Evolving in Monkey Town

I just got back from a short term mission trip to Houston accompanying some middle school boys from our church (my son among them). It was a wonderful experience working with the Impact Houston Church of Christ and their ministry to the disadvantaged in that city.

During the trip I had Rachel Held Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town in my pocket, reading it between worship services, service projects, and innings at a Houston Astros game.

Evolving in Monkey Town is a spiritual memoir. It's the personal story of how Evans, who grew up in the thick of evangelical fundamentalism, went through a faith crisis and emerged with a stronger, deeper faith. Her story is eerily familiar as I, and many of you I expect, have made a very similar journey.

"Monkey Town" is a reference to Evans' hometown of Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the (in)famous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. You'll recall how in the popular imagination the Scopes trial was a showdown between biblical fundamentalism and Darwinian evolution (this is the mythical view of the trial captured in the play/movie Inherit the Wind; for a more accurate historical analysis of the trial see Edward Larson's Pulitzer Prize winning book Summer for the Gods). You might think, given the title of the book, that Evans' faith struggle has centered on the issues involved in the Creationism versus Evolution debate. But the "evolving" in Monkey Town has less to do with Darwin than with Evans' struggle with doubts and her own subsequent spiritual evolution in response to those doubts. "Monkey Town" is a backdrop to the book, functioning as a sort of metaphor. Here is Evans at the beginning of the book about her faith "evolution":

While evolution on a broad, historical scale happens every now and then, evolution within the souls of individuals happens every day, whenever we adapt our faith to change...My story is about that kind of evolution. It's about moving from certainty, through doubt, to faith. It's not about the answers I found but about the questions I asked, questions I suspect you might be asking to. It's not a pretty story, or even a finished story. It's a survival story. It's the story of how I evolved in an unlikely environment, a little place called Monkey Town.
What I found so compelling about Evolving in Monkey Town is how Evans' journey traces an arch almost identical to my own faith story. It's a journey that begins in childhood, with a good family, warm memories of church, and spiritual precociousness. A time in life where having all the answers, all neatly highlighted in my bible, felt warm and wonderful. Like a fuzzy security blanket.

But this warm, fuzzy and childlike certainty began to fall apart during the college years. Like Evans, my faith crisis was prompted by "the problem of pain" and how that problem was horrifically magnified by fundamentalist views of hell and the reality of moral luck (what Evans calls the "cosmic lottery").

For Evans, these problems came to a head after she had witnessed on CNN the Taliban execution of a woman named Zarmina (videos of the execution can still be found online, with many of the sites attempting to honor Zarmina's memory). The sociopathic pointlessness of Zarmina's death is enough to prompt acute theodicy questions. These questions quickly scale up into a full blown theological storm when one considers the fact that, according to evangelical fundamentalism, Zarmina, being Muslim, went to hell directly after her death. Further, if the fundamentalists are to be believed, God is going to torture Zarmina worse than the Taliban did. For all eternity.

Here is Evans reflecting on her reaction to seeing Zarmina's death in light of the fundamentalist beliefs she held at the time:
CNN repeatedly aired the tape, perhaps to make us feel better about going to war against the Taliban. But it wasn't the Taliban I was angry with. Each time I watched Zarmina's execution, I got angrier and angrier with God. God was the one who claimed to have formed Zarmina in her mother's womb. It was God who ordained the she be born in a third-world country under an oppressive regime. God had all the power and resources at his disposal to stop this from happening, and yet did nothing. Worst of all, twenty years of Christian education assured me that because Zarmina was a Muslim, she would suffer unending torment in hell for the rest of eternity. How the Taliban punished Zarmina in this life was nothing compared with how God would punish her in the next.

Suddenly abstract concepts about heaven and hell, election and free will, religious pluralism and exclusivism had a name: Zarmina. I felt like I could come to terms with Zarmina's suffering if it were restricted to this lifetime, if I knew that God would grant her some sort of justice after death. But the idea that this woman passed from agony to agony, from torture to torture, from a lifetime of pain and sadness to an eternity of pain and sadness, all because she had less information about the gospel than I did, seemed cruel, even sadistic. God knew long before Zarmina was born--before her first giggle, before her first steps, before her first words--that this was her fate. He knew it from the beginning and yet created her anyway. I wondered how many millions of people like Zarmina died every day in similar circumstances. I thought about the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the gassing of Iraqi Kurds, and those terrible, haunting images of warehouses full of eyeglasses and shoes and prayer shawls left behind by victims of the Holocaust. Was I supposed to believe that all these people went to hell because they weren't Christians?
As I can testify, once you start asking questions like this you can't really stop. There is no going back. The questions just start piling up. And through the chapters of Evolving in Monkey Town we see Evans go on this journey. She goes on to confront issues related to biblical literalism, the genocidal passages in the bible, the doctrine of hell, religious pluralism, same sex attraction, gender relations, politics and, yes, evolution. By the end of the book Evans returns to faith but with a critical difference. The certainty of her youth has been replaced with complexity and doubt. Her final chapter--Living the Questions--is a beautiful meditation on the role of doubt in the religious life:
I used to think that the measure of true faith is certainty. Doubt, ambiguity, nuance, uncertainty--these represented a lack of conviction, a dangerous weakness in the armor of the Christian solider who should "always be ready with an answer."

