Dayton, Tennessee, may be a small town of less than seven thousand souls, but I doubt there are many people worldwide who have not heard of it. Many of them may not be able to locate it on a map, but they have heard of the little town known affectionately as “Monkeyville.” It was in Dayton during the hot month of July 1925 that two giants of twentieth-century America faced off against each other in a trial over the teaching of evolution in the public schools.
William Jennings Bryan, three-time candidate for president and one of the greatest orators in American history, helped to prosecute John T. Scopes for violating a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. Bryan was matched against Clarence Darrow for the defense, an agnostic and one of the greatest attorneys of the century.
Many trees have been felled and much ink spilt discussing the famous Monkey Trial and the whole question of evolution. Arguments, both scientific and hysterical, continue to attract spectators without any real hope of resolution. Evolving in Monkey Town (Grand Rapids, 2010) is not another book about the Scopes Trial or evolution. The subtitle, How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions, is actually a better clue to the book’s subject. Normally, one thinks of starting with the questions and finding the answers, but in this case the author, Rachel Held Evans, starts with all of the answers and finds the questions.
Evans is the daughter of a minister-theologian-professor who graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary, one of the premier seminaries for evangelical Christians. He also served as a member of the faculty and administration of Bryan College, named in honor of William Jennings Bryan. Rachel Evans grew up in an evangelical home, attended an evangelical church, graduated from an evangelical college (Bryan), and participated in all of the activities—missions, witnessing, etc.—that make one a bona fide, certified, genuine, sure-enough, card-carrying evangelical Christian. But, like so many members of the Millennial Generation (people born since the mid-1970s) Ms. Held reached a point in her life when she began to question the bullet-proof certainties of contemporary evangelicalism.
The crisis in Ms. Evans’ faith came in 2001, after viewing the documentary, Behind the Veil, about the Taliban’s violation of women’s human rights in Afghanistan. Among the horrifying images portrayed in the documentary was the execution of a woman for allegedly murdering her abusive husband. The woman, whose name was Zarmina, was tortured before being executed on a soccer field before a crowd of some thirty thousand spectators.
The vivid images on the screen raised some troubling questions in Rachel Evan’s mind regarding the unquestioned evangelical faith with which she grew up. Was Zarmina condemned to eternal Hell because she was a Muslim? Was Zarmina a Muslim just because she grew up a believer, just as Rachel Evans grew up an evangelical Christian? Is God running some sort of “game of chance,” a kind of “cosmic lottery” for people’s souls? Worse yet, does God, who sent Jesus Christ to die on a cross to save sinners, condemn some individuals to eternal bliss and some to eternal punishment, apart from anything they do or do not do?
When Ms. Evans began to raise these and other questions, she began to question her own faith. Christians are not supposed to ask questions, she thought; they are supposed to accept creeds and theological axioms on faith alone. She began to wonder if a Christian worldview, or any other worldview, is simply something with which one grows up. If you grow up in an evangelical Christian family in Dayton, Tennessee, you will likely be an evangelical Christian. If you grow up in a Muslim family in Afghanistan, you will, no doubt, be a Muslim. “We don’t choose our worldviews; they are chosen for us,” reason and common sense seemed to testify (p. 98).
Real Christian faith, Ms. Evans eventually decided, comes not from simply agreeing to a creed or particular theology or memorizing some catechism. Rather, faith “evolves” as one asks questions, seeks understanding of who Jesus Christ was and is, and chooses to follow the example of Christ. Through doubt faith can evolve into a relationship with Jesus Christ, she concluded, a relationship that has the power to change one’s life and impact the world for good. “There is one thing I know for sure,” Evans writes, “it’s that serious doubt—the kind that leads to despair—begins not when we start asking God questions but when, out of fear, we stop” (p. 226).
I found Ms. Evans’ account of her personal struggle interesting. Indeed, it would be nice to sit down with her over a cup of good coffee and compare notes. Every one, Rachel Held Evans and me included, must go through this same struggle, attempting to find answers to those troublesome questions about life’s meaning and purpose. However, I found Evolving in Monkey Town a valuable read for another reason, also.
Many Millennials who, like Rachel Held Evans, grew up in Christian families and a Christian cultural environment, who walked down the church aisle to accept Jesus Christ as personal Savior, attended confirmation classes, or took communion for the first time as public testimony of their accepting Jesus Christ, are abandoning the churches they were raised in. Pastors and denominational leaders are expressing increasing concern over the fact that as soon as the Millennials graduate from high school or college they leave the church and often the Christian faith as well. Why? I believe that Rachel Held Evans’ personal story helps one understand this troubling phenomenon.
First of all, Millennials grew up in a very different reality than we who grew up in past generations. A presentation of the Gospel based on the logical assumptions that were assumed to be valid at the time of the Scopes Trial simply does not mean anything to them. In fact, it drives them away before they can even hear the message clearly. They have grown up in a world that prizes diversity. They have been taught to embrace all forms of diversity and multiculturalism. Not surprisingly, they extend this unquestioning acceptance to all areas of life, even worldviews. The old debate over absolute truth is simply not an important issue for Millennials. “That is simply not the issue,” they say. To reduce God’s revelation to some creed or systematic theology to which everyone is required give assent in order to be a Christian, is to “underestimate the scope and power of God’s activity in the world” (p. 132S). They give priority to relationships and community.
Ms. Held quotes C. S. Lewis to disqualify the teaching that one must affirm some particular interpretation of the Bible. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ. We do not know that only those who know him can be saved by him.” After discussing the liberation she experienced by recognizing the “diversity of my own religious tradition,” she concludes: “While the Bible teaches that people are justified by faith, it does not stipulate how much a person needs to know about God to be saved. It simply qualifies that the fruit of saving faith is good works. . . . We are saved by [a] restored relationship with God, which might look a little different from person to person, culture to culture, time to time” (pp. 131-132).
Second, Millennials insist that relationship is fundamental to following Christ, relationship with Christ and with one another. Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not about defending some statement from a church creed or theology; it is about testifying to our relationship with Christ through a life of sacrificial love for all people, not just those members of our tribe.
Thirdly, Millennials reject the hypocrisy of many evangelicals who seem bent upon making Jesus Christ some sort of war god and defender of free enterprise economics and the Constitutional (not biblical) right to bear arms,–a false god who rejoices in the death of our enemies and approves of our unchecked materialism. We drown in a gluttony of materialism and demand that all accept our prosperity as evidence of God’s favor, while a multitude suffers in poverty.
I found myself identifying with much of what Rachel Evans relates about her struggle to understand her Christian faith. It is easy to say that we evangelical Christians ground our faith in absolute truths found in the Bible. It is an altogether different matter to find agreement among professing Christians on just what those absolute truths are. The current debate over how to interpret the creation story in Genesis, fueled in part by the human genome project, is a good example.
There is much more in this little book that is a personal account of one individual’s journey of faith than I am able to summarize here. My hope is that this brief introduction, admittedly my own understanding of Ms. Held’s story, will both inform and challenge those of us who are concerned about the flight of Millennials from our churches.
Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.