Tag Archives: atheism

Interview With Rachel Held Evans

Evolving in Monkey Town is a great new book by a young evangelical author recounting her spiritual journey as she’s moved from the “all questions are answered” certainty of her evangelical youth to the somewhat more complicated, “questions are ok” place she now finds herself. It’s a great read, full of provocative insights and disturbing questions about Christianity–the sorts of things that lead many Christians of a certain age to abandon their faith. In spite of the spiritual crisis she recounts in the book, author Rachel Held Evans hasn’t abandoned her faith, just allowed it to evolve a little bit (hence the title). In this interview, she discusses some of the problems that led her to question her faith (hell, “the cosmic lottery,” etc), the damage done by “false fundamentals,” and what parts of Christianity she’d like to see evolve.

Why did you title the book Evolving in Monkey Town?

Being from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925—the title was just too irresistible. I’m really glad Zondervan decided to keep it, even after I submitted a list of alternate titles for them to consider, (including my husband’s suggestion of “Maturing in Ape Village,” just for fun).

In addition to being a fun play on words, the title points to a larger theme in the book: that sometimes faith has to adapt to change in order to survive. I think this happens on both an individual and collective level, whenever circumstances prompt Christians to reexamine what it really means to follow Jesus.

Who is the audience you’d most like this book to reach?

I wrote it with young (evangelical) adults in mind, but I hope it’s helpful to anyone who wrestles with tough questions about faith.  My goal isn’t really to answer all those questions, but rather provide a little companionship for the journey.

In many ways, your book is a chronicle of your faith crisis, and one of the big issues you wrestle with is what you describe as the “cosmic lottery.” Could you describe this term, and how it posed problems for your faith?

I think Adah Price—a narrator in Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible—says it best.  “According to my Baptist Sunday-school teacher,” she explains “a child is denied entrance to heaven merely for being born in the Congo rather than, say, north Georgia, where she could attend church regularly. This was the sticking point in my own little lame march to salvation: admission to heaven is gained by luck of the draw. At age five I raised my good left hand in Sunday school and used a month’s ration of words to point out this problem to Miss Betty Nagy. Getting born within earshot of a preacher, I reasoned, is entirely up to chance. Would Our Lord be such a hit-or-miss kind of Savior as that? Would he really condemn some children to eternal suffering just for the accident of a heathen birth?…Miss Betty sent me to the corner for the rest of the hour to pray for my own soul while kneeling on grains of uncooked rice. When I finally got up with sharp grains imbedded in my knees I found, to my surprise, that I no longer believed in God.” (p. 171)

It took me longer than Adah to ask myself these questions, but when I did, they irritated me like grains of rice stuck to my knees.

Aside from your very brief Reformed phase, it doesn’t sound like you’ve had a very good experience with Calvinism. Are there any aspects of the Reformed tradition that you appreciate?

I deeply appreciate the Reformed emphasis on undeserved grace. My Reformed friends are often the first to acknowledge their complete dependence upon the transformative work of Jesus, and I admire that a lot. It is perhaps a common misunderstanding that Arminians do not share this perspective on grace, that we believe ourselves to be the initiators of reconciled relationship with God.  This isn’t true.

Arminians simply believe that God initiates relationship with all people, not just the elect. Both groups seem to agree that it is God who loves first and that grace is completely underserved.  But I like the way Reformed leaders in particular have so poignantly expressed this through the years.

Hell seems to be a big problem for you, as it is for many Christians–especially the notion that every non-Christian will go there when they die. Do you still believe that hell exists? If so, who do you think goes there?

Short answer: I don’t know.

Long answer: I believe that one day Jesus will return to judge the nations and that everything will be set right. I wish I knew exactly how he was going to do this, but I don’t. One minute the Bible seems to support the notion of eternal damnation, the next minute it seems to support universalism. Most days I lean toward a sort of conditionalist (or annihilationist) view that God will get rid of evil once and for all, so that no trace of it remains, and then reconcile all things to himself. Regarding the fate of non-Christians, I like what C.S. Lewis said—“We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ. We do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”  But I could be wrong, and I’m open to other people’s perspectives on this.

