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Dennis Venema
 on June 25, 2010

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

How does faith survive when what one took for granted as part-and-parcel of the faith evaporates?


monkey town cover rachel held evansLately 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.

About the author

Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema

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.