Evolving in Monkey Town: Justin Topp


Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions
by Rachel Held Evans

Zondervan

ISBN 978-0310293996

 

Reviewed by Justin Topp, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology, North Park University

Blog: http://scienceandtheology.wordpress.com/  and Twitter: JustinTopp

 

The biggest complaint my students have about me is that my tests are too hard.  I use a variety of different types of questions, but the majority are either multiple-choice or essay questions.  Students have a clear preference between the two.  “Why can’t you make all the questions multiple-choice?” they often ask.  Evidently, these types of questions are easier to answer, perhaps because they think that they can better prepare for them and because they only have to choose one correct solution amongst a bunch of otherwise obviously wrong ones.  I tell them that when they graduate and start their first day at their first job they will be shocked to find out that their supervisor doesn’t give them a list of multiple-choice questions to be answered before clocking out for the day.  They chuckle… and then go back to complaining.

Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions is a memoir of Rachel Held Evans and her journey to answer the essay questions of life and Christianity.  Rachel grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, known as the home of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial featuring science (evolution) vs. religion (Christianity), with Clarence Darrow vs. William Jennings Bryan as the undercard.  This geography and history provides the setting for Rachel’s spiritual journey, which she describes as an evolution of her faith via adaptation.  Biologists like me dig the metaphor, but the reader will see that it is apt, accurate, and foundational as her story unfolds.


 First off, Rachel is a great writer.  I read her book twice.  In two settings.  I would caution and encourage readers
to not take the readability of the book for granted though as there is profound
truth within these pages that demands some digesting. While I am young, I can
count on one or two hands the number of books that I feel are so important that
they need to be read multiple times throughout one’s life.  Yes, this is one of them. 

Rachel’s story is one of coming out of a “having all the
answers” Evangelical Christianity into an “it’s okay to live in the questions” evangelical
Christianity.  Moving from seeing
the world as black and white to shades of gray.  Us and them to us only.  From assent to particular beliefs to a vibrant faith.  It is a great story that is shared with
wisdom, compassion, honesty, sarcasm, intelligence, and wit.

While Rachel’s journey is one of soul-searching and
questioning of her authorities, it is important to note that it is not one of
rebellion.  She was not trying to
escape or run away from the upbringing of her “horrible” and “fundamentalist”
parents and community.  The people
that surround her are presented with sincerity, humility, and kindness.  Rachel is also not out to prove anyone
wrong.  She is simply sharing her
faith story.  And in her story, the
apologetics and argument-based belief system version of Christianity that she
herself built (with the help of others, of course) couldn’t survive the cracks
of evolution, religious pluralism, homosexuality etc. that were often
illustrated to her by specific people in her life.  Ideas and statistics became people with faces and because of
her compassionate spirit Rachel couldn’t allow herself to ignore them. 

Since Rachel’s prose is so great, I feel it would do her and
the book a disservice if I didn’t include a couple of snippets that I found to
be most engaging.  The first is
Rachel describing her reaction after graduating from college armed to “fight
the fight” for Christ and entering the real world, only to realize the fight
was nonexistent, or at least very different
from what she had expected (p. 203-4):

It’s always a little embarrassing
when you come out swinging and there’s nobody there to fight with you.  I think that’s how a lot of us felt
when we realized that the world wasn’t asking the questions we had learned to
answer.  Many of us who grew up in
the church or received Christian educations were under the impression that the
world was full of atheists and agnostics and that the greatest threat against
Christianity was the rise of secular humanism.  But what we found upon entering the real world was that most
of our peers were receptive to spiritual things.  Most believed in God, were open to the supernatural, and
respected ideas so long as they were not forced upon them… They weren’t
searching for historical evidence in support of the bodily resurrection of
Jesus.  They were searching for
some signs of life among his followers.

Not once after graduating from
Bryan was I asked to make a case for the scientific feasibility of miracles,
but often I was asked why Christians aren’t more like Jesus.  I have met one or two people who
rejected Christianity because they had difficulties with the deity of Christ,
but most rejected because they thought it means becoming judgmental,
narrow-minded, intolerant, and unkind. 
People didn’t argue with me about the problem of evil; they argued about
why Christians aren’t doing more to alleviate human suffering, support the
poor, and oppose violence and war. 
Most weren’t looking for a faith that provided all the answers; they
were looking for one in which they were free to ask questions.

The next example illustrates how much the cracks in her
belief system affected her faith in God. 
Lest anyone think that the evolution of her faith journey was one of
simple adaptation, it is quite clear from her words that extinction was an
option.  Rachel, with her trademark
wit (p. 115):

Sarah looked ready to give up.  “God’s ways are higher than our ways,
Rachel.  At some point you have to
accept the fact that you cannot understand everything he does.  He is the potter.  You are the clay.  The clay can’t tell the potter what to
do.”

“You know what, Sarah?  I’m starting to wonder if maybe we made
this potter up.”

