Jon Steingard is lead singer of the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) band, Hawk Nelson. My CCM days are mostly behind me so I confess that I am not familiar with his music but I do recognize that he is a significant figure to a generation. He has 27,000 “followers” on Instagram, which is symbol of a certain degree of influence. Recently on Instagram, he posted a letter (in a series of images) explaining why he feels compelled to declare his apostasy from the Christian faith. Just as he used to give his testimony as an part of the evangelical liturgy, so now he gives his testimony as an new atheist, with the same sort of sweaty, overwrought, enthusiasm one associates with evangelical revival meetings. In view of his influence it is worth asking about the significance of yet another evangelical “deconversion.”
According to his letter he grew up as a pastor’s kid doing what a lot of PKs do, singing in a Christian band, leading worship, and living in the Christian bubble. He testifies that he has been having private conversations with friends, who like Steingard, also harbor deep (but apparently not very well investigated) doubts about the Christian faith. He likens his faith to a sweater. He says that he has been pulling threads on the sweater and no there is no sweater left. His faith is gone because it could not stand up to scrutiny. His faith, he says, was really the product of a shared belief, that he has long had doubts that he suppressed until he could suppress them no more. What are those faith-killing questions?
- Evil. If God is all loving, why is there evil in the world? (Free will does not answer these, he says) since some evils are simply acts of God.
- The Bible did not answer his questions but only intensified them.
- The God of the Old Testament is angry frequently but the New Testament God is suddenly loving. This seems incoherent.
- The Bible contains a lot of contradictions. It turns out that the Bible was written by people as flawed as he.
- The responses he received from some, who sought to help, were problematic (e.g., appealing to the difficulties in the King James Version) but the original Greek (which he does not read) is also flawed and human.
- There are passages in 1 Timothy that seem oppressive of women.
- He has been struggling with depression.
In my experience #7 is perhaps the greatest problem. Almost always, appeals to intellectual difficulties mask a deep emotional, psychological, or spiritual problem. The intellectual “problems” are a cover for what is really happening. Sometimes people are involved in gross sin and prefer it to obedience. Men love darkness rather than light (John 3:19). Sometimes there are profound emotional and psychological problems that have not been addressed or have been addressed badly.
The way to respond to such issues is to pray. Human beings are not capable of doing the work of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who hovered over the face of the deep. He was poured out at Pentecost. He is the “Lord and giver of life” (Nicene Creed). He softens hearts and opens eyes. He gives new life to the spiritually dead (John 3 [all]).
We should also remember that there are always two kinds of people in the visible church, those who will come to faith and those who profess faith but who do not come to faith. Ordinarily it is not for us to know who is and is not elect. We should hope that Steingard has been a member of a congregation that will take seriously its duty to discipline him. We should pray that God the Spirit will use that process to convict him of his sin, to teach him the greatness of his sin and misery, and of his need for the Savior. We should pray that God the Spirit will use the law to convict him and the gospel to draw him to Christ.
This is not to say that we should not address issues 1–6. I truly believe that they are not the real problem but we should address them as a symbol of our love for and commitment to those who have apostatized and to help those who might be similarly tempted.
I am also struck by, as I have suggested already, the profound laziness of the objections. This is why #7 is so important. 1–6 are either trite or at least not deal killers, if you will.
- Evil. Yes, this is a great problem. Steingard characterizes the book of Job as a bet between God and Satan. This is a cavalier and lazy reading of the most profound treatment of the problem of evil ever produced in human history. It is true that, in Job, God does not give a comprehensive answer to the problem of evil. It is true that God refused to satisfy Job’s demand. Obviously no single essay can sort out all the issues here but suffice it to say that whatever challenges the problem of evil creates for Christianity, his newfound atheism will not alleviate them. What is the meaning of evil in a world without God? It means nothing. It means that life is random and your suffering lacks significance and that no one will be held to account. At least, in Job, we see that there is such a thing as justice and a just judge. Job’s suffering was not random. It was not meaningless. It is part of a broader story of the consequences of sin and redemption. It is almost as if Steingard has not actually read the whole book or if he did he missed the point.
