I’ve never met Rachel Held Evans in person. I’ve never even had a digital conversation with her. My guess is that if we ever met face to face that we would hate each other, love each other, or love to hate each other. She’s spunky, witty, snarky, and smart. She shares with a verbal eloquence and a truth-telling ability that will make the open reader ask helpful and valuable questions of themselves.
I picked up “Searching For Sunday” because I had committed to reading books by those with whom I knew I would not necessarily agree. I had read enough of Evans’ blog posts and articles and had heard enough about her to know that we were most likely at odds with each other in the areas of our theology and ecclesiology. But I didn’t pick up the book to refute everything that she said, I picked it up to learn, to hear, and to hopefully understand just what I might be missing.
“Searching For Sunday” is the story of her journey away from the church and back again. In fact, it may be aptly subtitled “There and Back Again” if she were honest about it, and just like Bilbo the hobbit’s tale, it involves twists and turns that might never have been planned for yet which rarely left her the same. Evans tells her story and shares her experience with raw boldness and honesty. Anyone who has had experiences with the church in America will most likely relate to much of what she writes and shares.
Along the way, Evans makes many generalizations, often looping everyone into the same bowl without taking into account that all evangelicals are not created equal. The evangelicalism to which Evans reacts is the same one that I have reacted towards, the one that emphasizes a “closing the deal” approach towards evangelism, the one that seems to be more about sin management and less about showing love to one’s neighbors regardless of their political views or sexuality. She criticizes the church for, “taking spiritual Instagrams and putting on our best performances.” This is her experience, an experience that she realizes has shaped her and formed her, that has caused her to be cynical and that colors every other experience that she has, an experience by which every other experience will be measured.
In the midst of her sharing her experience though, I find myself asking the question about what we ground our stories to. Do we connect our stories with God’s story and do we call others to do the same? Are we seeking to be grounded to God’s truth as we connect those stories? Is it enough for us to just find common ground on our experiences, or do we need to find something unmoving and unchanging in the midst of culture’s constant shift?
“Searching For Sunday is broken into seven parts, each named after a sacrament, the sacraments practiced by the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Orthodox churches. As she shares her own story and experience with the church, she shares what she sees as the church’s work and responsibility. She emphasizes the church’s work on us through these sacraments, claiming that the church tells us we are beloved (baptism), we are broken (confession), we are commissioned (holy orders), feeds us (communion), welcomes us (confirmation), anoints us (anointing of the sick), and unites us (marriage).
There is much that Evans says that I can support, so much that is so eloquently put that it’s hard to argue or disagree. It seems that we can find common ground on our influences such as Bonhoeffer and McKnight, but somewhere, our paths diverge and we separate. There are times when it seems that she cops out on the call of the Gospel, the call to come and die, the call to lose one’s self in a pursuit of holiness. In her pointed indictment of those who would put themselves in Jesus’ role in the story of the woman caught in adultery, I fear that she plays the role of the defeatist, not explicitly saying it, but implying that because the pursuit of holiness is difficult it should just be abandoned, asking, “So how’s that working out for you? The sinning no more thing? Because it’s not going so well for me.” Are we to abandon a pursuit of holiness because it’s hard?
Like much of our culture, Evans talks of love but it seems that her definition of love is based too much on her surroundings and experience rather than the sacrificial and holy love that we know from God. She claims that evil and death are powerless against love but what of God’s other characteristics of holiness and immutability? She seeks an “adapt or die” approach towards the church rather than calling us to do the same. When we ask the church to “adapt or die” are we still taking God at his word? Do we still believe that the Bible is God’s self-revelation or do we view it as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” from which we pick and choose the things that feel good or are least likely to offend?
Evans wrestles with good questions, she wrestles with the need to stay connected to her beliefs with both her head and her heart. I agree with her that the church has in recent decades been a place where it is unsafe to wrestle with doubt, where we can’t come to the table without assurance. The church needs to be open to those who are questioning and searching, knowing that the journey is often messy and will result in more than a few bumps along the way. We need to reconcile that connection between heart and mind without feeling the need to have everyone check both at the door.
Evans writes, “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.” Does this all mean that we simply continue “to be” without accountability and reform? Is truth-telling enough or should we allow the truth to mold us and shape us; does truth remain the same or does it bend and break with the culture and the times?
In the midst of creating safe and comfortable environments within the church, do we forget that there is an offensiveness to the Gospel? It’s easy to point out the offensiveness of grace that makes us scratch our heads and wonder as to the worthiness of the recipients, but we need to keep a balanced approach and remember that there is still the need for accountability, there is still a call to holiness. No, we will never “arrive” at that holiness on this side of eternity, but the process of sanctification should not be abandoned because it’s hard or because it won’t reach its completion on this side of eternity. Evans understands God’s tendency to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and holy, but what sacrifices are made by us as we allow God to perform that transformation in us?
One of Evans’ many criticisms of evangelicalism is the “alliances and coalitions formed around shared theological distinctive elevate secondary issues to primary ones and declare anyone who fails to conform to their strict set of beliefs and behaviors unfit for Christian fellowship.” Does she recall Paul’s urging to expel the unrepentant brother from the church in Corinthians? We let everyone in but is there a call to repentance, is there a call to holiness? Do we simply let people come in and enter into the Gospel journey with no accountability with no call to repentance and a pursuit of a Christ-like life?
Evans comes to a great conclusion and makes the statement that, “following Jesus is a group activity, something we’re supposed to do together.” I agree with that. When we enter into the journey to follow Christ, that journey is not just relegated to Jesus and us as individuals, but us as a community, as a body. We can’t “do” Christianity alone, and that’s where I think Evans gets it right. It’s an arduous journey on which we find ourselves, a journey that hardly goes the way that we would expect or even wish it to go, but a journey in which we will find reward in the end.
I appreciate the way that Evans challenges and questions. I appreciate her brutal honesty and her authentic sharing. What she shares, she shares well and I think that she knows how different she looks at this point along her journey. Anyone wishing to hear the experience of another would appreciate her story, anyone seeking to prove her wrong will have missed the point of her book. No, Rachel Held Evans and I might not agree on everything, but there is enough here from which I can learn.
(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)