It’s tax day and Rachel Held Evans’ latest book has just emerged, Searching for Sunday (Nelson Books, 269 pages, $16.99 pb). In some ways this book has appeared at just the appropriate moment, because in some ways it is like a refund check from the IRS, much anticipated, and a big help. In some ways however, the book is simply taxing, burdened down with a false sense of righteous outrage about an issue Rachel should have given more thought and prayer to before choosing to start firing away against the Evangelical womb from which she has emerged. This is not to say that she isn’t right that a large portion of the church has wrongly stigmatized and singled out gay and lesbian people, and wrongly treated them as if they were somehow worse sinners than the rest of us. We have often done that. Hypocrisy stinks, and Rachel is right to stress this point. I will speak about what she says on the issue of same sex relationships and marriage later in the review, but I want first to say a few things about this book which I really like.
First of all Rachel is indeed a genuine Christian person, genuinely wrestling with deep issues. I’ve had the privilege of meeting her once, and there is no doubt that she has a great deal of the passion and compassion of and for Christ in her life. She is in addition a very gifted writer, and apparently speaker as well (though I have not heard her teach or lecture personally), and you can hear echoes of other gifted writers like Annie Dillard and Barbara Brown Taylor in the way she writes. There are chapters in this book which are poignant and powerful and deserve an amen.
There is no question either about whether she speaks on behalf of many of her generation of millenials, because you can tell from her blog she does. Women especially resonate with a good deal of what she says. And frankly, she is right about the many flaws of the Protestant Evangelical Church. She is right that we have often failed to truly be church for her generation, indeed, we have managed to turn many of them off to or turn them away from the church by failing to truly be the body of Christ. The title of the book ‘Searching for Sunday’ could just as well have been ‘Searching for a real Church’. She is also right about the wrongful suppression of women’s gifts and graces for various sorts of ministries. And one can certainly agree the church is not supposed to be a museum for plastic saints, but rather a hospital for sick sinners. But the church should never never become just like an AA meeting (one suggestion in this book). Why not? Because while we need such meetings, the church should not be focusing on our own brokenness and mainly sharing about that. We should be focusing on His brokenness when he hung on the cross, precisely so we will get away from our self-centered fixation with our own flaws and foibles. The church needs to be relentlessly theocentric in its worship, fellowship, and praxis, not anthropocentric.
There are many poignant moments and powerful passages in this book about the sacraments, about silence, about other spiritual disciplines, and especially about the feeling of being bereft, cut off from the church, feeling abandoned or even spurned by the Evangelical Churches in which she was raised. A trial separation from such churches gradually became something of a divorce, and she landed in a ‘less-judgmental’ Episcopal Church in Cleveland Tn. What her book fails to really grapple with however is the major difference between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance of us as we are.
Frankly put, God doesn’t ‘accept’ us as we are, because what we are is fallen and flawed sinful people. God loves us as we are, but God is insistent that we all change, repent of our sinful inclinations and ways, and become more like Christ. A loving welcome by Jesus does not exclude incredible demands in regard to our conduct, and indeed even in regard to the lusts of our hearts. As it turns out, God is an equal opportunity lover of all humanity, and also an equal opportunity critiquer of all our sin, and with good reason— it is sin that keeps separating us from God and ruining our relationship with God. This is why the only proper Biblical approach to everyone who would wish to be ‘in Christ’ and ‘in the body of Christ’ is that they are most welcome to come as they are, and they will be loved as they are, but no one but no one is welcome to stay as they are— all God’s chillins need to change. Welcoming does not entail affirming our sins, much less baptizing our sins and suddenly calling them good, healthy, life giving.
Rachel also does not seem to understand that the remarkable growth in the church in the global South is not something that should lead to an expectation of a further rise in the support for the LBGTQ agenda. To the contrary, the churches in Africa, Asia, and South America are overwhelmingly and adamantly opposed to such an agenda. I’ve spent time in and lectured in most of those places and they are not supporters of late Western views on sexual ethics.
In another context, I was ask to do a devotional about Romans. 12.1-2. Part of what I said as to what happens when we realize what God really demands of us is the following. “Then we will realize that to be welcoming and loving of all persons does not mean to be accepting of all personal choices and behaviors. Then we will realize that Christ invites all of us to come as we are to him, but he expects all of us to change, he expects none of us to stay as we are. Then we will realize that fallen human beings, by which I mean all of us, have an infinite capacity to rationalize our sin, and unfortunately the heart cry of all sinners is this ‘please dear God, tell me I am alright just like I am, so I won’t have to change. Please can’t we just sing a few more choruses of ‘Just as I Am’ and then I can return to being just what I am inclined to be. Please dear God tell me that I was even born this way, so I can say ‘God made me this way’, and blame you for my flaws and foibles, and stop wrestling with the troubling possibility that I was born with innate tendencies to self-centered, self-indulgent desires and behaviors.’ Yes, that really is the heart cry of sinners a good deal of the time, all sinners. Unfortunately, ‘I was born this way’ doesn’t mean its good or God-sanctioned. We were all born with flaws, and sinful inclinations. Indeed, when you think about it, if the most primal sin is self-centeredness, there is no more self-centered creature on earth than a baby– its all about ‘my needs’ ‘my hunger’ etc.
