Evolving in Monkey TownBooks, Featured, The Purpose-Driven Centrist — By Tim McGeary on August 3, 2010 at 8:00 am
I don’t remember how I got to Rachel Held Evans’ blog, but once I got there, I was hooked. I connected immediately to Rachel’s provocative, yet disarming manner of taking on certain traditional statements, stances, or interpretations of evangelicalism. Asking questions of her readers in a way that provides room for discussion without judgment, Rachel provides a venue like I’ve rarely experienced on the Web. So when Rachel asked for readers to review her book Evolving in Monkey Town, I jumped at the opportunity.
Honestly, I have not read a more relatable book than Evolving in Monkey Town, from growing up with a fundamentalist Christian background to AWANA to winning Best Christian Attitude awards, I wondered if Rachel might have been going to my church and school in my hometown. But the book really began to hit me where Rachel starts asking her questions. What happens to the Muslim woman she just watched get executed for allegedly killing her husband, despite signs of known abuse against her? Did Rachel simply win a “cosmic lottery” by being born in the US and a Christian culture? What about all of the acceptable tactics of genocide rampant in the Old Testament that is allowed, if not ordered, by God? As a woman, and one who was complimented for her leadership gifts, where is her place in the church in spite of St. Paul’s direct and opposing statements on women? What really is the kingdom of God? Is it really all, and only, about heaven?
Where Donald Miller gave the our generation of Christians an alternative voice and position to evangelical Christianity, Rachel Held Evans is giving us a voice to ask questions about Christianity that we’ve never dared, or maybe even been allowed, to ask. Through a mixture of personal reflections of the evolution of her own faith journey and vignettes of people that have influenced her journey, Rachel takes on her doubts and questions with a sincerity and honesty that cannot be easily turned away or dismissed as naivete or immature faith. Using the Scope’s Monkey Trials of her hometown Dayton, TN as an example of the need for intellectual honesty to the beliefs we have carried or inherited, Rachel takes us through three phases of her journey: habitat, challenge, and change. Just as a Christian embracing an evolutionary Creationism position by digging into the available information themselves, through Evolving in Monkey Town we have the chance to re-examine our own habitat and question are our positions – a healthy check that might just reveal places where the love of God might fill us out a little better. For myself, the beginning of examination began at Rachel’s summary of the social context of young evangelicals: “To experience the knowledge of Jesus Christ, we didn’t need to be born again; we simply needed to be born.” (p. 78) What better place to start asking questions about my own faith than examining what faith elements I experienced for myself rather than inheriting it from my family and surrounding culture.
Because I related so much to Evolving in Monkey Town, I asked Rachel Held Evans if she would be interested in answer some questions for this column. I’m thrilled she agreed.
Tim McGeary: How has your doubt and skepticism affected or changed your view of the role of church and church services?
Rachel Held Evans: Well I guess I’m no longer inclined to think of church as a place we gather to congratulate ourselves about how right we are. Doubt has a humbling effect like that! These days I think of the Church as a community called to sacrifice, serve, and join in God’s work of reconciling all things to himself. So I’m more willing to embrace diversity—theological, political, cultural—in my own little faith community and around the world. We’ve got more important things to do than systematize the Bible or agree on worship or build a political platform. I’m drawn to communities of faith that seem to recognize that.
TM: Do you worship differently now? Do you find yourself doubting lyrics to songs or questioning their meaning or even limiting your participation in congregational singing?
RHE: On the one hand, I’ve learned to accept the fact that there are just going to be days when I feel disconnected from worship because of my doubt. I can’t expect worship leaders or pastors to cater to that. On the other, I’ve really come to appreciate the richness of liturgical prayers and the stability of following the rhythms of the church calendar, so I’d love to see more evangelical churches adopt those practices. There’s something so unpretentious about a traditional liturgical service. No one’s trying to be hip or cool or relevant, as if Christianity is something that needs to be sold to consumers. But I understand that this is not everyone’s cup of tea. At my current church, we try to mix it up a bit, and that’s fine by me.
TM: A pastor emeritus of the church I attend used to say “Christianity is merely one generation from extinction.” Would you agree with that sentiment and/or how would you change that in a more accepted pluralism?
RHE: The Church is a resilient and stubborn little creature that has managed to survive 2,000 years of change, so I’m not particularly concerned about its survival. Like a living organism, it seems to be equipped with a remarkable ability to adapt to new environments. Rather than going extinct in the face of change, Christianity tends to evolve. I suspect it will continue to do that until the return of Christ.
TM: One of my favorite lines in the book is “To experience the knowledge of Jesus Christ, we didn’t need to be born again; we simply needed to be born.” (p. 78) I’ve often struggled with the idea that if God made the whole world, and he made all humans out in “their image”, then why is the rest of the world’s reflection of God’s image rejected as untrue? While there are those in other cultures that have embraced evangelical or orthodox Christianity, why is their native culture any less an image of God?
RHE: I agree. I think we have to approach all people with the assumption that God is already at work in their lives. The apostle Paul told the Athenians that God determined when and where people would live, “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him,though he is not far from each one of us.” Paul didn’t seem to consider geography or culture or religion as impediments to God’s work among people. Still, those of us who have experienced the gospel should certainly share it, as we believe Jesus is the incarnation of that God so many people are seeking.
TM: What do your daily or weekly spiritual journey activities or discipline look like compared to your youth? Is community more or less important to your journey or look different than you anticipated?
RHE: The biggest difference is that I no longer approach the Bible as an answer book to be read and interpreted in isolation. For most of my life, my “daily quiet time” was all about me and my interaction with Scripture. When I started wrestling with some of those troubling passages of Scripture that seem to condone genocide and misogyny and when I became more aware of how my cultural assumptions affect my interpretation, I began to realize that the Bible is meant to be celebrated and struggled with in community. It’s meant to start conversations, not end them. So community has definitely become more important to me. It’s helping me break the habit of always turning inward to find and experience God.
TM: Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for me.
RHE: Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Rachel Held Evans is a writer, skeptic, and Christ-follower from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Her first book, a spiritual memoir entitled Evolving in Monkey Town, will be released by Zondervan in July of 2010. Rachel enjoys speaking, blogging, traveling, playing poker, and talking theology over coffee. You can find more information about Rachel at http://www.rachelheldevans.com/.