For The Someday Book

Book Review: Evolving in Monkey Town

Posted on: February 13, 2012

Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to ask the Questions, by Rachel Held Evans, Zondervan, 2010, 232 pp.

I first encountered Rachel Held Evans when several of her blog posts received dozens of “shares” in my Facebook news feed. She wrote with wit and insight, with a cutting critique and a sense of kindness and grace. That voice has come through again and again, even as her blog has expanded to rock star status. I was eager to read Evolving in Monkey Town to hear more of her voice, because I expected it to be humorous, faithful, inspiring and fun. I made myself save it as a treat for the airplane ride to the Holy Land, and I was not disappointed.

Evans grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, better known as “Monkey Town,” the site of the 1925 Scopes Trial which put Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan in a battle over evolution, faith and fundamentalism. Evans grew up on the losing side of that trial, in a fundamentalist enclave of church and Bible college. The isolation and insularity of that community, however, made her feel like they were on the winning team in all things. That is, until she began to ask questions and express doubts.

Evolving in Monkey Town tells the story of her journey into a different kind of faith. Unlike so many other authors who write about leaving behind fundamentalism, Evans is not bitter. She does not express animosity toward her upbringing, although she does write about the pain of rejection, the frightening wilderness of doubt and the loneliness of the struggle. She maintains grace and humor for her detractors.

Evans’ story feels familiar in many ways. It parallels the stories of so many who have left fundamentalism behind. She talks about being an “evolutionist,” which is not a claim about her understanding of science. She writes:

Just as living organisms are said to evolve over time, so faith evolves, on both a personal and collective level. … I’m an evolutionist because I believe the best way to reclaim the gospel in times of change is not to cling more tightly to our convictions, but to hold them with an open hand. … If it hadn’t been for evolution, I might have lost my faith. (21-22)

The central claim of the book is that doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is what allows faith to survive and grow. Evans works through a familiar list of doubts and questions. Does God really send all non-Christians to hell? What kind of God would condemn people who by “cosmic lottery” were born in a time and place where they didn’t know Jesus? How can you maintain that there is a biblical world view when the Bible is so full of contradictions? If God’s ways are not our ways, why can’t God exercise grace and forgiveness—not angry judgment and casting out of all who are different? Shouldn’t following Jesus inspire us to generosity and compassion, not just certainty about our eternal future?

Evans answers the familiar doubts of those moving beyond fundamentalist faith with humor, openness and room to grow. Her relative youth brings a fresh perspective to these longstanding debates, and her honesty invites us all to explore our relationship to the “false fundamentals” (207) that hold us back. Her writing is accessible to all kinds of readers, and the book is full of engaging stories and beautiful turns of phrase. It would make a great group study for those who are questioning their faith or engaging a path out of fundamentalism, but that is not the limits of its audience. Anyone looking for fresh insights about the path of faith and doubt would find a good companion in Evolving in Monkey Town.

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1 Response to "Book Review: Evolving in Monkey Town"

Sounds fascinating – thanks for posting. It sounds like it contrasts to a lot of the stuff we outside the US often hear about the deep south.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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