One of the things I really appreciate about Rachel and her writings is that she is honest, painfully honest about her own doubts, her own struggles. She longs for a church where it is o.k. to have questions and doubts and to discuss them. So do I. We have too little of that in the Evangelical world. The lust for certainty has led some pastors and congregations to simply silence any such meaningful probings and heart to heart honest talks. But let’s be clear— honesty and transparency are good things, but they are not ‘the truth’. One can be completely honest about one’s feelings, thoughts etc. and at the same time be completely wrong not only about Biblical truth, but even about oneself.
We must take seriously the warnings in the Bible about the heart having the capacity to be incredibly deceptive, especially when we are talking about fallen people. The most primal sin of all is the heart turned in upon itself– self-centered thinking, self-centered behavior, the continual struggle for self-justification, and the rationalizing of our mistakes, and sins. There is a reason why the story of Adam and Eve tells us that once they ate the apple, they became self-centered, self-reflective, realized they were naked, and were ashamed.
Obviously, one of the main reasons it’s hard to find or be church is because church involves other directed behavior, it involves communion with others, it involves the messy process of putting others before yourself, and putting up with other people’s eccentricities. It involves the time consuming activity of developing relationships. The agape love that the NT talks about is not an infinitely indulgent love which says to the sinner ‘there there, you’re fine just as you are’. It is a holy love, a holy fire, and it should not be mixed up with the other loves which may reside in our heart, for example eros. God’s love is indeed a change agent, a purifying fire, and the end result is not that we get to be satisfied with ourselves as we are. The end result is we are told we are in the painful process of being inwardly conformed to the image of Christ (see 2 Cor. 3-5).
There are times in reading Rachel’s latest book that I wish someone had rescued her and Dan from the milieu of fundamentalism and placed them in a more irenic and healthy Evangelical environment. It’s very clear that she has a right to react against a good deal of the unBiblical attitudes and prejudices that exist in a fundamentalist and anti-intellectual environment. I wish they would have moved a long time ago. Another desideratum I have is I wish Rachel had continued her studies in a formal way and been better trained in Biblical interpretation and how to deal with difficult ethical and theological issues. I have seen what happens when Christian college kids come to seminary and realize in their first year of seminary that college has given them just enough reading and training to make them dangerous and half-baked when it comes to understanding the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
Rachel with her keen mind has overcome not only some of her context but some of her education, but it would have been so much better if she had continued that education, not merely by continuing to read, but by having good dialogue partners who are not just pastors, or peers. But alas, this apparently has not happened, and as result, she uses her blog and her books to promulgate her heartfelt convictions, even when,had she run them by some older and wiser professors of faith, she might have thought better of some of the things she has said and is saying. And of course, there are thousands out there in the blogosphere prepared to give the Amen to her pronouncements, thousands who resonate with and feel like her. That sort of affirmation is intoxicating, but it is not the approval of the one person who really needs to pass judgment on what we say— the Lord Jesus Christ.
That Jesus tells us plainly enough that there are only two options for Christians— chastity in singleness, and fidelity in marriage, with the latter clearly enough defined as the relationship between a man and woman (Mt. 19/Mk. 10), who alone have the possibility of sharing a one flesh union in Christ, because of course the image of God is male and female, not male and male, or female and female. I must say that I blame the Evangelical Church for failing to be a loving family for single persons. For wrongly trying to force everyone into the marriage mode and mold, when as Paul says in 1 Cor. 7 some of us do not have the grace gift to remain single for Christ, and some of us do not have the grace gift to be married in the Lord either. There are two callings Jesus offers, and Paul affirms. Not three, four or ten. Unfortunately, the Protestant church has failed to be a family to us all, so many times, so people have looked to be a part of lesser family units, desperately partnering up even with people that we cannot properly call husband or wife, because that requires a member of each gender.
Searching for Sunday is in turns heart-warming, and heart-breaking, it’s an ‘oh yes’, and then an ‘oh no’, kind of book. At one and the same time it is full of rich insight into the genuine Christian faith, and blind to its own blind spots. Honestly, most of the blame should not be laid on Rachel. It should be laid on folk like me, who have failed her, and a church which has failed her. Towards the end of the book Rachel struggles to appreciate her Evangelical heritage, as a part of who she is, and has been. It is a remarkable thing because, it would have been easier to just anathematize her past and move on, as so many have done, who have fled fundamentalism like a woman fleeing a burning building. Going forward, I hope this openness to her past allows her to consider the option of continuing to dialogue with Evangelicals who strongly disagree with her stance on the LBGTQ issues.
Come let us reason together, without the one side or both shouting at the other, or the one side or both foreclosing the discussion prematurely. Without self-righteousness or condescension let us have a heart to heart talk, and if we still disagree, then let us part as Christians, with love and respect for each other. Then perhaps Rachel will not just be searching for Sunday, she will be finding out about the real character of God’s love which is holy, and his plans to change us all and bind us all together with cords of compassion. If we don’t believe the grace of God is greater than the power of our sinful inclinations, then we have given up on the power of the Gospel.