I remember reading and reviewing the memoir Evolving in Monkey Town, Rachel Held Evan’s first book about growing up fundamentalist in the same town that gave us the infamous Scopes trial. Dayton, Tennessee is locked forever in the American popular imagination as the site of the showdown between conservative religion and modern science and although the trial was in a previous century, Held used its defining impact as a springboard into her own feisty revolt against an anti-science sort of faith that is still too prevalent on the American religious landscape.
As I was reading it, years ago, I, myself, had been on the fringes of a battle here in our community, when a stupid lawsuit by the ACLU took an even stupider school board from Dover PA to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, over the school’s legitimate (in my view) debate regarding Darwin’s ideology about evolution happening by chance alone, and the philosophy of science that is inextricably connected to it. Could they mention that there were other views? Darwin’s great grandson was one of the several who sat in on the “Scopes 2” trial — which lasted exactly 40 days and 40 nights (“Not by design,” the judge quipped as the final official words of the trial.) Between the ill-informed creationism of many of the school board members and the militant secularism of some who opposed them, I was, it seemed, at odds with nearly everyone. It wasn’t easy trying to get both camps to understand the other. Few seemed to want to grapple with the serious philosophical questions underlying the trial (as have been raised, say, in the brilliant Oxford University Press book by world-class philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies) let alone the more nuanced questions of philosophical pluralism in education policy.
I remember this because Rachel’s memoir put me in a world that I might not have otherwise known – again, she did, in fact, grow up monkey-town, and went to the college named after the lawyer in the famous Scopes trial, William Jennings Bryan. That is, you see, one of the reasons we so often recommend memoirs as they can be a window into the lives and views of others.
And this is one of the great reasons not only to know the writing of Ms Evans, but of her brand new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Nelson; $16.99.)
Rachel, too, wants various sides of debates and different sorts of faith traditions to understand one another, and although she has left her fundamentalism behind, with not a small amount of gusto, she remains an ally to any of us who want to bridge cultural divides, who long to nourish greater awareness and empathy of those who are different then ourselves. In her new book she says, in a very moving scene recalling her baptism, that there is no real escaping our past. This is who she is, one who was baptized into the body of Christ in a particular way, in a particular place, by a particular group of people. Gladly, she does not disdain them.
That fine first book of hers, in part about evolution, recently re-issued and retitled as Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All The Answers Learned to Ask Questions (Nelson; $15.99) reminded me when I read it of some things I knew, and explained a lot I didn’t, having not grown up in that world. As a good memoir can, it allowed me to enter into another’s story. I appreciated much about the book, mostly, and, I think, said something to the effect that Rachel was a writer to watch. Not only had she – quintessentially, perhaps – evolved out of fundamentalism and embraced a more open-minded, less dogmatic evangelical faith that wasn’t tied to the Christian Right, she was increasingly sharing her journey for all to see.
She was a born storyteller and reporter, writing dispatches from the front, allowing us to listen in as she ranted and raved and ruminated on her increasingly important blog. I think I was right to say then that she was a good writer and it is obvious now that she became a force to reckon with. She was building a head of steam, on line and on the speaking circuit, coming on strong. Her Rachel Held Evans blog now has a global and dedicated following and she is loved and her work respected, despite the occasional crankiness and controversy that shows up on social media discussions.
Her second book was The Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’ (Nelson; $16.99) and was very entertainingly written, modeled after the sort of experiential memoir done of A.J. Jacobs. This, again, showed her passion and resolve to leave behind a fundamentalism (and a Biblical hermeneutic) that is unhelpful and unsustainable. In that often hilarious book she attempts to actually do each and every thing the Bible commands of women, which leads her to do all manner of odd things, as commanded (at some point) in Scripture. Again, I mostly complimented this at BookNotes and highlighted it many places where we went, and appreciated her raising very legitimate questions about gender and Biblical interpretation in the delightful style of a comic memoir. You may take exception to this or that point or opinion of Rachel Held Evans but there is no doubt that she is a significant voice, an important writer, and an author whose work you should know.