Our generation of evangelicals were often brought up with an apologetics mindset–always wanting to defend the faith or make the “case for faith” to the supposedly atheist, secular humanist throngs who had it out for Christianity. But you point out that most of your peers are actually not “searching for historical evidence in support of the bodily resurrection of Jesus” as much as they are “searching for some signs of life among his followers.” What role do you think apologetics should play in Christianity today, if any?

Apologetics are great as long as they help us love God and our neighbors better.  People always point to Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill as an example of making a good case for Christianity, but what I love about that story is that Paul pulled from Greek literature and philosophy to make his point—seeking common ground rather than mocking what other people believed. So I think apologetics should continue, but perhaps with a different tone and emphasis, one that seeks to build bridges rather than conquer and destroy. And I think we have to keep in mind the fact that we preach Christ crucified—not the most logical thing in the world! Our best apologetic is a life transformed by the love of Jesus Christ, and that’s not something you can cram into an argument.

I thought this was an interesting statement: “I am convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals.” What do you mean by false fundamentals?

Those things that sorta a get attached to Christianity along the way, but don’t really belong….or at least aren’t essential. In evangelicalism it tends to be things like young earth creationism, Republicanism, religious nationalism, a commitment to the culture wars, etc. It makes me really sad when friends feel they have to walk away from the faith just because they took a biology class or voted for Barack Obama. But there seems to be this impression among Christians and non-Christians alike that you can’t be a Christian and believe in evolution, you can’t be a Christian and be gay, you can’t be a Christian and have questions about the Bible, you can’t be a Christian and appreciate elements of other religions, you can’t be a Christian and be a feminist, you can’t be a Christian and drink or smoke, you can’t be a Christian and get depressed, you can’t be a Christian and doubt. The list goes on.

I’m inclined to say that the only fundamental requirement for following Jesus should be love—for God and for one another. But I usually get talked out of this by someone who makes a good point about maybe adding the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds…which is fair enough. :-)

Near the end of the book, you write that you are “learning to love the questions” and that you hope that “the questions will dissolve into meaning, the answers won’t matter so much anymore, and perhaps it will all make sense to me on some distant, ordinary day.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by this?

In some ways the journey of faith is a lot like the writing process. In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott writes about how sometimes you have to write three or four pages of material that you will never use in order to get to “that one long paragraph that was what you had in mind when you started, only you didn’t know that, couldn’t know that, until you got to it.” Sometimes I think of my questions and doubts like that. I need to experience them right now in order to learn something in the future—maybe the answers; maybe something more important than the answers. I just have to have patience with the process in the meantime.

I think that’s what Rilke meant when he said to “have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart…Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.”

As Christianity evolves in the next decade or so, which of its present attributes would you most like to see go the way of the dodo bird?

Haha! I love the way you asked that question.

I’m hoping that over the next few decades we will talk less about the culture wars and more about reconciliation. I’d like it if we stopped trying to force the Bible into modern scientific paradigms and instead embraced it as an inspired, ancient text in which God chose to use the language and culture of the people he loved in order to communicate to them.  And I hope we move from an individualistic view of Jesus in which he is our “personal savior” to a kingdom perspective in which he is the “savior of the world.”

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Lord Save Us. From Your Followers

Last night I attended a screening of Dan Merchant’s new Michael Moore-esque documentary, Lord Save Us From Your Followers.  It’s a film about how Christians have a huge PR problem and how “the culture wars” are exactly the opposite of what Christians should be battling in this world. The real war concerns things like poverty, injustice, and loving the unlovable, suggests Merchant. If Christians just loved better, befriended drag queens, and washed homeless people’s feet, our image crisis would go away.

But would it gain any new converts? That is the question (one of the questions) I kept asking myself.

After the film, there was a discussion involving four participants: Merchant, Everett Piper (President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University), Bill Lobdell (author of Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace) and Michael Levine (CEO of Levine Communications and proudly secular).

Levine was the most vocal in the discussion, cynically asking the audience from the outset to “raise your hand high if you’re a Christian… Now raise your hand high if you think I am going to hell because I’m an atheist.” He then explained that a conversation is completely impossible when one of the parties believes in their heart that the other is hell-bound.

