If you’ve ever struggled with doubts about the existence of God and your faith, then know this: you’re not alone. There are many others who struggle or have struggled in this way, and one emerging author was brave enough to put this struggle into a book for all to read. Rachel Held Evans is a speaker, author, and blogger who has written about the not-so-pretty aspects of her faith journey as she doubted God while living in the Bible belt, yet emerged on the other side with a deeper understanding of Christianity and faith. Her book, Evolving in Monkey Town, hits stores next month and is already being hailed as an articulate and compelling read that will leave you pondering your own questions of faith long after you finish the last page. I was able to catch up with Rachel before her book tour and ask some questions about her life, faith, and, of course, her personal feelings towards monkeys.
Describe your background about your life and faith journey.
I grew up in the Bible belt-first in Birmingham, Alabama; then in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. I’ve been part of the evangelical Christian subculture my entire life, and have only recently begun questioning some of the things I was taught growing up in the church.
Describe what it’s like living in the Bible belt. How does living there impact your faith journey? Do you feel you would have gone through the same faith crisis in another part of the country?
I love living down South. There’s a real sense of community here, and the taxes are low. But it can be a tough environment in which to wrestle with tough questions about faith. There are just so many sacred cows, so many assumptions about what it means to be a Christian. Religion is so infused in the culture that it can be hard to make a distinction between the true fundamentals of the faith and false fundamentals that have been invented along the way. So when I first started wrestling with issues related to the Bible, science, religious pluralism, politics, doubt, and faith, I felt as though I were questioning God Himself. I’m not sure that same pressure would have existed elsewhere, but I’m not sorry I had my faith crisis here. I’m lucky to be surrounded by good friends and a supportive family, which has made a big difference.
Do you think doubt is a necessary part of faith?
In the sense that a healthy amount of doubt keeps us from making idols out of beliefs, absolutely! I think every Christian owes it to the great cloud of witnesses before us as well as the generations to come to think critically about our faith and hold our beliefs with open hands so that we’re able to change should we realize that we’re wrong. I used to think that being a Christian was all about being right and that the measure of true faith was certainty. But what I’ve learned through the process of doubt is that certainty renders faith unnecessary. My friend David Henderson puts it this way, “Belief is always a risk, a gamble-an adventure, if you will. The line between faith and doubt is the point of action. You don’t need certainty to obey, just the willingness to risk being wrong.”
Describe your mountaintop moments and lowest moments with God.
Honestly, I’ve had very few “mountaintop moments” in recent years-which is not to say my journey has been dark and lonely, but rather that I’ve grown accustomed to a sort of gradual climb, which I suspect is the path I’ll be on for a while. And I’m okay with that. My favorite moments are the ones in which I take the time to soak in the view right where I am, as opposed glaring in jealousy at those who are ahead or looking down in disgust at those below. My best moments with God happen when I pay attention to his presence in the everyday.
How was your faith journey affected by your marriage and how did it affect your marriage, if at all?
My husband Dan is just about the most patient person you will ever meet, and one of the greatest gifts he has ever given me is the space to struggle and grow. Despite being a problem-solver at heart, he never tries to fix me when I’m working through doubts, and that makes such a big difference. When people try to fix me, I get defensive and obstinate and more convinced than ever that I’ve got a point to prove. Dan knows how to gently offer wisdom and advice without lecturing. And it’s a good thing!
Who was most helpful or encouraging to you as you were going through intense periods of doubt? How might you counsel others going through a similar journey?
In addition to Dan, my father has been really encouraging and supportive. Even though he is ordained with a degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, he takes a humble approach to faith and respects the fact that my journey is probably going to be a bit different than his. He’s a good listener.
As far as reading material, I’ve learned a lot from theologians like NT Wright, Daniel Taylor, Greg Boyd, and Clark Pinnock and writers like Anne Lamott and Sara Miles. I’m a big fan of the BioLogos Foundation-founded by Francis Collins, author of The Language of God-which seeks to help people harmonize faith and science. I’ve also been really challenged by Richard Stearn (author of The Hole in Our Gospel) and Shane Claiborne (author of The Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President).
