Asking questions about what you believe can be a very good thing. This is a truth I share with Rachel Held Evans (RHE). Having our beliefs spoon-fed to us without question is a risky approach to anything, let alone our faith in God.
While reading Evolving in Monkey Town (EMT), I thought for sure I had read this book before. The nature of the questions, the concern for God’s reputation, the credibility given to arguments outside of Christianity—I was positive the book was already on my shelf. Then I realized, I had read it before, and you have too if you’ve read Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.”
Evolving in Monkey Town is divided into three parts: Habitat, Challenge, and Change. It’s difficult—even unfair—to try to summarize RHE’s journey, but at the same time, there are clues in her writing that point to the person she is becoming. So I will let the words speak for themselves.
In Habitat, RHE describes her upbringing as a child of Christian parents—her father a theologian and college professor. She mentions that she “never felt trapped in a world of endless churchgoing” (29). About her mother, she writes that she noticed and loved “when she got a little fidgety whenever the pastor discussed wives submitting to their husbands.” She also talks about some instances in these early years where she experienced doubt about whether God was actually listening or if he even existed, a question she explains stayed with her “like a rock in my shoe” (35).
She talks about the city of Dayton, how “Christianity was so infused in the culture…that it served as a kind of folk religion” (42), a great segue into the second chapter on “June the Ten Commandments Lady.” For RHE, June illustrated the hypocrisy of those in the church who “claim Christ in one breath and then curses her neighbor in the next.” She’s right. But, here we get the first clear indication that RHE is questioning the exclusive nature of Christianity. She ponders how God might consider the evil in believers vs. the goodness of those outside of Christianity. She wonders about June’s faith profession, “Is it worth more to God than the faith of a Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim who practices kindness and compassion?”
In chapter 3, she explains the history of Dayton rooted in the historical event of the Scopes Monkey Trial. She provides a portion of the trial transcript showing how attorney Clarence Darrow undermined the “literalist” interpretation of the Bible in his examination of William Jennings Bryan’s testimony. RHE then describes another “Monkey Town moment” (62) when political leaders “passed a resolution calling for a ban on homosexuality and an amendment to state law that would allow the country to charge gays and lesbians with crimes against nature” (62). She discusses the terrible behavior of people in Dayton during this time, saying that the city “was again the laughingstock of the country, and rightly so.” The chapter concludes with this statement, speaking to the apologetics movement she is about to discuss: “The evangelical community has a curious reputation for resisting cultural movements before suddenly deciding to embrace them, and believers in Dayton are no different” (64). She continues,
“To survive in a modern world, [evangelicals] needed to be more prepared to respond to its questions. They could no longer simply resist evolutionary theory, secular humanism, higher criticism….they had to learn to effectively engage them…a funny thing happened to the evangelical community in Dayton and around the country: it evolved.”
Unfortunately, RHE gives the impression, hinting at the content of the next chapters, that apologetics is fairly new to the church and mentions only the apologists popular among later 20th century church-goers: Norman Geisler, Lee Strobel and Francis Schaeffer. She doesn’t account for the apologists throughout church history or even just the early 20th century. It’s a mistake to give the impression that apologetics has only been a modern-day phenomenon. In fact, a similar error is made as she discusses the Roe v Wade decision of 1973. She writes that it “left many Christians with the sense that their government had abandoned them.” She doesn’t provide a foot note for this so I don’t know exactly where she’s getting this from. But stating it this way ignores the fact that the church had abandoned government and culture in general since the early part on the century. It was Roe V. Wade that helped the church to recognize its departure from the cultural conversation was having adverse effects and we needed to re-engage. Carl F. H. Henry laments this in The Uneasy Conscience of Evangelicalism…in 1947. Henry, by the way, was another great defender of Christian orthodoxy.