Evans’ brand new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church is the triumphant third installment of these memoiristic tales of her faith journey. And it is without a doubt her best yet. It is stunningly exquisite, remarkable in its tender prose, good storytelling, and mature, ecumenical insight. She offers her ruminations about the broader Christian church in a way that immediately resonated with Beth and I; Evans is positioned to see contemporary faith from a variety of healthy angles, from her ultra- conservative past to her progressive sensibilities, now.
Evans journey is perhaps writ large, but she shares some similarities with other popular authors these days. Barbara Brown Taylor, for instance, who is perhaps the most famous Episcopalian writer of our generation, was nurtured in Christ in an evangelical campus ministry setting (as she briefly describes in her wonderful memoir The Preaching Life.) Nadia Bolz- Weber, who was raised in the strict Southern world of the Churches of Christ is now a tatted up, emerging Lutheran pastor. But more than these other women writers, Evans speaks of ecumenical and mainline denominational church life through the lens of her earlier experiences as a good-hearted fundamentalist.
It isn’t every book that talks endearingly about AWANA and cites the Russian Orthodox theologian, the late Alexander Schmemann, glowing about his brilliant book For the Life of the World. It isn’t every author that recalls (in a passage that for some reason brought tears to my eyes) her own childhood baptism with her sister – and the deviled eggs they made for her afterword, because somebody knew they were her favorites – and beautiful prayers from the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer. My ecumenical heart is warmed by writers who cite Tim Keller and Brian McLaren and Robert Webber and Robert Farrar Capon and Rachel Marie Stone and G.K. Chesterton.
Rachel Held Evan was born and baptized into the Southern fundamentalist church, grew disillusioned, and yet – as her subtitle here says – has spent her years “loving, leaving, and finding” the church. Like many of the recent faith memoirs of writers of her generation she has had her frustrations with the church, but sure couldn’t shake Jesus. “Christ-haunted” is the term Flannery O’Connor used for the American South, and it is surely a common expression used by many described in (for instance) the important work of David Kinnaman and his research on young adults who have left church. (See Kinnaman’s You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving… and RethinkingFaith [Baker; $17.99] for a remarkably interesting study of this.)
Ms. Evans has became one of the small handful of younger, post-evangelical writers who helped reshape the conversation about the nature of gospel truth and emerging forms of experiencing faith and living out relevant discipleship.
And, get this: she seems tired of the too-easy position of those who “love Jesus but not the church.” In Searching for Sunday she shows a remarkable, wise, and healthy love for the Body of Christ, for the local church, and for the ordinary stuff that gets done in the daily life of faith. It isn’t exactly the same as When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (Jericho Books; $16.00) by UCC pastor Lillian Daniel — which really is a tribute to the small, ordinary, local parish — but I still cannot tell you how grateful I am for this fine work, this voice from the margins, aware of so much wrong with so many expressions of faith, and yet willing to tell us in such beautiful prose and revealing stories, why the church still matters. And that it can still change our lives. This is ecumenical, serious faith, expressed with wonder and grace and captivating prose.
Despite the lovely prose and the brave celebration of the local church, however, this book isn’t all joy on the journey. This search is not a walk in the park. Rachel – as we know from her previous books and blog – can be satirical, fierce, prophetic, even. She wears her heart on her sleeve. And her shifting understanding of faith has not come easy.
After a passage describing attending services at her evangelical church, admitting that she resented the uplifted arms and how easily faith has seemed to come to some of her fellow-worshippers (even some who have suffered and been tested more than she) she fumes.
Then she writes,
My husband of five years, Dan, stands beside me, steady as a pier to a drifting boat. Once we are home, we will crawl into bed together – both of us still dressed in our church clothes, but with our shoes kicked off – and he will listen as I mumble through my litany of grievances: the political jab during the announcements, the talk of hell, the simplistic interpretation of a complicated text, the violent and masculine theology, the seemingly shared assumption that the end times are upon us because we just elected a Democratic president with a foreign-sounding name. I glom onto these offenses, not because they are particularly grievous or even real, but because they give me reasons to hate going to church besides my own ugly doubt. They give me someone else to blame. Maybe it’s time to call it quits, we will say. Maybe let’s give it one more week.
