Book Review: Searching for Sunday

If this reads like a break-up letter, that’s because it is. Rachel won’t receive it, and that’s fine. Her pool of fans is large enough, so she won’t notice me quietly slipping out the back door.

My first experience with Rachel Held Evans was with her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, and it was a breath of fresh air. It was 2012 and we were coming off a year-long break from church. We’d discovered we weren’t Baptist anymore, so when we moved back to Tennessee we hesitated every Sunday morning. That hesitation turned into an altogether protest. Exhausted of politics from the conservative pulpit and no answers to hard questions (or even an attempt to answer them), I needed a long hard break.

Rachel’s story was similar to my own. I felt like she had snatched ideas from my brain, a comforting realization that I was not alone.

Her second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, was another watershed experience in 2013. She took Proverbs 31 and turned it upside down, or maybe she turned it right side up. Either way, she stirred my theological brain in a new way – pushed, pulled, swirled. I walked away feeling like a lot of it was meant for me. I tossed the bits that I thought were unnecessary, but mostly, Rachel was speaking to me about God in a new way.

Fast forward to 2014, then 2015, and mostly 2016. Rachel’s Twitter feed became less and less about God and the church and more and more about Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party, and snide, shoddy remarks about the other side. Sometime last summer, I unfollowed her. I don’t care what she believes politically. I care what she wrestles with theologically. That’s what drew me to her in the first place. The empathy I once saw in her was gone. She had left the conservative church, but by all accounts, she didn’t hate them.

That’s not the case anymore.

I knew from the very first sentence that I was going to struggle with the book. Glennon Melton of Momastery wrote the Foreword, and the first line produced one of the biggest eye rolls of my life:

I mean, seriously. The world would still turn.

Side note: Something fishy is going on in the writing world and I don’t like it. Writers are being collected and folded into a super-duper high-profile club – like Oprah pulling Rob Bell into her prominent ring of spiritual experts alongside Glennon and Liz Gilbert. Rachel’s book was fraught with club references – Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sara Miles (people I read in 2014, 2015) … Watch out, Jen Hatmaker. You’re next.

I understand there is a larger, underlying marketing equation at work here. If you read one writer, you’re likely to read one who’s similar. It makes sense from an economical, book-selling point of view.

But for me, it cuts credibility. This club of writers all reference each other, all say the same thing, all boost one another’s books on their websites and social media. They’re on TV together and in conferences together, and now they are all on my nerves. It’s annoying. I wish they’d stop.

Actually, it’s fine. They can continue. Their fraternizing just pushes me back to C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton.

Once I got over myself (and the Foreword), I got into the actual book and settled in for a dose of Theological Rachel. I wanted to know how her searching for a church had gone in the last few years. I had hopes that the book would not mirror her Twitter feed, and when I read this line, I thought, yes, she understands. We are tired of party politics in church! 

But then…

There was one jab…

… after another jab…

… after another jab.

Let me summarize: God made everyone and loves everyone, and everyone should have a place at the communion table, but thank goodness we saw the light and are not conservative Republicans anymore. WHEW!

There is good stuff to be found in this book, such as her chapter on Communion (the book is broken into sections by sacraments – totally something I’m into). She quotes Nora Gallagher, saying, “On those days when I have thought of giving up on church entirely, I have tried to figure out what I’d do without Communion.” This remark spoke right to me, as it’s been a big reason I’ve continued to attend church when I’ve really wanted to ditch it.

The chapter on oil under Anointing the Sick was also moving and gave me much to think about in the way of marrying eastern and western medicine with eastern and western theology in regards to healing.

But those flashes of inspirational thought are greatly overshadowed by Rachel’s political pin pricks. They may accurately reflect her personal marriage of religion and politics, but she overshot on assuming all of her readers would relate. She misunderstands that progressive theology does not always parallel progressive politics.

More so, the intermittent political comments beg the question: Are you shaping your politics through a theological lens, or has your theology changed to suit your politics? 

Again, her credibility is cut.

