Evolving Beyond Apologetics: A Review of Rachel Held Evans’ “Evolving in Monkey Town”

Bookmark and Share

June 25, 2010 Tags: Lives of Faith

Today's entry was written by Dennis Venema. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Evolving Beyond Apologetics: A Review of Rachel Held Evans’ “Evolving in Monkey Town”

Lately I’ve been musing on the hypothesis that one significant difference between the Intelligent Design (ID) approach and an evolutionary creationist / BioLogos approach is how the two viewpoints employ apologetics: arguments for the existence of God (or a “Designer”); the efficacy of “natural” mechanisms, and so on. It seems to me that a large portion of the railing against “naturalism” on the part of several ID figures is motivated by the desire for a convincing Christian apologetic. Stephen Meyer, for example, puts is this way in his recent book Signature in the Cell:

“According to scientific materialism, reality is ultimately impersonal… though this view of existence proved initially liberating in that it released humans from any sense of obligation to an externally imposed system of morality, it has also proved profoundly and literally dispiriting. If the conscious realities that comprise our personhood have no lasting existence, if life and mind are nothing more than unintended ephemera of the material cosmos, then, as the existential philosophers have recognized, our lives can have no lasting meaning or ultimate purpose. Without a purpose driven universe, there can be no ‘purpose-driven life.’”1

Meyer, then, seems to be highly motivated to articulate an apologetic to counter the purposeless he sees in “materialistic” explanations.

In contrast, adopting an EC/BioLogos – type approach means being willing to give up an anti-evolutionary apologetic. Accepting that God created through what we observe as a natural process deflates any attempt to argue for His existence based on natural phenomena that science has yet to explain. For a dyed-in-the-wool presuppositional apologist, this is madness. Still, we’ve been here before. Preaching a “crucified Messiah” had what can only be described as negative apologetics value for Paul: it was foolishness for Gentiles and a serious stumbling block for Jews.

With these thoughts in mind, I was pleased to meet author Rachel Held Evans2 at the BioLogos conference earlier this month. (You can see her thoughts on the meeting here). Rachel grew up in Dayton Tennessee, home of the infamous Scopes Monkey trial of 1925. Rachel attended Bryan College (named in honor of William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor that convicted schoolteacher John Scopes of teaching evolution); she is the daughter of a Bryan professor; Kurt Wise was one of her instructors. In short, she grew up in a world firmly devoted to anti-evolutionary Christian apologetics.

Evolving in Monkey Town is the story of how cracks begin to appear in the façade of Rachel’s comfortable world, with its ready answers for difficult questions. Eventually, most of what she has known comes crashing down around her, leaving her to sort through the pieces and reevaluate what being a Jesus-follower is all about.

Her descent into doubt is a poignant section of the book:

“On the outside, I embodied all the expectations I had for myself going into college. I was confident, articulate, ready to change the world. But on the inside, something different was happening. I started to have doubts.

You might say that the apologetics movement had created a monster. I’d gotten 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 I turned the same skeptical eye upon my own faith.”

As her story unfolds, we journey with her as she asks the hard questions: what exactly is orthodox Christianity, and what are merely “false fundamentals”? Does the faith stand or fall with a literal interpretation of Genesis? How can a loving God be reconciled with the genocides He commands in the Old Testament? Is there a place for mystery, paradox and tension when you’ve been raised on a worldview claiming certainty? And after the dust settles, what about this Jesus character, anyway?

What sets Evolving in Monkey Town apart is that it takes the abstract ideas discussed in more scholarly works and incarnates them in a person. Where other books strive to reach an answer, we join with Rachel as she struggles to find a way to live in the questions. This work is significant not because it advances scholarly dialogue on the topics it covers (though strangely, it does that too) but because Rachel is a representative voice that an apologetics-infatuated church desperately needs to hear. How does faith survive when what one took for granted as part-and-parcel of the faith evaporates? Is there a place where those “Already Gone” can come back to Jesus?

What really made this book stand out for me was the refreshing honesty and depth of the story. It drew me in, hooked me early, and it didn’t let go. Most science/faith/worldview/Biblical interpretation books aren’t exactly page-turners (sorry Pete). This one is: I read it straight through in one sitting (it’s over 200 pages) and felt it ended far too quickly. It’s deep enough for the scholar’s shelf and easily engaging enough for the beach. I didn’t think I’d ever put a book in that category. It’s delightfully well-written, funny, and keenly insightful. I laughed, I cried, I bought the T-shirt. If you read one book on the science/faith continuum this summer, this is the one you should read. Y’all get yourselves over to Rachel’s blog and order one.

