Rachel Held Evans is a young author, a talented writer, with a story of common experience to tell. Rachel’s book, Evolving in Monkey Town, is the memoir of a young Christian wrestling with the meaning and implications of Christian faith. It is well written and easy to read, with a thread of encouragement for the future.
Rachel grew up in the south – Alabama and Tennessee – in a culture of conservative Bible belt Christianity. She graduated from Bryan College in Dayton Tennessee, founded in 1930 and named after William Jennings Bryan, remembered today primarily for his role in the Scopes trial. Playing off the history of the Scopes trial, the theme of Rachel’s memoir is the evolution of faith – not the evolution of Christianity, as though we are moving from an inferior past to a more highly developed form for the future, but the evolution of faith required in each of us as we seek to live as Christians for the future.
I am going to put up a few posts on Evolving in Monkey Town. Justin Topp reviewed the book for this blog (here) and I am not going to review it again. Rather I would like to pose some of the questions raised in the book and open them up for discussion. The first question, and perhaps the most significant, is the evolution of faith itself.
How has your faith changed over the years?
What role should tradition play in our understanding of the Christian faith?
In the introduction to Evolving in Monkey Town Rachel describes the situation quite well.
To survive in a new, volatile environment, I had to shed old convictions and grow new ones in their place. I had to take a closer look at what I believed and figure out what was truly essential. I went from the security of crawling around on all fours in the muck and mire of my inherited beliefs to the vulnerability of standing, my head and heart exposed, in the truth of my own spiritual experience. I evolved, not into a better creature than those around me but into a better, more adapted me – a me who wasn’t afraid of her own ideas and doubts and intuitions, a me whose faith could survive change.
While evolution on a broad, historical scale happens every now and then, evolution within the souls of individuals happens every day, whenever we adapt our faith to change. Evolution means letting go of our false fundamentals so that God can get into those shadowy places we’re not sure we want him to be. It means being okay with being wrong, okay with not having all the answers, okay with never being finished. (p 22-23)
One of the most important lessons from Rachel’s journey is the need to examine the faith, to look with new eyes at the whole of Christian tradition through the millennia, to be willing to question answers from the past as we look to the future. The world, even the Christian world, is a big place. One certainty is that every local manifestation of the church, trying to follow Jesus, gets some things right and some things very wrong. Our task moving forward is not to dump Christianity for something better and more “rational” nor is it to cling to our local tradition and interpretation.
There are significant challenges to the Christian faith raised by many aspects of modern life. The issues raised by science can require a great deal of effort to think through – evolution, the nature of sin, the role of death, the place for purpose and divine action – these are not issues to be brushed off lightly and disregarded. Science played only a small role in Rachel’s doubts and questions. She isn’t a scientist and the questions raised by biological evolution were second-hand. Science plays a much larger role for me and for many others, especially those who go on to study in various scientific disciplines. The question is not authority and which authority to accept, but how to reconcile all that is known into a consistent understanding. Denial of biological evolution and the evidence for evolution creates a divide that destroys, for some of us anyway, the possibility of a flourishing faith. The realization that the Christian faith does not depend on the inerrancy of earlier understandings of the faith was instrumental in my growth in faith as a scientist. This was an essential insight. Our faith can adapt to new understandings and new facts and grow in the process.
The conflict between science and the Christian faith isn’t the whole story. Other issues were at the root of Rachel’s questions and concerns. The overall question of approach, however, is the same and is the kind of approach to faith that I found and find essential. The evolution of faith involves letting go of false fundamentals and loving God with our whole being, body, mind, soul, and strength. I will put up another post or two on some of the other issues raised in the book, but today I would like to stop here and open a discussion the role that our view of the world plays in shaping faith and the way faith can change, adapting to new circumstances, both in individual Christians and in the church as a whole.
What do you think?
Does loving God with our whole being, including our whole mind, require an adaptable approach with room for an evolving faith?
How does faith adapt to changes in human knowledge and perspective? What limits would you place on this adaptability?
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