When I think of Christianity in America—and more specifically, my own Protestant faith—I think of a congregation chanting something that sounds as though it might have originated in Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.
“We will not confess to men in frocks / We will not worship in a box,” and so on.
We are preoccupied with rules, right and wrong, ways of interpreting things, and myriad other minutiae. But our preoccupation is problematic.
The problem with vowing not to worship in a box, for example, becomes apparent when we hem ourselves in with this vow—letting it define who we are—and we thereby find ourselves worshiping in (of all things) a box. In the end, we run the risk of worshiping the box instead of the God in whose name we built the box in the first place.
There is nothing about boxes in Rachel Held Evans’s debut, Evolving in Monkey Town. But she is most certainly interested in how Christians come to privilege certain fundamental beliefs at the expense of losing sight of the heart of Christ.
Before I knew anything about this book, and before I began following Rachel Held Evans on Twitter, I assumed Evolving in Monkey Town was a Christian effort to reconcile Darwin’s theory of evolution with the creation account chronicled in the Biblical book of Genesis. This was neither here nor there, at least for me, as I have always believed God could have used evolution to create man if He so chose. What is important to me is the fact that we are here, now, alive and awake—creations with consciousness.
But this is not what Evolving in Monkey Town is about at all. It is a memoir written by a woman who grew up in Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famed Scopes monkey trial. It was, if you will pardon the pun, a town where faith went bananas when Darwin’s monkeys came to town. There in Dayton, Evans’ faith was forged in the foundry of Biblical fundamentalism. As the cover of the book says, she was a girl who had all the answers, as they were given to her early on in her life.
One of the things that stands out most for me in this book is the way Evans talks about the lack of curiosity in Christian circles that comes with having all the answers. I recognized this awhile back myself, and always marveled when my Christian peers failed to find my favorite artists, filmmakers, musicians, or writers interesting. To be without curiosity in a world where “bone-eating ‘zombie’ worms drill with acid” is to have a pulse without actually living.
Rachel Held Evans, not content to merely exist with all of life’s questions answered for her, began to apply the critical thinking skills she acquired in her Christian education. In an ironic turn, the skills she learned in order to debunk perspectives at odds with Christianity became the very tools that threatened to dismantle her own faith. She could not live an intellectually satisfying life if her questions about her own faith went unanswered. In this sense, Evans is a brave spiritual sojourner who would rather know the Truth than settle for someone else’s version of it.
On her journey, she realizes that so many of the tenets of her fundamentalist upbringing were failing under scrutiny because they were what she calls “false fundamentals.” They had little to do with the person of Jesus—the Son of God—and more to do with upholding the belief systems or worldviews that arose as a result of belief in Him.
The faith she writes about is one that is comfortable uttering the words “I don’t know” instead of clinging to a crippling and often inauthentic certainty. For Evans, the walls of the box have come down. Unlike her fundamentalist peers, who mistake confinement for freedom, she seeks to walk alongside the Good Shepherd wherever he takes her. Sometimes He leads her to graze in morally gray pastures—to associate with people and do things that would make many Christians uncomfortable.
But here’s what it comes down to for me: I want a faith that helps me love others better, that helps me be a more vibrant, colorful, three-dimensional version of myself—that helps me be the person God intended me to be. I think Rachel Held Evans wants that for herself and her fellow believers as well.
I say this because I have many friends who have climbed out of the American Christian box. They could not believe in a God who seemed less compassionate than them—who would damn His creations to Hell for eternity as punishment for temporal sins. They could believe in a God who would answer an American’s prayer for a parking spot, but turn a deaf ear to believers abroad who pray for freedom from genocide.
Other friends of mine continue to believe in God, but cannot stomach the often stifling confines of the church. Some simply find church boring. Others find more authentic community in secular forums. Still others feel the church’s fear of science is unfounded, given science’s obvious usefulness in the world. My friends cannot, in good conscience, turn off the hearts and minds God gave them.
I cannot help but think Evolving in Monkey Town would offer healthy food for thought for my friends who have left the box. As books go, it is a sincere, soulful, and substantial work by an author who is concerned with making sense of matters of faith in a world where contradictions, paradoxes, and questions cause spiritual unrest.
I highlighted many passages in my Kindle as I read this book, but one passage seems to sum things up best. In identifying all of the “false fundamentals” Christians often concern themselves with, Evans then turns to the heart of the faith, and to one fundamental that should never be excised from a believer’s creed: Love. She writes,
“How ironic that the most fundamental element of the Christian faith is something that is relative, something that cannot be measured by science, systematized with theology, or managed with rules. How fitting and how strange God should hide his biggest secret in that present yet elusive thing that poets and artists and musicians and theologians and philosophers have spent centuries trying to capture in some form but that we all know the minute we experience it. How lovely and how terrible that absolute truth exists in something that cannot really be named.”
Evolving in Monkey Town does not offer easy answers to difficult questions. It instead correctly identifies the difficult questions for what they are, and provides a means of forging onward in the face of those questions, which continue to haunt, to perplex, and to turn believers to God in prayer.
Evans’s new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master, comes out October 30th. I plan to read it. I hope you will, too.
In the meantime, I would urge you to check out her blog at http://rachelheldevans.com/. She features Q&A’s with believers and members of other faiths as well. Her most recent post is an interview with lesbian Kimberly Knight, and is a discussion of what it means to be Christian and gay in America. Evans rarely shies away from any subject.