… While some friends declared my
faith dead on arrival, others insisted on defibrillation via systematic
theology.  Most insistent was my
friend Andy, who sent me an email with the subject line “just checking in”
after hearing from someone (who heard from someone else) that I’d become a
universalist, or a Buddhist, or something really terrible, like an Anglican…

And finally, Rachel coming to a tentative conclusion in her
struggle with religious pluralism, the struggle that seemed to give Rachel the
greatest pause (p. 129-30):

For as long as I can remember, the
assumption has been that the Bible speaks definitively about eternity, and that
the news is not good for people like Zarmina.  Born-again Christians go to heaven.  Everyone else goes to hell.  End of story.  Those of us who lack the fortitude to accept God’s Word on
the subject are just “Burger King Christians”.  We want to “have it our way.” 

The problem for me is that such a
scheme – which renders most people damned from the start based on geographical
disadvantages – never sat well with my conscience, and my conscience is a big
part of my faith.  In fact, C.S.
Lewis argued that the basic, intuitive sense of right and wrong written on every
human heart serves as evidence for the very existence of God.  He called this phenomenon the “moral
law”, and he used it to make a case for the reasonableness of faith.  It seems to me that to ignore my
conscience is to ignore the same voice that sings when I read the words of
Jesus, that clears its throat when I’m about to do something wrong, that speaks
against cruelty and oppression, and that shouts with every sunrise and every
snowfall and every act of love, “Hey, God exists!”  Apologists like to say that following Christ shouldn’t mean
checking our brains at the door. 
Perhaps it shouldn’t mean checking our hearts either.

I faced an unnecessary ultimatum -
believe the Bible or believe your conscience.  Mercifully, before I could make my choice, I came upon
another C.S. Lewis quote that changed everything.

“We do know that no person can be
saved except through Christ,” he wrote in Mere
Christianity
.  “We do not know
that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”

I’ve never heard anyone call C.S.
Lewis a “Burger King Christian.”

Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the
Answers Learned to Ask the Questions
is a wonderfully written and engaging
memoir of author Rachel Held Evans’ spiritual journey from having all the
answers to feeling comfortable pursuing the questions.  While I most highly recommend this book
to anyone who works with students and 20-somethings who are coming into their
own faith, I also recommend it to anyone struggling with doubt.  You are not alone.  And Rachel is going to narrate the
story for you.   

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • RJS

    Nice review Justin.
    I have Rachel’s book although I have not read it yet. Do you think this book would be good for a discussion group setting?

  • http://www.rachelheldevans.com Rachel H. Evans

    Thanks so much for the gracious review, Justin.
    RJS – We recently included a discussion guide on the Web site: http://rachelheldevans.com/

  • Kenny Johnson

    @RJS,
    I’ve read it and it’s a great book. I thought about using it for a small group, but I think I’m actually going to use Ortberg’s “Faith and Doubt” instead. I saw that Rachel is advocating her book be used that way though:
    http://rachelheldevans.com/book-study

  • Kenny Johnson

    I loved how Rachel talks about finally coming to find comfort in not knowing… in mystery. It mirrors a lot of where I find myself now. I was also someone who wanted solid answers for every question or problem I had. I found that the answers I would sometimes find were more unsatisfying than the mystery. And finally I came to not just find that mystery wasn’t uncomfortable, but sometimes desirable.
    That is so contrary to my personality, but now it makes more sense to me. I’ve also come to a position of humility. I used to think a lot of what I believed was absolutely right, but challenged by people smarter and/or more informed than me has made me humble — even with my deepest convictions.

  • http://www.garynelson.wordpress.com Gary

    What a great review! I really want to read this book!

  • JoeyS

    I hated multiple choice questions in college. Give me an essay any day. The only tests I did poorly on were those that were heavy on multiple choice.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    please forgive me for going too far off topic, but I do find that work should be more like multiple choice than essay. The first thing people should be doing is looking for what was done before and decide the good and bad parts of previous work. As a business owner and senior level manager/consultant I wish more people would build on what exists rather than make up their own way.
    On topic now – Now I want to read the book.

  • Justin Topp

    RJS,
    I think the book would make for a great discussion, that would be focused primarily on personal aspects of the faith and dealing with doubt.

  • Justin Topp

    DRT,
    What it sounds like to me is that what you’re looking for doesn’t sound like multiple choice vs. essay but logical thinking vs. creativity?

  • RJS

    Multiple choice questions don’t play a big role in the exams I write – but I find that student want clear cut problems with well defined correct answers. Choose the right formula – plug in the values and bingo! I give some of these – but I also include essay questions (on thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, …) which does not always contribute to my popularity.
    But life is not multiple choice – and neither is it confined to choosing the right formula and plug and chug …
    We need essay questions.

  • DRS

    I always felt like multiple choice tests were like cheating. They seemed easy to me.
    I am getting this book. I recently had to read a very liberal article in a graduate class re: the Monkey Trial. The spin on the article made me hopping mad. I will be interested to read Rachel Held’s ideas about it.

