Progressive Christian author Jen Hatmaker cancels cancel culture in new book ‘Simple & Free’

'Simple & Free: 7 Experiments Against Excess' releases March 23, and Hatmaker hopes it will not only show how she has changed, but also free readers to do the same.

Author Jen Hatmaker and her book, “Simple and Free.” Courtesy images

(RNS) — In the decade since progressive Christian author Jen Hatmaker published her popular book “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess,” she said, “so much has changed in every possible category in my personal life and in the world.”

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Instagram launched a new generation of influencers, the majority of evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump for president and researchers have made new findings on the impacts of things like technology use and climate change.

Hatmaker herself has gone through many shifts in the intervening years: She announced she affirmed LGBTQ people and embraced their relationships as holy, and she was canceled by the evangelical publishing world that once had embraced her. “7” was not only pulled off of bookshelves at Christian bookstores, but also pulled out of print by its Christian publisher. She launched an HGTV show, a book club and a podcast, reaching more than 829,000 followers on Facebook alone.

Most recently, the author and her husband divorced, and their oldest daughter publicly shared she is gay.

And yet, Hatmaker said, the concept of that book is as relevant as ever: Christians still live in a world of excess, and the monthlong social experiments she designed 10 years ago to consume less — wearing only seven items of clothing or giving away at least seven possessions each day — still hold lessons for today.

When the opportunity came to republish the book, Hatmaker decided not to delete its “problematic terms and paragraphs,” she said, taking particular aim at language she once used that now reads to her as condescending. Instead, she appended them with bracketed notes on how she was wrong or what new data is available.

The result, newly titled “Simple & Free: 7 Experiments Against Excess,” released Tuesday (March 23), and the author hopes it will not only show how she has changed, but also free readers to do the same.

“In addition to that experiment, it’s hopefully charting what it looks like to grow and to evolve and to get things wrong and then to learn and make it right or do better,” she said.

Hatmaker spoke to Religion News Service about rereleasing “Simple & Free,” modeling what it looks like to admit mistakes and canceling cancel culture. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to annotate “Simple & Free”? Why not just delete uncomfortable parts or rewrite them?

I have always, whether on purpose or not, set an example publicly of what it looks like to change your mind. That’s a big part of my leadership ethos.

Also, my community is wildly larger now than it was when “7” came out. When “7” came out, I still had a private Facebook page, which means it has to be under 5,000 people. And so for a ton — I would venture to say most — of my community, this is going to be new. Some of it they would read, and it would not jibe with the Jen of today.

Some of that was just for integrity, and then, at the same time, I know that a lot of new readers that come to this project are going to be exactly ideologically or theologically where I was when I originally wrote it. It was another opportunity to show this is a potential growth point for you. It was for me, and maybe you’ll kind of see this in your life as well. So I took it as a teaching opportunity and one that I went through myself as a learner.

This isn’t the first time you’ve edited yourself in real time. You did this after the inaugural prayer service for President Joe Biden, too, when you called yourself out afterward because you felt some of the language in the prayer you were asked to read wasn’t right.

Yep, that’s right. In fact, when I was telling my team, “I can’t stand by this,” they were like, “Is there any way to just not do anything? No one’s even saying anything, Jen.” No, I can’t, because it matters to me, and that’s enough.

I am really resistant to this idea that nobody gets permission anymore to get something wrong or to change their mind. If that’s where we’re headed, we’re doomed. So much ink has been spilled about cancel culture, and everybody says everybody else is doing it, but they’re not. In fact, it’s really a communal standard right now. It’s never been easier, but I think it lacks maturity and I believe it lacks wisdom and it certainly lacks grace because there isn’t a human alive who hasn’t gotten something wrong or changed their mind at some point. I hope in 10 years I come back and tell myself right this minute what I didn’t understand or what I was getting wrong or where my perspective needed shifting.

Here’s the thing: I’ve already been canceled. I’ve had the whole experience from beginning to end to great consequences. I mean, let’s be honest. The book we’re talking about right now was canceled. Originally as “7,” it was pulled not only off shelves, it was pulled out of print. And so I know all of that. I’ve already done it and I lived and what I got to hang on to at the end of that maybe wasn’t my career as I knew it, but it was definitely my integrity, and that was worth it.

So I’m not afraid of that anymore. I’m not afraid of cancel culture. I think it’s largely a fake construct, and meanwhile, in real life, in the real world, people are living with much more nuance than kind of this one-dimensional version of it that we see online.

Why was it important to you to republish this book?

Originally, “7” was a monumental movement in my career, in my ministry. It changed my trajectory, and it changed my level of influence and impact. On the reader side of things, I had never written anything that had created such tangible changes and results in my readers’ lives to this day. I’ve never written anything like that since. And so it’s special to me personally.

Also, having gone through such a painful cancellation process with “7” kind of being the centerpiece of what was lost in that maelstrom, there’s something very redemptive about rescuing it from the pile of rubble and saying, “This is still beautiful, and this mattered then, and it can matter now. I didn’t deserve that treatment, and this book didn’t deserve to be erased out of public conversation.” It feels very lovely to me to have another publishing crew say, “Yeah, this message is as salient now as it was 10 years ago, if not more, and so let’s polish it up and put it back out in the world.” I cried many, many tears of joy and even healing when that project was rescued.

What have you heard from readers about how the book changed them?

People are hungry for change, but finding an off-ramp out of the circus is hard. It’s hard because it’s countercultural. I think “Simple & Free” is the off-ramp, and people are dying to get on it. It was just bananas. People sold their houses, they started nonprofits, they got rid of cars, they began churches.

In my wildest imagination, I could not have dreamed up the response to that little book. I think it’s just because it’s already inside so many hearts and souls. It’s the match that lit the flame, and I think it can do it again.

One note you’ve added is about how, out of all the things that have changed in the past 10 years, the “greatest heartbreak” has been the change in the American evangelical community. How have you seen that change, and why that is so heartbreaking?

When I wrote “7” originally, I was in the center of the bullseye of evangelical subculture. So that was my entire worldview, largely unchallenged. I was at the beginning of a lot of change and deconstruction, but not all the way through it.

I would say the evangelical community has just broken so many hearts in the last 10 years of just sincerely faithful people who grew up under those steeples and believed what our elders and leaders taught us meant something and meant something to them, and that those were standards and values we could expect to see held up and honored no matter what. And then just to see them largely abandoned and that they paled in comparison to what appeared to be proximity to power and partisanship and party lines, it was crushing.

I don’t identify as evangelical at all anymore, and it’s not a term I can associate myself with because it has caused so much harm. From my vantage point, it has betrayed its own witness to such degree it’s lost its saliency.

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Rather than wringing our hands and mourning the losses at what I consider the betrayals of the evangelical community, I think it’s far more exciting to think, well, what can we build? That feels really exciting. I still love that work, I still believe in it, and I think that’s where I’ll still be just plowing soil as long as I’m able.

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