~ notes from an uncommon journey ~

Evolving in Monkey Town, Part 1: On Slants and Evolution

"I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can,
to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart.
Try to love the questions themselves,
like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.
Do not now look for the answers.
They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them.
It is a question of experiencing everything.
At present you need to live the question.
Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it,
find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day." 
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet1

* * *

Note: This post is part of my occasional series Books That Made a Difference.

As I've said before, I don't remember exactly when or how I first discovered Rachel Held Evans. And I don't remember how I first heard about her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. I just know that at the time, I didn't really know what it was about; I'd just heard about it and was intrigued. Maybe I'd caught wind of some controversy around it? Seems likely. Anyway, it's fair to say I bought it mostly out of curiousity. By then I was quite familiar with Rachel through her blog and just really loved how she espoused what I'll call a different kind of Christianity. By which I mean a (very) different kind  from the kind I inherited.

And as it turns out, that's what the book is about—that different kind of Christianity and how Rachel transitioned to it...as the back cover says, "from certainty, through doubt, to faith...." I could talk here about how, for me growing up, practically everything was about certainty—it is fundamentalism's core; certainty and faith were the same thing. But...I would be getting ahead of myself.

The book's title is a takeoff from the fact that Rachel's town, Dayton, TN, was the site of the famous Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925.

This book has been so eye-opening for me, I knew I had to write about it. So in this and in future posts I'll be sharing my thoughts on it.

* * * 

In the Preface, Rachel shares a series of things about herself to let the reader in on the "slant" she brings to Christian faith and the Bible. Which is great, because I think everyone brings their own slant, as much as many would like to claim otherwise. Some of them are amusing, like, "The Stuff White People Like blog is painfully representative of my lifestyle and habits" (page 13). Some are serious, like, "I'm judgmental of people I think are judgmental" (page 13) and this set: "I've been hurt by Christians" and "As a Christian, I've been hurtful" (page 14). I love that she included those last few, because they're real, honest, and humble. Who isn't at least somewhat judgmental? (Brené Brown says, "We all do it [judge others] and most of us do it all the time."2) And it can be really easy to talk about how you've been hurt, without acknowledging that you've dished it out too.

Near the end of the preface, Rachel says,
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not exactly an impartial observer. My culture, my childhood, my gender, my prejudices, my hopes, my imagination, my virtues, and my vices—these things color my view of the world and infuse it with meaning. I've got baggage just like everyone else, and it's as much a part of my faith journey as the high peaks, the low valleys, and the long, lovely stretches of road that I wish could go on forever.

I'm a lot of things, but fair and balanced I am not. (page 14)
And again, I would say: who is?

My first real "Whoa" moment came with the title of the Introduction, "Why I Am an Evolutionist." At this point, I am not an evolutionist. But then again, origins is not one of the things I've specifically re-examined yet. Creationism (of the literal, 6-day variety) was pounded into me in my fundy upbringing and evangelical college. Of course. What else would a good Christian believe? A particular standout in my memory is a "Back to Genesis" seminar put on at my college by people from the Institute for Creation Research. At that time, Ken Ham was among them (he is now the Answers in Genesis guy). He had a whole session, which I believe was called "Creation Evangelism," where he posited that the entire Christian story is based on a literal interpretation of the events in Genesis. And that otherwise...the whole thing falls apart. And I bought that; I bought it hard.

Rachel relates that, like me, she was "...told that belief in evolutionary theory and belief in a personal, loving Creator are mutually exclusive, that if the Bible cannot be trusted to accurately explain the origins of life, it cannot be trusted for anything at all, and the Christian faith is lost" (page 16). And now...here she, an evangelical-raised (no less) Christian, is boldly declaring she's an evolutionist. What am I supposed to do with that? If Christianity and evolution are fundamentally incompatible, what of Christians who believe in evolution?

Honestly, I have no idea.  In any case, I'm no longer inclined to be judgmental (see what I did there?) toward people based on how they believe on this topic.

Now, to be fair, she seems to hold that position less strongly than the Introduction's title might lead us to believe. Witness this passage:
Monkeys make me nervous. Whenever I hear about chimpanzees solving math problems or Koko the Gorilla using sign language to order her breakfast, I feel inexplicably threatened by their humanlike qualities and intelligence.... I suppose my monkey-phobia has something to do with the sneaking suspicion that maybe the biologists are right after all. Maybe man and ape share a common ancestor, and that explains our eerie similarities. (pages 15 & 16)
I like that she admits that. I've had similar thoughts (though I was probably so disturbed by the implications, that I didn't even form them into actual words in my head). I mean, if we're not related to chimpanzees, for example, how come we share so much genetic material? Ponder that one for a while.

And then there's this one:
I'm still not sure what to make of evolution. Scientists have perfectly good evidence to support it, while theologians have good biblical and philosophical reasons to be wary of its implications.

However, I have a feeling that if Darwin turns out to be right, the Christian faith won't fall apart after all. (page 16)
And that is a conclusion I can live with.

As the Introduction continues, Rachel talks about why she believes that to be the case and about what kind of evolutionist she really is. But that is topic enough for its own post, so stay tuned for part 2.


1I owe the discovery of this quote to author (and incidentally a high school mate of mine) Elissa Elliott; I first saw it on her website. Elissa's book is Eve: A Novel, which is fantastic.
2Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't) (New York: Gotham Books, 2007), 38.

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