As unfair as that is, Levine did make a few interesting points. “Why would I believe in a religion or a God whose followers have no noticeable differences in their lifestyle?” asked Levine, making the point that he has a lot of close Christian friends but none of them live substantially better, more peaceful, more loving lives. And then he used this illustration:

“Imagine there is a gym and you have two groups. One group goes to the gym every day and one group never steps foot in the gym. But the group that goes to the gym is just as fat as the group that stays home. So what does that say about the gym? Why would I want to believe in that gym?”

Point well taken. It is very problematic that so many “Christians” look and act the exact same as anyone else.

But I think Piper made a good point in response when he said that one shouldn’t look first to Christians but rather to Christ in order to evaluate the appeal of the Gospel. He said something like, “Imagine you want to know what a fish is like. You go to a beach and what you see are a lot of dead, smelly, decaying fish. Should you then surmise from this that ALL fish are like this, or that this is how the “ideal” fish should be? Of course not! It’s dishonest to judge the truth of something by looking at the ways in which broken humans have distorted it.”

Yes, there are broken, corrupt, annoyingly off-base representations of Christianity. We are all very aware of that. But that doesn’t change the truth of the God Christians worship. I’m so tired of Christians falling all over themselves with apologies for the oppressive scourge that Christianity supposedly is. Sure, we should acknowledge and own up to the bad things we’ve done. The Crusades and the Inquisition DID happen. All sorts of other sordid things have been perpetrated by Christians throughout history. Guilty! We humans are broken, flawed, selfish, confused people who make mistakes. Even Christians.

But it’s not about us!

We won’t win ANY followers to Christ by focusing our case primarily around how great or loving or happy Christians are. We must focus our case around Christ himself; The gospel; What God has done, is doing, and will do for the world, regardless of how helpful or unhelpful we Christians are along the way. God will do what he will do. He invites us to participate in his work but none of it hinges on our abilities or fortitude (thanks be to God!) outside the power of the Holy Spirit.

We need to stop worrying so much about having a favorable image or being liked! The success of God’s work in the world is not dependent on how people in 2009 perceive Christians. If we believe God is sovereign we need to have confidence that he can overcome all the loudmouth bigots who go around saying idiotic things in the name of Christ (not that we shouldn’t chastise and discipline those loudmouth bigots among us).

We need to quit worrying about how the worst among us are ruining our reputation and instead focus on living Christ-like lives in accordance to scripture and God’s will. We need to worry about our own transformation first and foremost. Are we new creations?

We should love others and ease the suffering in the world not because it will be better for our PR, but because the Bible tells us to and because the Spirit inside us spurs us to outward action. We should exude charity and patience and peace in our dealings with others not because it will win us admirers but because it is the Christian thing to do.

We need to be humble, yes, but not tepid. We should have confidence in the God we serve, the gospel we believe, and the church that we are.

In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul describes the “immeasurable greatness” (v. 19) of Christ and his “rule and authority and power and dominion” (v. 21) over all creation, but then he adds that God gives Christ—and Christ’s subsequent authority over all things—to the church (v. 22), which is Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (v. 23). At Christ’s feet, the world cowers and all creation converges. And as the church—as the body of Christ—we share in this unique, cornerstone-of-creation destiny.

In light of this reality, how could any Christian lack the confidence to be the church in the world—a body constantly spreading itself outward and expanding the reach of the Gospel? How could we ever worry that the fate of Christianity rests on this generation and these immediate challenges, when we know that we are part of something that will outlast time? I like what C.S. Lewis says in his essay, “Membership”:

The structural position in the church which the humblest Christian occupies is eternal and even cosmic. The church will outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. Everything that is joined to the immortal Head will share his immortality… As mere biological entities, each with its separate will to live and to expand, we are apparently of no account; we are cross-fodder. But as organs in the Body of Christ, as stones and pillars in the temple, we are assured of our eternal self-identity and shall live to remember the galaxies as an old tale.

