Tag Archives: God

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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A Serious Man

I didn’t think the Coen brothers could top No Country For Old Men, their Oscar-winning masterpiece (which I wrote about here). But A Serious Man comes awfully close. This is a film unlike anything the Coens have ever done, and yet it fits perfectly into their oeuvre. It’s a film about God, man, and the peculiar way that the two relate. And it’s a film that will haunt and provoke you far after you leave the theater.

Stylistically, Man is further proof that the Coens are among the most masterful directors working in Hollywood today. Few other filmmakers are as skillful at the art of employing editing in the service of suggestion and insinuation. As in No Country, the Coens let much go unsaid in Man… and yet so much is implied. So much is clearly hinted at. The Coens’ impressive restraint and pervasive ambiguity only adds to the provocative, head-scratching, deeply unsettling quality of this film.

A Serious Man, as you’ve probably heard by now, is a sort of modern day Job story. It’s a movie about a Jewish physics professor named Larry Gopnik who lives in 1967 suburban Minnesota with his wife, daughter and son. Larry is an upstanding guy—moral, loving, even-keeled. He doesn’t even like hearing people curse. But inexplicably and tragically, things start going very wrong in Larry’s life. Bad things… one after another. His wife divorces him, a student tries to blackmail him, his brother gets in legal trouble, someone tries to sabotage his tenure, his health might be in jeopardy, etc. As the film progresses, the bad stuff keeps coming, and poor Larry doesn’t get a break.

A Serious Man is a funny film (in a darkly humorous, pitiful sort of way), but it’s also full of important, distressing existential questions. Namely: Why does bad stuff happen to good people? If there is a God, why does he seem so cruel and unresponsive sometimes?

These questions are set against a strikingly Jewish backdrop, mixing a sort of Old Testament monotheistic covenant mysticism with Yiddish and American Jewish cultural tropes. The film opens with a curious, comic/horrific prologue that appears to be some sort of old Yiddish folktale. It has nothing directly related to the film proper, aside from establishing the Jewishness and darkly comic tone from the get go. The prologue also, importantly, establishes what seems to be an acceptance of the supernatural—which lends credibility to the ensuing film’s apparent belief in God-ordained calamity.

When the bad stuff starts happening, Larry goes to talk to the local rabbi to get some insight and counsel about why his life is crumbling all around him. But the rabbis (he ends up talking to two of them) offer Larry little in the way of comfort. One of them tells Larry to “look at things with fresh eyes” and the other regales him with a bizarre story about a dentist who sees a Hebrew message in a patient’s teeth. In another scene, Larry’s son goes to see a very old rabbi who manages only to quote Jefferson Airplane and say “be a good boy.” So much for wisdom and insight from the clergy.

Or maybe “be a good boy” is really all we need to hear. Perhaps, at the end of the day, the “why me?!” cry is simply that of a pitiful sinner who just needs to make better choices.

As much as A Serious Man is about the seeming injustice of calamity befalling a blameless, morally upright man (Larry=Job), there are definitely moments when it seems like actions have direct consequences—that the bad things happening are in fact a punishment for wrongdoing.

The Coens have charted this morality territory before. Many of their films (like No Country, Burn After Reading, Fargo) feature characters who are mostly very nice, normal, moral people. But because they make one or two mistakes, or get caught up in the mistakes of others, they have to pay. So it is in Man. Larry only falters a few times in the film. He peers over at a female neighbor sunbathing in the nude; he tries marijuana; and at the end of the film, he does something small that immediately makes him pay in a big way.

It may not seem fair that such minor offenses justify such massive punishment, but this IS God we’re talking about. Yahweh. Hashem (as Larry calls Him in the film). He does what he wants, and his justice will prevail. Even if it doesn’t quite make sense to us.

The film is rooted in this sort of quintessentially Jewish version of God—a God who is in a love/hate relationship with his chosen people (Jews) but has a propensity to be silent, distant, scary and wrathful. He’s a god who demands sacrifices in order to be approached, obedience in order to be appeased.

It’s almost as if God is a negotiator—that He demands something of us in order to bless us, and that if we hold up our end of the bargain he’ll hold up His. Read Torah, live rightly, “be a good boy,” and God will bless you. If not, watch out.

“But God is not a negotiator,” writes Miroslav Volf in his book Free of Charge:

It is true that Scripture portrays God in ways remarkably similar to that image. In the Old Testament we read, for instance, “If you will only obey the Lord your God … all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God” (Deut. 28:1-2). Yet before the commandments were given to the people of Israel, God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. But it wasn’t to get something out of them. They were delivered for the simple reason that God heard their cries of affliction, kept the promises made to their ancestor Abraham, and through deliverance and faithfulness wanted to manifest the greatness of God’s love in the world… God’s goods are not for sale; you can’t buy them with money or good deeds. God doesn’t make deals. God gives.

The thought of a loving, free-grace giving God is mostly absent in A Serious Man, but it’s fairly understandable. It’s hard to grasp this sort of God when your life is falling apart at the seams for no just reason.

Larry is a physics professor who believes in cause and effect and preaches Newton’s law of motion (every action has a reaction). He assumes that choices have consequences and that the universe corrects itself in a very logical way. He trusts the math. But there are also things in physics that push the boundaries of our intellect (e.g. Schrödinger’s “cat is dead and alive simultaneously” Paradox and the Heisenberg Principle) and require us to admit uncertainty.

Perhaps this is why Larry, like Job, never curses God even through all his suffering and hardship. God, Hashem, is grander than and beyond our intellect, and his actions sometimes defy our understanding. Larry, the rabbis, and everyone in A Serious Man are pretty stumped about what God is actually doing. But they continue to worship Him, fear Him, and pursue righteousness because of Him. Because He is God. And our ability to understand Him doesn’t change who He is.