  • Justin Topp

    DRS,
    What’s funny is that my students assume that multiple choice will be easier, when it fact they can be very difficult if worded appropriately. Many grow to dislike them as well… :-)

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Justin, yes, they need to think logically and that does not have to be creatively. In many cases they should look to tradition first.
    FWIW – I hated multiple choice and loved essay. More precisely, I like to get partial credit since I rarely know anything 100% but I know lots of things 90%. When I went to college it was acceptable to stop working once it reached plug and chug on the higher level classes. The rest is left to the professor :)

  • Justin Topp

    “Justin, yes, they need to think logically and that does not have to be creatively. In many cases they should look to tradition first.”
    This is also why I get so frustrated with Evangelicalism from time to time…

  • Kenny Johnson

    It’s a lot easier to B.S. on an essay question. :)

  • http://www.theproblemwithkevin.com kevin s.

    “Most insistent was my friend Andy, who sent me an email with the subject line “just checking in” after hearing from someone (who heard from someone else) that I’d become a universalist, or a Buddhist, or something really terrible, like an Anglican…”
    I’m going to be a bit critical here, so I apologize for any offense, but I have read some version of the above gag in countless books, articles, blogs etc…
    I’ve seen the bit where the author recounts a conversation with a conservative friend who can’t believe he or she is re-examining their faith. The conservative friend is never presented as anything resembling a human being with complicated thoughts of their own. They are only a foil to demonstrate folly of the thinking the author rejects.
    I have read the passages where the author cites his or her own crisis of conscience, only to find that C.S. Lewis faced a similar dilemma. I have read, almost verbatim, the bit about people outside of the church being interested in God, but curious as to why Christians don’t behave like Christ. The latter seems almost lifted from Blue Like Jazz.
    (FWIW – when I went to college, I was constantly asked how I could believe in God when the scientific evidence didn’t seem to allow for it, and never once asked why Christians didn’t behave like Christ… But that’s not entirely relevant)
    So, here’s my question. Is this really a good book of essays, or do you simply agree with the authors conclusions and observations?
    One of the things that always bothered me about essay tests is that the teacher wasn’t really asking me to engage the subject matter. They simply wanted me to spout off the four or five facts that I had gleaned from the textbook. I could write a cogent answer to a question, tying together different themes from the chapter, and get the same credit as the student who wrote in bullet points.
    It could be that this is a very good book. Perhaps it expresses new ideas in an compelling way outside of the text cited here, which could simply be boilerplate designed to appeal to a certain audience in order to get them interested in purchasing the book. It’s a business after all.
    But, to be honest, it looks like Dr. Topp is giving an ‘A’ for bullet points. He is by no means alone. This seems to be a problem that plagues Christian book reviews. I can’t count how many Christian books have been recommended to me that are hackneyed, sloppily written (typos!), or contrived.
    This never happens outside of Christian literature. If someone recommends a work of fiction or a historical biography, it’s always the cream of the crop. I can’t be the only person who has encountered this. Why is it so?

  • Kenny Johnson

    kevin s.,
    I can’t speak for Justin, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book for what it is: A memoir. It’s Rachel’s personal faith journey from a confident, knows everything Christian to a a doubter who lost her faith to (where she is now) a doubter who embraces both her faith and her questions.
    I think it is well written, but I also liked the book because I identify with her journey to some degree.
    If there is a thesis at all to her life story it’s probably: “It’s OK to not have all the answers. Doubt is part of faith.”
    But for the most part, I don’t think she’s trying to make a case for an argument as much as she’s just telling her story.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    I downloaded and read the book on my iPad…
    …typically, I refrain from books written in such a style as this, self-reflective, questioning but I had to give a shoutout here and proclaim it to be an excellent read, one that I could not put down (or as it was in eBook form, maybe should say “stop”) until I got to the end. It was a riveting read, and the only book in the same vein that I enjoyed as much was David Dark’s //The Sacredness of Questioning Everything//.
    Rachel is a most gifted writer, and I heartily recommend this title to all.

  • Justin Topp

    Kevin S,
    No worries about the being critical, at least when it comes to me. I teach a class called Critical Thinking in Biology where that is exactly what students are expected to do. I implore people to be critical, with the caveat that to be critical does not simply mean to be negative. You’re still in the “critical” group.
    The first time that I read this book I had some of the same feelings that you had, because I was taking the background that you mentioned into my reading of the text. The second time through I appreciated the humanity and sincerity with which she described “the conservatives”. But it was only there if I didn’t go to the text assuming it wouldn’t be, if this makes sense.
    You are absolutely right when it comes to publishing or promoting something in Christian circles requiring perhaps less “quality”. I didn’t see it with this book at all. The book is what it claims to be, nothing more. It is a very well written book and Rachel is a very good storyteller. I also love it so much because it brings me back to the psychology and doubt that people struggle with when they leave or consider leaving fundamentalism. It isn’t just arguments but the simple issue that it doesn’t seem alright to question. This is in no way true of all Christian or conservative circles, but it is of the one Rachel describes.
    As for bullet points on my essay questions… have you taken a class with me? In large size classes your point may be valid because one is grading 90 tests with students expecting results yesterday. In smaller classes, bullet points won’t cut it. Can’t speak for the other disciplines, but that’s the way it is for me in Biology.
    If you would like to continue this discussion, head on over to my blog and we can. I just don’t want to monopolize the discussion unless others think it is worthwhile.
    scienceandtheology.wordpress.com

