In order for our faith to survive, it must be willing and flexible enough to adapt to change. No matter where we find ourselves at in whatever time in history we live, change is an inevitable part of the human experience. For the late Rachel Held Evans, acclaimed Christian author of Evolving in Monkey Town: How a girl who knew all the answers learned to ask the questions, this meant learning how to ask better questions in order to navigate the ongoing change in our lives and faith.
The legacy of Monkey Town
Monkey Town, for those who are unaware, refers to her hometown of Dayton, Tennessee. Dayton is famous for the 1920’s Scopes’ Monkey Trial, a court case that pit Biblical fundamentalism against modern science and theory of evolution. It was a case that has had a dramatic impact on the theological landscape of twentieth century Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism. She recounts her unique experience growing up in this historic city in a deeply conservative southern state and how it influenced her faith journey over the span of her life (at the time of her writing, she was 29). In Monkey Town, she learned a kind of Christianity that put a high value on framing one’s faith through the lens of theology certainty and triumphalism. By certainty, she was taught that she needed to always be and act certain of her faith. She learned of the absolute necessity to be ready to respond with answers to skeptics’ questions about matters of faith, the existence of God, and Biblical inerrancy. To have or maintain any inch of doubt about these matters was unacceptable. More than that; it was a sin.
The question of certainty
As Evans got older and attended the local Christian Bible college, Bryan, she began having concerns about theological certainty that led to asking some important questions. For example:
- What happens when you are supposed to answer skeptics with absolute certainty and yet you still have questions about the very things you are supposed to be certain of?
- What if the go-to apologetics of the day are no longer working for you? What if instead of actually solving or answering your own questions, they raised more questions?
- And how can we be so “certain” of our interpretations when there is so much theological diversity of “Biblical” interpretation, not only among the authors of Scripture, but within church history itself (beginning with the early church fathers and mothers on down to the last hundred years of Christian church history)?
- And what about that word “Biblical?” Isn’t claiming that something is Biblical a nice and convenient way to end a conversation or debate? After all, if God is on your side because you are the one who is “Biblical,” there is no need for a discussion. Nor is there need for humility to listen to others and how they arrived to their interpretations.
Understandably, in an environment where theological certainty is promoted and praised, asking too many questions is usually looked down on. But, as Evans acknowledges, questions are often the catalysts for growth and maturity. Questions arise in our minds after having reasonable doubts that the answers we’ve been given (or once believed) are good enough to sustain our life and faith in God and that perhaps what we actually need is better answers. In order to get better answers, however, we need to learn how to ask better questions. Rather than being a hindrance to one’s faith, learning how to ask better questions is a significant part of what it means to be a thoughtful follower of Jesus.
Of course, some people don’t ask certain questions for fear of what others in their faith community will think, so they remain silent and maintain the status quo. For Evans, this was not an option. She instead took the path of courage and began asking.
God in the questions
“What about the fundamentals of the faith?” she was asked countless times. As she so eloquently put in her first book, which fundamentals should we all agree on? Since over the centuries there have been certain “fundamentals” that one Christian or church or denomination has that another does not.
For Evans, the answer is not after all that truth doesn’t really matter. It does. But just as much as truth matters, it matters where you are sitting when you are asking about matters of truth. We all bring our personal stories and life contexts to the pages of the Bible and to our faith in God. Isn’t God big enough and kind enough to work with and within our varying life contexts, opinions and interpretations? Is God threatened by our questions? Or is it more likely the case, as various authors of Scripture indicate, that God has indeed invited us to ask them? That doesn’t mean we will get a satisfying answer from God right away or every time. It simply means the invitation is there to ask. God isn’t, after all, required to immediately solve all of our questions with a quick answer.
Depending on quick answers for our deepest questions about life and faith does a disservice to God and to our faith communities by eliminating the opportunity and space for us to feel and experience the weight of our questions. To let them sink in and challenge us further to think things through. To talk about them with others. To talk about them with God.
For Evans, questions are not the problem to faith in God. Rather they contribute to that faith. They stir it to expand and grow and mature. And the God whom we place our faith in, the God Rachel Held Evans continued to discover time and again, is the kind of being who meets people–who meets us–right where we are.
In the complexity of our lives.
In the big events.
In the small details.
And in the questions.
Rachel Held Evan’s first book Evolving in Monkey Town: How a girl who knew all the answers learned to ask the questions or its re-titled Faith Unraveled can be purchased on Amazon.com. Evan’s has written three additional titles, A year of Biblical womanhood (2012), Searching for Sunday (2015), and Inspired (2018). Rachel Held Evans lived to the age of 37 before her untimely death on March 4, 2019. She leaves behind her husband Dan and their two children. Her friends and family and fellow travelers in the faith all around the world will miss her.