Individual Conversion Stories Aren’t As Impressive As You Think

Individual Conversion Stories Aren’t As Impressive As You Think May 27, 2020

When a Lesbian Atheist at Yale Came to Christ, reads the headline of a Gospel Coalition article by Becket Cook. The story is about a newly published book, Born Again This Way: Coming Out, Coming to Faith, and What Comes Next, by Rachel Gilson, today a campus minister.

In his article, Cook writes about Gilson as follows:

Gilson’s story runs counter to the dominant cultural narrative that homosexual behavior is righteous and good. As someone who experiences same-sex attraction, she fell into a romantic relationship with another girl while in high school. At the time, she thought Christianity was stupid and cruel. After all, didn’t Christians hate gay people?

Cook writes this as though it is untrue, but it is not so much untrue as it is a straw man. Christians—Cook’s type of Christian, that is, which is who he’s clearly talking about here—preach that engaging in same-sex relationships is sinful and wrong. They argue that it is “loving” to tell gay people that they must become celibate and go through life without romantic love, marriage, or a family of their own. This is not loving. 

I don’t actually care whether or not (these) Christians “hate” gay people. I’m not going to dissect what the emotions at play because I don’t think they’re particularly relevant. I care a lot more about the effects of their teachings than I do about whether their teachings involve “hate” or some other (not entirely dissimilar) word.

Anyway, back to Cook’s narration of Gilson:

Things shifted dramatically during her freshman year at Yale, though, when that relationship abruptly ended and left Gilson devastated.

Is Cook aware that this happens all the time to straight people, too? Because it does. This is a relationship and humans thing, not a gay thing. (For that matter, does Cook have any idea how many straight women fear being killed by an ex-husband or ex-boyfriend?) I mean, really.

Okay, rant over:

Through an unlikely source—a lecture on René Descartes—Gilson began her search for the truth. While secretly reading a (stolen) copy of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, she repented and came to Christ. Though her same-sex attraction hasn’t vanished, she believes Jesus is worthy of obedient trust. She’s willing to take up her cross and follow his teaching on sexuality.

Okay look, here’s the thing.

I have heard a dozen and one stories of people who grew up in evangelical families, believing that homosexuality was a sin, only to leave evangelicalism as young adults and embrace their identities as LGBTQ people. And that’s only counting the stories I have heard in person, from people I know, and not all the many, many more stories like this online.

Cook has found a person who went the other way, growing up in a (presumably) accepting family and community and converting to Christianity as an adult. It does happen! People are complicated beings; belief systems can be both attractive and intoxicating. When I  was an undergrad, I watched a group of Cru girls I knew convert another freshman in our dorm. She later went on staff with Cru. This really isn’t (and wasn’t) surprising; religion frequently offers people both a ready-made friend group and community and a sense of meaning and purpose.

Cook, though, appears to think Gilson’s conversion proves some sort of point. This is unsurprising, given evangelicals’ focus on people sharing their testimonies. I grew up listening to testimonies. At the time, I never thought about all of the “testimonies” of deconversions that were left untold. For every person that converts to evangelical Christianity as an adult, there are as many—if not more—who leave. I did. This is a thing people do with a decent amount of regularity: some people change their belief systems, their politics, their religions.

It happens.

Some people, like Gilson, will convert to Christianity as adults. Others will grow up in evangelical homes and go on “deconvert” to atheism as adults, or to agnosticism, or to nothing in particular—or perhaps to a progressive strain of Christianity. If Gilsen’s story proves some sort of point, then so should these others. Lauding Gilsen’s story without grappling with the meaning of deconversions leaves half the story untold.

Cook likes Gilson’s book, and her conversion, because it affirms beliefs he already holds, not because it forces him to think or brings him to a new understanding. Instead, Gilson’s words simply reaffirm his existing convictions—and he promises his evangelical Christian readers that it will do the same for them:

Gilson writes with straightforward and clear prose, balancing grace and truth. Her clear-eyed, nuanced approach and wise insights will help anyone in the church to see more of the goodness of God in the sexual ethic of Scripture. Born Again This Way will also help ordinary Christians gain a better understanding of this complicated subject.

Would Cook urge these same Christians to read books written by LGBTQ individuals about their deconversion from evangelical Christianity and their embrace of their identities as queer people? Almost certainly not. He’s only interested in a very particular type of story—one that fits his narrative and preexisting system of beliefs.

The farther I come from my own deconversion, the more convinced I am that evangelical Christians set up a barrier around their beliefs by only reading stories that confirm their beliefs, and avoiding those that don’t. Everyone does this to a certain extent, but evangelicals’ singleminded focus on conversion stories, when people convert both to and from a variety of religions and belief systems all the time, feels like a particularly egregious example of this phenomenon. Stories of individuals who leave the faith aren’t treated in the same way.

Only one kind of story matters.

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