  • JHM

    I’ve had similar thoughts to kevin s. I haven’t read Rachel’s book yet so I’ve really been trying to not say much because I don’t want to judge it based on her blog and snippets in reviews.
    But …. in addition to what seems to me to be a little over-the-top caricaturization of conservatives, I’m also stuck by how it seems that she has mostly just adopted opposite, liberal, positions rather than trying to push for a reformation of her old positions or trying to re-center them on Jesus.
    It also seems like too much celebration of skepticism and doubt. While humility is certainly a key aspect of following Christ, there seems to be a cult of doubt in liberal circles where the more doubt one has the more spiritual, “open minded”, and “progressive” one is. On the other hand, today Rachel really showed a lot of courage with her post on abortion ( http://rachelheldevans.com/pro-life ). She confuses me sometimes :-)
    I just wish there was less caricaturization of conservatives as blind, ignorant, narrow minded, heartless, old-fashioned, and generally un-Christ like.

  • RJS

    JHM,
    If I can elaborate a bit on your comment …
    Because of course if most conservative Christians were blind, ignorant, narrow minded, heartless, old-fashioned, and generally un-Christ like many of us would have walked away long ago (at least I would have). But it was precisely because, in my experience anyway, they were not, that I have spent a great deal of time and effort struggling with all these issues.
    FWIW though kevin s, I have been asked repeatedly how I can be a Christian when Christians treat women so poorly. This is one aspect of “un-Christlike” behavior.

  • Justin Topp

    JHM,
    I don’t she’s trying to caricature conservatives in general, just the people with which she is familiar. I do agree that the marketing aspect is one that contribute to not getting the whole story and instead just getting the specific snippets that are buzz-worthy. And while she’s certainly not completely to blame for this, we can’t let Rachel completely off the hook either.
    Also remember this is a memoir from someone like me, who is still quite young. She’s 29. Let’s see where her story goes before we tell her how she should proceed with her faith. But we can certainly discuss or disagree with whether we like the book or not. Deal?

  • Kenny Johnson

    @JHM,
    I never got the impression that she was stereotyping fundamentalists. I also didn’t see her really embracing liberal positions. I’m not sure what would be considered “liberal positions” anyway. Are we talking theological or political? She has stated that she’s unsure about evolution (is that liberal anyway?), that she’s not sure about pluralism — though she reject hard exclusivism (is that liberal?), that she’s not afraid of her doubts (is that liberal?).
    What are we calling liberal and conservative here? She was reacting mostly against fundamentalist attitudes not conservative theology.
    I’d suggest reading the book.
    I’m someone who is a natural skeptic and have doubt. I do think that a certain amount of skepticism should be celebrated. We should ask questions, investigate, read opposing views instead of just taking everything as its first presented. I think the Bereans are a good example of healthy skepticism.
    I think doubt is a natural side effect of a thinking Christian. I’m honestly surprised when I find out people have never doubted their faith (my wife is one of them.) I don’t feel superior to them (or my wife). In fact, I think doubts make my faith more difficult than I’d like. I’m usually envious of people like my wife. But it’s just not in my blood. What I react against is those people who claim that doubt is the antithesis of faith. That is common in fundamentalist circles.

  • John W Frye

    I think it’s funny how some Christians choke on something as simply as a witness. Rachel Evans is not trying to be a theologian or a scientist; she is honestly bearing witness to your journey with the Christian faith within and away from Christian fundamentalism. How many of us will be shocked to discover that “the judgment seat of Christ” will not be a doctrinal exam (multiple choice or essay), but our life’s story examined by the One with fire in his eyes (Rev 1)? Paul exhorted Timothy to watch his LIFE and doctrine closely, and in that order. I’ve not read Rachel’s book yet, but I know Rachel. If one significant aspect of holiness is honesty before God, then Rachel is one holy person.

  • http://www.theproblemwithkevin.com kevin s.

    @John Frye
    It is one thing to be honest, and quite another to write honestly. The former is difficult, the latter extraordinarily so.
    When people write, they are prone to mimicry. They do not convey their own experience so much as they convey their experience with other writing. This is why writers read, and do so broadly, so their writing becomes so much less synthetic.
    I don’t care if it’s a memoir, a how-to, or a systemic theological dealio… Synthetic writing is boring, unpersuasive and, ultimately, dishonest. Synthetic Christian writing is self-conscious, derivative and shallow to boot.

