Over the weekend I reread Evolving in Monkey Town. When I learned of RHE’s death on Saturday, I figured it would be the least I could do to honor her life and work. She was such a good writer and addressed really important issues. Whether you agreed with her or not, she gave voice to the concerns many people have about status quo Christianity in America.
Contrary to the expectations of the title, the book isn’t really about science, but about the evolution of her faith from a fundamentalist perspective that had ready answers for everything, to a more open and questioning version of Christian faith. This is reflected in the subtitle to the book: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions.
The first time I read Monkey Town, later republished as Faith Unraveled, was in the spring semester of 2012, with a group of eleven freshmen in an honors group I led at the Christian college where I worked. The vast majority of those students came from backgrounds similar to Rachel’s: conservative Bible Belt Christianity, where the Bible and politics and culture blend together in ways that are difficult to tease out. Reading Monkey Town for these bright, committed students was a mix of challenging and liberating, confusing and revealing. It was definitely provocative, leading to lots of deep discussions, hard questions, and even tears.
Of course RHE was controversial. There were all kinds of issues she wondered about that Bible-believing Christians supposedly accept without question: other religions, hell, evolution, homosexuality, the role of women.
For many in our audience, there is a fear that accepting evolution puts your biblical interpretation on a slippery slope down to all the planks in the progressive platform. And to be sure, too many people on the progressive end of the religious spectrum delight in the deconstruction of faith. They are sure they need to expose all the false idols and ill-conceived ideas that can’t stand up to critical analysis in our day and age.
RHE was not one of those. Yes, she had issues with many of the sacred cows of evangelicalism. But she didn’t sneer at those issues and move on to a post-Christian, more enlightened spiritual-but-not-religious position. Rather, in reading her books, it felt like you were walking with her through the questions, maybe never really getting easy answers, but feeling like there was something hopeful. It felt like a more authentic faith could be built again after the deconstruction — even if it wouldn’t be quite the same as before.
Within minutes of hearing about Rachel’s death, I got a series of texts from family members about my cousin who was at that very moment going into surgery for a heart transplant. It sounds like that went well, and they are hopeful she’ll be able to return to a normal life. What a medical miracle! From the perspective of my family, that was a “God thing” and we are tremendously grateful for this answer to our prayers.
But the truth is, that in order for that miracle to be possible, someone else — probably in the prime of their life — had to die, making a good heart available to my cousin. And in the case of RHE, her death resulted from the failure of medicine and, to be brutally honest, the failure of God to intervene by other means, even though many people were asking him for a miracle over the last week.
The seeming arbitrariness of who wins and who loses was one of the hardest questions RHE posed in her book. How are we supposed to feel about such a God? In Monkey Town she related some of her own experiences around the world of witnessing the suffering that accompanies many people’s lives, and she compared that to the often trivial “God things” we think God has done for us when our lives are going well (check out the #blessed Twitter feeds). She said,
“I know that, deep down, my problem isn’t really with Christians who celebrate their blessings but with a God who seems to bless arbitrarily. What bothers me about “God things” is that they remind me of the cosmic lottery — that sobering dichotomy between the world’s rich and the world’s poor, between the lucky and the unlucky — which has always been a sticking point in my own fitful walk with God” (148-149).
The world is unfair. Sometimes good people suffer and the wicked thrive. Tragedies seem to visit followers of Christ just as frequently as they do the godless. This is hard. RHE’s death is another instance of this — two kids will grow up without their mom, a husband has lost his wife way too early, and all of us have been deprived of an important voice.
How should we respond?
We should mourn RHE’s death. We should work for a better world, where fewer people suffer tragedies. We should keep the faith, hoping against hope (or so it seems in times like these) that God will work even this for good.
Keeping faith does not mean pretending we have it all figured out. Commitment to Jesus Christ and his kingdom does not mean never doubting. I think the most honest admission in the Bible comes from the father who brought his convulsing son to Jesus, asking for a healing, but admitting, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9).
Monkey Town ends with RHE’s claim: “If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that serious doubt — the kind that leads to despair — begins not when we start asking God questions but when, out of fear, we stop” (p. 226). These are not just the angsty words of a millennial in her extended adolescence. It turns out that suppressing the questions is directly implicated in the eventual loss of faith. The Fuller Youth Institute found that not having a safe space to ask hard questions is a leading indicator of young people leaving the Christian faith they grew up in.
The group of students I read Monkey Town with was amazing. We had an honest and authentic community that developed in no small part due to the honesty and authenticity of the book we were reading together. We didn’t all agree on the answers — I think RHE would be disappointed if we did! But none of the questions went unasked. I am so thankful for her important work that opened up those kinds of spaces.
May we honor the life and legacy of Rachel Held Evans by continuing to ask our questions.