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 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.
In the first post of this series I discussed a common aspect of Rachel’s journey and my own experiences in evangelicalism, namely an emphasis on apologetics, and how reading Rachel’s book has challenged me to think a bit more critically about the way that aspect of our experience connects to the history of evangelicalism and prompts serious questions about the very core of the conservative evangelical project.
In the second post I reflected on Rachel’s re-formulation of the problem of evil to ask about the morality of divine judgment if God has determined every aspect of our being. The interesting and unique thing about this formulation of the problem of evil is that it is aimed very specifically at neo-Reformed evangelical theology. Rachel finds some solace from this problem in the diversity of Christian thought beyond the neo-Reformed paradigm and in an understanding of election not as a pre-condition based on our worldview but as a calling to service toward others.
This understanding of election brings us back to the main objective of Evans’ book, which is the proposing of an alternative biblical worldview from that found in the conservative evangelical project. This alternative biblical worldview is one that understands faith not as a set of knowledge claims but as an act of obedience and the church not as a community with all the answers but as one that provides a space for asking questions.
Rachel Held Evans and Southern Evangelicalism
Rachel is very open about the way in which her context shaped her theological journey. Trained to zealously evangelize in a culture where Christianity was taken as second nature, she became increasingly focused on what we might call theological evangelism, making sure, in her words, that people were
the right kind of Christian who
knew what they believed and why they believed it (42). After the challenge of the problem of evil forced her to doubt much of the conservative evangelical faith she had been taught, Rachel revisited the gospels looking for answers. There she found several things, including a renewed awareness of the hermeneutical inadequacy of many traditional evangelical understandings of Jesus, a sense of the mercy and grace she needed to begin assuaging her concerns about divine justice being evil, and a different understanding of faith:
The final and most startling thing I noticed as I grew more acquainted with the Gospels was that Jesus had a very different view of faith than the one to which I was accustomed. I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime in my late teens or early twenties, it was as if Jesus packed his bags and moved from my heart into my head. He became an idea, a sort of theological mechanism by which salvation was attained. I described him in terms of atonement, logos, the object of my faith, and absolute truth. He was something I agreed to, not someone I followed. Perhaps because I spent so much time as a student, I thought about faith in terms of believing the right things about Jesus. Born of a virgin? Check. Fully God and fully man? Check. Without sin? Check. Sacrificed on the cross on our behalf? Check. Checking the right things off the list meant the difference between salvation and damnation. It was what separated Christians form non-Christians, or as I liked to say, believers from nonbelievers.
But Jesus rarely framed discipleship in terms of intellectual assent to a set of propositional statements. He didn’t walk new converts down the Romans Road or ask Peter to draft a doctrinal statement before giving him the keys to the kingdom. His method of evangelism varied from person to person and generally involved a dramatic change of lifestyle rather than a simple change of mind. To Jesus, “by faith alone” did not mean “by belief alone.” To Jesus, faith was invariably linked to obedience. (105)
This new understanding of faith as a call to obedience leads Rachel to question whether our insistence on theological correctness doesn’t turn Jesus into a
theological deus ex machina whose sole purpose is to ensure our eternal destiny. She finds in scripture, with the help of NT Wright, a different perspective, one that sees Jesus as opening the door to the kingdom here and now. This view carries with it some semi-Wesleyan notions about sanctification and the overcoming of sin, but Rachel makes no Pelagian leap to the idea of accomplishing complete sinlessness. She instead emphasizes the very Pauline notion of liberation through Christ to experience a new life of faith. Though she and I may not agree on every detail of this account, on a whole I think that Rachel’s presentation of the meaning of faith and its implications for the present-day lives of Christians reflects a much more biblical understanding than that which I learned growing up and have heard echoed in many (though certainly not all) evangelical churches and theologians throughout my life.
Re-Assessing the Evangelical Understanding of Scripture
This new notion of faith also leads Rachel to question the necessity and the possibility of a theology that is simultaneously systematic and biblical.
The Bible represents a cacophony of voices. It is a text teeming with conflict and contrast, brimming with paradox, held together by creative tension, she writes (189). Lest this be taken as a cop-out to avoid dealing with challenges to her views from the scripture, Evans gives us a reason for why such tension exists: community. She writes:
For as long as I can remember, the Christian response to conflicts within Scripture has been to try and explain them away, to smooth over the rough spots and iron out the kinks. The goal is to get everyone on the same page, to come up with one consistent, coherent, and comprehensive biblical worldview so that we can confidently proclaim that God indeed has an opinion about everything, including politics, economics, theology, science, and sex. We think that if we can just have a perfect, seamless book that can be read objectively and without bias, we will have the ultimate weapon. There will be no need for a God who stays hidden up on Mount Sinai, and there will be no need for each other. Instead, we will have a physical representation of God on which to dwell, personal idols made of paper and ink.