  • YourName

    I think it is just plain difficult for many conservative Christians to accept that liberal Christians derive their views from the same Bible as everyone else. There seems to be a perception that first one becomes a political liberal, and then they backfill scripture to justify it. Nothing could be further from the truth, IMO.
    I was a pretty hard core libertarian until Christ came into my life, and then I realized that I was worshiping Mammon and calling it freedom, and that my hate of government was actually hatred of anything that interfered with my greed. Jesus turned me into a liberal, so I tell my conservative friends who don’t like my positions to take it up with Him :)

  • http://rachelheldevans.com Rachel H. Evans

    Hi, Kevin. Before you characterize my book as “boring, unpersuasive, and shallow,” I highly recommend actually reading it. Contact me via my blog and I’ll send you a free a copy. (http://rachelheldevans.com)

  • RJS

    kevin,
    Your comments today on this post are borderline unacceptable – and reflect far more poorly on you (especially as you admit you have not read the book) – than they do on Rachel or her book.

  • JHM

    YourName (#26)
    That’s sort of the kind of thing I’m having problems with. I think it is at least equally difficult for liberal Christians to imagine that conservative Christians could possibly have a leg to stand on.
    (Not at #36)
    Not only do I get pegged as a racist, bigoted, ignorant, dim-wit at work because I have the gall to be a Republican (I’m a scientist so the odds apparently are against me) but then I find often enough on otherwise enjoyable Christian blogs that it is assumed that if you’re *really* going to be an intellectual Christian who *really* puts Christ first, you should surely become either left-leaning or an “above it all” apolitico. I don’t think that’s what Rachel is really intending to do by any means, but I see it a fair amount on her blog and around the “young/post evangelical” blog scene and it really frustrates me about my generation (I’m 1 year younger than Rachel). If you vote for a conservative/Republican you are putting politics ahead of Jesus. If you vote for a liberal/Democrat you are doing the Lord’s work. This just doesn’t seem right.
    And now, if you excuse me, I will go back to reading Luke 5 and look for some logs.

  • Kenny Johnson

    @JHM,
    Which blogs in particular? For example, iMonk often criticized the religious right, but I believe he identified himself as politically conservative. What he didn’t like was the culture war mentality and more specifically the trend among Evangelicals to label Democrats and political liberals as “not real Christians.”
    I’ve been a Democrat pretty much my whole life (even prior to becoming a Christian 10 years ago), so I’m certainly not attaching myself to some new post-evangelical trend towards the political left. And most of my Christian brothers and sisters were and still are devoted conservative and Republicans. I do not believe they put their politics before Jesus anymore than I do. However, I have met Christians who definitely see the Republican party as the Christian party. I even went to a church that called Democrats, “Demoncrats.”
    Are there some on the Christian left who do the same towards Republicans? Sure. But I think I’ve lived through more prejudice as a Christian Democrat, personally.

  • EricG

    Kevin S –
    When I hear you repeat something I’ve heard dozens of times from other conservatives, I try not to pass it off as “derivative and shallow,” or the other barbs you use here. Instead, I try to engage it on its own terms. You lose credibility with these personal insults against an author you haven’t read.

  • JHM

    Kenny,
    Yeah, iMonk is certainly a community that is fairly hostile to conservatives. I see it on Rachel’s blog (not primarily from her but her many adoring fans), BioLogos occasionally, as a few examples. Occasionally I see it here too but Scot (and RJS) has done a tremendous job of keeping things even keeled and civil. I realize I might not have helped things a lot with #29 but I’m just finding it terribly frustrating that people who value tolerance, openness, and love tend to react rather intolerantly to people who remotely resemble the “fundamentalism” they ran away from. Maybe it’s me, I really don’t know. Maybe I’m reacting badly to their reaction. :-)

  • Justin Topp

    JHM,
    I think an us and them mentality is inevitable when groups form and is unfortunate when it comes to groups within Christianity. I appreciate what you mean when you go to a blog site and all that you seem to see is adoration and praise without any questioning or intellectual debate. While I haven’t spent a lot of time on Rachel’s blog, I haven’t gotten that there tthough. I did when I used to go to PZ Myer’s and Jerry Coyne’s sites, so I do know what you mean.
    If I can speak of myself though as the reviewer of the book (and this I think gets to some of Kevin’s comments), I don’t really care who or what group I am in. I evaluate the position. I really liked this book. I am more liberal than conservative, I suppose. But it doesn’t really matter. The book doesn’t highlight the liberal vs. conservative though, it talks about how it is STILL POSSIBLE to be a Christian and not be what her particular group made her feel that she had to be.
    And what’s interesting about all of this discussion is that, once again, it’s all about ideas. It’s not about the rest of the faith. Rachel’s book and others (hopefully) will help us to appreciate our differences and join in unison in the other aspects of the faith, which I bet we all can come to a better agreement upon.

  • Terry

    If everybody read B.F. Skinner this stuff would not happen!

  • http://www.theproblemwithkevin.com kevin s.

    “Hi, Kevin. Before you characterize my book as “boring, unpersuasive, and shallow,” I highly recommend actually reading it. Contact me via my blog and I’ll send you a free a copy. (http://rachelheldevans.com)
    First, let me say that I have not done so. Your work got lost in the crossfire to some degree. Second, I will take you up on your offer, will read the book, and will review it. Thank you for the opportunity.

  • http://www.theproblemwithkevin.com kevin s.