There are recovery programs for people grieving the loss of a parent, a sibling, a spouse. You can buy books on how to cope with the death of a beloved pet or work through the anguish of a miscarriage. We speak openly with one another about the bereavement that can accompany a layoff, a move, a diagnosis, or a dream deferred. But no one really teaches you how to grieve the loss of your faith. You’re on your own for that.
There is some anguishing stuff in here. In one chapter she tells of the story of J.R. Briggs (whose book about the shame of ministry failure, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure is a must-read!) That chapter starts with an epigram from Ian Morgan Cron, who has said “All ministry begins at the ragged edges of your own failure.”
I was glad, also, to see her cite the indie folk-singer Gregory Alan Isakov, and his line “I threw stones at the stars, but the whole sky fell.” In that line is a whole story, of course, and Rachel using it says much about the price she has paid to find her place.
Ian Cron offers a blurb on the back, too, by the way, and he is always worth listening to.
Of Searching for Sunday he writes,
If you’re done with church, or simply on the verge of throwing in the towel, then please, please, please, read this book. It is brave, wry, and exquisitely penned meditation from someone who knows precisely how you feel.
But this book is not just for those who are anguished about the church, angry prodigals or doubters. For anyone looking for a good read, there is such joy in taking in the spiritual memoir and reflections of a thoughtful sister who has seen a lot, considered much, learned some, and written about it nicely. Perhaps it takes one who has not been raised in the more liturgical churches to uncover some of the strengths of that tradition, but she does this well. Of course she thanks her friend Diana Butler Bass and cites Barbara Brown Taylor and Lauren Winner. She draws on United Methodist leader William Willimon and the Lutheran Book of Worship.
Evans here tells of her insights about the church and the Christian life by telling of her journey towards a more liturgical and mainline sort of Protestant faith. Even though she opens with a quote from the current Pope.
Here is the key to the book: Searching for Sunday is arranged as a set of ruminations on what Roman Catholics call the seven sacraments. (When I first heard this I wondered, although didn’t think it was likely, that Rachel had become Catholic.) These seven parts, each with several chapters, of sacramental reflections are rich and give the book a structure which is more than just a random collection of her latest thoughts. It is a mature, developed, and highly insightful flow of what might be called spiritual theology. She is doing helpful good work here, besides offering us an entertaining third installment of her ongoing series of memoirs. As she unfolds some of her story – their stint away from church, sleeping in on Sunday, watching Meet the Press and reading the paper (“one New York Times crossword puzzle away from liberal nirvana”) and their eventual return, somewhat sobered – she also tells us what she has learned about the seven sacraments.
She describes her approach like this:
I am telling my church story in seven sections, through the imagery of baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage. These are the seven sacraments named by Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, but one need not consider them the church’s only sacraments. I could easily write about the sacrament of pilgrimage, the sacrament of foot washing, the sacrament of the Word, the sacrament of making chicken casseroles, or any number of outward signs of inward grace. My aim in employing these seven sacraments is not theological or ecclesiological, but rather literary. They are the tent pegs anchoring my little tabernacle of a story to the ground. I chose them because they have something of a universal quality, for even in churches that are not expressly sacramental, the truths of the sacrament are generally shared.
She illustrates what she means with this bullet list:
The church tells us we are loved (baptism). The church tells us we are broken (confession). The church tells us we are commissioned (holy orders). The church feeds us (communion). The church welcomes us (confirmation). The church anoints us (anointing of the sick). The church unites us (marriage).
As you might guess, she ends up turning over some similar ground that others have plowed, most obviously, here, Barbara Brown Taylor (Leaving Church, An Altar in the World, Learning to Walk in the Dark) and Lauren Winner (Still.) That is not to say Evans is derivative, not at all. Like these other exceptional women writers, Held Evans uses the images and metaphors and insights about sacramentalism and invites us to see deep truths embedded not only in church teaching and congregational life, but in the created order itself.
