Monday, June 28, 2010

Does Faith Evolve?

Reviewed by Phee Paradise

Evolving in Monkey Town
By Rachel Held Evans

I have no doubt that growing up in the town where the Scopes Monkey Trial was held had some impact on Rachel Held Evans’ outlook on life. But growing up in a Christian fundamentalist environment seems to have been what really shaped her views about life – or her worldview as she puts it. Evolving in Monkey Town is her story about faith, doubt and resolution.

It may be that I don’t have the right to judge someone else’s faith journey, but I can’t review this book without commenting on Evans’ judgments of the Christian world she grew up in. She is very critical of this world and her cynicism pervades the narrative. In the first part of the book she makes sweeping statements about evangelical apologetics, a Christian worldview, defense of the faith and Christian political action. She also criticizes children’s programs, youth group activities and Christian colleges.

Her arguments didn’t have any validity for me until she got around to describing her personal crisis of faith. It began when she saw a news story of the execution of a Muslim woman in Afghanistan. She began to struggle with the unfairness of a woman who suffered on earth going to Hell without an opportunity to hear the gospel. She calls it the Cosmic Lottery. According to her understanding of fundamental Christianity, Christians go to heaven because they happen to be born in a time and place where they can hear the gospel. Others go to Hell because they don’t have the same opportunity. In other words, it’s the luck of the draw.

The rest of the book is the story of her journey, as she describes it, from one lily pad to another. She made small leaps from one thing she could accept about God to another, resting on each until it made sense. She started by reading the gospels to understand who Jesus is and what He came to do. From there she came to understand salvation, good works and the Bible.

However, throughout the book, she maintains a cynical and critical attitude toward Evangelicalism – one which focuses on doctrine. She concludes that Jesus didn’t teach doctrine, just love. When she was taught to defend her faith, she was being taught answers to questions that aren’t being asked. Instead she should have been taught to love her neighbor. Her view of the Bible made me especially uncomfortable. After discovering other Christian traditions, she came to believe that no one has an exclusive interpretation of scripture, which is a valid point, but she completely dismisses orthodoxy. She never recognizes that there are some fundamentals that all Christian traditions agree on.

To return to the title, one of the childhood teachings she abandoned was young earth creationism. Instead she has embraced scientific and social evolution and she believes that faith must evolve as well. She argues that Christians in every time and culture have blind spots and their beliefs must evolve to correct them. However, I believe that she uses the term "evolve" incorrectly. Correcting wrong thinking is a return to truth, not an evolution of the truth. After reading about her life, I would say that her faith didn’t evolve either, it grew up. Many of her criticisms are based on her childish understanding, and after her crisis she learned to think about Jesus like an adult instead of a kid.

She concludes that she doesn't have the answer to most of her questions, but she is learning to love the questions. She says that doubt is her way of having a conversation with God.

This book was a hard one for me to read because of the critical attitudes of the author. But she is an excellent writer and makes her points clearly. Her voice is easy to follow and she tells a lot of stories. I think young adults who grew up in Evangelical churches will relate to much of what she says. Older adults will either be frustrated with her, as I was, or will not quite know what she’s talking about. I can’t really recommend it, but I can’t say it’s not worth reading, either.

Pros: A well written story of one woman’s crisis of faith and why she’s still a Christian.

Cons: The author is quite young and lacks a depth of understanding about Christianity, in spite of her extensive knowledge and obvious intelligence.

About the book:

Having grown up in a town famous for its commitment to conservative fundamentalism, Rachel Held Evans nearly loses her faith when rehearsed answers to tough questions aren’t enough to satisfy her growing doubts about Christianity. Evolving in Monkey Town is a story of spiritual survival that challenges readers to reassess their approach to Christianity in the context of a postmodern environment, where knowing all the answers isn’t as important as truly asking the questions.

About the author:

Rachel Held Evans is an award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in local and national publications. She lives in Dayton, Tennessee, with her husband, Dan. Find out more at

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