As much as I struggle with the things I don’t like about the Bible– the apparent contradictions, the competing interpretations, the troubling passages– I’m beginning to think that God allows these tensions to exist for a reason. Perhaps our love for the Bible should be measured not by how valiantly we fight to convince others of our interpretations but by how diligently we work to preserve a diversity of opinion. (194)
Rachel’s understanding of community revolves around people who are willing to enter into a conversation with one another, and having a conversation implies having and considering multiple points of view rather than insisting on having all the answers already figured out. This ideal of community, she elaborates later in the book, involves providing a space where people are comfortable asking tough questions, where people don’t feel the need to have all the answers, where people are free to take part in their own journey. It is this kind of community that Rachel finds modeled in the
cacophony of voices that we find in scripture itself.
In some respects, I think, this dialogical view of scripture reflects Rachel reading her own wishes for what Christian community should look like, no doubt based on her own experiences and journey, into the text. Though I find her vision of a community rooted in diversity and dialogue compelling, I’m not certain that her account of the purpose of diversity within scripture can withstand scrutiny fully intact. However, what Rachel has done is provide an explanation for what I think is an undeniable fact: scripture does contain a huge range of perspectives and diverse points of view, and they don’t always line up to one another in any sort of straightforward manner. Rather than taking the normal evangelical line of attempting to force the diverse perspectives into some sort of systematic framework (which invariably must overlook or gloss certain aspects of the biblical witness), Rachel has held up the diversity itself as an end in its own right, and whether or not her rationale stands in its entirety, her effort to thereby provide a complete picture of the biblical witness which adequately honors all aspects of the text deserves recognition.
Two vignettes from my own experience to close out this review of Rachel’s book:
First, a couple of years ago I presented a paper on Augustine’s hermeneutics at a conference of biblical scholars in New England (you can read the paper, titled “Augustine’s Hermeneutics in a Modern Context” on the Articles and Papers page). Though he is considered by most scholars the architect of Western Orthodoxy, Augustine’s hermeneutics would hardly fit into a contemporary evangelical paradigm. He doesn’t believe authorial intention is the hallmark of true interpretation. He doesn’t believe texts have just one meaning. He doesn’t believe everything taught in the Bible is literally true or morally commendable. He doesn’t believe the Bible is totally without contradiction. But what he does argue for is the idea that the best interpretations of scripture are the ones that make the most sense out of the most aspects of the text. In other words, that context is king and that the reading that can put the most pieces together into a coherent picture is the best reading. I think Rachel is advocating a very Augustinian hermeneutic, and in that sense I think, perhaps ironically, that she holds a more orthodox understanding of the Bible than many contemporary evangelicals.
Second, about four years ago I was at a conference of evangelical scholars in which I sat in on a panel discussion that included Peter Enns. Enns was under a lot of fire at the time (and probably still is) because his scholarship was considered too liberal. He took a moment in the discussion to respond to his critics.
Some people say that my scholarship has gone beyond the bounds of what is acceptable for evangelical scholarship, he said.
My response to that is to say that I think we should be more concerned about the discovery of truth in our scholarship than preserving the boundaries of a particular label. At that moment this bold statement was really inspiration and liberating for me as a young evangelical student of theology who was beginning to ask questions and worried about their implications. After reading Evans’ book, I look back at that moment and wonder if what Enns should have said to his challengers was this: “It’s actually you who aren’t being evangelical enough. A good reading of the Bible should be able to make sense of the things I am pointing out in the text, and if you can’t do that then you either aren’t fully investigating the text, you aren’t fully appreciating the text, or you are imposing your own beliefs on the text, all of which make your interpretation fall short of truly understanding what the Bible means, which is what we are supposed to be about as evangelical scholars.” Perhaps that response is a bit too wordy, but the point is, I wonder if what figures like Enns and Evans are doing, which seems to be pushing beyond the traditional evangelical answers to make the most sense out of the most aspects of the Bible, isn’t actually more thoroughly biblical, and therefore more genuinely evangelical, than what their detractors are doing.