Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans
You’d think if you’ve seen how often I’ve tagged Rachel Held Evans in various posts that I would have read her first book Evolving in Monkey Town, the one that largely brought her the fame to be one of the most influential voices among post-conservative evangelicals. But I hadn’t until just recently, when it was re-released as Faith Unraveled. While the first title is definitely more fun, the new one is clearly more accurate. The book doesn’t really have anything to do with evolution other than that she grew up in the town famous for the Scopes trial.
Hatred toward the theory of evolution is only one example of the fundamentalism which marked her upbringing. When I say upbringing, I don’t just mean her parents or her church. I mean the vast majority of people she interacted with. The big question that she couldn’t ever quite shake was not evolution. Her primary nagging question was about exlusivist views of salvation paired with an eternal conscious torment view of Hell, two things made central to “the Gospel”. Other questions came in and out throughout the book, but that was the most common.
Really, though, the book is not about answering any particular question. It is about something much better: the beauty of the asking of those questions. In the final chapter, she summarizes the message this way:
I would argue that healthy doubt (questioning one’s beliefs) is perhaps the best defense against unhealthy doubt (questioning God). When we know how to make a distinction between our ideas about God and God himself, our faith remains safe when one of those ideas is seriously challenged. When we recognize that our theology is not the moon but rather a finger pointing at the moon, we enjoy the freedom of questioning it from time to time. (Chapter 21: Living the Questions)
The book is told through stories and Rachel’s reflections on them, starting each section with an encounter with another person who helped open her up to these questions. Rachel never explicitly made the point that it is almost-entirely through other people that we have these revelations. God is bigger than the box we put her in (I use “her” for God deliberately in that sentence because maleness is one of the boxes we often put God in) and we usually notice this only when we sincerely stop and listen to others whose perspectives may not line up perfectly with ours.
I could resonate with the majority of the stories she told, just much less dramatically. I was an exclusivist when I was younger by virtue of not knowing that there was any other Christian option. When I first started encountering the inclusivist view, it was presented as another equally-orthodox option, so I shifted toward that pretty quickly. I could say similar progressions for the nature of Hell, moving from the eternal conscious torment view to the annihilationalist view to only more recent a purgatorial conditionalist view. And I could go on with other shifts in thought, but again, that isn’t the point.
The biggest difference for me was that there were more valid options slowly introduced throughout my life. There was much less heretic-hunting. I did, however, grow up thinking similarly about the problems of asking questions. Apologetics was highly respected as the tool to prove atheists wrong, agnostics wrong, Muslims wrong, Jews wrong, and of course liberal pretend Christians wrong. Basically, you could and should ask questions… as long as you asked only the right questions and concluded only the same answers. Once you went outside those answers – and the big difference for me from Rachel is that I had a wider range of acceptable answers – then you did not really belong.
And yet, there is always hope. While I had those who told me to stop asking questions and toe the party line, I also had those who encouraged asking questions and encouraged a radically loving vision of God – a God who looked like Jesus. Check out my recent series Embracing Ubuntu for more on that idea. Like Rachel, I needed the “doubt” about specific questions that painted God as a monster in order to have faith in the living and loving God. I think most of us do, which makes works like Rachel’s important. It’s a call to continue wrestling with the tough questions and be drawn closer to the God who infinitely loves you in the process.