Culture At Large

Doubters in the Bible Belt

Paul Vander Klay

Tim Keller offered this observation in his introduction to “The Reason for God”. “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person's faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”Rachel Held Evans' first book "Evolving in Monkey Town" is all about avoiding that collapse.

Rachel grew up as a religious overachiever in Dayton TN, home of the famous monkey trial (a case where a biology teacher broke the law by teaching evolution). The book chronicles her questioning of American fundamentalist theology and ideology. I suspect a good many young women who grew up contexts like hers will relate to her story and her questions. I think one of the chief social functions of contemporary popular media is to validate and I think a lot of young women will find validation in the struggle Rachel voices. In some ways her voice in this book is a sort of Bizarro Anne Lamott, seeking a contemporary faith she can live with but coming from the other direction.

I hope Rachel is tough because a lot of people are not going to like this book. She openly expresses her doubts or disagreement of the party line positions on a whole range of issues that populate the “no man’s land” in the American culture war: gays, women in church office, pluralism, the Bible, Creation/evolution, etc. That isn’t unusual of course, but she does so with a pleading subvoice for inclusion in this community she has questioned. Communities that major in hard lines don’t usually have to think twice about how to respond to those who start to look like traitors to the cause. Others will simply dismiss the book as yet another 20 something evangelical breaking ranks for the emergent camp.

I think the book should be read in the context of the Tim Keller quote above. She speaks from a generation that is not simply going to accept the regime created to keep them compliant and they know they don’t have to. Perhaps what is most exposed by this early memoir is a misplaced faith the church has placed in its processes of indoctrination. Conservative Christians can speak glowingly about political liberty while saving their best tyrannies for their religious institutions. The information age has broken those tyrannies wide open and there is simply no going back for many of the sharp, literate, question asking 20 somethings like Rachel. Can traditional Christian orthodoxy find a new winsome identity in the public market place of ideas despite yet another generation that has felt itself poorly treated by some of its keepers?

Rachel I think speaks for a generation within her subculture when she writes “doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves”. One of my favorite chapters was a brief one where she describes her husband fixing up and flipping a house and repeatedly admonishing her to “respect the process”. These are words of wisdom for an older generation of anxious parents worried by where and how their children will land.

How will this book be used? I think it will bring comfort to a lot of young women who are haunted by what Rachel brings forward and won’t feel as frightened or alone because of her book. Most of what I hear her pushing against I have heard in the voices of many others like her. Anxious church leaders that simply can’t see why their formulas for next generational compliance are falling short might want to listen carefully to her story.

Our projects and programs for inviting next generations into the faith should never replace our faith in the one who calls them. Vital to this transference is the full and free appropriation of the faith which is always a scary process. Twenty years from now Rachel may be writing another book about her daughter’s doubts about Rachel’s questions and answers. Central is our Lord’s generational missionary enterprise is the kind of anxious questioning known to every praying Christian.

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