Book Review: Evolving in Monkey Town

I was honored to receive an early copy of Rachel Held Evans‘ debut book, Evolving in Monkey Town: How a girl who knew all the answers learned to ask the questions, and I am now happy to offer a review of it.

Rachel and I have gotten to be “blog friends” over the past year or so, as I was tipped off by a mutual friend that her blog needed a Catholic commenter. I’m always happy to oblige in that department, so I went on over and have been reading her posts and interacting with her and her other readers ever since. She has a fun blog and asks good questions, and she’s open to hearing peoples’ answers–a rare quality.

So what’s the book about?

In a sentence, it’s about how Rachel went from Fundamentalism to a more thoughtful kind of Christianity.

That other kind of Christianity is something like liberal Protestantism plus some Emergent ideas plus some Catholic social justice teaching plus some things that don’t have labels yet because they’re uniquely hers. And in my opinion the kind of Christian she has become is a much better thing than the Fundamentalism she grew up in. Why?

Because if you don’t ask questions and dig for answers; if you don’t question the seeming contradictions between your faith and the the larger world (and even things you see within yourself), then you’re not going to grow deeper in the truth of Christ.

My Favorite Parts

Rachel grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial from last century, and much of the book recounts anecdotes and paints little vignettes of the intriguing people and events she experienced during her upbringing.

She was steeped from birth in a particular kind of Evangelical Protestantism, the effects of which she describes incisively:

You might say that were were born ready with answers. We grew up with a fervent devotion to the inerrancy of the Bible and learned that whatever the question might be, an answer could be found within its pages. We knew what atheists and humanists and Buddhists believed before we actually met any atheists or humanists or Buddhists, and we knew how to effectively discredit their worldviews before ever encountering them on our own.

To experience the knowledge of Jesus Christ, we didn’t need to be born again; we simply needed to be born. Our parents, teachers, and our favorite theologians took it from there, providing us with all the answers before we ever had time to really wrestle with the questions.

I love it! I didn’t grow up in such a milieu, so it is all the more fascinating to read about it. A recurrent theme in the book is Rachel’s struggle to reconcile the injustice of the belief she grew up with that God would damn those who weren’t (specifically) Evangelical Protestant Christians to hell, punishing them for the accident of where they were born while rewarding those like her who happened to be born in Christian-central, USA.

Another great passage:

Some Christians are more offended by the idea of everyone going to heaven than by the idea of everyone going to hell. I learned this the hard way, as reports about my faith crisis spread around town and rumors that I’d become a universalist found their way back to me in a wave of concerned emails and phone calls. Once news of your backsliding makes it to the prayer chain, it’s best just to resign yourself to your fate.

I knew that my chances for winning another Best Christian Attitude Award [she won this 4 years in a row growing up!] were all but extinct when a former professor asked me when I’d started studying Buddhism.

The form of Christianity that Rachel grew up with was the black and white, “we all deserve hell so it’s a wonder that anyone is saved so be grateful” variety, and her town is small enough for the word to get around pretty quickly when she began expressing doubts about the kind of Christianity that she had been taught.

Later she told the story of the yearly Judgment Day “celebration,” held around Halloween time, where all the churches would decorate their sanctuaries and basements for elaborate plays intended to show how everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus goes to Hell. They inevitably end in an altar call:

Usually, several hundred kids committed (or recommitted or re-recommitted) their lives to Jesus as a result of the Judgment Day house [but then they backslid immediately into their old sinful ways]…I can’t say I blame them. After all, the pastor had gone to great lengths to remind everyone that good works don’t really count for anything, that choosing to live like Jesus did was something we could do for extra credit but didn’t matter much in the long run. Living like Jesus was important, but it had no saving power.

I have encountered this “re-re-recommitting” in Evangelical Protestantism a lot, both in myself and in others. The ironic thing is that the Catholic “system” is the one that is supposed to rob people of their peace and assurance of salvation, leading them to fearfully re-commit to God using the “sacramental system,” yet the reality is often quite different: Rachel in another place tells the story of the doubting young man she grew up with who recommitted to Jesus every single year at Bible summer camp.

Such people of sometimes-wavering faith were not warmly welcomed in her milieu, but in my experience these “doubters” are the majority of Christians–including me–ones who often struggle to believe, who fall and repent and get back up and fall again and feel the need to recommit to Christ again and again in their life–continual conversion it’s called sometimes. The Catholic Church understands that this is normal and is “okay”: the sacrament of Reconciliation was tailor-made for it. Evangelical Protestantism doesn’t have any way to recommit other than private prayer, so some people choose to use the altar call to recommit or even get baptized again (the idea being that since it is only symbolic anyway, it doesn’t matter if you do it multiple times).

Rachel doesn’t claim to be a theologian or Church historian, and sometimes the examples she uses from history to illustrate her examples demonstrate popular Protestant misunderstandings, but these aren’t many and the point she makes still holds, in spite of the inaccuracies. For example:

Where would we be if the apostle Peter had not doubted the necessity of food laws, or if Martin Luther had not doubted the notion that salvation can be purchased?

Yes, it is good to ask questions so that you can gain understanding of the reasons for the faith, but Luther needed to do that a good deal more, since the Catholic Church never had a doctrine that said “salvation can be purchased.” This is a misunderstanding based on the fact that indulgences were sold during Luther’s day, a practice which was abused by greedy clerics. Indulgences can do nothing to gain your salvation. In spite of a few of these Protestant misconceptions cropping up occasionally, the book offers little that is problematic for the Catholic reader. I was cheering Rachel on throughout it, happy that she was asking tough questions and not being satisfied with answers that didn’t make sense.

Who should read this book?

Anyone interested in what is going on in the minds and hearts of many young Christians who are coming of age and facing a challenging world. Rachel says that fundamentalists’ faith must either evolve and adapt or go extinct, and I think many others are discovering that reality as well.

I would also suggest that you buy the book as a gift for any friends or family you have who are Fundamentalists or unquestioning Evangelicals. They will be able to relate to Rachel’s experiences growing up and hopefully be intrigued by the direction that God has led her.

The book is relatively short and is a lot of fun to read, so check it out and then head over to Rachel’s blog to engage in the discussion!

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