June 30, 2010

Book Review: Evolving in Monkey Town

Rachel Held Evans and I share a lot in common. We’re both 29-year-olds who were raised in evangelical homes and attended small Christian colleges from 1999 to 2003. We’ve both experienced our fair share of disillusionment with various aspects of American evangelicalism and have lived to blog about it. Topping off the similarities, her husband’s name is Dan while my wife Rebecca sometimes gets called ‘Rachel’ by mistake. So it comes as no surprise that I enjoyed reading my advance copy of Rachel’s winsome new book, Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (Zondervan).

Growing up in Dayton, Tennessee (site of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 which debated the teaching of evolution in public schools) as the overachieving daughter of a theology professor, Rachel was a Sunday School superkid raised in a Bible Belt subculture of zealous apologetics. Though adept at defending her Christian worldview against doubters and skeptics during her high school and early college years, everything changed when she began experiencing doubts of her own. The most potent ones involved questions concerning (you guessed it) why God would allow horrific human suffering or send millions of non-Christians to eternal torment in hell. Frustrated with the simplistic answers she knew so well, Rachel questioned her dad one Friday afternoon describing the quandary this way:

It’s like God runs some kind of universal sweepstakes with humanity in which all of our names get thrown into a big hat at the beginning of time… Some of us are randomly selected for famine, war, disease, and paganism, while others end up with fifteen-thousand-square-foot houses, expensive Christian educations, and Double Stuf Oreos. It’s a cosmic lottery, luck of the draw. (p. 99)

If such irreverent theological sniping makes you uncomfortable, you might have hard time with this book- which is precisely the point. Undergoing a process to re-evaluate all your previously unshakable beliefs from scratch is no fun, especially in the foothills of Southern Appalachia. But if you’ve ever felt conflicted about similar questions, you will be refreshed by Rachel’s intellectual honesty and courage in facing her fears. Far from drowning in a sea of skepticism, her faith re-surfaces more vibrant than ever. While critics might contend that Rachel is promoting doubt to the detriment of faith, this is not the case:

I would argue that healthy doubt (questioning one's beliefs) is perhaps the best defense against unhealthy doubt (questioning God). When we know how to make a distinction between our ideas about God and God himself, our faith remains safe when one of those ideas is seriously challenged. (p. 220)

As it turns out, Rachel's quest has not really been about finding good answers to life's toughest questions after all. If answers were all she wanted, she clearly demonstrates an intellect and theological acumen capable of researching them. This is not to say there aren't any good answers worth seeking on such important matters. If anything, Rachel's writing indicates she is already more familiar with apologetics than most people in our generation. And though she could articulate the correct evangelical responses with flair, she needed something different, namely, the simple permission and empathy of hearing someone say, "You know, I'm not sure what to make of that either." (p. 190)

Evolving in Monkey Town is a thoughtfully entertaining and engaging read packed with adventurous questions from start to finish. While I didn't always agree with the way she nuanced the nature of the atonement, biblical interpretation or the ever-controversial tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, I have tremendous respect for Rachel's perspective, particularly on the important subjects of doubt and spiritual questioning. Based on the interactions we've shared via her excellent blog, I've been impressed by her uniquely provocative yet welcoming approach to theological dialogue. An attentive learner and genuine listener, she is one of the most gracious and authentic people I've encountered in the blogosphere. Evangelicals of all ages would be wise to give her survival story a good hard listen.