To read more about Rachel's faith journey, see her recent blog.

Notes

1. Signature in the Cell p. 449.

2. I’ve always enjoyed noting folks who have proper sentences for names. In her case, that’s the best reason I’ve seen for keeping a maiden name as part of a married name!


Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer. Dennis writes regularly for the BioLogos Forum about the biological evidence for evolution.


View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...
Page 1 of 3   1 2 3 »
Karl - #18977

June 25th 2010

Rachel states on her blog that “faith survives by continually changing.” Ironically, American fundamentalists offer some of the best examples of this as historians such as Randall Balmer have pointed out. Creationism evolved into “creation science” which evolved into ID, and much of the impetus for this had to do with legal issus. In similar fashion, as recently as the election of 1960, fundamentalists were among the loudest champions of “separation of church and state” (a phrase then often loaded with anti-Catholicism) but now they claim it never existed. The use of torture used to be cited as a difference between Americans and their enemies, but now it’s suddenly OK if it works for Jack Bauer. It was not uncommon for fundamentalists to espouse pacifism before World War I, then they “adapted.” I could go on and on. Fundamentalists survive as a social group precisely because they have so separated words from meanings that the same words can mean whatever the historical moment requires. In short, they evolve.


Stephen Matheson - #18998

June 25th 2010

I’ve always enjoyed noting folks who have proper sentences for names. In her case, that’s the best reason I’ve seen for keeping a maiden name as part of a married name!

Awesome! Imagine: “Rachel Held Evans. Ten yard penalty from the spot of the foul. Repeat second down.”

Rachel’s story is really great, and I’m recommending her book and her site regularly. I’ll give her prominent mention at the Cornerstone Festival next week. Nice review!


Rachel H. Evans - #19002

June 25th 2010

I can honestly say to my husband, “You complete me.” 


Gregory - #19212

June 26th 2010

This post displays ‘No Fear’ to speak in realms of knowledge about which one knows little. It knows little about nuance wrt ‘evolution’ in non-natural sciences.

4 examples of ‘evolution’ being applied to non-biological, non-physical things:

Evolving in Monkey Town” – Rachel

Evolving Beyond Apologetics” - Dennis

“Fundamentalists survive as a social group precisely because they have so separated words from meanings that the same words can mean whatever the historical moment requires. In short, they evolve.”- Karl

“Creationism evolved into “creation science” which evolved into ID” - Karl

What is the difference then between ‘evolution’ & ‘change’ or do these folks hold to the myth that ‘evolution’ & ‘change’ are synonyms?

As a scholar who reads, listens, talks & writes @ human actions, decisions & behavio(u)rs, I can say that using the term ‘evolution’ (& cognates) in this way only serves to muddy the communicative waters & does *NOT* help the situation, as all of the 3 people above wish to do.

Contrary to Dennis’ view, there are *some* anti-evolution apologetics that are legitimate, needed & worthy of the label ‘Christian’. He just doesn’t know it.


Gregory - #19213

June 26th 2010

Dennis – wrt genomics, you being a professor of genetics, I’ll more or less trust your word. But wrt understanding and critiquing the ideologies of ‘naturalism’ and ‘scientific materialism,’ Stephen Meyer without doubt absolutely dominates you. Sorry, but that’s the truth!

And I’m not an IDist, so please don’t play that card. Just speaking truth to ‘biology/genetics power.’

“Is there a place for mystery, paradox and tension when you’ve been raised on a worldview claiming certainty?” - Dennis

Yes, there is. One of the cleverest women I know, a scientist-theologian (previously) working at MIT, displayed this to me most aptly one day with mosaics while visiting a church/museum.

I wonder if this mystery, paradox and tension applies (even could apply!) for those few Christians who accept *universal evolutionism* too? (Fr.) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would be enjoying the discussions with irony in his grave.


Gregory - #19214

June 26th 2010

In other words, the title of this thread could have been “Moving Beyond Apologetics” without altering the intended meaning in the slightest.

Right or wrong?


