Evolving in Monkey Town: A Review and Response in Three Parts

On my flight home to visit family in Tennessee two weeks ago I decided to finally read Rachel Held Evans’ first book Evolving in Monkey Town.  I have read Rachel’s blog pretty regularly for a while now and have frequently found it to be a refreshing perspective sympathetic to my own relationship to the evangelicalism I grew up with, so I was excited to finally read this book.

Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rachel grew up in both Birmingham, Alabama and Dayton, Tennessee, attended Bryan College (named for William Jennings Bryan, who was the prosecuting attorney and “defender of Christianity” at the famed Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton), and since graduating in 2003 has worked as a writer, speaker, and blogger based in Dayton. Evolving in Monkey Town is her first book and alternates between short vignettes from her experience growing up in evangelicalism and theological reflections on the challenges she sees to the evangelical tradition.

As a native of Tennessee myself who almost attended Bryan College but instead ended up spending my college years at another Christian college in Birmingham with which Evans has connections, I can relate first hand to a great deal of Rachel’s experience of Christianity.

I also connect a great deal with many of her own questions, doubts, and journey from the evangelicalism she was taught as a child to her current understanding of faith.  For those reasons Evolving in Monkey Town was a personally enthralling read, drawing me in from the earliest pages as I saw much of my own experience reflected in the one being portrayed.

Evangelical Apologetics According to Rachel Held Evans

Something that surprised me in reading Evolving in Monkey Town was the frequent mention of apologetics As an alumni of Southeastern Bible College’s Philosophy and Apologetics program this heightened the sense that this story was also my story in a way that I hadn’t expected and it also shed new light on an aspect of my own experience that I had not reflected on particularly critically prior to reading this book.  This revelation happened because of the way that Rachel connected the experience of studying apologetics to the history of the evangelical movement.  Rachel writes:

What was happening at Bryan College was happening in evangelical schools and churches across the country during the apologetics movement of the 1970’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s.  Born of the necessity to more effectively engage modernism and avoid embarrassments like the Scopes trial, the apologetics movement in America represented a significant evolution within the evangelical subculture, an evolution away from blind faith, anti-intellectualism, and cultural withdrawal toward hard rationalism, systematic theology, and political action.  You might say it was the culmination of modern Enlightenment values applied specifically to religious dialogue.  (75)

Evangelicalism as it exists today has often been described by historians of the movement as an intentional stepping away from fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism, on this historical model, was a reaction to the rise of classical liberalism in American denominations and seminaries during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  The fundamentalists reacted by pulling out of those denominations and seminaries, founding their own schools and churches and withdrawing from engagement with the wider society.

At some point, the narrative goes, conservative Christian leaders began to recognize that they actually needed to engage with society and with modernism, and so after World War II there began to be an increasing push toward a more open, culturally relevant neo-evangelicalism, which evolved into the evangelical movement as it exists in America today.

Rachel works with this basic narrative, but she adds a nuance to the portrayal of the evangelical story which I think is both extremely insightful and more historically true than the narrative as it normally stands.  Rachel suggests throughout the book that the engagement with culture that neo-evangelicalism sought out is not so much about dialogue with the wider culture as it is about definitively demonstrating the error of that culture and the overwhelming rationality of Christianity.

In other words, she seems to suggest, a generation or two after fundamentalism withdrew from cultural engagement, licking its wounds from the embarrassment of the Scopes Monkey Trial and other similar events, conservative Christianity came back for vengeance, armed with rational, systematic arguments that could go head-to-head with its liberal and secular opposition in the battle for American minds and souls.

This portrayal doesn’t quite line up with the more idealistic picture of early neo-evangelicalism that historians like Stanley Grenz or Roger Olson might put forward, but I think it might be more accurate.  What those figures want to emphasize is the engagement with culture that the movement exhibited post-World War II, an engagement that opened up the door to the kinds of theological conversations these progressive evangelical thinkers are advocating.  Evans story is a little bit different, emphasizing instead the desire of the movement to win back the ground it had lost when fundamentalism was laughed out of the court of public opinion that opened the day William Jennings Bryan stepped into the Dayton Courthouse.  Engagement with the wider culture in her telling of the tale is an intentional strategy, giving evangelicalism the opportunity to critique the broader culture and argue for the Christian alternative.  The way she tells the tale, the contemporary evangelical movement has always been a hybrid political-spiritual undertaking aimed at winning converts and realigning the American cultural landscape.

