Evolving in Monkey Town

I came to this book thinking that it was about someone coming to embrace evolution over creation. That seemed like a fair assumption in light of the fact the author is from Dayton, TN and the title has the word “evolving” in it. But I’m glad this was a mistake on my part; the content of this book was far more delightful. Rachael Held Evans tells her story of growing up in the fundamentalist ethos of the South, the painful process of doubting what she was taught to believe, and learning how to adapt to the changes so as to retain her faith. While her spiritual memiors were published when she was only twenty-seven years old, Monkey Town displays a maturity and wisdom that is well beyond her age.

While the metaphor of evolution she uses to describe her process is not always apt (her “mutations” were not random), Evans gives a detailed account of how she changed from being  passionately certain of her “Christian worldview” to learning how to live with her perplexing questions while continuing to trust Jesus. The beauty of her story is not found so much in the sorts of answers she suggests, but in how she is impacted by the questions and learns to cope with the misery of doubt. Her doubt was good for her faith in that it functioned as a kind of “agent of selection,” weeding out bad beliefs and allowing the good one’s to flourish.

Receiving her education at Bryan College in Dayton, TN (named after William Jennings Brayn), she learned everything she needed to know in order to contend for the “Christian worldview.” Diligent teachers taught her the basics of systematic theology and apologetics; for every question about God and the world, there was a corresponding answer that could be found in an encyclopedic tome. But she came to experience a concrete manifestation of the problem of evil when she watched the videotaped execution of a Muslim woman named Zarmina. In one instant, her belief in a benevolent, all-powerful God was shaken, and she could not believe that Zarmina went straight to hell after dying such a cruel death. The problems of evil and religious pluralism became insuperable, and Evans came to see her blessed lot in life as merely the result of a great “cosmic lottery,” not the providence of a good and wise God.

Attending to this story are the sideshows of religious bigotry that unfortunately manifest in “June the Ten Commandments Lady” (who praises God for the assassination of MLK), and a Dayton city ordinance outlawing homosexuality. Nothing induces doubt quite like angry Christians who become known for nothing but their hate.

Yet through her travels, Evans meets an illiterate widow from India who is thankful to Christ for saving her from the slums and and the deadly effects of the HIV virus. Yet, isn’t she a victim of the cosmic lottery? “If anyone has a right to complain, they do,” she writes. “And yet the widows and orphans in India were actually less angry with God than I was. In fact, they loved him in a way I couldn’t quite understand.” This incident functions as a turning point for Evans who begins to ‘doubt her doubts,’ so to speak. Along the way, she learns that many of her assumptions about God were unwarranted, and after an in depth study of the gospels, she encountered the person of Jesus as one who came to liberate:

Following Jesus would mean liberation from my bitterness, my worry, my self-righteousness, my prejudices, my selfishness, my materialism, and my misplaced loyalties. Following Jesus would mean salvation from my sin.

While this seems like it should be Christianity 101, Evans shows the reader a deeper sense of it in the life of Christ, not just his death.

Perhaps it because I relate so much with going through this sort of process in a similar context, but I will say that if I ever have to teach a Christian worldview-style class, this book will be assigned reading. Learning how to take one’s faith seriously in the midst of doubt and challenges is more important than passing tests about the differences between theism and naturalism or what have you. In fact, I would go so far to say that aspects of her college education set her up for failure. Such worldview-based programs assume students have the virtues of faith to flourish; if only they were equipped with a few more tools of discernment, they would be “roaring lambs.” What’s conspicuously absent from most curricula is an exposition of how Jesus viewed the world and how his closest followers have labored to make his view their own in an world full of trouble and unbelief. In a very personal and indirect way, Evans does just that.