Rachel H. Evans - #19221

June 27th 2010

Gregory -  You’re right that “evolving” can mean different things in different contexts. Dennis and I just took advantage of this fact when we chose our titles. We’re intentionally playing with the words for the amusement and benefit of the reader.

...Words don’t always have to be so stuffy.


gingoro - #19231

June 27th 2010

Rachel H. Evans @19221

...Words don’t always have to be so stuffy. grin

Well said Rachel, very well said, however, I have been having this argument with Gregory for years and never make any progress.  IMO he has a point about the misuse of evolutionary principles in the social sciences.
Dave W

By the way click on my signin and see a representation of the creation story in fabric wall hanging.  Note the carnivorous lion present with Adam and Eve in the storey.


gingoro - #19234

June 27th 2010

Dennis:
For a dyed-in-the-wool presuppositional apologist, this is madness.

Could you explain why please.  I have never found presuppositional apologetics convincing.  However I am quite happy to take a set of presuppositions and attempt as best I can to see where they lead, like Ard suggested in his essay when he discussed (translated to my terminology) beginning with person-hood or beginning with space-time and seeing what kind of tapestry one can fashion. 
Dave W


JKnott - #19241

June 27th 2010

I feel similarly to Gregory in the specific sense that people tend to apply the word “evolve” to mean “intentionally change for the better” which is very different from the kind of purposelessness inherent in evolutionary theory. I think this has negative ideological consequences, leading people to think that going with the flow of cultural change is a virtue.

By the way, purposelessness in natural processes is not a problem from my perspective.  Seems to me the book of Ecclesiastes agrees that all “under the sun” is meaningless.  Only in God’s actions in Christ is creation redeemed.  Why is that so threatening?

Furthermore, I don’t think this goes against “presuppositional” apologetics, at least not as opposed to other kinds.

Finally, I keep hearing evolution described as “God created through what we observe as a natural process.” Understandable, but I think unnecessary and unhelpful.  I would prefer: God creates directly, ex nihilo, but that which is created is not discrete things within the world (humans, amoebas, etc.) but the universe and world history as a whole. This avoids identifying God with observable processes or making God a Greek-style demiurge working with preexisting material.


JKnott - #19242

June 27th 2010

That said, I am encouraged by Rachel’s story and look forward to reading the book. (Perhaps should have said that first!)


Mike Gene - #19243

June 27th 2010

While I am sure many (most?) think of intelligent design in terms of apologetics, this is not true for me.  I use the concept of intelligent design to explore evolution in an fair-minded and open-ended manner. I have found such exploration to be quite fascinating. 

Let me play with words a bit too, as I struggle to understand the various groups around me.  Anyone familiar with my views might appreciate this:

Non-teleologists: There is no Rabbit!
Creationists/mainstream ID: There is no Duck!
Biologos/ECs/TEs:  God loves Ducks!
Yours truly: Follow da bunny.


gingoro - #19246

June 27th 2010

Mike Gene @19243

Let me also affirm Mike’s comments: “While I am sure many (most?) think of intelligent design in terms of apologetics, this is not true for me.”.  Nor do my reservations about the neo Darwinian mechanisms being capable of producing complex change come in any way from an apologetic goal, nor from YEC or ID thought or goals.  At university of necessity I took a considerable number of physics and math courses plus I elected to take any more that the electrical engineering faculty would approve of.  In addition I will quite happily read semi popular physics books and have a fair library of such at home.  As I have mentioned before I do not find the level of detail advanced in support of evolutionary mechanisms close to what I have learned to expect from physics.  Thus IMO scientists in the evolutionary areas should be considerably more tentative about their claims.  We don’t know yet is a fine answer as is we are not sure.  Recently in Sci Am I read that the physicists were considering changing their mind about dark matter.  String theory has been around for 20 years or so and seems no closer to being accepted that it was ten years ago.  Popper said that all science is open to revision as we go forward.


Mike Gene - #19253

June 27th 2010

Hi gingoro,

I myself do not have any serious reservations about neo Darwinian mechanisms being capable of producing complex change.  I simply reject the notion that neo-Darwinian mechanisms can and must exist only within a non-teleological framework.  JKnott mentions purposelessness as being inherent in evolutionary theory, yet purposelessness is more of an add-on imposed by a metaphysical preference than an inherent or necessary feature of evolution and natural selection.  In fact, I just read a paper that comes awfully close to making this point.