I’m not a Republican, so her pin pricks were not necessarily directed at me. But I’m also not a Democrat, so I don’t understand the camaraderie she’s boasting among her fellow liberal Christian writers.

Ultimately, the fact that I’m even referencing political parties in a book about God and the church tells me that I’m no longer Rachel’s audience.

For what it’s worth, the relationship was off to a great start.

My ten most influential books

I was tagged by our cousin, Annette, to list the ten books that have had the greatest influence on me or have presented me with some sort of challenge. To use her words, these are the books I’d grab if the house set fire. It’s hard to list only ten, but here goes.

1. She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb (fiction) – Impeccable writing, inspiring story. I loved every word. (Buy it here.)

kiterunner2. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (fiction) – I think I read this in two or three days. Many tears. Amazing storyteller. Unfortunately, I can’t find it on my shelf, so I must have lent it out. Thank goodness this book has made it into classrooms alongside the likes of Jane Eyre, King Lear, and Catcher in the Rye. (Buy it here.)

3. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (historical fiction) – This was the gateway book to reading all of Follett’s work. He is by far my favorite fiction writer. If only I could be half the storyteller he is… (Buy it here.)

4. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling (fantasy fiction) – Though I could easily say the entire Harry Potter series is a favorite, I thought it best to pick the one I love the most. The Half-Blood Prince taught me that things aren’t always what they seem. (Buy it here.)

5. One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (fiction) – Laugh-out-loud hilarious. (Buy it here.) 

6. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (memoir) – When read in the proper time and context, this one is enlightening and reflective. (Buy it here.)

7. Daring Greatly by Brené Brown (non-fiction/inspirational) – I’m still reading this one very slowly, but that’s only because every page is worth inhaling and digesting. (Buy it here.)

Middlesex8. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (fiction) – Once I got use to his writing style, the story poured out like paint on a canvas. Simply beautiful. (Buy it here.)

9. Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans (non-fiction/memoir/spiritual) – I could’ve have written this book, though not in the same esteem. Rachel is definitely more qualified to tackle religion, but we share similar experiences. (Now call Faith Unraveled, buy it here.)

10. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (non-fiction/memoir/instructional) – Essentially, this is my writing bible. (Buy it here.)



The Book Fairy

First of all, Jeremy has the flu. I thought it might be strep, but after that test came back negative our doctor swabbed him for the flu. The poor kiddo is feverish, flush and coughing. He and Salem are currently snuggling.

When the doctor asked if we needed a note for school I gave him a funny look, to which he replied, “Oh right.” I teased him and said that I knew the principal, so we didn’t need a note.

This afternoon, when I got home from getting a few groceries, a lovely box from Amazon was sitting on my doorstep. This is the result of late-night, . Usually what happens is over the course of several weeks I’ll browse books and drop them in my virtual cart. I used to order mostly fiction books along with add-ons to our homeschool curriculum.

Then, on some random evening after I’ve taken my sleeping pill, I’ll decide it’s a good time to press the “checkout” button, thereby officially ordering whatever books I’ve dropped in the cart. In the morning, I’ll forget what I’ve done, so when an Amazon box shows up on my doorstep, I realize the Book Fairy has paid me a visit.

Or rather, I ordered books about 20 minutes after taking my Ambien pill and therefore have no memory of it the next day.

We’re in the middle of Lent, so all of the books in my virtual cart were added when I was mostly coherent. (For Lent, I decided to forgo fiction and read only the books that I would have most likely avoided five years ago. I wrote about this more in depth here.) The Book Fairy did a great job this time around, so there is much reading to do! These are in addition to two I already finished (here and here), the Shane Hipps book I’m about to finish, and three Rob Bell books under the nightstand that I have yet to read.

Books for LentLast week Chuck teased me about this becoming a “dog blog,” so I intentionally didn’t share photos of Major this week. I’m so proud of myself for almost following through.

Walking Major

I needed to hear this.

Mind a little mid-morning theology? I just finished A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. Wowzers. Here’s the best cut of the meat:

The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat, perspicuous list of rules and regulations that we can interpret objectively and apply unilaterally to our lives.