    “When I hear you repeat something I’ve heard dozens of times from other conservatives, I try not to pass it off as “derivative and shallow,” or the other barbs you use here. Instead, I try to engage it on its own terms. You lose credibility with these personal insults against an author you haven’t read.”
    I labeled synthetic Christian writing as derivative and shallow. If that is how you feel about the manner in which I express my opinions, do point that out.
    This a the comment section of a blog. If my expressions here are derivative, so be it. I would not ask anyone to pay for anything I have written here.
    That said, there is nothing personal about discussing a book in the context of a book review. I have no opinion about the author one way or the other. I find Dead Poet’s Society to be a horrendous film. It is pedantic, manipulative and hollow. I respect Peter Weir and Ethan Hawke nonetheless.
    If anything, I am being personally critical of the author of the review. Dr. Topp concedes that he is “evaluat(ing) the position”. I can’t imagine approaching literature this way.
    But again, this methodology is taken for granted. That’s my point. Why are Christians so concerned with “the position” when it comes to evaluating writing?

  • Justin Topp

    Yeah Kevin and your being critical has become negative. It’s not particularly helpful in your own argument to say I wasn’t being critical of this person, I was being critical of that person. If you would like to lump me in with all of the other adorers of pop-Christian books, so be it. But, that would be ignorant, seeing as I have written exactly one review on a book of this nature. Also, the position statement of mine was in regards to Conservatism vs. liberalism if you bother to look at the context.
    I rarely get angry with commenters. Hooray… you’ve won. I wouldn’t go as far as RJS did to say that you’re comments are borderline unacceptable, but they don’t paint a wonderful picture.

  • John W Frye

    kevin s (#25 et al),
    You might find helpful a book recommended by Scot McKnight some time ago titled *A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love* by Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College. As has been pointed out, you’ve classed Rachel’s book with a category of books you find deficient. I, for one, am very glad you’ve agreed to read Rachel’s book and review it.

  • Andy D

    I think one of the reasons Rachel’s book is being warmly welcomed is that it helps fill a gap in this conversation as far as printed literature goes. It also seems to treat some of the issues with a little more depth than Blue Like Jazz did.

  • T

    I’ve enjoyed many of Rachel’s comments here over many posts, so I’m letting her book cut to the top of my list for books.
    One of the things that she exemplifies well is that many of the slippery slope, all-or-nothing arguments on the right and left are simply false. As JHM noted, she “surprises.” And she does so precisely because it’s simply not true that one must be certain about everything to be certain about some things.
    Witness credibility is something I think about, both as a lawyer and an evangelical Christian. (Conservative) Christians tend to think that the good witness is one that is certain about everything as they defend their conclusions. But lawyers know such over-reaching by a witness is a perfect set-up to destroy the witness’s credibility on cross-examination. By contrast, lawyers tend to think that good witnesses know what they are certain about as well as what they don’t know and can articulate both honestly. Think about the man born blind. Great witness.
    I see Rachel becoming a great witness of and for God because she can articulate both what she personally knows and what she personally doesn’t know about him. Look forward to the book, Rachel.

  • JHM

    T,
    I enjoy Rachel’s thoughts and comments a lot too and enjoy being “surprised” by her.
    However, I’ve spent my entire life in Fundamentalist/conservative Evangelical circles all my life and my experience has not really been like what you describe. While I’ve been in churches that would find it incomprehensible that a Christian would vote for a Democrat, they never said that questions and doubts were evil. I was always taught the value of humility and that questions and doubt were a tool to grow and reform.
    I’m coming to think that perhaps I have just been fortunate in my upbringing and the churches I have been a part of. I guess that would explain why I have largely kept my conservative theology and politics through all the doubts and questions. I have been frustrated by what seemed to me like a fairly widespread view that conservative = an unquestioning and unloving attitude. My previous posts were maybe a bit overly grumpy and I’m truly sorry if I came across that way.

  • T

    JHM,
    I wasn’t thinking at all that you came off grumpy or worse.
    You may have been very fortunate, but I think, given your experience with some of the political convictions in conservative churches, you experienced some of what I’m getting at, and what Rachel might be getting at. Namely, it’s not that people deep in ideology (on the right or left) would often say that doubting or questioning is evil. It’s that within these cultures, part of the culture is that certain planks in the paradigm or systematics “must be defended.” You ran accross some of those planks that are in the political sphere. There are others in atonement theory and soteriology and inerrancy and on and on. If a given idea is in the “must be defended” category, asking questions about it turns the asker into an outsider at best and often into something worse. Of course, the list of ideas that “must be defended” is longer in some churches than others, but more importantly, many are legitimately questionable and should be questioned, explored and discussed rather than defended.
    But what I’m thinking is that there really is a broad and deep misunderstanding of what being an effective and faithful witness entails and how to make them. I also grew up in conservative camps and have never left, and I don’t think we do a very good job of teaching folks what being a good witness of Christ entails. I was taught it’s about “having an answer” for the hope we have, which is usually our systematics, which can maybe be butressed with the testimony of our conversion. We tend to emphasize having things to say about Christ and God’s plan that are doctrinally sound from our perspective. I agree that accuracy is part of being a faithful witness. But having all the right answers isn’t really what being a witness is about. A good witness gives testimony that is both accurate (even if well short of comprehensive) and their own. Conservatives tend to so value the former that they make (public) questioning of all kinds of ideas taboo; that makes the latter very difficult to create and sustain. How many times have I heard various ideas described in fiery sermons as lies from the Devil himself? I’ve heard that for evolution and even an old earth as well as Arminianism and the idea that spiritual gifts continue today. Who wants to then ask if there is some merit in the Devil’s ideas? In conservative churches, we thereby become better at either staying quiet or giving the party line, which our hearers can sense we don’t “own”, rather than giving our own real testimony of Christ with burning convictions and lingering questions and all.
    Does that resonate with your experience? Or has your branch of the faith been really good at creating witnesses who articulate both what they are convinced of as well as their questions?

