Evolution of Faith

I read Rachel Held Evan‘s fabulous book Evolving in Monkey Town (now called Faith Unraveled) recently.  Devoured it actually.  The last day or so.  It was that good.

It’s a memoir by a twenty-something recovering evangelical (I should probably say “fundamentalist”) Christian who thought she had all the answers, that is until she had doubts herself.  Especially when it came to God being portrayed as cold, hard and uncaring by tossing thousands of people into hell each day.  Rachel is the daughter of a more conservative theologian and grew up immersed in the evangelical Christian sub-culture (one that is very familiar to me) in Dayton, TN, home of the Scopes Monkey trial, hence the name of the book.  Her questions often are met with pat answers to inferences about losing her eternal salvation.

Rachel tries to reconcile her ideas and faith in God with the world as she has come to experience it. But it’s hard when she has spent much of her life being told she needs to be ready for questions from unbelievers so they can be led to conversion.  She mentions attending an apologetics camp in the summer to learn the appropriate way to disarm combatants of the faith.

While she is certainly questioning her upbringing, I don’t hear much anger in her tone. She’s both grateful, it seems to me, for what she learned and also eager to evolve in her faith.  If she didn’t have the faith of her childhood, I don’t know how much evolving would take place.

As an Episcopal priest, I both laughed and knew exactly what she meant when she described an email sent by a concerned friend.  This friend had heard that she’d “become a universalist, or a Buddhist, or something really terrible like an Anglican” because Rachel questioned if God really created so many people in order to damn them to hell.  The response from that friend led to a great conversation of “pond-scum theology” in which we should just be happy God lets any of us receive eternal salvation since we are all so horrific due to our sin nature and our complete non-redeeming value.

She gets to the very heart of the matter when she writes, “If I’ve learned anything over the past five years, it’s that doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves. It helps us cast off false fundamentals so that we can recover what had been lost or embrace what is new.”  By writing that I’m sure she faced the scrutiny (and certainly the complete dismissal) of some still deeply entrenched in the more conservative circles of Christianity.  That she is bound for hell even writing that.

But questions about the wideness of God’s mercy when it comes to the execution of a Muslim woman in Afghanistan who would have been eternally damned (according to the worldview espoused in her childhood), and how to find heaven here on earth show that she has evolved in her faith.  Does she have all the answers? Heavens no.  But her questions are deeper, richer, and we are certainly blessed by finding our own story in hers and by asking better questions ourselves.

As one who has also evolved in the faith, has asked hard questions of God, and more importantly, in the issues of faith about God that I had always been taught, I found this memoir fantastic, poignant and very close to home. Even if your journey hasn’t been through a conservative Evangelical experience, I think you’ll find Rachels’ stories rewarding and thought-provoking.

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Andy Staley

Interesting. I haven’t read the book obviously, so I guess it is now on my list. My one question, though… Why are Anglicans held in such low regard? Are we not passionate enough? It seems kind of silly, given that we hold one very important Person in a common highest regard. There shall ever be the tyranny of purity, it would seem.