The Bible is a sacred collection of letters and laws, poetry and proverbs, philosophy and prophecies, written and assembled over thousands of years in cultures and contexts very different from our own, that tells the complex, ever-unfolding story of God’s interaction with humanity.

When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word (like manhood, womanhood, politics, economics, marriage, and even equality), we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t fit our tastes. In an attempt to simplify, we try to force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated and at times troubling holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

So after twelve months of “biblical womanhood,” I’d arrived at the rather unconventional conclusion that there is no such thing. The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains some sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth.

I have a million other things I should be doing right now (tending to my sick nine year old, getting my six year old started on his handwriting lesson, wrapping up a freelance assignment, finally eating my breakfast, taking out the dog), but I just wanted to share this with someone who may need to hear it. This was an excellent book. Like her previous one, it was as if the author read my mind and transcribed all of my thoughts and questions much more eloquently and intellectually than I ever could. Throughout my entire Christian experience, until now, there has been a canonical insistence that I be a “Proverbs 31 Woman,” whatever the heck that meant. To be free from the “one-size-fits-all” mindset is really quite wonderful. (Cue Mel Gibson in Braveheart, “Freeeeeeedoooooom!”)

Carry on with your Monday, readers, and I’ll go carry on with mine.

Neat and tidy religion

“Things stopped fitting into the neat and tidy categories of right and wrong, good and evil. Black and white slowly bled to gray.” (Evolving in Monkey Town, pg. 109)

We joined the church about which we were inquiring, and in the past several months I’ve been approaching theology in a new way. Now that I think of it, that statement isn’t entirely true. If I’m honest, the more accurate statement would be is that I’m publicly and openly exploring theology in a new way. I’ve actually been doing this for years most quietly, while still participating in Sunday School classes, Bible study groups and the like. I’ve held my tongue, discounted lessons altogether because they didn’t make any sense, and stirred in frustration over what I believed to be the dumbing down of God. We spent more than a year out of church altogether after we moved because I didn’t really want to start that process all over again just to stir up the conflict in my heart.

This summer Chuck and I realized that we really wanted and needed to go back to church, but we were stumped over where to go. Our previous affiliations were out of the question, so we explored other options on the occasional Sunday in an attempt find a better fit for our family. However, after each visit we’d drive home uninspired, experiencing that all-too-familiar feeling that said, “We know where this is headed. Let’s not go back.”

Happily, we found a place were we both want to be, where we want to sit and listen, absorb and learn, serve and grow. We took communion with this church body for the first time on Sunday (three cheers for the gluten-free bread option!) and watched the baptism of three adopted children a few Sundays prior. We’ve sung with them, recited prayers with them, and have already felt challenged by the sermons. So far, so good.

I’m currently reading Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans and seriously – it’s fantastic. Rachel is asking (and doing her best to answer) all of the questions I’ve been asking for years. In the past I was so quick to adopt catch phrases like “God’s ways are not our ways” and “because the Bible says so.” For years I approached the onset of faith with my eyes on the end of time (that ticket to heaven, you know), without giving near enough thought to the whole life lived in between. I began at the start line and went straight to the finish line and saw nothing of the race. And while I knew there had to be other lessons to learn, I always left the Sunday service having heard (yet again) that I had to accept Jesus Christ as my savior to have eternal life, even though I had taken care of that decades ago. I was ready to move on to the next thing but never seemed to get there. The result was a growing frustration not with God but with the church. To quote a friend of Rachel’s in her book, “It was like drowning in a pool of shallow water.” (pg. 65)

I underlined that sentence with a black pen, and then I drew a rectangle around it. Then I starred it in the margin. I couldn’t have expressed my own feelings any better.

For the first time in a long time I’m excited to go to church. Intellect is assumed and inquiries are encouraged. Asking questions is okay, whether you want to know more about the history of the Protestant Reformation or whether you want to know if all of this God stuff is real anyway. It’s so… liberating.

I won’t flood my blog with posts about church and religion, so no worries. We’re not getting too serious here! I just felt the need to get this out on “paper” and say it “out loud.” Thanks for indulging me.