Friday, 20 July 2012

Evolving in Monkey Town

Having had a rave about the seeming inhumanity of one of our favourite worship songs, perhaps now is as good a time as any to post my review of Rachel Held Evans' Evolving in Monkey Town.  I enjoy Evans' blog, with its combination of deep compassion and theological challenge, and wanted to read more.

In many ways Evans' spiritual journey has been like my own, from fundamentalism to a more liberal view of Christianity.  However, she was more deeply immersed in fundamentalism than I was, and has taken 20 fewer years to travel the path.  Perhaps this shows that she's smarter than me - she certainly writes better!

Evans grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, venue of the infamous "Scopes Monkey Trial" in 1925 in which school teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching the theory of evolution in his science class, contrary to Tennessee statute.  She went to fundamentalist Christian schools before attending Bryan University, named after William Jennings Bryan, the fundamentalist lawyer and politician who acted as prosecutor in the Scopes trial.  This is the heart of the American bible belt and she grew up surrounded by characters who seem like cliches from a satire on fundamentalism.  For me the most memorable is "June the Ten Commandments lady" who among other far-right political activities advocates the use of the Ten Commandments as the basis for American law.  This doesn't stop her from removing offending images from public places in the dead of night, contrary to the eighth commandment.

While most of the Tennessee fundamentalists looked sideways at June, the "mainstream" was not all that far to the left - biblical inerrancy, a six day creation taught as science in schools, salvation by grace, eternal damnation for all but believing Christians.  The specialty of Bryan College was fundamentalist apologetics, influenced by the philosophical and theological ideas of men like Francis Schaeffer and the biblical historicism of Josh McDowell.  Young Bryan College students were taught that their faith was based on unshakeable intellectual foundations.

Young Rachel Held excelled in this world.  She describes her deliberate, calculated strategy to win the Best Christian Attitude Award at school, planning acts of kindness with the aim of amassing maximum points, only to relax once scoring for the award was closed.  She remained an overachiever at high school and university - class president, youth group leader, spokeswoman for young fundamentalism, passionate evangelist frustrated by the fact that all her associates were already converted. 

What caused the collapse of this impressive card house was not so much growing intellectual maturity as a blinding flash of emotional intelligence.  Before the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, US television networks showed graphic footage of a Taliban execution, a young woman put on show trial and shot for the supposed murder of her husband.  Evans found herself burning with anger, not against the Taliban but against God.  Her unassailable, perfect religion taught her that this woman, after being victimised and executed in her life, would suffer the torments of hell because she was a Muslim.  How could God perpetrate such an injustice?

The collapse was rapid and catastrophic.  For a woman of such keen emotional intelligence, living in a tight-knit fundamentalist community, questioning fundamentalist Christianity was equivalent to questioning her entire identity and the value of her entire network of relationships.  Behind the theological doubts and questions there lies a story of visceral despair, of tears and depression, of kind but baffled parents, offended peers and long-suffering husband forced to live through the storm.  Yet she also discovered that she was not alone, that she was not the first to ask these questions and that there was life after fundamentalism.

For a woman of 30, as for a man of 50, this can hardly be the end of the journey but Evans lights a viable path from fundamentalism to the main stream of Christianity, with its more inclusive outlook, respect for other faiths, humility before legitimate doubts and questions, and concern for human suffering and injustice.  The path is not an easy one because a fundamentalist grounding does not prepare you well for a life of uncertainty.  Yet Evans shows, at least so far, that it is possible.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

You always have great reviews!