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I like Rachel Held Evans for several reasons. First, she reads my blog, and has for awhile. Second, she’s funny. I like funny. Third, we share a publisher — she has a book coming out from Zondervan this summer. Fourth, we share a topic — her upcoming book is about faith and doubt.
Fifth, her book has “monkey town” in the title, which is brilliant.
Rachel was kind enough to interview me about my upcoming book a couple of weeks ago. Today, in the name of publishing synergy (even though Zondervan didn’t put us up to this, and probably doesn’t even know about it), it’s my turn to interview her. I think you’ll enjoy Rachel’s honesty, humor, and perspective.
Jason: I’ve got a book about doubt coming up. So do you. Both are from Zondervan. Based on what we’ve already discussed about my book, how do you think our two books will differ?
Rachel: Oh, I just figure it’s some oversight on Zondervan’s part and we’ve essentially written the same book. Here’s how I see it shaping up in terms of sales:
1. I managed to work the word “monkey” into my title (1 point for Rachel). You managed to land a cute kid with nipple bandages on your cover (1 point for Jason).
2. O Me of Little Faith comes out in May, when people are assembling ambitious summer reading lists (3 points for Jason). Evolving in Monkey Town comes out in July, when people have abandoned their ambitious reading lists in favor of beating “Through the Fire and Flames” on Guitar Hero (-1 point for Rachel).
3. The subtitle of my book is “How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions” and reflects my recent journey from being an apologetics-crazed know-it-all to being a person of faith who doubts (1 point for Rachel for drama). The subtitle of your book is “True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling” and seems to reflect a lifetime of learning to harmonize faith and doubt (2 points for Jason for wisdom).
4. You’ve already published several books and have a devoted fan base (2 points for Jason). My name forms a complete sentence (1 point for Rachel Held Evans).
5. Your book is written from a male perspective (1 point for Jason). My book is written from a female perspective (37 points for Rachel).
And so, with a 30-point margin over you, I’m feeling pretty good at this point
That’s some impeccable reasoning right there. Makes perfect sense to me. So, your bio describes you as “a writer, skeptic, and Christ-follower.” I love when people describe themselves as skeptics, especially Christians. About what things are you a skeptic?
I’m skeptical of easy answers to tough questions. I’m skeptical of people who default to “God’s mysterious ways” every time I bring up an issue that makes them uncomfortable. I’m skeptical of pastors and politicians who claim that God wants whatever they want. I’m skeptical of systematic theology.
The Scopes Monkey Trial theme runs throughout your website and seems to be central to your book. (For those who don’t know, Rachel is from Dayton, Tennesse, home of the famed trial.) How big of a role does evolution and living in the shadow of Scopes play in your doubts or questions about faith? Or am I being too analytical about this, and you just really like monkeys?
Actually, monkeys kind of freak me out, with their human-like qualities and ability to rip people’s faces off and all. But my book and blog focus a lot on confronting fears, so I suppose it’s appropriate that they’re climbing all over everything.
Dayton is a tough environment in which to have doubts. Located in the buckle of the Bible Belt, it remains a conservative Christian stronghold. Around here, there is a common assumption that one must choose between believing the Bible and believing in evolution, that you cannot be a Christian and also accept an old-earth paradigm. This false dichotomy caused some trouble as I got older and began looking into the science behind evolution. I felt as though I had to choose between my intellectual integrity and my faith. Fortunately, my faith survived, and it survived by adapting to change—hence, the title Evolving in Monkey Town.
Let’s talk about that. Your book concludes that, in a postmodern culture, faith has to adapt and evolve. This idea makes certain religious people pretty uncomfortable. How did you come to this conclusion and what might this religious evolution look like?
I’m glad you asked this question! I think that if you look at the history of the Church, a pattern of challenge and change definitely emerges. Over time, it’s easy for Christianity to get a little top-heavy, weighed down by a bunch of false fundamentals that have crept into the faith. And I think that cultural change has a way of prying some of these false fundamentals from our hands. Whether the challenge comes from a telescope, a search engine, or 95-theses nailed to a door—Christianity has a curious way of adapting and evolving. Of course, it’s always nice when this can happen without any book-burning or people-burning in the process.
I’m not exactly sure what kinds of questions will emerge from this postmodern environment, but I have a feeling that over the next hundred years, Christians will be forced to confront some of our assumptions about Scirpture, creation, religious pluralism, certainty, and truth. This used to scare me. But it doesn’t really anymore, because I’m convinced that God gave the Church the most important survival skill of all—the ability to adapt to change. Somehow, the most important stuff always manages to survive.
One thing potential writers always want to ask published authors is “How did you get your first book contract?” Since Evolving in Monkey Town is your first book, how did you land it?
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Believe it or not, I actually dressed up like one for career day in third grade. (I wore oversized glasses, stuck a pencil above my ear, and carried a legal pad around all day.) I’d had this idea for a book for a few years, and my husband encouraged me to go ahead and write a propos
al. I pitched the proposal to agents in the spring of 2008, and was picked up by Rachelle Gardner. Within a few months I’d signed a contract with Zondervan. I feel really blessed/lucky/fortunate that things have gone so smoothly. (Never sure which of those words to use for this sort of thing.)
