Talk about Digging Up Your Lede and Making a Mountain out of It

Can you believe it?. Jen Hatmaker is so courageous that she’s even had death threats for — wait for it — opposing Trump:

Last fall, Jen Hatmaker, a popular evangelical author and speaker, started getting death threats. Readers mailed back her books to her home address, but not before some burned the pages or tore them into shreds. LifeWay Christian Stores, the behemoth retailer of the Southern Baptist Convention, pulled her titles off the shelves. Hatmaker was devastated. Up until that point, she had been a wildly influential and welcome presence in the evangelical world, a Christian author whose writings made the New York Times best-seller list and whose home renovation got its own HGTV series. But then 2016 happened, and, well, of course everything changed.

During the campaign, as other white evangelicals coalesced around the Republican nominee, Hatmaker effectively joined the coterie of “Never Trump” evangelicals, telling her more than half a million Facebook followers that Donald Trump made her “sad and horrified and despondent.” After the “Access Hollywood” tape leaked and prominent evangelical men came to Trump’s defense, she tweeted: “We will not forget. Nor will we forget the Christian leaders that betrayed their sisters in Christ for power.” Then, in an interview with Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt, she made what was a stunning admission for her evangelical community: She said she supported same-sex relationships.

That’s when the full weight of conservative Christian outrage crashed down on Hatmaker. There were soon angry commenters and finger-wagging bloggers. She says people in her little town of Buda, Texas, just south of Austin, pulled her children aside and said terrible things about her and her husband. She was afraid to be in public, and she wasn’t sleeping or eating well. “The way people spoke about us, it was as if I had never loved Jesus a day in my life,” Hatmaker recently told an audience in Dallas. The gilded auditorium was quiet, its 2,300 seats filled to capacity with nearly all women. “And I was just an ally,” she said. “Think about how our gay brothers and sisters feel.”

Can you believe bloggers went after her? Talk about the valley of the shadow of death.

How does Jen go on in such an unjust world where fills a plus-2,000 seat auditorium? She manages:

She forged ahead anyway. In July, she debuted her weekly interview-style podcast, and it quickly shot to the top 10 in the religion and spirituality category on iTunes. By the end of the summer, Of Mess and Moxie hit the New York Times best-seller list. She created a fall event series, the Moxie Matters Tour, with her friend and Belong Tour alum, singer-songwriter Nichole Nordeman. They scaled it back from the original tour’s arenas, booking more intimate spaces like churches and theaters. After several of the stops on their 11-city tour sold out, the duo added eight more dates to the calendar after the new year.

The size of Hatmaker’s audience—her “tribe” as she calls it—has held steady despite the backlash she has faced, she told me. But she says there has still been some turnover, with fans lost and fans gained because of her comments. Recently, when Trump made a Pocahontas joke in front of Navajo veterans, Hatmaker tweeted that he was “incapable of maturity, decency, self-awareness, or shame. He humiliates us every single day. We can never stop calling out this behavior.” As sexual misconduct charges against powerful men continued to break, she wrote a note of solidarity with victims on Facebook, adding, “Voting for molesters because we prefer them to stay in power is evil,” which prompted thousands of shares and a lively debate in the comments section about whether someone who opposes abortion can support Roy Moore’s pro-choice Democratic opponent, Doug Jones. When a commenter posted, “She’s talking to YOU, Alabama,” Hatmaker replied, “And Franken and Spacey and dirty clergy and all of them. Let no one escape.”

Hatmaker also recently tweeted that the evangelical subculture “tends to elevate a very homogeneous voice: white, mostly male, women who don’t upset the power differential we’ve come to count on (white, conservative, straight, Republican).” Going against the grain, she wrote, threatens “commercial success.” But Hatmaker notes that a mentor recently advised her to just lead whatever followers she had. “I really took that advice,” she told me. “And I have felt real free since.”

Notice, that means Jen is to evangelicalism what Trump is to the political establishment. But don’t dare tell Jen or the journalist who covered her, Tiffany Stanley, that celebrity has both a tremendous upside and can easily turn toxic if fans abandon the star (think Garrison Keillor). Jen Hatmaker is a prophet, a truth-teller, whom the press can use to show the bigotry of evangelicals. Remember — death threats (but no mention of contacting the police of FBI).

And also, do remember how courageous Jen is according to the feature story writer:

While she’s against abortion, she takes pains to say she has an expansive view of what “pro-life” means. And she doesn’t think holding that view necessarily ties her to the GOP, even at a time when white evangelicals are as closely affiliated as ever with the Republican Party.

That’s almost as radical as saying Jen “supports same-sex relationships.” What does support mean? And what is a same-sex relationship? Code for gay marriage? Or a way to get credit as tolerant and progressive without ever having to stand in protest with gay Americans?

I tried to find at Jen’s website whether she attended or supported the Women’s March last January. I didn’t see much, but apparently the Trump Administration has been so traumatic that she had to do a podcast series on food. The first show was yummy:

Welcome to our all new series on (wait for it) FOOD! We kick off this series on one of our most FAVORITE topics with the amazing cookbook author and host of Food Network’s Aarti Party, Aarti Sequeira! Aarti got her start as a journalist and working CNN, dreaming of becoming the next Oprah. Always a lover of food, she began blogging about cooking and she and her husband started a YouTube cooking-variety show in their tiny L.A. home kitchen. Eventually Aarti competed on and won Season 6 of Food Network Star with her trademark food signature: American favorites with an Indian soul. She has gone on to to star in her highly successful show, along with appearances on The Talk, Dr. Oz and the Today Show (where she freaked out Al Roker by telling him she licked his plate!). By the end of this episode, you’ll want to steal Aarti’s leftovers (like Jen confesses she actually once did). BONUS INTERVIEW: Jen chats with one of our own from The Tribe, the designer of our amazing pink podcast logo; Jenny Mecher of ThreeLetterBirds.com.

