Rachel Held Evans and Evolution

My wife and I are going through two books simultaneously, reading a chapter aloud from each before we fall asleep: Crazy Love by Francis Chan and Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans.

There’s some tension between these two books. On the one hand, Evans’ life story is about moving from certainty to doubt, or as the book’s subhead states, “How a girl who knew all the answers learned to ask the questions.” Chan, meanwhile, is a pastor (at least he was when the book was written); his job is to actually have the answers. More than once, we’ve found Chan stating something with certainty, only to have Evans walk it back a little bit.

It’s a good tension, a healthy tension. It’s not conflict, and it’s not so much point-counterpoint, but it’s giving us some good discussion material, at least until we devolve into delirium and pass out because we have, once again, stayed up too late.

I’d like to make a habit of sharing some thoughts as we work through these books. I have two toddlers and a full-time job, and I’m about to start grad school, so I can’t promise anything so regular as a daily post, but I’ll feel pretty good about it if I can have something up every other day.

Right off the top, I’m struck by several things in Evans’ book, not least of which is how uncannily similar our lives have been. I could easily have written this paragraph on pages 30-31 of the paperback edition (though not nearly as well, of course):

The culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s raged throughout my most formative years, culminating with the election of George W. Bush my freshman year of college. In this political environment, being a good Christian meant adopting a range of causes, such as protecting the traditional family, keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and supporting the right to bear arms. I knew what abortion was before I knew where babies came from, and i learned how to effectively blame everything from crime rates to suicide rates on the removal of prayer from public schools. I cried for hours when I learned that my paternal grandfather, a lifelong Democrat, supported Bill Clinton in 1996. I was under the impression that meant Grandpa would go to hell.

Every single sentence except the part about her grandfather is accurate about my life, as well. My paternal grandfather had died in 1993, but that doesn’t mean I was any less under the impression that you could not be a Christian and vote for a Democrat. The two, in my mind, were completely incompatible.

All that to say: Evans and I come from extremely similar backgrounds culturally despite growing up in states as diverse as Connecticut and Alabama/Tennessee, so I guess it’s not surprising that some of the things I’ve been pondering as I’ve begun my own journey away from spiritual certainty are spoken so clearly in Evans’ book.

In the prologue, Evans explains why she is a spiritual evolutionist.

Just as living organisms are said to evolve over time, so faith evolves, on both a personal and collective level. Spiritual evolution explains why Christianity has thrived while other ancient religions have perished. It explains why our brothers and sisters in rural Zimbabwe and those in the Greek Orthodox Church can worship the same God in much different ways.

I’ve lived my entire life in a New Testament restorationist setting, worshipping with people whose aim is to follow the Bible’s example in running a church. Needless to say, the propensity for judgment when you’re claiming that everything you do is specifically authorized by the Bible (and, conversely, that everything you don’t is not) is fairly high.

Yet somehow I ended up marrying someone whose faith tradition is Pentecostal, which is something like George W. Bush picking Barack Obama as his running mate, or Roger Ailes hiring Rachel Maddow to host a new show on FOX News. And so I began to learn that, for one thing, the Bible isn’t as clear as I thought it was on issues like worship style, spiritual gifts and the role of women in the church. And, for another thing, it turns out God appears to be using other denominations to reach people and change the world as much — if not more than — the ones I approved of.

I attend a Church of Christ because I feel comfortable there; it’s much more liberal than the church I my parents attended, but it has some of the same familiar elements that were part of my childhood. But I’ve also attended services at, and gotten to know quite well some people who attend, a local Assembly of God-affiliated church. Needless to say, the styles at these churches are completely different. I know our Church of Christ is liberal because they don’t frown when someone decides to raise their hands — or even, gasp!, clap — during a song. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure there’s an unwritten rule that someone must speak in tongues during an Assembly of God service.

I’m not comfortable hearing people speak in toungues. I didn’t grow up with it, and I was taught it was a gift God no longer gave. That those who did it were wrong (and let’s walk that through to its logical conclusion; if God isn’t helping you speak in an otherworldly language, who else could it be? Could it be…. Satan?!?).

Yet I know so many people whose lives have been changed by coming into contact with the Assembly of God and their decidedly louder worship. People who speak casually about being slain in the Spirit as if it’s no big deal, but who are clearly on fire for God. People with crippling addictions who were freed on the spot during a service I would have condemned as unscriptural no more than five years ago.

And as I’ve become good friends with someone who ministers to the unchurched in Kenya and Tanzania, he tells stories about the way Africans worship that blow me away. Miraculous healings and interventions the likes of which I’ve never seen.

And so it’s slowly been dawning on me: God works differently for different people. And in most cases it’s not about who’s right or wrong, whether this form of worship is explicitly spelled out in the New Testament or not, but about Christians worshipping together, praying for each other, reaching out to their communities, and offering the life-giving power of God to anyone within reach.

We have evolved into different denominations with different emphases and different styles, but we all share a common ancestor, if you will. And that is undoubtedly what is most important.