Rachel Held Evans is the well-known author of “Evolving in Monkey Town” and the New York Times bestseller “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” She is someone who was raised in a conservative evangelical home, but over the years has become more and more progressive in her faith and social views.
This month Evans' new book, “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church,” will be released. It reportedly delivers a strong critique of American Christianity and provides her perspective on how the contemporary church can do better. In preparation for this book's release, Jonathan Merritt interviewed her for Religion News Service. What follows are quotes from that interview with my comments interlaced, and then towards the end my closing comments.
If you try to woo us back with skinny jeans and coffee shops, it may actually backfire. Millennials have finely-tuned B.S. meters that can detect when someone’s just trying to sell us something. We’re not looking for a hipper Christianity. We’re looking for a truer Christianity. Like every generation before and after, we’re looking for Jesus—the same Jesus who can be found in the places he’s always been: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these. No fog machines required.Telling by the size of mega-churches in the American Midwest and South, I'd say the fog machines and coffee shops are doing something 'right.' What Evans is describing here sounds like a warmed-over and mildly high church approach to the hippie Christian philosophy that gave us Calvary Chapel and other such evangelical denominations. So far, it doesn't sound new to me.
Sharing communion. Baptizing sinners. Preaching the Word. Anointing the sick. Practicing confession. You know, the stuff the church has been doing for the last 2,000 years. We need to creatively re-articulate the significance of the traditional teachings and sacraments of the church in a modern context. That’s what I see happening in churches, big and small, that are making multigenerational disciples of Jesus.If this is nothing new, what's the point? Mainline Protestantism is dying, both in terms of hemorrhaging membership and graying congregations headed towards extinction. Roman Catholicism, for its part, seems to survive more on its strength in family culture than anything related to its ritual and sacraments. This really gives me the feeling that Evans is simply attempting to justify her personal preference with some semblance of a reason.
The one that surprised me the most was anointing of the sick. I used to think such a practice involved superstition and false hope, but that was before I learned the difference between curing and healing. We may not be able to cure what ails our friends and neighbors, but as Christians we are called to the work of healing—of entering into one another’s pain, anointing it as holy, and sticking around no matter the outcome. An anointing is an acknowledgement. In a culture of cure-alls and quick fixes, the sacrament of anointing the suffering is a powerful, countercultural gift the church offers the world.Although this is a nice sentiment, Jesus and his apostles are depicted in canonical Scripture as engaging in literal healing, not merely sharing the pain of others. Although I hold that there is no such thing as 'miraculous' healing and do agree with the notion of accompanying others in their suffering (while seeking real solutions to their predicament), dressing it up in Christian garb does no justice to the belief that God should be able to cure people of any illness.
The presence of pain and suffering is one of the most damning arguments, in my view, against belief in an omnipotent, loving God. A key tool in the metaphorical hands of biological evolution is death, and no species exists that did not result from this process. A great deal of suffering was involved along the way, and while I think humans can and should feel compelled to alleviate suffering, it is clear from nature that if there are any deities responsible for creating this universe, they certainly don't care about our pain.
Modern medical science has done in a matter of two centuries what two thousand years of Christianity could not: provide consistent, scalable solutions to human sickness. We now have vaccines, skin grafts, pain killers, antibiotics, etc. The methods are testable and the results verifiable. The same cannot be said for Christianity's claims to healing, and making a distinction between curing and healing the sick only demonstrates how similar to the Cheshire Cat the church is becoming, fading from view as it turns less and less relevant. Soon only a smile will remain, and then perhaps not even that much.
Every Sunday morning, I stand in my Episcopal church and join in a chorus of voices publicly affirming the Apostle’s Creed. Together, we declare that there is a good and almighty God who is the creative force behind all things seen and unseen; that this God is One, yet exists as three persons; that God loved the world enough to become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived, taught, fed, healed and suffered among us as both fully God and fully human; that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born to Mary; that he was crucified on a Roman cross and buried in the ground; that after three days dead, Jesus came back to life; that he ascended into heaven and reigns with God; that he will return to bring justice and restoration to our broken world; that God continues to work through the Holy Spirit, the church, and God’s people; that forgiveness is possible, resurrection is possible, and eternal life is possible.
If that’s not Christian orthodoxy, I don’t know what is.Actually, just parroting back words does not make a church "orthodox." It is well-known that in mainline churches most of the clergy and many of the parishioners do not hold to some or all of the historic creeds. This has come up time and again in polls, and anyone who's spent any time at all in a mainline denomination is aware of this fact. They recite the creeds out of a sense of tradition and/or shared community, and not out of a commitment to those specific beliefs. Trinitarian affirmations, for example, are mouthed by people who doubt that theological construct or even question the existence of a personal god. Thus, telling me that a church is "orthodox" because its parishes still affirm this or that creed really doesn't convince me.
Rachel Held Evans is an intelligent, insightful person. I greatly enjoyed her "Evolving in Monkey Town" when I read it several years ago (though for the life of me I can't track down the blog posts I wrote in response to it). Her move to The Episcopal Church (USA) is one that makes sense to me given her continued belief in a personal deity, identification with Jesus and strong views on gender issues and marriage equality. Given her viewpoints in these and other regards, the Episcopal Church will likely provide an excellent home community for her, one that will encourage her work and nurture her sense of spirituality.
At the same time, I question her conclusions. How she can read the Bible as well and critically as she has and still come away believing that Jesus is the resurrected, divine son of God is a little baffling. The Hebrew Scriptures were heavily edited in the years prior to the birth of Jesus in order to unify the nation with a shared sense of history and heritage. The resultant work, together with traditions born in the intervening centuries known as the intertestamental period, provided the groundwork for Second Temple theologies, including that which became the majority view in the early Christian movement. A careful reading of the Bible will dispel any notion of it being the revelation of an infinite, all-loving being and reveal its true character as the product of long centuries of human thought along certain lines in response to varied crises.
For myself, I still enjoy reading and studying the Bible, though not out of any sense of that its contents tell me something of an unseen, supernatural world. For a time I was on the progressive end of evangelicalism, a place rife with cognitive dissonance and unsatisfying half-solutions to intellectual problems. A clear-eyed, evidence-based viewpoint is serving me better than what I had before, and I wonder if Ms. Evans will remain satisfied with where she finds herself, or move further along the spectrum to religious humanism. She would certainly be welcome. Oh, and now you see why I was concerned with how the tone of this post would be read.