Way to stick it to the man.

Did Tiffany Stanley even bother to look at Hatmaker’s website? Crediting this evangelical celebrity with being part of the resistance is like thinking Division 1 athletes are bookish.

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Teflon Megachurch

Jake Meador blames the poor styles of Jen Hatmaker on the megachurch. Evangelicalism of the 1990s relied more on personal branding than on churchly boundaries. The result is Hatmaker’s inability to see what’s at stake in LBGT debates. She’s a product of her megachurch culture.

Meador is especially hard on Bill Hybels and Willow Creek:

At the heart of this evangelical movement was the megachurch, which we have already mentioned. But the suburban megachurch calls for closer attention because it is in the megachurch that we find the methodological keys to understanding both the evangelicalism of that era and the second-generation spin on this same model that is embodied by women like Hatmaker as well as her friend Shauna Niequist, herself the daughter of the founder of this movement, Bill Hybels.

The seeker-sensitive movement began with a simple idea: Charitably stated, it was that the Christian faith was increasingly nonsensical to modern Americans and it needed translators who could listen to the culture and then speak about the faith in ways that were sensible to them.

Unfortunately, the way that Hybels and others like him attempted to do this work of translation depended far too heavily on secular ideas about marketing, branding, target demographics, and so on. The faith became a product, churches became places of entertainment and commerce, and pastors became the heroic CEOs with the right vision to grow the business:

So churches like Willow Creek leaned on a method for doing evangelism and outreach that essentially amounted to selling the Gospel using marketing strategies targeted at specific demographic groups. They did market research, figured out what people wanted in a church, and began shaping church services accordingly.

The problem with this method is that it can only ever be reactive. Seeker-sensitive evangelism and churches can only react to what they learn in their market research and what they gather from observing mainstream culture. But they cannot create work that drifts from the basic grammar and vocabulary that they inherit from the culture they’re attempting to reach.

My question is why does Tim Keller and Redeemer NYC get a pass? Redeemer is a megachurch, uses strategies designed for its urban context, and it came along at the same time as Willow Creek.

Meador may object that Hybels is not Keller when it comes to communicating or defending the truth of Christianity. But Meador forgets that Lee Stroebel was a big part of Willow Creek’s brand back in the 1990s and no one could apologize better for the faith than an atheist-journalist who studied at Yale Law School turned Christian teacher.

Plus, if you consider where some of the junior pastors in Keller’s New York City outreach landed, Meador could conceivably add Redeemer to his lament about evangelicalism and millennials. Anyone remember this (two years before Jen’s hatmaking went haywire)?

This aligns with our existing core vision: the doors of this church are as wide as the arms of the Savior it proclaims. We remain passionate about having as many people hear the gospel as possible. City Church will continue to receive into membership all those with a credible profession of faith and expect the same commitments represented in their membership vows.

On the other hand, we want to be clear what this now means. We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining. For all members, regardless of sexual orientation, we will continue to expect chastity in singleness until marriage. Please pray for our Board as we continue to discuss pastoral practices with our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray for our denomination, the Reformed Church in America, as it does the same.

So I ask, what gives?

Jen Makes Hats

But who the hades is Jen Hatmaker?

I confess. I study religion in the United States and had never heard of this Hatmaker person until she made “mainstream” news by affirming the LBGT community.

So?

This got me thinking once again about the networks, ecclesial affiliations, and sources of information available to American Christians. I wonder, for instance, how many members of NAPARC churches have heard of or follow Jen Hatmaker. Conversely, how many of Hatmaker’s followers and readers have ever heard of Dick Gaffin? What does it say about a group that they don’t know about the other group? And how might a group change if it knew about figures from the other? Would Jen Hatmaker’s readers leave her if they read Dick Gaffin on union with Christ? And if Orthodox Presbyterians read Jen Hatmaker, would they sing more worship songs accompanied by guitars?

We often hear in this age of the internet how the old gatekeepers (magazines and newspapers) have vanished and readers are left with Google searches to figure out what’s important. And yet, the case of Jen Hatmaker suggests a world of gates with keepers that don’t regularly come onto my reader. Apparently, Jonathan Merritt thought Hatmaker was sufficient newsworthy and he’s at one of the old gatekeepers, The Atlantic. Plus the editors at Christianity Today also know about Merritt and Hatmaker to feature the story in their updates. For some reason, they didn’t feature Old Life’s series on Nelson Kloosterman.

In which case, mainstreams, creeks, and banks still seem to exist. Every once in a while we receive a reminder that we are several ditches away from the creek that runs into the river.

On the other hand, does Jen Hatmaker know about Glenn Loury? Would she be less popular if she did? Perhaps, the evangelical mainstream is several miles away from conversations that are arguably more central to life in the U.S. than dipping into the Bible for tips about “relationships, work, stress, sexuality, and forgiveness.”

Sure, forgiveness is weighty. Not sure it should be paired with stress.