There’s been a lot of chatter the last couple years over “de-conversion” stories. Most recently, of course, is the story of well-known pastor and author Joshua Harris, as well as the Youtube comedians Rhett and Link.
I’ve written on this phenomenon myself in a number of places, including my recent book, The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity, as well as my my article, “The Power of De-conversion Stories: How Jen Hatmaker is Trying to Change Minds about the Bible.”
So, what exactly is de-conversion? In short, it’s when a person who is deeply committed to the Christian faith ends up leaving the Christian faith and abandoning their prior beliefs. Sometimes this involves a wholesale rejection of Christianity (e.g., Bart Ehrman), but in other cases it involves embracing an altogether different version of the faith (e.g., Rob Bell). So, not all de-conversion scenarios are the same.
The key feature of de-conversion, however, is that the individual was once on the “inside” of the faith, and later ends up on the “outside.”
In theological parlance, this is called apostasy. And the Bible is filled with examples of apostasy, the most famous, of course, being Judas Iscariot. He was the consummate “insider” who abandoned Jesus and effectively left his old life behind.
We can also find examples of apostasy—symbolically and figuratively—in the world of literature and film. Most obvious is the story of Anakin Skywalker, once a Jedi but later wooed to the dark side of the force, becoming Darth Vader. But there are many others (think Cypher in The Matrix).
But, perhaps one of the most remarkable (and often overlooked) examples of apostasy is Saruman in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I’ve been re-reading the books lately in my coronavirus quarantine, and I was struck anew by the role he plays in the overall story.
In many ways, Saruman has always been an odd part of the plot line. With a bad guy like Sauron to occupy the reader’s attention, why does the story even need a character like Saruman? Besides, as my kids always complain, his name actually sounds a lot like Sauron’s which makes everything very confusing.
My hunch, though, is that the name similarity is intentional. Tolkien’s world is more nuanced than just the good guys and the bad guys. Instead, there are actually good guys that become bad guys—which makes things very complicated. It’s a perfect picture of de-conversion.
As such, we can learn a lot about the way de-conversions work through stories like Saruman’s. So, here are a few quick observations:
1. Saruman was very much on the “inside” before de-converting. As the chief of the Wizards and head of the White Council, he was a leader among those who were opposed to Sauron. He was a trusted advisor and friend to many, including Gandalf.
Lesson: You can’t always see de-conversion coming. Before a person de-converts, they can look as solid as can be.
2. Saruman became enamored by the ways of the enemy. Saruman became an expert in the rings of power, which made him a great asset. But, it was his interest in ring lore that led to his downfall because he eventually lusted after the power that the rings could bring him.
Lesson: De-conversion is sometimes preceded by a desire for the power and prestige offered by the world.
3. Saruman mocked his old allies, insisting they were uneducated simpletons. As Saruman became more open about his new direction, he was quick to criticize the world he left behind. A fellow wizard, Radagast the Brown, takes the brunt of Saruman’s mocking: “‘Radagast the Brown!’ laughed Saruman, and he no longer concealed his scorn. ‘Radgast the Bird-Tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool!'”
Lesson: Those who de-convert often criticize (sometimes in a virulent manner) the evangelical world they left behind.
4. Saruman presented his de-conversion as a step toward enlightment. As the head of the council, Saruman always wore a white robe. But when Gandalf confronts him at Orthanc, he notices that he has changed to a robe “woven of all colors.” This symbolized as shift away from absolute truth towards pluralism; towards what is progressive. This is evident in Saruman’s next words, “‘White!’ he sneered. ‘It serves as a beginning.'”
Lesson: Those who de-convert present their shift as one towards progress and enlightenment. In their mind, it is forward not backward.
5. Saruman tries to convince others to join him in his de-conversion. When Saruman first confronts Gandalf, he is not out to destroy him, but to “evangelize” him. He tries to convince Gandalf to join him in this new pathway. Incredibly, Saruman even tries to convince Gandalf that they can accomplish more good if they take this new direction: “Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish.”
Lesson: Those who de-convert are often evangelistic in recruiting others to join them.
In the end, Saruman functions as a remarkably accurate picture of what de-conversion is like. Tolkien was onto something. In the real world, it is not as simple as the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Sometimes things are more complicated than that.
Thankfully, there are people like Gandalf who resist them. When discussing Saruman’s shiny new robe, Gandalf’s response is refreshingly simple: “I liked white better.”