  • Justin Topp

    JHM,
    You didn’t seem too grumpy and perhaps I didn’t explain it well enough in my review. She is in no way saying all conservatives are “X” and “X” is wrong. She is talking about her particular upbringing (so a specific brand of conservative) and how she could no longer live like that. I think that it is possible or even likely if you read the book that you would see that this particular brand that I’m talking about is not what you had expected. The quote that ends with the Anglican part was included much more so for the part where Rachel says she thinks that we made this potter up. That’s something that I myself struggle with constantly and is perhaps even true. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist.
    Anyway, I just wanted you to know that as someone who has read it twice and like I said in a previous comment, doesn’t really care about conservative vs. liberalism (which is why I included very little in the review regarding this, even “fundamentalism” was in quotes), I don’t think the book is saying what people are assuming. Is it possible that some issues with this book are the result of other book reviews that people have written, or the media surrounding it?

  • JHM

    T,
    I guess my experience has been a bit different form yours. The church I grew up in was fairly fundamentalist (everybody essentially believed the same stuff theologically and more so politically) but it was a rural missionary church and so the Gospel and a life of witness were emphasized. The theology wasn’t particularly deep from the pulpit due to the missionary aspect of the church. We were all Calvinists but probably half of the people wouldn’t have known what that meant.
    For the last decade or so since about the time I went to graduate school, I have been attending a couple (what I thought to be typical) evangelical non-denominational churches. Here there was more variety politically (there was an elder who was a Democrat, I remember being absolutely confused and shocked)and theologically (each of the pastors had a different view on eschatology, for instance, that they loved debating). Again, these churches were predominantly Republican and Reformed. But, for an example, I was part of a science forum that the college group (around 800 people) did where 2 pastors and 2 scientists fielded questions from the audience. Questions were always encouraged. However, the goal was greater understanding and accuracy (as you put it), not really asking questions for the sake of being questioning.
    It’s one thing to ask a question because you want to understand better, but “questioning” implies to me that you find what you formerly believed to be suspect. This is why I feel frustrated by the way Rachel’s book seems to be received and portrayed. It seems like the emphasis is more on “finally, I got rid of those wackos” than “I faced my doubts, I asked my questions, and I’m better and stronger for it.” It’s one thing to say “I don’t have all the answers.” but an entirely thing to say “I don’t have any answers, and neither should you.”

  • RJS

    JHM,
    This is something of an aside – off topic a bit – but…
    I have a hard time with the political discussions on this blog because so many people seem to take it so personally – as part of identity and more importantly Christian identity. I just don’t see it this way.
    Perhaps because my experience is quite different. One of my grandfathers worked for awhile at Pacific Garden Mission and then ran a rescue mission. My dad from his teenage years working with his father has leaned democrat for social justice reasons. My other grandfather (a doctor) was ultraconservative politically – but very generous with both his time and resources. My baptist preacher uncle was hard core Democrat and my evangelical free preacher uncle was hard core Republican. All were/are committed Christians.
    Tying a political view to Christianity simply made no sense to me – and it still doesn’t. There are certain principles that must govern how we approach people – but these are not tied uniquely to our political parties and methods.

  • JHM

    Justin,
    That potter quote was exactly the kind of thing that grates me, I thought it was a pretty flippant thing to say and I would hope she followed that up with something more substantial. “That’s true Sarah, but we must be sure of what His ways are before we start addressing the ways of others” turns in to “this whole thing is a farce” very easily.
    I feel like as much as Rachel’s message is needed to temper the rigidity of the conservative end of Evangelicalism, there is a very real danger of it giving license to those who only wish to throw off the shackles of any theology that doesn’t quite suit their sensibilities or is not cool and trendy. It seems like “questioning” and “Jesus-centered spirituality” is the new code word for not wanting to look hard at the claims that God and the Bible demand on our lives.
    I do fully intend to read Rachel’s book if I manage to get a copy. My reaction is mostly about what people with do with her book more than the book itself. It sounds well written, challenging, and fairly balanced.

