Doubting the Doubter: On the Deconversion of Hawk Nelson’s Jon Steingard
Jon Steingard, Christian band Hawk Nelson’s frontman, recently went public with his deconversion testimony. And it’s got me doubting, too. But I’m doubting something other than my faith.
First of all, here is something about Jon’s story that I don’t doubt: the agony of the process of deconversion.
I have a friend who left his faith behind and said it would have been easier to have severed his own arm. I believe him.
When Jon relates the scary questions he’s asked along the way, we’re talking about authentic fear: “If I’m honest about this, will all my Christian friends abandon me? Will this alienate me from my family? Will this leave me with nothing? These are the questions that led me into a very dark place for a while.”
I appreciate Jon’s honesty. He is honest about the fears he has confronted, the depression he is emerging from, and even about his motive for going into the Christian genre in the first place: “As time went on we became more outspoken about our faith in our music. To be fair, I was one of the loudest voices pushing for that shift, because I believed it would lead to more success in the Christian music world.”
If success in the entertainment industry is measured by appearances on major media outlets, it would appear that Jon has found more success than ever by leaving Christianity. His Instagram deconversion story has made USA Today, Today, New York Post, and People, among other outlets.
For a lead singer of a band that hasn’t released a full album since 2015, Jon’s story has powerfully brought Jon back into public view. But it would be dishonest to minimize the many layers of loss Jon has gone through by leaving the faith. Amid his newfound notoriety, I don’t doubt his tremendous loss for a second.
Here are some things I do doubt.
#1 – I doubt the originality of Jon’s illustration.
Throughout his lengthy Instagram post, Jon uses an illustration to describe the process of deconversion: the unraveling of a sweater. He writes, “It’s been more like pulling on the threads of a sweater, and one day discovering that there was no sweater left.” He references the sweater illustration three times throughout his post.
But he never cites it once.
It turns out that the “sweater of faith” metaphor is what Rhett McLaughlin (of YouTubers Rhett and Link) used to describe his own deconversion around three months ago. “I had been pulling on this thread for a really long time. . . . Let’s call it the sweater of faith.” Rhett described the sweater’s descent from sweater to vest and on down until eventually he took off what was left.
My point has nothing to do with plagiarism. I bring this up to suggest that these stories are so much more than just, in Jon’s words, “shar[ing] my deepest truth.”
These deconversion Instagram testimonies seem every bit as invitational and evangelistic as a Billy Graham crusade. As Jon puts it, “I hope that my openness and transparency can be an encouragement to [my doubting friends], and to you, if you feel the same.”
The main difference between these ex-Christians and other evangelists is that these ex-Christians hardly ever have anything solid to invite people to. It’s usually a fuzzy, optimistic agnosticism which is unclear about who God is, but solidly committed to the cultural values of the day.
#2 – I doubt the seriousness of Jon’s complaint.
Jon then goes on to tell why he left Christianity. By now, we should be able to recite the line with him. After all, it’s a complaint as old as the 4th century BC philosopher Epicurus. In Jon’s words, “If God is all loving, and all powerful, why is there evil in the world? Can he not do anything about it?”
Evil. According to Jon, it’s so bad that God should do more about it. In fact, evil is so bad, according to Jon, that a good God would have to do more about it, and because He doesn’t, He must not even exist.
I doubt that Jon really thinks evil is all that bad. Why? Well, because then Jon lists all the things that God has done in order to limit and punish evil. And Jon finds all these things unacceptable!
As it turns out, Jon thinks death (“famine and disease and floods”) is unacceptable, even though death is one of God’s most effective ways of limiting evil. Can you imagine what life would be like if we sinners lived forever on this planet without ever feeling the need to humble ourselves before God?
Jon thinks hell is unacceptable. Yet hell is God’s way of punishing evil and removing evil from the presence of those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6).
Make no mistake about it: You do not get Revelation 21:4 (“He will wipe away every tear . . . neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain”) without first having Revelation 21:3 (“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God”). In order for heaven to be heaven, there must be a separation between those who welcome God’s reign and those who insist on ruling themselves.
Hell is unacceptable only insofar as evil isn’t that big a deal.
Jon thinks that God’s anger in the Old Testament was unacceptable. Yet it is in the Old Testament judgment passages that we see so clearly how seriously God takes evil. Doesn’t Jon want God to do something about evil? If a civilization can get so evil that it sacrifices children as part of its worship services, are we hoping that God does nothing more than sigh and wring His hands?
Jon thinks that the Cross was unacceptable. He writes, “Why does Jesus have to die for our sins (more killing again)? If God can do anything, can’t he forgive without someone dying?”
The Cross shows us a God who is completely bound to dealing justice. Punishing sin is not merely optional for a God who is fundamentally holy. But shouldn’t the Cross therefore be good news to Jon? It means God is both loving and deadly serious about doing something about evil. Apparently, evil is not as big a deal to Jon as he makes it sound.
#3 – I doubt the prudence of Jon’s approach.
It is at the end of his Instagram post that Jon makes it clear what he finds to be most important. He writes, “I am not sure how much this will rock the boat. I don’t know if this will surprise anyone. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve finally worked up the courage to tell my story. To share my deepest truth.”
To Jon, this compulsion to share his “deepest truth” is the overriding consideration. It’s what matters. And compulsion is no exaggeration. He writes, “I simply can no longer avoid it.” “I feel like I really need to.” “I now feel that it’s less important how I do it, and more important that I do it.”
And yet, admittedly, Jon isn’t secure in a new worldview. He’s inviting the reader to leap with him into ambiguity. He’s still “open to the idea that God is there.” He says, “I’d prefer it if he was.”
This is a casual, reckless invitation to his young fans into apostasy. He himself isn’t too clear on where he stands. His own vision seems hazy and tentative: “I am now finding that I no longer believe in God.”
Yet he invites thousands of young people whose faith in Jesus was strengthened by his music to leave Jesus behind.
He seems to feel good about it. With his band having ground to a halt, he says, “I’ve got a whole lot less to lose now.” I wish Jon had considered that his young followers have a lot to lose.
Jon doesn’t believe Matthew 18:6 anymore, but I do. I fear for Jon, because Jesus is deadly serious about how we influence young people: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
#4 – I doubt the wisdom of Christian celebrity culture.
When I was a kid, I remember reading about how a senior saint was weary of seeing kids trade cards of video game characters and sometimes less-than-upstanding athletes. She decided therefore to create trading cards with pictures of saintly Christians throughout history (think Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Asisi).
As much as I appreciated the idea, I knew it wouldn’t work.
Perhaps Christian kids will always be drawn to coolness over substance. But I lament that so much influence is handed over to Christian celebrities who may have very little substance.
Again, I appreciate Jon’s honesty, but as you read these words from him, take note of just how shallow a faith can be in someone whose job is to grow the faith of thousands of Christian kids:
“Jess [Jon’s wife] and I both always had this sense that we weren’t doing enough of the things we were supposed to do as Christians. We didn’t enjoy going to church. We didn’t enjoy reading the Bible. We didn’t enjoy praying. We didn’t enjoy worship. It all felt like obligation, and our lack of enthusiasm about those things always made us feel like something was wrong with us.”
I would suggest that there is something wrong with the way we American Christians tend to put so much faith in Christian celebrities. We can use such tools to enhance our kids’ faith, but we should never entrust our kids’ faith to them. It’s far better to invite our kids into discipling relationships which will walk them through their spiritual journeys and prepare them for the storms to come.
If you have experienced the pressure to drift into progressivism and would like to hear from a trusted voice in these confusing times, check out David Young’s A Grand Illusion: How Progressive Christianity Undermines Biblical Faith.