Rachel Held Evans and Evolving in Monkey Town

June 17, 2010

books / spirituality / theology

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me quote, or link to things, from Rachel Held Evans (her blog and Twitter). I first came across her sometime last year from a comment on another site, but I really liked the comment and I started following/occasionally commenting on her blog, talking back and forth on Twitter, and we have exchanged a few emails and such. At some point, the opportunity came up to review her book, Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions, and I was thrilled to be able to do so.

Rachel’s book is structured around her own story. She was raised in the strongest of evangelical apologetics, ready to defeat a host of arguments without listening to them and treat threatening views as dangerous views, and her own views as unquestionable. This part is called “Habitat.” But eventually, her critiques and questions of the views of others are turned on her own, and this part is called “Challenge.” Finally, she learns that her faith can change, and indeed must change. This, of course, is called “Change.”

In the first part, there are powerful stories of Dayton, Tennesee and the world of conservative evangelicalism, and of herself and other folks that Rachel has known. There are stories that will make you cringe, either because you remember the same experiences in your own life or because you can’t imagine such experiences really happening. There are stories that give glimpses into its cracks and dangers, stories that give glimpses into what it taught her, and stories that just make it look old in a world that no longer needs it.

One example is this:

With this assurance [that reality would always support their “biblical worldview”], we studied common challenges in Christianity, such as the problem of evil and the destiny of the unevangelized. These were treated as issues that atheists and agnostics might raise to try to undermine Christianity, not issues that believers generally struggled with themselves, so I had to be careful how I phrased my questions in class.

In the second part, the questions of skeptics become Rachel’s questions. She deals honestly with issues of hell, pluralism, the fact that the time and place in which we were born is the most likely factor to decide the religion we will practice, the guilt that can plague us when we begin to honestly look at the suffering of people in the world, and other questions that people with these frameworks really don’t like to think about.

This is a profound section, partly because it is willing to give us a glimpse into a deep wrestling with questions that have been equated with a faithful theology for Rachel’s entire life up to this point, and partly because it gives us a glimpse into how deeply we can encounter the love and grace of Jesus within these questions regardless of whether or not there are satisfying answers to them.

In the end, the same question that frightened and intimidated me as a child provided the clearest way out: What if I’m wrong? It was a question loaded with uncertainty, possibility, and hope, and it was a question to which I often would return. To be wrong about God is the condition of humanity, for better or worse. Sometimes it lures us into questioning God; sometimes it summons us to give him another chance. After I’d thought for so many years that good Christians are always ready with an answer, it was a question that eventually drew me back to belief.

So following this, the final section tells us how Rachel has learned that her faith can be flexible, that God is full of grace, and that it’s okay not to know things. One last quote to illustrate this:

And slowly I am learning to live the questions, to follow the teachings of a radical rabbi, to live in an upside-down kingdom in which kings are humbled and servants exalted, to look for God in the eyes of the orphan and the widow, the homeless and the imprisoned, the poor and the sick.

I hope I’ve expressed a bit of the profound theological and spiritual story that is in this book, and the freedom and beauty that is in its message. It doesn’t tell us that real faith is easy and lets us float above the hard parts, or that we can settle for a lifeless faith that offers nothing that can change us and nothing that can change the world. It offers us hope through the stories of folks Rachel has met and shares with us, through the parts of her own journey that she shares with us, and the ways that we can turn an honest look on our own journeys and know that Jesus is in them.

I’d love to encourage you to get this one. You can buy it on Amazon, or get more info on Rachel’s site.