A year ago, Tina sent me a link to Rachel Held Evans’s blog. I read the post and was amazed at how Rachel’s thoughts mirrored my own. I read other posts and found the same. When Jason told me that he was an atheist, I found Rachel’s blog to be a safe place for me to sort through some of my own doubts about Christianity and religion. The community that she has established there is really something special. At the risk of getting too gushy, Rachel’s blog probably helped save my faith more than anything else at that time. So she holds a very dear place in my heart.
As such, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review her new book. Being a fan of her blog, I was very excited to have an opportunity to read a few hundred pages in a row by this talented writer. And I will say, the book did not disappoint! (And the lovely hand-written note that she sent certainly didn’t hurt!)
Evolving in Monkey Town is divided into three sections: Habitat, Challenge, and Change.
Habitat basically went through her church upbringing and religious schooling at Bryan College, as well as life in Dayton, TN, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Rachel was a “good girl” and grew up learning answers to all of life’s difficult questions about faith and Christianity. I have no doubt that she would understand the squirrel joke as well as anyone in my own family would. As Habitat closes out, the author says, “I’d gotten so good at critiquing all of the fallacies of opposing worldviews, at searching for truth through subjective analysis, that it was only a matter of time before I turned the same skeptical eye upon my own faith.” (pg. 79) I personally found this section of the book a little bit disjointed (not the writing so much as the chapter placement), but all of the elements certainly help to give the reader insight into what would eventually lead Rachel to a place of questioning key elements of her faith.
Challenge opens up with a conversation between Rachel and her friend Nathan, a soldier who was serving in Iraq. In this dialog, Nathan is able to put a face on some of the “sinners” in the world. And in the next chapter, Rachel puts a face on these same people through Zarmina, a Muslim woman executed on the charge of murdering her husband.
Chapter 8 was one of my favorites in the book. It opens:
So this is the point in the story where I turn to Jesus.
Don’t worry. There’s no alter call or soft light or repetitious droning of “Just as I Am,” no sudden realization that all of my questions are answered in a single verse, every doubt cast away by a moment of illuminations, just me in my sweats with a glass of wine and the familiar stories of Jesus spread before me on the kitchen table like an old family photo album that suddenly carries new meaning after a death or a divorce or a long overdue reconciliation. (pg. 101)
From there, she goes on to discuss lily-pad moments, where she navigates her way through her doubts, finding little moments of clarity to help her find her way back to faith. She talks about how we are now more connected than ever with the world and how, “People like Zarmina seemed a lot less like ‘them’ and a lot more like ‘us.'” (pg. 110)
Throughout this section, she examines issues like hell, difficult biblical passages, poverty, “God things” (like how good things we have are “God things” when they might just be because we were born at a certain time in a certain country to certain parents), evangelism, homosexuality and politics. I love that she doesn’t give answers, but simply presents her questions here. It is one of the things that I have always appreciated about her blog and it was so wonderful to see that carried over into the book.
The last few chapters in Change show how her questions led her to starting her blog and opening up the conversation to a wider audience and how that conversation has been shaping her own views. I particularly loved the following quote, “I am convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals. False fundamentals make it impossible for faith to adapt to change….When the gospel gets all entangled with extras, dangerous ultimatums threaten to take it down with them. The yoke gets too heavy and we stumble beneath it.” (pg. 207)
As someone who has struggled with some things that might be considered false fundamentals over the years, I found this book to be yet another breath of fresh air. I continue to be blessed by those who are willing to ask honest questions. Rachel does that through Evolving in Monkey Town in an honest and humorous manner. She shares her story in a manner that one can relate to easily and even if her journey is not your own, I believe you can learn from it. Really great read, one I would highly recommend!