- The Bible is a large, complex and diverse book. There are real questions to be answered and there are lasting mysteries. Having been a pagan I can say the study of Scripture is the most satisfying account of life, reality, and salvation that I have found. The more I study the Scripture, the more satisfied I am with the coherence of Scripture and with the truthfulness of Scripture.
- Steingard apparently reads the Bible the way the Gnostics and the Marcionites did in the 2nd century. This is not unusual among modern fundamentalists (there are some signals of a fundamentalist background in his letter). The New Testament does not present the God of the Old Testament as an angry demiurge and the God of the New Testament as kind. Indeed, the Christian conviction is that the same Spirit who inspired the prophets also inspired the apostles. The God of the Old Testament is gracious and kind and exercises enormous patience and the God of the New Testament exercises sudden and unexpected judgments (e.g., 1 Cor 11:30; Acts 5 [all]). It is not the Old Testament but the New that declares, “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29).
- Christians have always admitted that the human authors of Scripture were flawed and sinful but we also confess that the Holy Spirit who inspired them and who preserved the Scriptures is not. It is easy to claim that there are contradictions in Scripture. It is more difficult to prove it. What is remarkable is the coherence of Holy Scripture, which was written in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) over 1600 years in multiple places, by multiple authors. Are there difficulties? Yes. Of course. Are there reasonable answers? Yes, here I wish that people were more familiar with the literature surrounding the inerrancy debate from 40 years ago. Volume after volume was published answering all the objections of the critics.
- Yes, there is a lot of bad, popular theology and explanation of Scripture. Some solid theology and catechesis would have helped this young man. Dear Mom, Dad, Pastor, Sunday School teacher, and catechism teacher, please clear away the dreck from the education of your young people. The ecumenical creeds, the Reformed confessions and catechisms, and the great books of the Christian tradition are of much greater value than the schlock and dreck that is oozing from many popular publishers today. There is a reason that they are called “classics” and “great books.” Feed your child’s soul on things that matter, things that will last, and not on fads that will not.
- 1 Timothy is not oppressive but it is also not a late-modern, egalitarian text. The same apostle who wrote 1 Timothy 2 also wrote Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11. In “Christ there is no Jew, nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That is liberation not oppression. Females in Greco-Roman society did not have the sort of standing that Paul recognized and accorded to them in Scripture. Yes, there is an order in the church but it is not a matter of males being superior by nature or being (contra the patriarchal fundamentalists who blather on about “ontology” as if they know what that means) but it is just that: an order. It is not a hierarchy of being and order is only oppressive if freedom is defined as the absence of order. Steingard is a professional musician. I know for a fact that professional musicians rely on order (even John Cage, after a fashion did). His band mates are not oppressed by order. They are liberated by it. The Apostle Paul liberated females, and Gentiles, and Jews. He liberated slaves. He made them all full citizens in the Kingdom of God when the prevailing culture made them sub-human and non-citizens.
There are answers to all his objections but they are so, excuse me, cheap, that it is difficult for me to believe that his objections are the real issue here. Did you notice who is missing from Steingard’s account?
I find that remarkable. The absence of Jesus from his confession must mean something.
We all have implicit faith in something. Steingard has placed his implicit faith somewhere other than Jesus (one suspects that he locates it now in himself) and so Christ is absent from his account. God the Son became incarnate. He was born of the Virgin. He healed the lame and raised the dead. He challenged the powers of this age and suffered at their hands. The Gospels tell us that he was beaten, crucified, dead, buried, raised, and ascended and yet Steingard never mentions him. Whatever difficulties one might have with the problem of evil or apparent inconsistencies in Scripture, or the tensions between the Scripture and late-modern culture, tell them to Jesus. Christians place their implicit faith in Christ and in his Word. He earned our trust. He knows our frailty. He knows our sins. He sympathizes with our weakness (Heb 4:15). The answers will come either in this life or the next. The tomb is empty. He was seen by hundreds. He softened my hard heart and opened my blind eyes.
The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth is the central fact and claim of Scripture and yet Steingard never mentions him.
That is passing strange. That is spiritual blindness. Pray for Steingard.
