Evolving in Monkey Town

Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions
In your wanderings around campus you may have noticed a certain book lying about. That book is one Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans. This book will be a subject of discourse at this year's Providence UC Faculty Forum and I would strongly encourage you to pick it up, read it, write your thoughts on it, and ponder its message.

This Friday PFC will be discussing this book at lunch so if you haven't read it yet, it might be a good idea to do so, it's a pretty easy and fun read.

To entice you to read this book and to foster some discussion, here is a brief review:

Evolution, a term loaded with a lot of rhetorical and emotional baggage in the religious culture of North America. As anyone versed in van der Breggenian philosophy ought to know, words can have multiple senses, and this proves true for the word "evolution". Evolution can refer to the Darwinian theory, or to simply change over time (there are many other senses, but for the sake of brevity I have only included two). Evolving in Monkey Town is the autobiographical account of one girl's journey growing up in a uber fundamentalist town and her coming to grips with her faith.

Rachel Held Evans grew up as the keenest apologist for her faith to be found. When she begins to realize that some of her answers just don't hold up against the emotional onslaught of dealing with real people, she begins to question her faith. Her journey reminds me much of Psalm 27, knows God, experiences some upheaval and disorientation and then is reoriented in her faith, now with a heart knowledge to accompany her "answers".

For the most part, I felt like I could identify well with the character. While my upbringing was not nearly as fundamentalist as hers, there are points of contact that hit home. For any who have struggled with doubts as they wrestled with their faith, they will find a familiar story here. This book is rhetorically powerful and convincing because of its emotional narrative. Where logical connections are lacking, the force of remembered experience evokes sympathy in the reader as one is drawn into the text.

My one major critique is that Evans seemed to force her faith to conform to her conscience. Somehow she knew that certain things were really right and really wrong, and where her theology clashed with that, she needed to do some work. The question that remains begging to be asked is of course, how does she know that her conscience was speaking truth. It would seem to me that she moved along a good moral direction throughout the story, but where did the standards of right and wrong come from that prompted her to deal with the inconsistencies of her faith?

I appreciated the emphasis that Evans put on the asking of questions over the defending of answers. There are a lot of things about God, that perhaps, it is better we never quite figure out. That being said, we shouldn't through out the notion of any epistemic certainty. We are a long way, each of us, from having the whole truth, but as VDB would say, "we do know some things, and that I think is significant".


Jeff Wheeldon said...

What informs her conscience?

What role does the Holy Spirit play in our conscience?

How much can a conscience be twisted by misinformation, or deadened by sin?

What IS a conscience, aside from a gut feeling? Is it trustworthy at all?

Scripture seems to imply (at least in regard to eating meat sacrificed to idols) that even a misinformed conscience should be followed, and to disobey one's conscience is sinful. Is it possible that this is a place in which the question "But, is it true?" isn't the most relevant question? (!)

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thanks, Ryan, for suggesting that we discuss Rachel Held Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town at our next Philosophy Foosball lunch—I think this is a great idea! Thanks, too, for your brief review of RHE's book and for the concerns you raise. You raise some important questions.

Jeff, you raise some important questions too! Conscience (which I take to be a source of insight into the moral realm) can be, as you note, deadened by sin, twisted by misinformation, and confused with other feelings; it also needs help from God's Spirit. Still, I would add that just because the bathwater is dirty—even very dirty—we shouldn't throw out the baby. In spite of problems, our faculty for insight into truths of the moral realm may still operate, albeit fallibly and to some degree. To misuse Scripture somewhat: We see through a glass darkly, but we still see something—which is significant.

I (along with other Providence faculty) donated a copy of RHE's Monkey Town for students to read. Below—in the next comment—are the comments and questions I left in my book’s cover (other faculty were asked to leave comments and questions in their respective books, too).

At this Friday’s Philosophy Foosball lunch, we should talk about Ryan’s, Jeff’s, my—and others’—comments. Surely, this might be an axiom of philosophy: Good food to eat + good food for thought = good times.

See you on Friday!

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thoughts and Questions about Rachel Held Evans’ Evolving in Monkey Town, by Dr. Hendrik van der Breggen

1. I appreciate Rachel Held Evans' strong call to practice faith, but I question whether this requires a turn from doctrine. Shouldn't doctrine inform how we practice? Does RHE's view require implicit doctrine (knowledge/ information) about Christ so we can live like Christ?

2. Is RHE's negative reaction to apologetics (giving reasons for the truth of Christianity to those who ask) due to apologetics poorly/ insensitively done?

3. RHE was learning and doing apologetics without having had her "skeptical eye" turned toward her own faith. Does this show that she wasn't well prepared to do apologetics? [Note plus attempt to toot Prov’s horn: In the course Philosophy of Religion, which is offered yearly at Providence, students examine truth questions and skepticism about various religious beliefs and are taught that examining such questions and skepticisms should come prior to engaging in any sort of apologetic task.]

4. The following questions fuel RHE's skeptical doubts: How could God allow evil and suffering? What about those who have never heard the Gospel? Isn't God a moral monster for commanding Joshua to commit genocide? Wouldn't I be a Muslim if I were born in a Muslim country? These are important and difficult questions, to be sure. As a philosopher with an interest in apologetics, I must point out that these questions are not at all new. I find it sad that RHE was able to obtain a [what she calls] "sophisticated" Christian education that didn't help her handle these questions. How could a good Christian education be helpful here? [Hint and plug for Providence: See my bracketed comment at end of number 3.]

5. In the face of too many Christians saying they know answers to life's tough questions (when actually they don't), RHE is correct to say that we should admit that there is much we don't know. Okay, but is there a new danger of embracing an experience-based,
practice-based, information-minimizing faith? How does this relate to Christ's command that we are to love God with all of our mind (as well as heart)?

6. RHE describes her [what Ryan Turnbull calls “uber fundamentalist”] experience in Monkey Town [Dayton, Tennessee] as a "journey from certainty to faith." I wonder if it would be better described as a journey from false beliefs to more reasonable belief based on core truths—to a mere Christianity (to borrow from C. S. Lewis).

P.S. I have left a few comments here and there in the text. Feel free to interact with my comments. Happy reading!