You should use “blessed,” because it sounds more spiritual. Now I’d like to ask you a few of the same questions you asked me. Why do you think it is important for Christians to talk openly about their doubts?
I think it’s important that Christians create communities in which people are free to ask questions, because I believe God is big enough to handle those questions. When we keep our doubts secret, when we sweep them under the rug or struggle through them in isolation, we buy into the lie that faith is a fragile and weak thing, too flimsy to stand up to challenge and change.
In fact, I’m convinced that serious doubt, the kind that leads to despair, does not begin when we start asking God questions but when, out of fear, we stop.
As you’ve blogged about your own doubts and discussed the book, have you found yourself meeting other folks who are eager to talk about theirs? What have you learned from them? Have you picked up on any common themes?
You ask such excellent questions, Jason.
It’s been such an encouragement for me to meet other people asking similar questions and wrestling with similar doubts. It’s always good to know that you’re not alone. As far as common themes, I talk to a lot of people who are struggling with questions about religious pluralism, heaven and hell, science and faith issues, evil, and hypocrisy within the church. One thing I have learned is that, like me, most people aren’t looking for comprehensive, black-and-white answers, but rather a community in which they feel safe asking tough questions. I think that twenty-somethings in particular are much more willing to accept nuance and shades-of-gray than previous generations.
Are there certain situations/questions/theological positions that trigger your doubts? Do you find that it is best to avoid such situations/questions/theological positions or to confront and explore the doubts that they trigger?
Actually, my first “faith crisis” was triggered by one image. It happened in 2001, when I was a junior in college. I was watching a documentary called “Behind the Veil,” which depicted the oppression of women under the rule of the Taliban. The documentary climaxed with the undercover footage of a burka-clad woman being publicly executed in a soccer stadium. As I watched this woman’s body collapse to the ground, I started asking myself questions I’d never asked before: Why would God allow something like this to happen? Did He ordain this to happen? Would this woman go to hell for being a Muslim in a predominantly Muslim country? Did she even know the name of Jesus? Why would God provide me with a good home, good friends, an expensive Christian education, and double-stuffed Oreos, while millions of people suffer every day because they don’t have enough food to eat, many without access to the gospel? Isn’t one’s faith primarily determined by geography? Is God fair? Is God good? Is God real?
So for me, triggers usually have to do with questions surrounding God’s goodness, religious pluralism, or the presence of evil in the world. In my book, I write about how a lot of Christians told me that my compassion was a liability, that I had to stop worrying about other people and just be thankful for my own salvation and my own blessings in life. Needless to say, this only made things worse.
Hang on. Someone actually told you your compassion was “a liability”? Are you serious?
One friend put it this way: He said I had “adopted a secular humanist worldview by assuming that all people have a ‘right’ to salvation.” He said I didn’t take sin seriously enough, and that my questions about religious pluralism, heaven, and hell reflected a lack of gratitude that could hurt my relationship with God.
Now, I’ve known a lot of wonderful Calvinists through the years, but during this particular time of doubt, I encountered some rather passionate ones (like this friend) who insisted that my questions could easily be resolved if I would only accept the truth that some people — in fact, most people — were simply predestined for damnation. They said that the reprobate receive the punishment that we all deserve and that to assume they were entitled to anything else reflected an attitude of arrogance and pride.
This made things worse because I had a lot of trouble swallowing the idea that God creates disposable people, that He creates people who are beyond all hope. It seemed cruel, even sadistic, to me. I don’t really fault my friends for trying to help, but I think I encountered neo-Calvinism at the worst possible time. I’ve since done some homework (and spent some time in reflection and prayer) and am pretty convinced that God does not create hopeless people after all. I’m much more optimistic these days about the scope of His mercy
Me, too, Rachel. But enough talk about damnation. It’s time for me to ask you the same inane questions you asked me. What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
Live music, poetry, people-watching, long conversations with friends, caffeinated beverages
What turns you off?
Arguments over politics…even when I start them.
What is your favorite curse word?
The s-word. (I’d write it out, but I’m not sure what your profanity policy is.)
I’d let you write it out, but my mom reads my blog. What sound or noise do you love?
Little kids giggling
What sound or noise do you hate?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I think I’d be a good florist. I’m a sucker for roses.
What profession would you not like to do?
Elementary school teacher. (I like kids, but not that much.)
If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
(Like you, Jason, I’m not convinced that there will be Pearly Gates at which we arrive, but it’s still a fun question.) I hope God says, “See, love wins after all. Well done—you never gave up hope.”
In a battle between a monkey riding an alligator and a monkey riding a shark, which duo would win? Qualifiers: the shark and gator are identical sizes, as are the monkeys. And the monkeys can’t use weapons.
After consulting the experts (three kids under the age of six), I’ve reached a consensus. All three considered the monkeys inconsequential to the outcome, and all three picked the alligator, because of its long mouth and because it is green.
Huh. I would have gone with the shark, f
or one reason: feeding frenzy. Obviously your adolescent consultants failed to take this into account (30 points for Jason). Now we’re even.
Thanks for the interview, Rachel, and best of luck with your book!