Rachel Held Evans won awards for being a good Christian and knowing the right answers. Seriously.
But like many Christians who grow up in the church, she didn’t struggle through many of the questions on her own. She just knew the answers.
So when she grew up and those questions stopped looking so general and started looking more personal, like why God allowed that woman to get shot in a soccer field for no apparent reason, Rachel began reevaluating her beliefs.
She now calls it “evolving.”
I think I was drawn to her blog originally because she struggled through some of the same questions I’ve struggled through… and continue to. And I think that’s why many people enjoy reading her.
So of course Rachel had to write a book about it, and that book is releasing this week. It’s called Evolving In Monkey Town: How A Girl With All The Answers Started To Ask The Questions.
Before I read the book, Rachel agreed to share a bit about it along with some of her thoughts in general. Here’s what I asked… and what she said.
Marshall: I’m asking these questions before reading your book, so I don’t know what questions you discuss in it. Instead, I’ll shoot it back to you. Can you give me two interesting questions you weren’t able to tackle in your book (I’m not looking for answers here – just the questions)?
Rachel: A lot of people are surprised to find that I don’t get into the nitty-gritty details of evolutionary theory in Evolving in Monkey Town. The question I ask is, “Will the Christian faith fall apart if evolution is shown to be true?” not, “Is evolution true?” I would have liked to write more about the latter—but I’m not a biblical scholar or biologist.
Another question that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is, “What is the purpose of the Church, and how do we reflect that in our local faith communities?” Back when I wrote the book, my husband and I were really struggling to find a church. Now we’re part of a core group launching a new missional faith community right here in Dayton [Tennessee]… so church has suddenly become a lot more important to me.
Marshall: To follow up with that, why do you think questions are more important than answers, especially with Bible verses that specifically tell us to be ready with an answer?
Rachel: As Christians, I think we can easily slip into the mentality that we’ve got everything figured out and that the questions people ask about faith have easy, clear-cut answers.
Many of these answers we learned from our parents, pastors, and Sunday school teachers growing up, so we sort of arrived at the conclusions before ever actually struggling through the problems. This was my approach until recently, when I started having second-thoughts about some of my own rehearsed answers to issues related to religious pluralism, heaven & hell, salvation, politics, blessings, origins, and Scripture.
What I’m learning through this process is that Christians through the centuries have wrestled with a lot of these same questions, and we do an injustice to their struggles and their faithfulness when we act like they have simple, no-brainer answers.
It’s important to keep in mind that when Peter instructed members of the persecuted church to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” he was not talking about defending a set of propositions, but about defending hope. (See 1 Peter 3:13-17.)
Our best answers in defense of Christianity have always been useless clanging symbols unless our lives inspire the world to ask. It is our persistent and stubborn hopefulness that draws people to the Gospel, not our logical arguments. (After all, hope is not always logical!)
Marshall: Okay, just being frank here, no one really cares about your story. They really care about themselves and want to know why your book is going to be amazing for THEM. That’s the challenge with any book based on personal experience. So why should someone read Evolving in Monkey Town? Why do you hope they would?
Rachel: This is a good question—and one to which I have often returned throughout the writing/publishing process.
Whether an author writes fiction or nonfiction, the goal should always be to connect the readers with something they recognize as truth. So my hope is that elements of my story will be intuitively familiar to the people who read it.
I especially hope that young adults who have struggled with doubts about their faith or disillusionment with the church will resonate with and find hope in “Evolving in Monkey Town.” It’s important that we share our stories with one another because stories give us the opportunity to tackle difficult issues and ideas in a way that is personal and familiar.
Marshall: If you had to choose, what’s your favorite page in the book? Why?
Rachel: Definitely the last page—227—because I think it is the most hopeful. I also like the dedication page because my parents cried when they read it. (Don’t worry. It was happy crying.)
Marshall: Very cool. I love a good ending… and even happy crying.
Let’s see… in your book trailer, you said you used to hold your beliefs with a death grip, but lately you’ve tried to loosen up. So now what will you fight for doctrinally? What, if anything, is so crucial to Christianity that it can’t bend or be replaced?
Rachel: When Jesus was asked a similar question, he responded by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,40)—so I believe love is the most fundamental element of the Christian faith. (1 John 4 and 1 Corinthians 13 support this.)
I also believe that the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed are helpful ways of identifying the basics of Christian orthodoxy. These are principles I intend to stick with. I try to remain open and teachable about everything else.
Marshall: I could continue on with that conversation for a while, especially in defining what that love is and how it plays out in practice. And you’re right – I think the rest of the arguments in Christianity, if we’re charitable, come from people having differing views on how that love looks in real life.
For now, here’s a what if: What if someone agrees that we need to hold our beliefs with a more open hand but doesn’t agree with many of the other beliefs of those who promote that “open-handedness.” (For example, I want to continue to question and grow, but for now I still believe God created everything in roughly 144 hours.)
Can you recommend perhaps a couple people who hold their beliefs looser but are still more “conservative” (not necessarily politically) in those beliefs?
Rachel: This is a really great question. There are people of all kinds of political and theological persuasions who are loving, humble, and open-minded. Humility is not so much about the beliefs that we hold, but how we hold them; it’s all about attitude.
Like you, most of my friends and family believe that God created the universe in roughly 144 hours. Some of them are gracious and gentle about this belief, while others insist that anyone who disagrees with them cannot be a “real Christian.” A good indicator of fundamentalism is the insistence that those who disagree with you cannot possibly love or follow Christ sincerely.
A good example of someone from the blogging world who is perhaps more theologically conservative than myself and yet open and generous about his views is Matt Appling of The Church of No People. I really enjoy his blog because he always asks good questions.
Anyway, part of that issue with doubt and authenticity comes down to how we think we can best serve others. I mean, when it comes down to it, those who doubt are going to doubt. The real question is how open we should be about it with others. Why do you (try to) go the open route?
Rachel: Because it’s important for those who doubt to know that they are not alone.
Marshall: That’s an excellent point. Most people who hide their doubt don’t understanding what I’ve called The Opening Principle, which says people open to open people.
Can you share a specific story about how your openness about uncertainties has ministered to someone else?
Rachel: I hear from a lot of people who feel as though my blog is the only safe place for them to honestly share their thoughts about doubt and faith. I’ve also had the opportunity to reconnect with friends from childhood, high school, and college who have gone through similar experiences with doubt and are looking for companionship on the journey.
Marshall: That’s both sad and encouraging. I’ve felt like I’ve been in that same space too (offline anyway), sharing with those who have questions but realize that Christians have some of the same questions. I think that’s why I was drawn to you when I first found you.
Okay, last question: if you had to put a title on book #2 right now, what would it be… including a subtitle for more description?
Rachel: I’m actually in talks with publishers about book #2 and those talks are top secret… so… bummer. (Hopefully I’ll be making an announcement about this on the blog soon!)
Marshall: Fair enough. I had to try.
Thanks so much for spending the time here. I really appreciate it and hope others do too… and get to hear your story.
(2) Reevaluate your beliefs. Ask yourself why again. (If you’re not too keen on this idea, just ask why that is.)
(3) Share what you find with others, even it means sharing that you don’t know. (The comments here might be a nice place to start too.)