Over the past couple of weeks, whenever I saw the cover of Rachel Held Evans‘ Evolving in Monkey Town lying around my house, my brain would immediately jump into a chorus of “Won’t you take me to / Funky Town!” Funky Town, Monkey Town…who knows the workings of the mind?
Other than the disco background noise in my head, reading Evans’ book was an adventure in my own personally charted territory. In fact, while reading her book, I constantly felt like she and I shared the same childhood. Growing up evangelical has its quirks and I’ll be the first to say that the evangelical church has made some wacky (if earnest) mistakes in their communication of the gospel to children. But I’m convinced that my own childhood brain took me to new levels of religious fervor. Evans’ childhood tales brought me comfort to know I wasn’t alone in my zeal.
While I was confronting kids on the playground with “gospel” tracts in 4th grade, Evans was writing the Plan of Salvation on a paper airplane and flying it into the Mormon neighbor’s yard. While Evans buttered up her Christian school classmates in order to win the “Best Christian Attitude” award four years straight, I was making plans for how I would one day get my shiny face on the wall of spiritual heroes (aka photos of missionaries and pastors) in our church’s main hallway.
For Evans as a teenager, “the Bible read like poetry, each word and verse ripe with spiritual sustenance. It fed [her], and [she] swallowed without asking questions or entertaining doubts or choking on the bones” (41). Her story of devout, not-your-average-childlike-faith and eventual trudge through the murk of doubt is a story so close to mine that I found myself wondering if we’d both come against the “metal sky” (see Jeanne Murray Walker’s poem in the sidebar) in almost the same way at the same time.
Evans takes us on a journey through her Christian college and its emphasis on a young person’s preparation for the intellectual battle against external challenges to the Christian faith, where she became “so good at critiquing all the fallacies of opposing worldviews, at searching for truth through objective analysis, that it was only a matter of time before [she] turned the same skeptical eye upon [her] own faith” (79).
That critical eye peered most intently onto the tennis shoes under the blue burqa of an Afghan woman named Zarmina, whose execution by the Taliban (for a false accusation of murdering her abusive husband) was filmed in the documentary Behind the Veil. Watching (and rewatching) Zarmina’s execution was so disturbing for Evans that it sent her thoughts of doubt into full-blown anger at God. At stake? Would this woman who suffered and died under an oppressive regime, in a society where she wouldn’t have heard of Jesus Christ really suffer “torment in hell for the rest of eternity” because she didn’t claim faith in Jesus? (90-91).
Evans’ wrestling match through the question of God’s goodness in the midst of the world’s suffering brought her into a long season of grief over the loss of a faith that had defined every part of her. I appreciate that while she allows the reader to honestly enter into that pain with her, she never drags us into a cynical view of the faith. There is no snarky-I’m-better-than-the-average-Chrisian-because-I-actually-think attitude that feels so prevalent in the “progressive” realm of Christianity. Her struggle is shared with vulnerability, openness, and a sincere longing to find hope in the God she has known her entire life.
And the journey of her “evolution” is one of beauty and insight and honesty. When she comes to a renewed place of hope, she finds it at 2 am in the bathroom, reading a passage from the book of Revelation (Chapter 7), in which John the Apostle describes “a great multitude…from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (122).
This is where Evans shines: “I imagined that [John] must have seen women wearing glorious red, green, and gold saris beneath their white robes. He must have seen voluminous African headdresses of every shape and color. He must have seen the turquoise jewelry of the Navajo, the rich wool of the Peruvians the prayer shawls of the Jews…He must have heard shouts of praise to Elohim, Allah, and Papa God, shouts in Farsi and Hindi, Tagalog and Cantonese, Gaelic and Swahili, and in tongues long forgotten by history…In one loud and colorful moment, he must have witnessed all that makes us different and all that makes us the same” (124).
The hope she finds in the Apostle John’s brief description of the multitude before the throne is the same hope we are invited to find in our own fumblings toward faith. And that’s why this book matters.