With the best of intentions, the generation before mine worked diligently to prepare their children to make an intelligent case for Christianity. We were constantly reminded of the superiority of our own worldview and the shortcomings of all others...As a result, many of us entered the world with both an unparalleled level of conviction and a crippling lack of curiosity...

In short, we never learned to doubt...

If I've learned anything over the past five years, it's that doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves. It helps us cast off false fundamentals so that we can recover what has been lost or embrace what is new. It is a refining fire, a hot flame that keeps our faith alive and moving and bubbling about, where certainty would only freeze it on the spot.
Evolving in Monkey Town, for me, was a moving and nostalgic read. The book is smart, warm, witty, and insightful. It brought back many fond memories of VBS and Sunday School ("Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he!"). Of trying to convince my Catholic friends in elementary school that Mary wasn't really a perpetual virgin (the bible said Jesus had brothers!). Of hot nights of doubt in college. And coming into a new kind of relationship with God in adulthood.

As Evans reminds us, despite the verdict of the Scopes trial, evolution, it seems, is very good for the soul.

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14 thoughts on “Evolving in Monkey Town”

  1. I feel a little sad that you were at my church all this week, and not once did I open up my eyes enough to see you with the Highland group. I enjoy your writings, I wish I had gotten to chat with you, maybe next time.

  2. So many questions come to mind for me. Many Christians I know seem content with their fundamentalist certainties, superior and contemptuous of anyone less certain than themselves. And those who have become equally certain in their rejection of all faith seem mockingly contemptuous toward any who hold any faith at all. Both sides invariably seem to need to convince others how right they are. Pulling out of those kinds of circles is a loner's endeavor. There's not much community for those in recovery from fundmentalist churchianity, but who also cannot embrace athiesm.

  3. Thanks for the book review. Makes me think of the book Dating Jesus.

    Isn't the point of discipleship to evolve--to become like Jesus?

  4. It looks like I have a new book to add to my must-read list. Her closing meditation is quite poignant. At one time in my life, I, too, equated faith with certainty. I've come to agree with Tillich's assertion in Ultimate Concern: "But serious doubt is confirmation of faith. It indicates the seriousness of the concern, its unconditional character."

  5. Hi John,
    I plan to be back the next two years while my son is in middle school. Hopefully we can find each other then.

    Your church is really wonderful.

  6. I loved Evolving in Monkey Town. Rachel is a blog-friend of mine, and I also found that her journey was quite similar to mine. We ask the same kinds of questions, and she writes eloquently, and with grace.

    Great review, Richard!

  7. I'm heading to Amazon to look for monkey Town NOW! Thanks for the post. Greg

  8. I always find it unfortunate that Christians talk about going through a "faith crisis", often to emerge with stronger faith afterwards. My problem is that faith is seen as a good thing, when in my opinion it is not. My definition of faith is to believe in something for which there is no evidence, which I don't consider to be a good quality. Perhaps it is my definition of the word faith that lacks, but I wish more Christians, as they go through their "faith crisis" would realize that an acceptable outcome is doing away with faith.

  9. Well, perhaps we've found a bit of that community here... I'm certainly a recovering fundamentalist who cannot embrace atheism. That's as good a description of me myself as I've ever hear.

  10. I just finished this book last weekend. I couldn't relate in some ways because I came to faith later, and my churches have been overall open (but not responsive) to questions.
    I guess when I ended the book I wish she would have written it at 50 when she had a few answers :) She seemed to have a lot of gender questions. And these are important. Because have to live as women or men and hopefully God speaks to those. And when we are so confused that same gender attraction becomes "normal" we have some real relational challenges as well as theological ones.
    I pray that she continues questioning and continues pursuing God's heart in all of these matters. He likes questioners (ask, seek, knock).

  11. In my childhood evolution was an Idea who's time had come and gone God only knew when(with the creation story )Sometime later a friend used "evolution"in defining something going on and I was intrgued.Now I feel like my soul sings with the joy with the idea.Metamorphoses or the transformation of the butterfly is wonderful,ethereal but limiting for me .I like thinking about evolving into the Image of Jesus.Romans 8:29 thanks for sharing

  12. This is much like my story. Having all the answers and being right is a powerful drug. Driving around and slamming my hand against the dash in agreement with Rush and others in the Right, I was main-lining righteousness. But all it took was one day to realize-a lot of the people that I looked up to were assholes. They were cold and callous, self-absorbed, and without a clue about the suffering of others. I went over the cliff of doubt and I never want to go back.

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