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Excellent and touching post. I suspect this man is emblematic of many millions. How short we Christians have fallen in being able to give an account and “tear down strongholds” that would oppose Christian thought and life. The entire world is a mission field—starting right where we live. And we should take heart that God’s Word will not return void.
I can’t say I know much about the CCM scene, either–except I miss congregational metrical “Sams” and some of the older Lutheran hymnody (Bach’s raw material–raised in a “kulchah”-nut family of MidEuropean and Scandinavian heritage) and cast a jaundiced eye on “worship teams”.
Schlock and drek – צוויי פיין יידישע ווערטער פאר מיסט, און ווי זיי מאַכן מיר פילן בענקשאַפט!
But, for more serious matters: It’s rather odd, but the meme of the mean OT God and sweetness-and-light NT Jesus, with the sweetest and lightest part of the NT being the Sermon on the Mount, was precisely the thing that got my much younger self thinking that I’d been sold a bill of goods after actually trying to read the Bible for the first time. Nobody spoke more about Hell and damnation than Jesus himself; and the Sermon on the Mount was like being kicked in the face. Conclusion? This is some serious business, and needs to be treated with a lot more respect.
After reading his letter it seemed like his god was commercial success. People usually consider what they have to sacrifice to be a follower of Christ. This is a twist I’ve never heard before.
Bob: Consider Rich Mullins, a Christian pop composer/singer who gave away virtually every cent he earned from concerts and recordings. He toured, driving an ancient car. One night in 1997, he and his band’s drummer were killed in a collision. Mullins’ faith never wavered, and (if you like the style of his music) that is clear to hear in his performances. Mullins might serve as a role model for the seemingly ignorant, Osteen-ish Mr. Steingard.
Not to play the prig, but to say his god is success and he is an osteenish faith are serious assumptions, and maybe even slanderous accusations about this mans beliefs.
Daniel: His own words convict him, not ours. We are not talking about his “beliefs”. We are talking about his self professed unbelief.
Great article. Depression is a cause of doubt. I have wrestled all my life so I am acquainted with it. What turned me around is when I learned of the grace of God in the confessions of the Reformed church and was catechized properly. For myself basic evangelical teaching increased my sense of hopelessness.
Thank you Scott!
I wonder how much of his decision to abandon the faith was due to peer pressure. While CCM appears to be a wonderful tool to attract some to Christianity, it is still connected to the music industry, like it or not. This means, among other things, an adoption of the latest and greatest electrically amplified instruments as well as the incorporation of popular chord structures. I realize this comment could attract push-back from those who fancy this mode of “worship” music, but I hope everyone will keep in mind that rock/pop/etc. musicians are a different breed many of whom build their popularity on the basis of their garish appearances and fringe behavior. It’s probably a short step from playing to believers (and I’m afraid that that term applies very loosely in many cases) to becoming a well-known pop star.
As I say, I don’t know anything about his music but there is a culture (or there are cultures) in the entertainment business and it is a business. CCM is a business. Most of the CCM is owned by large secular companies. It is not a “ministry” despite the way people have long talked about it. The entertainment biz can be quite hostile to Christianity. It might even be harder to hold on to the faith inside the Christian entertainment world than working as a secular musician. Alice Cooper is well-known for his evangelical faith (and his friendship with R. C. Sproul). He has found a modus vivendi. It is a sort of chicken-egg problem. Do kids leave home for Hollywood, to become stars, because they have already given up the faith or do they give up the faith in order to become successful? Or are both true? It’s probably the latter.
Obviously, the cases are complex thus defying simple answers.
The problem surfaces again and again: the lack of discipleship and instruction/mentoring of “believers” who remain babes in the milk of the word (Hebrews 5) never progressing to the meat of the word. Is it any wonder that Hebrews 6 follows quickly on. I do not pretend to know if this musician falls in the category of permanent apostasy, but this is a real possibility & very deadly warning!
Don’t abandon your beliefs just because someone famous has. Do some research. Find out for yourself if your beliefs are supported by evidence or by false assumptions. Read some books, both by Christians and by skeptics. Know why you believe what you believe. You will be better for it!
“Did you notice who is missing from Steingard’s account? Jesus.”
This has been a recurring theme in recent public apostasy accounts and I’m very glad to see Dr. Clark spell this out.