Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Review: Evolving in Monkey Town

It’s a sure sign of God’s grace that he would put a journalist with the heart of a poet in a town like Dayton, Tennessee. Rachel Held Evan’s Evolving in Monkey Town is a piece of narrative theology, a spiritual coming of age memoir of how a young woman schooled in a bastion of Christian conservatism found her way to freedom of thought and conscience in Jesus Christ.

Dayton took the nickname Monkey Town after hosting the “trial of the century” in 1925 when a high school science teacher named John Scopes was charged with the crime of teaching the theory of evolution. Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan, and a horde of onlookers descended upon the town during that hot summer to debate the big question of the day--a literal view of Biblical creation or the theory of evolution? When the smoke had cleared, Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but Darrow captured the nation’s attention, news coverage, and fundamentalism began its long slide into caricature in the national consciousness.

Rachel Evans missed the trial, arriving in Dayton some seventy years later, in the late 90’s when her father, a Dallas Theological Seminary product, moved the family to Dayton in order to teach at Bryan College (established in William Jennings Bryan’s name just after the trial). Evans spent her teenage and college years growing up in Monkey Town, a precocious and insightful girl from a loving household, determined become the best Christian she could in the world she knew. She found herself the commencement speaker at Bryan college, hailed as the girl with all the answers, delivering an orthodox Christian conservative speech while secretly beginning to question her foundations.

The book is divided into three sections, Habitat, Challenge, and Change, the names of these sections echoing the central metaphor of the book: namely, her faith required adaptation, change--in short, her faith needed to evolve in order to survive. Evans drives home the irony that her faith had to go through the process of evolution, the very process considered anathema within her Christian circle. Woven into these three narrative sections are refreshing vignettes of the people from Dayton, Tennessee, and elsewhere. We are introduced to “June the Ten Commandments Lady,” “Laxmi the Widow,” “Adele the Oxymoron,” and “Dan the Fixer” among others. Each person influenced her faith (for good or for ill) in profound ways. Evans’ skill as a journalist shows through in these vivid pictures of the people in her life. Each portrait crackles with descriptive power.

The strength of the book is her choice of personal narrative. Since Evans herself was trained in the high art of apologetic combat it would have been easy for her to deconstruct the tenets of her upbringing and conservative Christian education. “I’d gotten so good at critiquing all the fallacies of opposing world views,” she writes, “that it was only a matter of time before I turned the same skeptical eye upon my own faith.” Instead her story unfolds from childhood through adolescence, adolescence through college, and into her new-found conclusions as an adult. Her personal story is compelling and resistant to argument precisely because it is her story.

The poet’s heart meets the apologist’s training early in her life. Evans tells her story with transparency and honesty. Even when the reader may disagree with her conclusions, her intentions are laid bare as someone with a strong sense of justice and a compassionate heart. Her journey begins with the conviction: “Salvation wasn’t just about being a Christian: it was about being the right kind of Christian, the kind who did things by the book.” By the time she evolves into a woman in her own right she posits: “Perhaps being a Christian isn’t about experiencing the kingdom of heaven someday but about experiencing the kingdom of heaven every day.”

It’s a pleasure to read well-crafted sentences that sum up her experiences. A few examples:
  • “Doubt is a difficult animal to master because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God.”
  • “When the gospel gets all entangled with extras, dangerous ultimatums threaten to take it down with them. The yoke gets too heavy and we stumble beneath it.”
  • (And my personal favorite) “The longer our lists of rules and regulations, the more likely it is that God himself will break one."
There are few quibbles along the way: her conversations with friends seem a bit contrived--the voices of her friends all begin to sound the same. She does not explain how the very fellowship and educational institution she criticizes could produce such a free thinker as herself. And she leaves this reader wondering about the current dynamic of her family relationships--although this might be the curiosity of a nosy reviewer.  But these are minor flaws--this is a good book. It will speak to anyone who has ever felt the stifling heat of orthodoxy, to those who want to be free to worship God without a spiritual Big Brother looking over their shoulders.

I recommend this book to anyone who is considering whether there is room in the church to ask troubling questions without being ostracized. I may even assign the book to the college freshman I teach this fall, if the campus bookstore will allow me to switch at such a late date!

Evolving in Monkey Town is available from Zondervan Publishing at Rachel Evans website or at Amazon.com

7 comments:

  1. Very nice review! I'm finishing up my copy and enjoying it thoroughly. And you've pulled one of my favorite quotes as well (rule-breaking God).

    Thanks!

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  2. The first sentence of your review gave me chills! It's so well-written and so true of how I imagine God sees Rachel and her story.

    I wish everyone with faith, of every shade and stripe, could understand and embrace this the way Rachel has: "...in short, her faith needed to evolve in order to survive."

    Also, as a writer myself, and a reader, this is important to me: "Her personal story is compelling and resistant to argument precisely because it is her story."

    Thanks for this review, Ray. I'm eager to get started on the book—my copy arrived just last week.

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  3. My thanks to both of you, Alise and Kristin. I think this is a project we can get behind, and it's always good to share the news when you find something good. Peace!

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  4. I think I should have had you write a foreword, Ray! You are quite the writer...and so thoughtful in your review of the book. It's really rewarding to feel like I've been understood. Thank you!

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  5. This sounds fascinating! I'll definitely be adding it to my list. Thanks, Ray, for a well-written and well-thought review as always.

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  6. I have had to basically hold my tongue; I cannot speak all of what I wish to say. I read this at your recommendation; it was painful in that it was in my respects part of my own narrative.

    Between the incessant idea of supposed 'community" and "authority" and all the supposed benefits that formal Christian officialdom offers (as opposed to those hypothetical guys at the Starbucks) and the kinds of questions she explored, it makes me question all the more the the supposed wisdom of professional clergy.

    I do not see that she became a "free thinker" because of her background; I think this a gloss you put on her account. Plenty of atheists and agnostics come to many of the same questions as she did while evaluating Christianity, without the benefit of her close exposure. It was her close exposure that gave her the standing to basically "stand up" to some things.

    I say these things as someone who lost his faith in Church; a Vineyard one, at that; and got it back by non-approved means like facing the hard questions, something that Charismatics are really not very good at doing, in my experience.

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