In chapter four, RHE discusses her personal experience in apologetics with a chapter devoted to “Greg the Apologist,” who she first connected with in high school. She describes working with “Greg” during the summer between her junior and senior year of college at an apologetics seminar for college students. She talks about how, after listening to one of the speakers, she wondered if she “didn’t have a Christian-enough worldview” (67). She
“grew increasingly uncomfortable with how verses were lifted from the Bible to support political positions like gun rights, strong national defense, capital punishment and limited intervention in the free market….I waited for Greg to object, but he never did” (67).
Seeing her skepticism begin to develop in the previous chapters, it is no surprise in chapter five that we see it fully blossom into her “pick and choose” assessment of evangelicalism in general (80), a tool she continues to use to criticize evangelical points of view on at least one other topic—biblical womanhood. But RHE describes that the apologetics movement had in her, “created a monster” (79).
“I’d gotten so good at critiquing all the fallacies of opposing worldviews, at searching for the truth through objective analysis, that it as only a matter of time before I turned the same skeptical eye upon my own faith…We criticized radical Islam as a natural outworking of the violent tone of the Qur’an without acknowledging the fact that the God of Israel ordered his people to kill every living thing in Canaan…We sneered at the notion of climate change yet believed that God once made the earth stand still…We mocked New Age ambiguity but could not explain the nature of the Trinity. We claimed that ours was a rational, logical faith, when it centered on the God of the universe wrapping himself in flesh to be born in a manger in Bethlehem. More worrisome, however, was how we criticized relativists for picking and choosing truth, while our own biblical approach required some selectivity of its own” (79-80).
It was this statement in EMT that helped me to realize that perhaps RHE has had an over-exposure to apologetics. As strange as that sounds, I believe this is the situation. When apologetics borrows from the worldviews it is trying to critique, when it seeks to make arguments from the stance of “objectivity” while mixing it up with the language of worldview and presuppositions, I understand the confusion created. She wrote,
“Born of the necessity to more effectively engage modernism and avoid embarrassments like the Scopes trial, the apologetics movement in America represented a significant evolution within the evangelical subculture, an evolution away from blind faith, anti-intellectualism, and cultural withdrawal toward hard rationalism, systematic theology, and political action. You might say it was the culmination of Enlightenment values applied to specifically to religious dialogue.” (75)
An apologetic that starts with and depends upon the categories of philosophical reasoning outside and independent of scripture, and serve as grounds for scripture, can never quite make the argument for Christianity. Arguments from unbelief will never affirm the truth of Christianity. Couple this general evidentialist approach with worldview education that generally insists there is no objectivity, that we all have bias, I see why her journey has ended in skepticism. I understand why, for RHE, it is necessary to re-explain Christianity so that it makes sense out of her reality. She speaks to this a bit further, that possibly the better apologetic is belief acted upon. I don’t entirely agree (or disagree), but I get it.
“And yet, in the words of Jesus, all those apologetics courses and theology books and debating techniques are just castles in the sand without a commitment to love my neighbor as myself. I began to wonder if obedience—with or without answers—was the only thing that could save me from this storm.” (106)
In her search for consistency it is clear she has not experienced the liberation provided by a commitment to scripture first, and evidence and arguments second—presented in light of a proclaimed faith in Christ. This, I hope she finds, because every other worldview argues from within its system. I went through a struggle similar to hers and came to the conclusion that—though certainly not useless—the “objective” arguments I was utilizing to “prove” God or Christianity were actually creating a plausible argument for doubt. It is the truth of Christianity confirmed by my subjective experience with Holy Spirit and revealed to me by God in the objective form of scripture that liberated me from the necessity of these arguments as grounds for belief. And this is hardly against reason. RHE took the fork in the road labeled ‘doubt.’
As you might easily assume, I am coming from a very Calvinist perspective in my apologetic methodology, and since RHE struggles with the doctrines of grace, she likely will struggle with my words in this review. In EMT, she clearly dismisses the reformed theological perspective. Sadly, she resorts to an adolescent argumentation by referring to it in a later chapter as “pond scum theology.”