Instead of thinking of neo-Darwinian mechanisms as something that ‘just happen’ as a consequence of the brute givens of reproduction and variation, look deeper, and think of them as a component of a homeostatic, control process.  After all, the whole architecture of life sure looks designed to help evolution along.


gingoro - #19262

June 28th 2010

Mike Gene @19253

“I myself do not have any serious reservations about neo Darwinian mechanisms being capable of producing complex change. ”

Was not suggesting that you had such reservations, just that I do.

” I simply reject the notion that neo-Darwinian mechanisms can and must exist only within a non-teleological framework. “

I also object to that although I have yet to find a credible proposal as to how teleology would function.  Sometime I need to get your book and read it and also spend some time on your web site.  Intervention is also NOT a problem for me although it may not be detectable or in God’s plan.  I do wonder how much teleology is possible by slight modifications (say to the nine hundredth digit) in the constants of the laws of nature and/or the initial conditions and for that reason I probably have a slight preference for a few interventions possibly hidden in quantum indeterminacy. 

However, my overall approach is to look at what happened rather than try to extrapolate theology or world view into dictating what is allowable.  This is one place where I differ from a lot of people on the old ASA email list for example George.  I do however, rule out options like appearance of age etc. 

Dave W


Mike Gene - #19267

June 28th 2010

Hi Dave,

It sounds like our views are close, as I fully agree with your overall approach as described in the last paragraph.  I take the view that whatever happened, had to happen.  This is because I believe God intended for you and me (and everyone else around us) to exist.  So say Dawkins is completely correct in his view of origins.  Fine, if that is the way you and me were brought into existence, it had to happen that way.  Otherwise, God would have to create an apparent history.  And like you, I rule out that option. 

This, of course, likewise means that I can’t rule out interventions.  You and I do exist because of God’s intervention with the world through Christ.  If God had not incarnated in Christ, then there would be no Christian faith.  Not only would that mean we could not be Christians, and thus not be who we are (our faith being a core part of our identity), but human history would have been changed such that it is highly doubtful we would even exist.  Am I making any sense?  Thus we exist because of an intervention that even the BioLogos and ASA people accept.


Mike Gene - #19268

June 28th 2010

So anyway, the primary focus is as you say - what happened.  And since I don’t have to force that explanation to conform to theology or non-teleological metaphysics, nor make it fit some social convention, I am freed to gather any clue and investigate.


Mike Gene - #19269

June 28th 2010

“but human history would have been changed such that it is highly doubtful we would even exist.”

By this I mean humans who share our same genotype and up-raising.


Rich - #19274

June 28th 2010

Mike Gene:

“I myself do not have any serious reservations about neo Darwinian mechanisms being capable of producing complex change.”

If you believe this, Mike, then will you give us the benefit of your insights?  Can you point us to something that you’ve written, or that others have written, that explains, with detailed mutational pathways, with appropriate correlations with morphology and selection criteria, how any major organ or body plan might have come about?  If you cannot do this, your belief strikes me as irrational, faith-based, so to speak.  Or else we understand “neo-Darwinian” quite differently.

“Instead of thinking of neo-Darwinian mechanisms as something that ‘just happen’ as a consequence of the brute givens of reproduction and variation, look deeper, and think of them as a component of a homeostatic, control process.”

I’m certainly glad to do this.  But as you know, most TEs will reject any such approach as “non-scientific”.  They will say that you are trying to sneak “purpose” into science, by speaking of “control processes”.  For them, “methodological naturalism” means that any “control processes” that exist must themselves have evolved without the benefit of control processes.  (cont.)


Rich - #19275

June 28th 2010

Mike Gene (continued):

Mike, you’re a brilliant guy, and I like the fact that you aren’t afraid to hold a unique position, but you seem to me to protest too much against the idea of ID.  What are “control processes” but another way of speaking about design?  Who or what put the “control processes” in place?  And are you saying that *science*, as such, can demonstrate the existence of these control processes?  Are you willing to go up against Giberson, Falk, Venema and the other here and say that the inference of such control processes is “scientific” and not “metaphysical” or “religious”?  If you do so, you’ll find that your only allies are ID proponents.  So you’re in a paradoxical position.


Page 1 of 3   1 2 3 »