At times the writing is luminous, helping us glimpse the the most profound realities of God’s glory seen in what we experience, in what Robert Johnston has recently called in a book called God’s Wider Presence. As Evans says in her forward, she is not just writing about the search for church, but resurrection.
It’s about all the strange ways God brings dead things back to life again. It’s about giving up and starting over again. It’s about why, even on days when I suspect all this talk about Jesus and resurrection and life everlasting is a bunch of bunk designed to coddle us through an essentially meaningless existence, I should still like to be buried with my feet racing the rising sun.
I hope you like this book, and I hope you appreciate Rachel Held Evans as good writer, an honest seeker who refuses to succumb to cheap cynicism or bitterness, who sees resurrection hope in places like Becca Steven’s community for former prostitutes and addicts called Thistle Farms or Sara Miles’ work with the urban poor. She knows that the body of Christ includes (and at its best draws on the insights and practices of) Mennonites and Anglicans and Free Methodists and free range folk of all kinds, from emerging house churches to third world base communities to non-denom Pentecostals to mega-church evangelicals. And she knows our stories are not over until they are over. She herself is proof of this; lost and found, left and returned. From Monkey Town to the Canterbury Trail.
I certainly do not think that this book is only, or even mostly, for the discouraged or alienated. Many of us who are fairly ordinary Christians, more or less glad to be where we are, aware of other churches but not obsessed with ecumenicity, glad to ponder how grace and goodness might spill over and make all of life a sacrament, will benefit from this, too. We commend it to you, seeker, skeptic, or spiritual leader. It would make a fantastic book club title or something to take on a quiet day away. You will most likely not agree with it all; I did not agree with it all. But that isn’t the point with a book like this, made of ruminations, memories, stories, reflections.
Her last chapters are about the mystery of marriage, especially as it is seen as a metaphor for the church. These are clever and precious pages; read this little part:
We married before Pinterest, so there were no photo booths or mason jars or mustaches-on-sticks at the reception. Back in those days, the photographer just lined everybody in front of the church like it was a firing range and took the shot. We didn’t even think to pose inside a vintage mirror frame or sit on a rusty pickup truck. But even though we started out young and poor and Republican, our marriage has been a happy one, and has made the meandering journey in and out of church a less lonely one for sure.
Then, in writing about her marriage, and their bristling about strict gender roles and some unhelpful marriage books they read, she notes, nicely:
What Dan and I found within just a few months of living together is that marriage isn’t about sticking to a script; it’s about making a life together. It’s not a choreographed cha-cha, it’s an intimate slow dance. It isn’t a formula, it’s a mystery. Few of the Christian marriage books prepared us for the actual adventure of marriage, which involves improvisation, compromise, and learning as you go.
She tells of the church customs that put crowns upon the heads of the married couples in their wedding ceremony (and, once again, cites Alexander Schmemenn.) And then, she reminds us beautifully not only of a spirituality of family life, but, I suppose, what is the point of the whole searching for Sunday thing, the ultimate truth of the book:
Dan and I have been married for eleven years now. Sometimes our marriage looks like the kingdom. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes we wear our crowns with decorum and grace. Sometimes we fight to snatch them off each other’s heads. But what makes our marriage holy, what makes it “set apart” and sacramental, isn’t the marriage certificate filed away in the basement or the degree to which we follow a list of rules and roles, it’s the way God shows up in those everyday moments – loading the dishwasher, sharing a joke, hosting a meal, enduring an illness, working through a disagreement – and gives us a chance to notice, to pay attention to the divine. It’s the way the God of resurrection makes all things new.
Learn about Rachel’s coming of age and beginning to chafe at rigid fundamentalism in her book set in “Monkey town” USA, now called Faith Unraveled. Join her in the hilarious year-long romp trying to learn how to read the Bible well described in The Year of Biblical Womanhood. Both are really good.
