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Let them come

New believers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali won’t always have the right words yet

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaks at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore

Let them come
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In one sense, the world-famous activist and atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s declaration of new Christian faith is a stunning event. Accustomed as we are to ideological entrenchment, Ms. Ali’s repudiation of her secular bona fides (Richard Dawkins called her a “major hero of our time”) feels genuinely unlikely. Such conversions have happened before, of course, but not often, and very rarely in the postmodern milieu where a secularist’s private doubts can always be set against the career and reputational benefits of not being a Christian. In that light, Ms. Ali’s conversion is a thrillingly unexpected reminder of how God is, as C.S. Lewis observed, “unscrupulous.”

Yet in another sense, her confession feels oddly appropriate. For one thing, her announcement was published not in the Washington Post or London Times, but in Unherd, an emerging center-right website whose very existence testifies to the left’s hegemony in mainstream journalism. It is precisely this progressive consensus that Ms. Ali says has driven her away from the assumptions and values of atheism. “Western civilization is under threat,” she writes, from totalitarian regimes in the East and “woke ideology” in the West. The solution to that threat, she believes, is the Judeo-Christian heritage, the only worldview capable of sustaining both a free society and a spiritually satisfied person. “Unless we offer something as meaningful,” she concludes, “I fear the erosion of our civilization will continue. And fortunately, there is no need to look for some new-age concoction of medication and mindfulness. Christianity has it all.”

Without disparaging the genuinely miraculous nature of any and every conversion to Christ, it would not be out of bounds to observe that stories like this make, and will continue to make, a great deal of sense. The fraying of 20th-century liberalism’s consensus has been obvious for some time. It was not that long ago that the prevailing wisdom in secular and religious spaces was that the coming years would usher in a golden age for “you do you” relativism and the end of metanarrative. But the last decade has revealed something very different. Demographic shifts, a “Great Awokening,” and a revolution in epistemic authority have not so much relativized the public square as reorganized it.

It stands to sanctified reason that Ms. Ali would weigh atheism in the balance and find it wanting. One need only glance at the rubble that remains of the New Atheism movement—Richard Dawkins’ confused ethics, Sam Harris’s confused mysticism, et. al.—to sense that secular narratives cannot actually make heads or tails of this moment.

And Ms. Ali is not alone. Earlier this year, Kat Von D, a social media celebrity and former television star of L.A. Ink shared her own conversion story with Allie Beth Stuckey. If Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s testimony points to the vacuity of secular thought, Kat’s story highlights the emotional emptiness of post-Christian paganism.

Christians should not take the admittedly utilitarian flavor of Ms. Ali’s testimony as license to despise or ignore her confession.

What to make of this? One response might be an uninhibited enthusiasm. Evangelicals could rush to appoint people like Ms. Ali and Kat Von D as de facto leaders in the cause, putting rich book deals and high-profile interviews in front of them as soon as possible, in the hope that stories like theirs would reverberate into evangelistic triumphs all over the world.

Yet this would be a mistake. Ms. Ali’s essay, while a thrilling broadside against modern skepticism, makes zero mention of the gospel, or Christ’s atonement, or the need for salvation from things much worse than wokeness: sin, death, and hell. To the extent that her Unherd essay properly captures her own spiritual state, Ms. Ali is in great need of deep discipleship, and perhaps even a genuine confrontation with the gospel—not merely with the civilizational claims of Christianity, but the personal claims of Jesus Christ. Evangelicals throughout the world can pray this for their new sister in Christ, as well as praying that Christians close to Ms. Ali will faithfully resist the temptation to seek her influence and success before they seek her spiritual well-being.

On the other hand, Christians should not take the admittedly utilitarian flavor of Ms. Ali’s testimony as license to despise or ignore her confession. First, doing so would be to communicate to the world that the church is actually just like secular social justice outposts, which frequently crush their own for not using the right words or getting everything exactly correct. Instead, the church, like Lady Wisdom in Proverbs, stretches out her hands toward those who don’t know everything and invites them to feast without fear of being turned away.

Second, we must acknowledge all of us initially come to Christ for different kinds of reasons. Many are pushed into the arms of God by despair at their own addiction and helplessness. Many others find him after looking for answers to the mysteries of the universe. Some come to Jesus despite their intentions. Paul was knocked off his horse by a bright light. Peter shrugged and said, “Lord, to whom else would we go?” Many times, we know we need Christ, but even if we don’t know yet why we need him.

The opportunity is here for a vibrant gospel witness that heals what expressive individualism has broken, explains what cultured unbelief is puzzled by, and defends what liberalism has forsaken. As the house of secularism crumbles, there will be people who flee its ruins and arrive at the church’s doorstep. Ayaan Hirsi Ali may be one of the most unexpected, but she won’t be the last.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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