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.”