Evolving in Monkey Town
Living in a historically relevant spot has its own kind of appeal. The small Oregon town where I reside claims its fame as the boyhood home of Herbert Hoover, the United States’ 31st president, who lived in Newberg from age 11 until he left for college. That’s it. The extent of our town’s acclaim is not much to hang one’s identity on, for sure.
Rachel Held Evans is far luckier, at least in the historically-relevant-hometown competition. She grew up in Dayton, Tenn., a small town made famous by the 1925 Scopes trial, when Christianity (or at least the seven-day creation variety) met secularism in court. John Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Dayton, was accused of teaching evolution, then against the law in Tennessee. The trial put Dayton on the map, lending it a quaint nickname—“Monkey Town”—and a distinct identity as a place where, Evans writes, “Christianity was so infused in the culture of Dayton, it served as a kind of folk religion.”
Evans’ excellent new memoir explores her upbringing in Dayton’s evangelical culture, with its unique traditions and its dogmatic certainties. The book is much more than just a delightful coming-of-age narrative, though. Instead, Evolving in Monkey Town reflects well on what it means to forego religious certainty for a much richer, much deeper, much more doubt-ridden faith. In a clever (but in no way cloying) play on the idea of evolution, so central to her hometown’s identity, Evans explains that faith has its own evolutionary process, that “faith must adapt in order to survive.”
In many ways, Evans’ story is one to which many life-long Christians, fully immersed in evangelicalism, can relate. From her story, it’s clear she was that kid in Sunday school: the one always striving for the Best Christian Attitude Award (which she won four years in a row); the one who always triumphed at Bible quizzing (which in her tradition were apparently called “sword drills,” an allusion to the full armor of God); the girl who, she writes, “was eager to prove [her] mastery” about Christianity when she entered a Christian college in 1999.
Evans shares engaging stories of what it meant to be that kid, fully confident about the principles of her faith—or, at least, the principles she’d inherited from her parents and, to a lesser extent, from her peers. As the memoir progresses, though, we begin to see fissures in her certitude. Real-life experiences suggest to Evans that the answers she’d been given about her faith don’t match the questions she has. And that the questions themselves are troubling, discombobulating, significant.
Fundamentally, Evans wonders why God would condemn billions to hell, even if they had no chance—ever—of hearing the Gospel and making a choice to follow Christ. Such a view of salvation, Evans decides, is a “cosmic lottery, luck of the draw.” According to this theology, because she was born into a conservative Christian family, Evans will be saved; because Zarmina, an Afghani woman executed on international TV, was born in a Muslim family, suffered, and died at the hands of executioners without hearing the Gospel, God will condemn her to burn in hell forever. Evans wonders whether a loving God would play this kind of sweepstakes.
In Evans’ memoir, this fundamental question begets other questions, about mercy, about justice and about grace. Rather than deciding a lack of certainty about God must mean God does not exist, Evans decides doubting God has saved her faith, compelling her to think more deeply about that faith and showing her that despite the volatility of her belief, the constant of God’s grace, God’s mercy, means she will have to adapt and change, and that there are no certainties. At least not in this world.
Evans’ journey is one with which I’m quite familiar: I took a similar pathway in my 20s, asking the same kinds of questions. Now as a Christian college professor, teaching at a university quite similar to the one Evans attended, I see many of my students grappling with a sense of doubt and—often as not—emerging at a much stronger place in their understanding of God and the world.
Thus, in many ways, Evans’ memoir does not tell a unique story. I suppose this might be considered a weakness: when we read a memoir, we often long to experience vicariously the writer’s exciting life, so different from our own. But the familiarity of Evans’ story strikes me as one of its strengths. Here is someone who has moved through certainty to doubt to real faith, with only a few scars to show for her “evolution”: some friendships lost, some people disparaging, some relationships redefined into nothing. What she gains—a real sense of God’s love, no matter her doubts—far outweighs what she loses.
Evans’ memoir ultimately shows us that, rather than being alone in our questioning, we are one of many. Like Evans, we can embrace the unknowing, affirming that while God’s love and grace are unchanging, we will continue to evolve in our understanding of heaven and hell, the earth’s formation, the nature of salvation, our role in this broken world. Ultimately, Evolving in Monkey Town reminds us that the lack of certainty is OK, even for those growing up as that kid in a place famous for its evangelical culture—like Monkey Town.