Returning to blogging business with a long long overdue book review. Seriously, I mentioned this book over a month ago. Whoops! Presenting some thoughts on Rachel Held Evans’ new memoir Evolving in Monkey Town.

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It’s been a little while since I finished Evolving in Monkey Town. Every time I try to write a review, my mind goes wandering down a rabbit trail into ideas that deserve posts of their own, more coherently phrased.

I’d say that’s a good thing. Monkey Town is kind of like a little sign with a painted arrow on it that shows me where the trails are and begs me to follow. Not monkeys, but rabbits.

Okay. Enough animal metaphors. Bear with me… I’m trying to review a book here. =)

Faith Evolution

Evolving in Monkey Town is, at least on the surface, a memoir exploring the notion of doubt and questions, much like Jason Boyett did with O Me of Little Faith. Though recent articles and blogs would describe it as the story of a girl from the Bible Belt embracing evolution, the “evolving” in the title is less about big bangs and monkeys and more about faith evolution, that sometimes, in order for faith to survive life’s harsh environments, it has to evolve not through having the answers, but through asking questions. Questioning faith isn’t always a popular approach in the evangelical world, but in Rachel’s story, it turns out that, “In the end, it was doubt that saved [her] faith.” (pg 119)

Rachel grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. (For those like me who are bad at history, you can get the Wikipedia’d version here) This is a place deep in the heart of the South where apologetics rules and faith defines you like your last name. In her story, she talks about her Christian upbringing with a theologian father and kind-hearted teacher mother, a combination of “bleeding heart” and “cautious idealism” that she jokingly says “accidentally made me into a liberal.” (pg 30) For years, she felt certain of her faith, her identity, until a post-9/11 video of a Muslim woman named Zarmina’s unjust execution brought her to a “faith malfunction.” (pg 89) She describes the crisis in painfully honest detail:

“Suddenly abstract concepts about heaven and hell, election and free will, religious pluralism and exclusivism had a name: Zarmina. I felt like I could come to terms with Zarmina’s suffering if it were restricted to this lifetime, if I knew that God would grant her some sort of justice after death. But the idea that this woman passed from agony to agony, from torture to torture, from a lifetime of pain and sadness to an eternity of pain and sadness, all because she had less information about the gospel than I did, seemed cruel, even sadistic.” (91)

In print, the questions look so hard, so bitter, but Rachel captures well the storm in the soul, the darkness of doubt. What follows is her own story of redemption, coming to terms with growing up, the highs and lows of following Christ, and keeping her faith through the struggles, even when it’s hard. She wrestles openly with the struggles and comes out stronger through them.

Rather than focus on her story and thoughts the whole time, Rachel also mixes in chapters devoted to a variety of people in her life: the “Ten Commandments Lady,” the apologist, the evangelist, her husband Dan “the Fixer,” and a faithful widow in India. Each story presents a different facet of the diverse family of believers, and shows how each person has contributed to her faith journey.

What really matters

This is a book that left me thinking… for a long time. Have you ever just felt restless over something, but not sure what it was? Felt a doubt you didn’t know you could name (or perhaps were afraid to say out loud)? Rachel’s story give a voice and a face to some of those niggling, difficult concepts… the idea of people who have never even heard of Jesus going to hell, for instance. In the face of such a crisis, one is left to either walk away from God altogether or learn to live with the questions without letting it shatter their beliefs. Though her questions can be unsettling, I felt encouraged in her reminders that God is big enough to handle our struggles, and loving enough to call us home.

For me, this book really brought me to a point of examining my own fundamentals. What is essential to my faith, and what ideas could be shaken without destroying it? And how does this affect the way I relate to fellow Christians when we disagree?

It takes time to wrap your mind around this story, but that’s a good thing. Rachel treats her topic and fellow Christians with respect while openly discussing the hangups and confusions she feels about the God she loves. The content is very similar to other books in the genre, but she lends her own unique voice to the ongoing conversation.

Really, I’d love to sit down and have coffee with her after reading this. I could relate to her story a lot, from the intensity and certainty of her evangelical upbringing, to her gentler, tested faith today, and I found myself rooting for her through the story of her faith crisis. Of course, the disclaimer for Jason Boyett’s book holds true for this one as well — “It’s not for the strong of faith yet faint of heart” — and it won’t give you deep theology or all the answers. But if you’re looking for a story that’s articulate, funny, real, and hopeful, Rachel Held Evans is a smart, engaging young writer that’s worth getting to know.

Review copy provided by Zondervan.

About Rachel:

Rachel Held Evans is an award-winning writer from Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, releases with Zondervan July 1, 2010. She blogs at http://rachelheldevans.com.

Read an excerpt of Evolving in Monkey Town

Buy the book at Amazon.com

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