But this, this is nearly a masterpiece, her finest book yet, including great insights, caring, artful writing, and poignant, powerful storytelling. Rachel Held Evans is one of our notable young writers, and an author you should know. Who knows, maybe you, too, need a gentle push to start over, reconsider your faith, to broaden your attentiveness to God’s presence and work in the world, in the sacramental stuff of life, and, yes, in a local church.
Join her in Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding not only the church, but, perhaps, resurrection itself.
I suppose I should end my review right there. But – you know how this works for me – there are several other titles that come to mind, that I’d love to mention. For some reason, I just want to mention this one, now, as it somehow feels like a companion sort of book. They are very different in tone and topic, but here ya go. It, too, is very, very good, and my quick announcement of it doesn’t do it justice.
Hopecasting: Finding, Keeping and Sharing the Things Unseen Mark Oestreicher (IVP) $16.00 Oh my, this book (with a nice foreword by Scot McKnight) deserves a long, weighty review. “Why is it that some people are full of hope,” the author asks, “while many of us struggle to get past the snooze alarm?”
And isn’t that a curious thing, how some people (I’m thinking of Rachel Held Evans, even) are resilient and are able to find fresh hope, while others grow hardened and stale and discouraged? What is hope, anyway, and how does one find it? How can we announce it to others, share it with the broken world? You know I loved (loved!) N.T. Wright’s must-read, heavy-weight book Surprised By Hope. Perhaps you, too, will be drawn to a book called Hopecasting.
Well, this isn’t just a simple study of the elusive quality of hopefulness in some people (although that in itself makes it worth reading) but it is a deep and profound and fabulous study of what hope is, loaded with good Bible study, and lots of illustrative stories. Princeton scholar and youth specialist Kenda Creasy Dean notes that it is “part memoir, part mentor, part prayer for the journey.”
The genius recording artist David Crowder says “Oestreicher redefines hope, or better yet, pulls us back to a workable set of postures for receiving hope. This book reminds us that hope is a beautiful gift, an influx of Jesus into our dark and dry souls.” No lesser a hopester than IJM founder Gary Haugen has raved about it, noting that Hopecasting is “an invitation into active, faithful confidence in the goodness of God.” (Gary, by the way, has seen some of the most gruesome stuff on the planet, walking through the corpses of Rwanda and now fighting brothels and child slavery throughout the world. If he, of all people, says this is “deep encouragement for those of us who have ever struggled to cultivate transformative hope in hard places” then you can trust it.
For what it is worth, if I were doing a bigger review, I’d further commend Marko, as he is called (get it? Mark O.) for giving us a very nice introduction, without exactly saying so, to the work of Walter Brueggemann. Marko even joked that he considered calling this Brueggemann for Dummies and it does capture much of that for which Walt is known. Upon doing research for this book, Marko the gifted storyteller and upbeat youth worker, discovered Brueggemann, and holed himself up with two of my own favorite books, the greatly under-rated volumes of Walt’s, Hope Within History and the sequel to The Prophetic Imagination called, simply, The Hopeful Imagination.
That Mr. Oestreicher channels some of the allusive, deep, Biblical vision makes of those two books makes this delightful, story-filled book a true gift to God’s people.
There are very interesting and practical reflection questions after each chapter (he calls them the “Hope Toolbox” — something WB would not have done, by the way) that will be very, very helpful for those wanting to process this good material. The 10 chapters move us from an awareness of Biblical themes of exile and their resonance today, towards being honest with ourselves and God, even in lament, on towards an authentic encounter with Christ as “the hope bringer.” Those paying attention to important discussions about faith formation and the transformation of desire will appreciate the penultimate chapter — “”Hopes Dance Partner: Transformed Longings” which leads to the last great about how hope becomes hope-casting. (And, yes, if you must know, Moltmann makes a brief appearance.) This is good, good, hardy stuff.
Jim Belcher is right, I think, when he says: “Read this book. Your life may never be the same again.” Kudos to all involved.
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