What an amazing thing! Christians need to wake up to the wonder and privilege and shocking power of what they believe and who they worship. We need to stop looking nervously to the world to define who we are and start looking to the Bible and praying for God’s wisdom. We should spend less time apologizing for all the ways we have failed and spend more time rejoicing and sharing with others the ways that Christ is victorious (chiefly: the resurrection!). And rather than pleading with the Lord to “save us from your followers,” we should simply pray, “Lord, save us.”

Because that’s what he does. And that’s why we should care.

Christianity: More Harm Than Good?

One of the things that really bothers me about Christians these days is that we are so ill-equipped to answer the increasingly well-articulated arguments from atheists and otherwise anti-religious persons who point out the horrible track record of Christianity and the irrevocable damage that has been done across the world in the name of Christ. Christians today are liable to just sort of shrug and say “that’s not what I’m like,” or find some other way to distance themselves from Christian history (such as calling themselves “followers of Jesus” rather than Christians or a “gathering” instead of “church”).

As marquee atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens proclaim Christianity to be the single most damaging thing to ever befall humanity, are Christians in any position to rebut? Or are we going to simply rely on the frail argument that the “new Christians” are different than the “old” ones (read: crusades, inquisition, imperialism, witch trials, etc)?

When one interrogates the assumption that Christianity has done more harm than good to humankind, we see that it is an idea founded in a rather shoddily conjured historicism. Sure, Christianity has been used to justify a lot of evil—but so have atheism, and paganism, and virtually all other –isms the world has ever seen. Any organized belief system, after all, can be skewed to fit the most heinous inclinations of a wayward soul. In fact, it is often the most secular, areligious societies that wreak the most havoc, not the Christian ones. Think about Stalinist Russia or the various other communist regimes that dotted the globe in the twentieth century. They rejected any belief in God and systematically slaughtered millions of their own people. Think about the French Revolution—a thoroughly secular, godless movement that resulted in the barbaric purging of wide swaths of the innocent citizenry. Clearly a belief in God is not a prerequisite for horrific violence. And then there is the much larger human history (10,000+ years) predating Christ’s arrival on earth: and surprise surprise, all of it is littered with bloodshed and brutality.

Far from a malevolent force of destruction in the world, however, Christianity has done more to make the world a better place than any other organized movement or guiding principle in history. Almost every major reform movement or social-justice campaign can be traced back to Christians, or at least Christian teachings. Christians led the way in the abolition of slavery and were the first to publicly deem it immoral and denounce it as sin (Wesley, Wilberforce, etc). Christians have historically been the first and most active responders to international relief, hunger, and justice issues, and most major charities and humanitarian organizations (Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, Feed the Children, World Vision, etc) have decidedly Christian roots. Christians were the first to establish hospitals, schools, and universities (such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale). They led the way in literacy movements, adult education, prison reform, substance-abuse programs, and many other progressive reforms.

It all goes back to the teachings of Jesus (feed the hungry, clothe the poor, protect the widows, etc) and the practices of the early Christian church. The early church appointed deacons to care for widows and the sick (Acts 6:1, James 5:13), and they were remarkably more open and tolerant (to women, different races and classes, etc) than anyone else in the first century. Tim Keller explains it well when he writes, in The Reason for God,

“At the very heart of their view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness. Reflection on this could only lead to a radically different way of dealing with those who were different from them. It meant they could not act in violence and oppression toward their opponents. We cannot skip lightly over the fact that there have been injustices done by the church in the name of Christ, yet who can deny that the force of Christians’ most fundamental beliefs can be a powerful impetus for peace-making in our troubled world?”

Furthermore, though it is hard to imagine it today (when Christians seem inexplicably marginal to the thought life of the world), devout Christians have also regularly been the biggest shapers of science, thought, art, and culture. People like Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, Augustine, Rembrandt, Bach, Handel, Chaucer, Milton, Dostoevsky, and T.S. Eliot are just a few names from the impressive list of our Christian forbears.

I do not mean to offer any sort of defense for the many horrible things that have been done by Christians and in the name of Christ over the last 2,000 years. There is no justification for that. We must own up to them just as much as we own up to the many great, selfless things that have been done by Christians. But I also want to point out that Christ is who He is regardless of Christians. He is love, perfect and unconditional. We are just His followers: fallible, weak, human, confused. Sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes we get it right. More often the latter, I hope and pray…