  • JHM

    RJS,
    I see where you are coming from there. I don’t think I actually had a friend or anything past a casual acquaintance that was a Democrat until I was in college, and I don’t think I met a Christian who was a Democrat until grad school. It is difficult for me because I have always believed that I was a Conservative and a Republican *because* I was a Christian, I have never viewed politics and faith as separate issues. Christianity is life, politics is a facet of life, therefore politics must reflect my Christian beliefs.
    Of course my eyes have been opened a little since I moved to Boston ;-) But still, it’s all very confusing to me to try to disentangle things, and I understand the “people take it personally” thing. I try to avoid it here too but I honestly would like to find out if I’m all wrong and I’m not sure how to do that without engaging.

  • T

    JHM,
    We definitely had different experiences of conservative faith! Thanks for sharing some of the details of your own experience. I did, thankfully, have a few solid men and women of faith in my circles growing up, but I also grew up hearing sermons about the Pope being the anti-Christ, seeing videos that discussed the satanic nature of rock music (particularly obvious when played in reverse), and all kinds of similar stuff. Tattoos and long hair for men were clearly sinful (though gluttony seemed to be okay). Good times.
    But in all sincerity, I don’t equate those things with what it means to be conservative, therefore, I’m not anti-conservative; both I and the church I’m in would likely still be considered conservative on the whole. I agree with you in that I hope Rachel’s book doesn’t get used as an excuse to just dismiss the authority of scripture or the call to obedience Christ gives us. Since I’ve not read the book, I can’t comment on how justified that would be, but I doubt that was or is Rachel’s intent.

  • YourName

    I think part of the problem is that a Republican Christian is not surprising at all, but a Democratic Christian is an odd bird, at least in the way society views things.
    When people I meet learn I’m a Christian, they automatically assume I vote Republican. When people I meet learn I’m a liberal Democrat, they automatically assume I don’t go to church.
    I mean, you’ve got Glenn Beck telling people to leave any church with the words “social justice” on its website. There is your dividing line, broadcast to millions of people: Liberals cannot be good Christians because right-thinking Christians are conservative.
    I am very comfortable with the counter-culturalness of my place, actually.

  • Clay Knick

    I’m a card carrying Evangelical and I loved this book. One of the best I’ve read this year.

  • http://www.theproblemwithkevin.com kevin s.

    “If you would like to lump me in with all of the other adorers of pop-Christian books, so be it.”
    How have I done so? I am questioning your perspective that you review the position of an author. That doesn’t make you an adorer of one thing or the other. I was simply clarifying that my original point was not to assess Rachel’s book (which, as has been noted, I am in a poor position to do, having not read it), but to question the standard by which we assess Christian literature.
    Since everyone has opted to take this very personally (with the ironic exception of the author herself), it’s likely that a constructive discussion is impossible, so I’ll cease the attempt.

  • Justin Topp

    JHM,
    In regards to the potter quote, I think you need to appreciate that this wasn’t Rachel changing her theology. This was her thinking through whether it made more sense to her to be an atheist. Yes, a more constructive conversation would be beneficial for all but my feeling is that she was thinking the conversation wasn’t even worth having at all because there was no God. Does this help?
    p.s. on a lighter note, what’s with all of these weird captchas lately?

  • http://www.theproblemwithkevin.com kevin s.

    “p.s. on a lighter note, what’s with all of these weird captchas lately?”
    No kidding. Mine is rarionex Pumpernickel29, with the “29″ in superscript. I don’t know what Pumpernickel to the 29th power tastes like, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to find out.
    Seriously, though, I’m sorry I came across as attacking you. It wasn’t my intent to cast you as some sort of unthinking plebe who goes along with any feel-good book. I don’t always do the best job of considering how my words might be interpreted, especially by those who do not know me.
    Now to the business of contending with this Captcha.

  • Justin Topp

    Apology accepted and my reply is why it is never good to reply right away. So… ditto. I thought that it was clear from “Rachel is a very good writer” that the writing stood on its own. My praise was not because she got into the right boat or not, but because the book is well written and fun to read on top of it likely helping a number of this blog’s readers as they work through issues and challenges of the faith. The latter part of this statement is why I told Scot that I would review it for his blog, specifically.
    Per your most recent comment, I’m in no way qualified to assess Christian literature as a whole, but my own opinion is that in general Christian “whatever” be it writing, music, etc., does seem to be judged differently… like it would be easier to be a success in the Christian “market” then just the “market”. But Scot and others who read a lot more works of Christian literature would be much better judges than me, I’m sure.
    No matter what the market, though, I think this is a very good book. Whether those that are not Christians or those who didn’t grow up in the Church will get a lot out of it personally, I’m not sure. But I would bet that they would find it to be a well-written and engaging book.

  • MarkE

    I know it is Wednesday, so this discussion is probably dead, nonetheless…
    I don’t think we should be so hard on kevin s’s original comment. I took it that he was being more critical of the review itself. All books have strengths and weaknesses and will appeal to a specific audience. I would have appreciated some discussion in the review of the weak parts of the book, how much is new versus a rehashing of what is already out there, and more specifics on who it would appeal to. Perhaps more objectivity?