Chapter 16
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Fundamental Mistake

In a new memoir, Rachel Held Evans, a former evangelical Christian, describes her evolutionary approach to faith

In college, Rachel Held Evans had a crisis of faith: how, she wondered, can a loving god commit non-believers to hell? Can a scientifically and historically inaccurate Bible still be inerrant? How can a god of mercy allow poverty and injustice? Evans’s battle with such hermeneutical hobgoblins is the subject of Evolving in Monkey Town, an account of her eventual rejection of fundamentalist theology in favor of a faith that questions more than it answers. As Evans becomes increasingly uncomfortable with pat responses—that God’s ways are inscrutable, for example—she learns that belief must adapt and change in order to survive.

It’s appropriate that Evans should have her ecclesiastical meltdown within the confines of Bryan College. Located in the southeastern Tennessee town of Dayton—site of the infamous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial—the school is named for William Jennings Bryan, the Scopes prosecutor who was famously said to have won the case but lost the argument. Upon entering Bryan College, Evans and her fellow evangelicals hoped that “we would find likeminded friends, answers to all our questions about God, and husbands who would whisk us away from Dayton to some exotic location, like a mission field or a megachurch.”

It didn’t work out that way. After toeing the fundamentalist line for a goodly portion of her time at Bryan, Evans came to question the narrow Biblical worldview that drove academic life at the small Christian school. When she turned her newly acquired critical skills (learned during a Christian apologetics class) on her own faith, she found it every bit as fraught with paradox and contradiction as the humanistic and foreign belief systems she was being taught to refute. After watching documentary footage of an Afghani woman being executed by Taliban soldiers, Evans came to doubt not only God’s goodness but also his existence.

Upon graduation, Evans married and began a successful career in journalism, but she remained angry with God, she says, because of “the deep, entrenched sadness of this world.” As a last-ditch effort, she reread the Gospels, discovering along the way that Jesus’s skills as an apologist were lacking—“[H]e would have flunked out of any decent Christian liberal arts institution,” she says. But her realization that faith is more a matter of compassion and obedience than belief more than made up for what she lacked in intellectual assent: “Doubting is a difficult animal to master,” Evans writes, “because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God. The former has the potential to destroy faith; the latter has the power to enrich and refine it.”

As a writer Evans alternates between journalist and diarist, reporting on her transformation with remarkable self-awareness and accuracy. Her crisp sentences are alive with personal anecdotes and humorous self-parody. She recounts, for example, an email from a friend who was concerned she’d “become a universalist, or a Buddhist, or something really terrible, like an Anglican.” Most impressive is her tenacity, as her struggle to reconcile the truths of her heart with the harsh realities of human existence becomes an obsession.

For those raised outside fundamentalist homes, Evans’s conversion might seem a bit quaint. Her description of life as a postmodern Christian—it’s like “Jesus … in tennis shoes”—in particular sounds like it was lifted from a 1970s passion play. That Evans advocates for a Darwinian-style faith yet seems unwilling to accept those principles as they apply to ecology (“I consider myself an evolutionist—not necessarily of the scientific variety but of the faith variety”) also seems to weaken her argument for progressivism. Still, Evolving in Monkey Town is humorous and unblinking, full of insight about the struggle of remaining faithful to God in the midst of suffering and uncertainty. Evans clearly believes that in spiritual matters curiosity trumps conviction, and that’s enough evidence that conservative-leaning Christians, too, shouldn’t be painted with too broad a brush.