Rachel Held Evans Versus Conservative Evangelicalism

There are consequences to every strategy.  Rachel’s own experience illustrates quite well some of the consequences of the intentional strategy of engagement evangelicals adopted with the apologetics movement:

You might say that the apologetics movement had created a monster.  I’d gotten so good at critiquing all of 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.  It occurred to me that in worldview class, we laughed at how transcendentalists so serenely embraced paradox and contradiction, but then went on to theology class and accepted without question that Jesus existed as both fully God and fully man.  We criticized radical Islam as a natural outworking of the violent tone of the Qur’an without acknowledging the fact that the God of Israel ordered his people to kill every living thing in Canaan, from the elderly to the newborn.  We sneered at the notion of climate change yet believed that God once made the earth stand still.  We accused scientists of having an agenda, of ignoring science that contradicted the evolution paradigm, but engaged in some mental gymnastics of our own, trying to explain how it’s possible to see the light from distant stars.  We mocked New Age ambiguity but could not explain the nature of the Trinity.  We claimed that ours was a rational, logical faith, when it centered on the God of the universe wrapping himself in flesh to be born in a manger in Bethlehem.

Most worrisome, however, was how we criticized relativists for picking and choosing truth, while our own biblical approach required some selectivity of its own.  For example, I was taught that the Bible served as a guidebook for Christian dating and marriage, but no one ever suggested that my father had the right to sell me to the highest bidder or take multiple wives, like Abraham.  Homosexuality was preached against incessantly, but little was said of gluttony or greed.  We decried the death of each aborted baby as a violation of the sanctity of human life but shrugged off the deaths of Iraqi children as expected collateral damage in a war against evil.  We celebrated archaeological finds that supported the historical claims of the Bible yet discounted massive amounts of scientific evidence in support of an old earth.  (79-80)

I think the experience Rachel describes, especially in that last paragraph, represents an extreme challenge to the conservative evangelical project.  I also think it envisions a new way of understanding progressive or post-conservative evangelicalism that is much more powerful than the narrative typically given to describe such movements.

By describing what they are doing as engagement or dialogue with the broader culture, figures like Olson and Grenz open themselves up to a major critique from more conservative evangelical voices: they have caved to the liberal or secular agenda.  At some point I stopped reading Roger Olson’s blog because every post seemed to be about defending himself from the suggestion that he wasn’t adequately evangelical.  As much as I might respect and be inspired by his theological perspective, after about the 80th time of reading that story I was a bit bored.

What Evans is doing is something different, I think.  Evans is actually questioning the very logic of the conservative evangelical project.  She is asking if conservative evangelical systems and arguments measure up to the same standards used to critique their opposition.  She is asking if the conservative evangelical worldview is actually biblical.

This has profound and powerful consequences.  Evans is effectively challenging conservative evangelicalism at its own game.  If she succeeds in showing that the conservative worldview is not as biblical as it claims or that there might be some alternative worldview that is equally biblical serious damage to the conservative evangelical project has been done.  It is no wonder she meets such hostility from conservative leaders!

The way she makes this argument has a lot to do with hermeneutics.  Evans makes two claims:  first, that a biblical worldview needs to make sense of as much of the bible as possible and second, that conservative evangelicals are often guilty instead of picking and choosing passages or verses on which to base their theological positions while ignoring others and often misunderstanding the big picture presented in scripture.  She concludes that in reality the Bible contains too many different voices and differing perspectives for a single, monochromatic biblical worldview to emerge.  But in saying this she is advancing a biblical worldview all its own, one that dwells in dialogue and tension rather than in absolutes based on selectively chosen biblical sound-bites.

We will examine more carefully the structure of this alternative worldview in post three of this series.  First, we have to examine the main constellation of questions that first led Evans on this journey, which is what we will turn to in a second post tomorrow.


What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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