19 September 2010

Evolving Faith: a Reflection and a Book Review

I grew up fundamentalist in the South.

That's a simple sentence that tells a lot more about me that I would like to admit. It implies the type of education I received, the way I spent much of my time as a youth, my hopes, my fears, even the age I lost my virginity.

It is also a simple sentence that appalls me. It implies many things that I'm not: intolerant, obese, gun-owning and Republican. Sure, I grew up fundamentalist in the South, but I didn't have to stay that way.

This weekend Jenny and I listened to Rachel Held Evans's memoir Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions. We loved it because it described a faith journey similar to ours, but also because Evans is such a vibrant writer, a woman who is able to condense tough ideas into clever phrases like, "If someone says that they follow the gospels to the letter, they're either lying or homeless."

Evans's biography reads so much like mine: her father was a preacher (check) who sent her to Christian schools (check) and on to a Christian college (check) where she majored in writing (check) and began to ask questions that would challenge the pillars of fundamentalism she had grown up with (check).

But Evans's story differs from mine in many ways, too. I find in it many of the same questions, many thoughtful answers, and insights into a culture both different from and similar to the Seventh-day Adventist culture of my youth.

Evans grew up trying to "prove" her faith in a society that was hell-bent on rejecting it. Even in high school, she was obsessed with Christian apologetics and soul-winning. I really related to the intellectual hunger that drives a lot of young fundamentalists into this branch of Christianity.

Most happy fundamentalists see "Truth" as a tank that reads "full." They load up on doctrines and master the proof texts for these doctrines. Then they have two options: (a) fill others up with texts and doctrines, or (b) man the barricades and take down anyone who might challenge the texts or question whether the tank is big enough. After all, the Truth that fills a one-gallon jug looks awfully small in a 100-gallon drum.

Evans's world needed a bigger drum once she saw the recorded execution of an Afghan woman in the weeks leading up to war in late 2001. She had grown up with the understanding that only Christians--the "right kind of Christians" at that--were saved. Everyone else would go to hell. She couldn't understand how a woman so victimized by injustice in this life could also be sentenced to eternal suffering because she was Muslim; she didn't know Christ. This leads Evans to use the phrase "genetic lottery" to describe why she was a Christian (born in the South, Christian parents) and others were not.

Her experience in a hell-believing church was quite a contrast to mine. Adventists are so heaven-focused that they rarely talk about hell (there is no eternally burning hell in their understanding, but an eternal separation from God). Still, I grew up wondering, "Am I going to heaven? Is that person going to heaven?" I have to say that I'm glad I didn't grow up with these horrors.

I always assumed that I grew up in the most strict, Bible-focused church in Christendom. There was the whole worship on Saturday thing, including no "worldly" activities from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. I was vegetarian. I didn't drink caffeine. I had to sneak to the next county if I wanted to watch a movie like Star Wars. And I was lucky. I got to read novels. I could eat cheese and drink milk, unlike some of my more restricted fundamentalist friends.

But now I look at kids who grew up Missionary Baptist, Church of Christ, or other fundamentalist denominations/non-denominations, and I think, wow, I got off lucky. I didn't have politics shoved down my throat from the pulpit (until the Clinton Administration, Adventist services were thankfully apolitical). I wasn't forced to imagine hell in all its fury. I wasn't spoon-fed backwards views about women. I am so grateful for that.

Evans finds solace in two surprising thoughts:
  • First, she spent a summer rooting her faith in the gospels. She returned to Jesus, and she made him the center of her resurgent faith. Battles over evolution, climate change, Republican vs. Democrat, culture wars, etc. may yield short-term gains for some Christians, but they take us further and further from the Author and Finisher of our Faith. Christians are called to act like Christ, not act like Levites, Corinthians or Pharisees.
  • Second, she seizes on the idea of 'evolving faith.' It's obvious that Christianity has evolved over time, adjusting to times of oppression, then rule; war then peace. Christians who have adapted to revelations in science and polity have survived; Christians who have refused to adapt have disappeared. Compared to other religions that were focused primarily on race or ruling families, Christianity has also endured.
Five years ago Jenny and I found a faith home in a mainline denomination. It was a huge change for us at the time, but looking back, it was the step we needed to grow in faith and put Christ's teachings at the center of our lives. There is very little to miss about fundamentalism--other than the wonderful friends we have who remain in that denomination.

I don't know that I have 'evolved' in the way that Evans describes. I was always a Christian, not a denominationalist. I see the sea change in my church attendance as an affirmation, not an evolution, of the faith into which both Jenny and I had grown. The idea of 'evolving' in faith brings me to one word that seemed to hang over this book, but one which Evans never mentioned: post modernism.

I want to close with a note about Evans's home town, Dayton, Tennessee. Dayton's claim to fame is the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, the high water mark of 20th-century Christian fundamentalism. In a trial outside the courthouse there, lawyer Clarence Darrow of the American Civil Liberties Union eviscerated the testimony of William Jennings Bryan, who had tried to defend literalistic interpretations of the Bible and prosecute John T. Scopes for teaching evolution.

I traveled to Dayton with my dad in 2000 to write an article on the 75th Anniversary of the Scopes Trial for Adventist Review. Dayton is an amazing place--especially for anyone who has a background in the culture wars. It is a battlefield, and a visit there raises many of the same questions and allegiances that a visit to Gettysburg or Normandy might do. I remember touring the museum in the bottom of the courthouse and visiting the campus of Bryan College (where Evans would have been a freshman at that time).

Although I spent a mere two days in the town, the questions that Dayton and Scopes raised about the fundamentals of my own faith really stayed with me. I diligently researched both sides of the evolution issue, and my hard word paid off with a cover story for the Review. I can understand what living on this battlefield has done for someone like Evans. "Monkey Town" looms over her book--and it looms over the beliefs of ever Christian fundamentalist today.

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