What I’m learning from questions, Monkey Town, and questions about Monkey Town

Evolving in Monkey Town is about a southern, church girl, Rachel Held Evans, who grows up in fundamentalist Christian culture, enters a doubting phase in college and then… well, moves into a still-unsure-but-very-different perspective. Whew.

Sadly, the general story is pretty unoriginal. And I don’t say “sadly” because I want something new – I say it because I wish this general story weren’t so common all over the place. I wish we didn’t have to struggle through all this.

Or maybe I don’t.

I’ve followed Rachel’s blog ever since Renee Johnson interviewed her a few months ago (thanks, Renee). I noticed fairly quickly that Rachel and I disagree on just about every controversial Christian issue out there and reading Evolving in Monkey Town confirmed most of that.

But I didn’t read her blog and book because she agrees with me. I read because she asks good questions, challenges me, and is personally a good example of many Christians right now.

Monkey Town just deepened my appreciation for her in all three of those areas.

Overview

Evolving In Monkey Town: How A Girl Who Knew All The Answers Learned To Ask The Questions didn’t begin the way I assumed it would. I assumed Rachel would start off bringing us into her deep, dark, oppressive, fundamentalist beginnings. No, no – not Rachel.

Rachel starts off with a preface telling us she’s prejudiced and then jumps right into her first chapter, “Why I Am An Evolutionist,” which of course also isn’t what it seems.

It’s actually about evolving faith, not evolving physical organisms. The interesting part about the “evolving faith” business is that it’s all based on a shifting perspective of God. It’s not like God’s actually shifting, just how we’re seeing Him.

Okay, enough with the shiftiness.

After that unexpected (for me) intro, Rachel headed the way I assumed she would. Monkey Town is written in three sections: Habitat, Challenge, and Change. Pretty basic as far as the structure goes, almost exactly what I expected. Not a bad thing.

Habitat

This was the “Here’s where I was” section. She talked about how she won contests for having the best Christian attitude… multiple years in a row. I was never known for my Christian attitude for sure, but many of the other examples mirrored my own experiences.

One passage talked about how a great fish swallowed Jonah, not necessarily a whale, and how Adam and Eve ate some fruit, but it probably wasn’t an apple.

I literally had those exact two examples already in the outline for my own memoir/autobiography. Not that I wasn’t already convinced, but at that point I was totally like, “Okay, Rachel and I have a bit in common… at least in our origins.”

One notable exception: I didn’t know as much about the Scopes Trial as Rachel does.

Challenge

One quote from the book sums this section up perfectly without me even needing to say much more (and it’s not even in the Challenge section):

“I’d gotten so good at critiquing all the fallacies of opposing worldviews, at searching for truth through objective analysis, that it was only a matter of time before I turned the same skeptical eye upon my own faith.” -Rachel Held Evans

Through the Challenge section, Rachel questions many of the big assumptions Christians have, assumptions about…

  • Hell
  • Who can get to heaven
  • How the universe was created
  • How to interpret the Bible
  • Sexual orientation
  • Biblical worldviews
  • Absolute truth
  • God’s justice
  • God’s existence

One example that hit me the hardest was her discussion about people in other countries and how, simply because of when and where they were born, they don’t seem to have much chance of knowing Jesus. Anne Frank’s a good example.

Rachel pointed out that “in Sunday School, they always make hell out to be a place for people like Hitler, not a place for his victims.” She said when she was young, she “prayed diligently for Anne Frank, praying that God would let her out of the lake of fire.”

Makes you think, right?

Change

At last, Rachel gives us all the answers.

Just kidding – no, she doesn’t. She doesn’t even try.

Instead she shares where she’s at now, still evolving, and leaves us to consider the path she’s taken.

I did appreciate that Rachel finally defined healthy doubt and unhealthy doubt in the last chapter:

  • Healthy doubt: questioning one’s beliefs
  • Unhealthy doubt: questioning God

That helped me tremendously. Am I questioning God, or am I questioning what I think I know about God? And taking that further, what are other people doing, particularly the people I’m trying to help?

Because I can encourage the first kind of doubt but should discourage the second, both for myself and for others.

So that’s the overview. Now I’d like to share some of the thoughts I jotted down as I read (yeah, this is a beast of a post). In honor of Rachel and her love for questions, let me frame them as questions…

What is “belief”?

The way we define “belief” is lame. Usually we assume it’s about knowing something is truth or accurate. For example, saying, “I believe God exists,” just means, “I think it’s true that God exists.”

But belief is much more than that. Belief isn’t intellectual by nature. Part of it is, but part of it is emotional. Rachel does a good job with this.

Isn’t belief comprehensive? Like those cumulative exams in college, doesn’t it requires more than rote memorization. Doesn’t it require the motivation to stay up all night to prepare and the persistence to show up during the three-month process leading up to it?

Isn’t belief about life in general, not just intellect?

What do we assume about others?

Through some parts of Monkey Town, I sensed that if someone gave a quick, one-line answer, Rachel assumed they must not have struggled through the problem on their own. In person, I know Rachel’s much more understanding than that, but I still got that vibe from her book.

So, dear Monkey Town readers, please don’t shift to the other extreme of ridiculousness by assuming that everyone with answers hasn’t struggled through their beliefs. That’s as bad as the fundamentalist notion that those without answers haven’t thought through their beliefs.

Also, never judge a statement someone makes if you haven’t read their autobiography. Twice. I thought I understood where Rachel was coming from on her blog… until I read the book.

More importantly, if I can’t even understand Rachel, why do I think I can understand God?

Can faith survive anything… really?

“If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that faith can survive anything, so long as it’s able to evolve.” -Rachel Held Evans

The contention many Christians might have with this is that if nothing can kill faith, it seems to fall into the same category as Freudian psychology. It seems awful close to saying, “No matter what, we’ll always make something up so we can keep our faith.” That seems just as stubborn as the fundamentalist who won’t allow a specific belief to die.

It’s as though we’re emotionally and socially and culturally attached to faith, but that faith isn’t attached to anything.

Is that what Rachel’s saying? I don’t know, but it could sure seem that way from her book. Perhaps I’m taking it out of context, though.

Logic aside, I have trouble seeing how that quote fits in with what the Bible says. I almost feel bad playing this card, but if I’m choosing between Rachel and the Bible, which should I put my faith in?

Anyway, I would have liked her to flesh that out some more. Perhaps that’s what book #2 is all about.

Overall thoughts

As I read, a strange feeling crept over me, something like, “This is bigger than you thought.” Evolving In Monkey Town goes after those huge questions, not the questions of how I should live as a result of my beliefs but the questions of how I should live until I find out what my beliefs even are.

It’s a youthful story… in the sense that we all want youth, in the sense that anything is possible. I like that.

I also like how she puts emotion back into doctrine. I like that Rachel rips theology out of the textbook and tattoos it on people’s faces. It’s like she’s saying, “There, how’s that feel… when it’s actually attached to a human being, someone you know even?”

I relate to her origins, and I agree that’s not the place to stay. But then we part ways. I like the process she takes in finding answers, but I get different answers.

Once we get through the doctrinal details, though, Rachel returns to what the heart of the book is about: the process of finding answers, better known as questioning. Her conclusion then is about the process of questioning… and I like that conclusion.

Serving Suggestions:

(1) You can buy Rachel’s book here, or check out even more reviews and such on her blog.

(2) What do you think? Rachel’s not the only one with this story (just the one with the book). How can we as Christians help others on this journey? How can we navigate this process ourselves while still managing to serve the Lord?

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