“I’d heard this response many times before and had affectionately dubbed it “pond-scum theology.” At the heart of pond-scum theology is the premise that human beings have no intrinsic value or claim to salvation because their sin nature makes them so thoroughly disgusting and offensive to God that he is under no obligation to pay them any mind…It’s a view resurrected by outspoken Reformed pastors who have argued that God can’t even look at us because he is so disgusted by our sin nature, one even suggesting that God sent the tsunami to wash some of this pond scum from his sight. Pond-scum theology effectively shifts the question from How could a loving God send anyone to hell? to How could an angry God allow anyone into heaven?” (116)
Pond-scum theology makes even less sense in the context of the Gospels. To believe that people are inherently worthless to God strips the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of all their meaning and power. It makes Jesus look like a fool for dying for us, and it leaves his followers with little incentive to seek out and celebrate the good in one another. (117)
Flattened theology. No understanding of the different senses in which God loves, no serious interaction with the atonement and the existence of sin. But most of all, here and in other places we see RHE’s presumption of innocence. In fairness to her, she would say that her argument isn’t with God, but with interpretations of scripture and maybe even the words of scripture themselves. I’m not sure how else she could talk about her knowledge of God except to be informed by scripture. To comprehend much of EMT, you have to understand that RHE likely does not hold to an inerrant view of scripture. On her blog, she writes that “The word ‘inerrancy’ makes my scalp itch.” That might make my quoting of Job a bit irrelevant to RHE, but to the readers who might care what God says about this kind of posturing, go back to Job.
“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” Job 40:1
The remainder of the book shares RHE’s journey from doubt to faith, but it’s difficult to understand the content of this faith as she questions both its source and interpretation of the source and, it seems, prefers a Jesus Seminar method to approaching scripture. As you read it, you will probably take note of some tendencies toward false dilemmas and dialectical reasoning, among other fallacies. But ultimately, it seems that RHE is trying to answer the problem of evil in a way that honors victims of evil by reconsidering their eternal destination. This is a noble cause and, I believe, is reflective of the image of God contained within her. We are supposed to be gripped by a sense of compassion, not only for those who suffer physically, but for those who suffer spiritually. This is the heart of missions. But when our compassion is the cause of abandoning scriptural truths, one needs to re-examine if it is compassion or pride that is the catalyst for investigation. I’ll leave with you with a few quotes that provide insight into her views on Christian exclusivism.
“But the idea that this woman passed from agony to agony, from torture to torture, from a lifetime of pain and sadness to an eternity of pain and sadness, all because she had less information about the gospel than I did, seemed cruel, even sadistic. God knew long before Zarmina was born—before her first giggle, before her first steps, before her first words—that this was her fate. He knew it from the beginning and yet created her anyway. I wondered how many millions of people like Zarmina died every day in similar circumstances. I thought about the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the gassing of Iraqi Kurds, and those terrible, haunting images of warehouses full of eyeglasses and shoes and prayer shawls left behind by victims of the Holocaust. Was I supposed to believe that all these people went to hell because they weren’t Christians?” (91)
My generation tends to be suspicious of absolutism. Speakers at apologetics camp like to say that we’re getting so open-minded our brains are falling out…I reexamined my positions on heaven and hell not because I wanted to be like Britney but because I was forever changed after watching Zarmina’s execution. (112)
“We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ,” he wrote in Mere Christianity. “We do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.” (130)
I don’t know the degree to which God is present in the world’s many religious systems. I don’t know how God will judge the living and the dead. I don’t know if hell is eternal or if God will destroy evil for good. I don’t know what the new heaven and new earth will be like. I don’t know if I’m an inclusivist or a universalist or a particularist….All I know is that if the God of the Bible is true, he loves his creation and will do whatever it takes to restore it. (133)
This leaves me in an awkward position when it comes to always being ready with an answer. Gone are the black-and-white categories of “saved” and “unsaved,” “heaven-bound” and “hell-bound.” Gone are the old ways of determining who’s in and who’s out. Gone are the security of absolutism and the comfort of certainty. Gone is the confidence that comes with knowing that when Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” he of course couldn’t possibly mean me. (133)