When people share with me their own doubts, I tell them that they are not alone, that their questions do not make them any less faithful to God, and that they may have to learn how to find peace in not having all the answers. My biggest piece of advice is to try to continue to follow Jesus and obey his teachings in spite of the doubts-because sometimes the act of obedience leads to surprising clarity and peace. No matter how much I doubt, continue to find Jesus too compelling to ignore.
What led you to write this book and how difficult was it to write?
I’ve wanted to write a book ever since I was a kid. I even dressed up as an author for career day in third grade! (The costume involved glasses, a legal pad, and pen-in case you were wondering what an eight-year-old author looks like.)
This book seemed like a natural one to write because I figured there were other young adults out there wrestling with doubts about their faith, so I had an audience in mind from the beginning. The hardest part was just working through all my insecurity and self-doubt as a first-time author. I’m still working on that, actually.
What trends are you excited about in the current church, and what trends are discouraging to you?
I get discouraged when Christianity is presented as little more than a position in a debate, when it is assumed that God belongs to a certain political party, when Jesus is cast as a strictly “personal” savior, when material abundance to the neglect of the poor is hailed as a “blessing,” and when young people are asked to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith. But I’m incredibly encouraged to see my generation of evangelicals begin to think outside the box and try some new things. I believe that in addition to our obvious shortcomings, we are catching the vision of God’s mission of reconciliation in the world, re-prioritizing care for the poor and oppressed, building bridges with the gay and lesbian community, transcending the divisiveness of politics, and engaging in some important conversations about the Bible, origins, religious pluralism, creation care, ecumenicism, Jesus, and the Kingdom of God. For these reasons, I’m optimistic about the future of Christianity and the Church.
What is your own church like?
My husband and I are part of a small missional faith community in town called The Mission. We’re a new church, still meeting in homes and still figuring out what it means to follow Jesus together in the Bible Belt. Our goal is to be a serving church, one that reaches out rather than turns inward. My hope is that, like Jesus, we will earn a reputation for caring for the poor, associating with the marginalized, hanging out with “sinners,” loving God, and loving people. Of course, we’re still in that idealist stage of getting started. I’m sure there will be a lot of challenges in the future that will test our resolve and give us new things to think about.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years I’ll be 39, so I should probably think about having kids before then! I’d be happy to have a few published books under my belt, but right now that biological clock is ticking so loudly I can’t really hear anything else above all the noise.
What is your next project?
I’m currently in talks with publishers about a project that would tackle the egalitarian/complementarian debate (about the role of women in the church, home, and society) in a quirky, humorous way. Wish I could say more, but we’re still working out the details and it’s not a done-deal.
What do you hope people glean from this book?
I hope that readers finish Evolving in Monkey Town with a new appreciation for the resiliency of faith. I hope they are reminded that the Christian faith-on both a personal and collective level-can not only survive doubt and change, but flourish and thrive in the midst of it. I also hope they will recommend it to their friends and write about it on their Facebook walls.
And finally, in the spirit of quirky questions, what is your personal feeling about monkeys? Do you have a favorite species? Would you ever adopt one?
Monkeys totally freak me out. They are far too humanlike for me to ever be at ease with their existence. And when I visited India, they tried to steal my food. Baby chimps are cute, I suppose, but I would never dream of adopting one unless a reality TV show paid me millions of dollars to do so.
Rachel Held Evans is a writer from Dayton, Tennessee, home of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Her first book, a spiritual memoir entitled Evolving in Monkey Town, releases with Zondervan July 1, 2010. She blogs at http://rachelheldevans.com. Visit her blog to discuss topics related to doubt, faith, and the church, learn more about her book and upcoming book tour, and to view the Evolving in Monkey Town book trailer.