Evolving in Monkey Town

In case you did not recognize it, that was the original title of Rachel Held Evans’ first book, more recently known as Faith Unravelled.  I read it.  If you think that picking up a book and reading it automatically means you’ve identified with all of its themes and ideas, then you need to stop here.  No need to read further.  You won’t get anything out of this.

The book resonated with me, not because I could check the box of agreeing with every idea before moving on but because what she describes as the “evolution” of her Christian faith is an experience that is common to most people who were raised in a church and a Christian faith that was handed down to them by their parents and lived out mostly in the context of a local church.  Though Evans was raised in a Fundamentalist church (capital F to distinguish a particular brand of Protestant, Evangelical, American Christianity) and her experience is unique to that culture, I would imagine that the curiosity, the questions about the assurance of the correctness of the official doctrine, the preaching and teaching, the rituals (yes Fundamentalists and Evangelicals are as ritualistic as the Catholic or Orthodox churches, though they don’t recognize it in themselves) and the expectation that children simply accept what it taught without question are common to children raised in churches of all faiths.

The Christian background I share is similar to Evans’, though not exactly the same.  I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, outside the deep south but full of members who moved to Arizona from Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.  The local job market, which included a nearby military base that was the home of several operations once based in Georgia and North Carolina, an electrical contractor based in Mississippi, a natural gas compressor plant belonging to a company based in Texas assured a steady stream of members for a congregation of 120, once they found out that the “First Baptist Church” in town was affiliated with–g*a*s*p–the Yankee Baptists.  My parents were from West Virginia, my Dad raised in a Disciples of Christ congregation and my Mom a Pentecostal Holiness church but after their own period of drifting, they “got right” in a small Christian and Missionary Alliance church and then, not finding one of those when they moved to small town Arizona, got very comfortable among the Southern Baptists of similar background, theology and culture.

I was blessed to have Sunday School teachers who were spiritually gifted and strong students of the Bible.  They probably never realized that it was their teaching which actually raised the questions I had about Christian faith from what I would say was a relatively early age, since I was in Sunday School and church every week for as long as I could remember.  Only one of them had graduated from college, two of them never finished high school but in addition to being spiritually gifted teachers, they realized their responsibility and did a lot of outside reading and study.  When I was in middle school, my Sunday School teacher couldn’t get through a lesson without quoting Herschel Hobbs.  She had all his books.  I also frequently heard names like R. G. Lee and A. T. Robertson.  There were two developments in my life that came from this early church experience.  One was that I knew a lot of answers to a lot of questions.  The other was that there were some questions that weren’t going to be answered in church or in Sunday School with anything except “The Bible says…” without a scripture reference or “Because we’re Baptists.”

I suspect that’s been a similar experience for millions of kids raised in church in this country.  Evans’ book resonated with me because she had a similar experience.  Her experience led to a unique place for her, as did mine.  But there was much to be gained from reading her words and the experience she shared.  The Fundamentalists among whom Evans grew up are perhaps the most staunchly insistent of all Christians that their way is right and there is no other way.  But in spite of that, it seems that many of those who are raised in their churches as children don’t see it that way, don’t accept everything at face value and wind up leaving, some for other churches, most just leave and stop attending.

I never left the church.  I realized, after four years at a Baptist college, a minor in Biblical studies, friendships and relationships with others who were questioning and having doubts like I was, that there is an important element missing in most of what I’d been taught and consequently missing in those expressions of Evangelical Christian faith that major heavily on “right doctrine.”  It’s the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit.  “We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”  

It took seeing the spirit work in people’s lives to realize that it is the most necessary element in interpreting scripture and indeed, in having a relationship with God that starts and sustains the process of salvation of the soul from sin.  “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”  That’s in John’s epistle, 4:2.  I studied the Bible and had my doctrinal ducks in a row long before I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit and that changed everything.  And a lot of what I see proclaimed as “right doctrine” leaves this important aspect out, or denies that some expressions of it are part of the experience.  That leaves them with nothing to preach except condemnation.

Rachel Held Evans died this week, unexpectedly and from a medical perspective, tragically.  God does not give any human being the privilege of knowing the eternal destiny of any other human being.  I never met her, except through the words she penned and spoke.  From that, I can easily discern her confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, not just empty words but supported by actions.  Did she have all of her doctrinal ducks lined up?  No, but neither do her critics who are maligning her and it is much more difficult to detect the Spirit of God in their words and deeds than it is in hers.  She is “wrong” in the eyes of a particular interpretation of Christianity but affirmed by many others.  We will not get through heaven’s gates riding “right doctrine.” I don’t see her critics applying the scriptural truth of I John 4:2, nor practicing the scriptural truth of Ephesians 4:29.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.



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