s Doubts?” Christ and Pop Culture, https://christandpopculture.com/evangelicals-care-gungors-doubts.
- Alastair Roberts observes that, within evangelicalism, “there is a sort of evangelical folk religion, much of which is completely unauthorized by pastors or elders,” of which the authority of CCM artists is an obvious example. Comment under a blog post by Derek Rishmawy, “’I Used to Believe X for Reason Y…’ and the Failure of Intellectual Imagination,” Reformedish, August 1, 2014, https://derekzrishmawy.com/2014/08/01/i-used-to-believe-x-for-reason-y-and-the-failure-of-intellectual-imagination/comment-page-1/#comment-19084.
- Alastair Roberts, “An Ethic of Nerve and Compassion,” Alastair’s Adversaria, May 27, 2013, https://alastairadversaria.com/ 2013/05/27/an-ethic-of-nerve-and-compassion.
- Michael Kruger, “Jen Hatmaker and the Power of De-Conversion Stories,” The Gospel Coalition, February 5, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/jen-hatmaker-power-deconversion-stories/.
- Derek Webb, “The Love of Christ,” For All the Saints: Indelible Grace III, Indelible Grace Music B001UHBSWG, 2008.