Book Review: Evolving in Monkey Town

One difficulty with evangelical American Christianity is that many of us don’t, or can’t, make a distinction between what is essential to the faith and what is peripheral. When the brightest young people in our churches start to question the peripherals, like the union between Christianity and political conservatism for example, we feel threatened. We think they have lost the faith.

This is what happened to Rachel Held Evans. She grew up in Dayton, TN, the site of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, the daughter of a theologian and a school teacher. By her own admission, she “knew all the answers.” She won the Best Christian Attitude Award at her elementary school four years in a row. When she heard her grandfather had voted for Bill Clinton, she thought he was going to hell.

But while she was studying at Bryan College in Dayton, cracks began to appear in her armor. She began to wonder about what happened to people who had never heard the gospel. It seemed unfair to her that she should be a Christian merely because she was born where she was. Her friends became concerned about her.

Unlike some who begin to doubt Christianity as they grow up, however, she didn’t decide that it was all nonsense. The reason why she remained a Christian is that she turned to Jesus. She spent a summer reading through the Gospels, and ended up more strongly committed to the “God in Sandals” than she had ever been. This did not take away her doubts. She writes, “I would argue that healthy doubt (questioning one’s beliefs) is perhaps the best defense against unhealthy doubts (questioning God)” (219-220). It allowed her to remain a committed follower of Jesus without having to know all the answers anymore.

This book resonated with me, and it will resonate with a lot of people who grew up in the world of evangelical American Christianity but are no longer entirely comfortable within it. When, as a teenager, I began to doubt what I had been told in church and at my Christian school about the way the world was, I turned to Jesus. In the end, the only reason I stayed a Christian then, and why I am still a Christian today, is that I could not give up on him.

I’d recommend this book to any Christian high school or college student who is experiencing doubts, or anyone who knows such a person. Through telling her story, Evans shows us a way to deal with doubts. Doubts can be the means to a more mature faith. Treat them as a way to refine faith and focus more radically on Jesus, and let the peripherals fall away.

Book Review: Changed by Faith by Luis Palau

Luis Palau is an evangelist, and this is an evangelistic book. The thrust of it is that faith in Jesus is not just something that can be added on to a life, but is something that fundamentally changes it. He directs his writing at various kinds of people who have not made a life-changing commitment to Jesus: skeptics, people who feel that going to church periodically and calling themselves Christians is enough, people who are outwardly successful but inwardly unfulfilled, the addicted, the unloved, the burned-out, the hopeless. To each of those people (and more), he says that the good news of Jesus transforms lives by bringing about personal and social change and bringing beauty from ashes.

Palau (and his co-author, Jay Fordice) tells the stories of many people whom he has met in his years as an evangelist, and this makes the book easy and interesting to read. I have read several books over the years that lay out the good news of Jesus, and aside from the stories of how faith in Jesus has changed people, this book had nothing new to say. As far as I’m concerned, that is a point in the book’s favor. After all, the gospel message is not new. The way in which it impacts each life makes for wonderful stories, though, and I appreciated Palau’s emphasis on telling personal stories. If I had a criticism of this book, it is that the stories could gloss over the struggles of living the Christian life. I realize that Palau wanted to emphasize the change that faith in Jesus brings, but if that is the only thing people hear, they may feel that their struggles in growth are unnatural and become discouraged.

I received a review copy of this book from Tyndale House. I was not asked to give a positive review.