Questions, Doubt, and Faith: Reading Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans

Faith UnraveledRachel Held Evans is a bit of a controversy in Evangelicalism these days.  She’s on Christian-world radar because of her posts that challenge commonly held opinions about gender roles in the church, Christian responses to homosexuality, the creation-evolution debates, and universalism.  I’m pretty sure I could go type her name into my status Facebook status bar right now and spawn about 15 comments.  I’d guess that at least half would be negative, and of those, 2 or 3 would be downright derogatory and dismissive without even considering whatever point I was bringing up.

RHE is a lightning rod.  No argument from me.  So I picked up her 2010 spiritual memoir Faith Unraveled and read it today. Straight through, one sitting.

I may not agree with everything Evans believes. I strongly doubt that I do.  But I applaud her journey through doubt, her willingness to ask hard questions without accepting pat answers, her desire to seek faith in the midst of ambiguity.

Faith Unraveled is a book about doubt and a book about faith.  Both-and, not one supplanting the other.  Her narrative about leaving the intellectually-driven Evangelical world-view Christianity and wandering in a desert of uncertainty doesn’t match my story, but it resonates with me.  We’ve asked many of the same questions; it’s just that mine came in a different order.

Rachel’s Christian faith unraveled when she smacked hard into the Problem of Evil but couldn’t swallow the easy answers — that we should overlook hard questions about genocide in the Old Testament, about hell and the afterlife, about the horrors of war or rape or abuse because God’s plan turns evil to good.   It’s easy to flip out that answer as if it makes rape not rape, or genocide not genocide, or Hurricane Katrina not horrible. (I created my own dust-up about this topic after reading N D Wilson’s book Notes from a Tilt-a-whirl.)

And Evans’s doubt-story centers in the heart of the painful, terrifying question — what kind of God does Evangelical Christianity offer if He destroys 200,000 humans in a tsunami or entire Canaanite cities without a pang of sorrow?  “They were going to Hell anyway” is hardly an appropriate response, but it’s what Evans heard from many of her Christian friends. And I’ve heard it too.

And all of my years of seminary coursework taught me there’s more nuance and ambiguity in the biblical texts than many of the hot Christian authors or preachers are willing to live with.

I could hand Rachel Held Evans’s book to my friends who are searching, doubting, agnostic, uncertain, wounded, or even hostile and I believe her words would open doors to good conversations about the difficult spaces within my Christian faith.

I’ll leave you with a few passages that stuck out to me, and a recommendation to read for yourself, whether the book or the controversial blog.

From Faith Unraveled (I read on Kindle, so I don’t have page numbers):

My friend Adele describes fundamentalism as holding so tightly to your beliefs that your fingernails leave imprints on the palm of your hand.

We would all like to believe that had we lived in the days of the early church or the Protestant Reformation, we would have chosen the side of truth, but in nearly every case, this would have required a deep questioning of the fundamental teachings of the time. It would have required a willingness to change. We must be wary of imitating the Pharisees, who bragged that had they lived during the time of the prophets, they would have protected the innocent (see Matt. 23:30), but who then plotted against Jesus and persecuted his disciples.

Evolution [as a believer] means letting go of our false fundamentals so that God can get into those shadowy places we’re not sure we want him to be. It means being okay with being wrong, okay with not having all the answers, okay with never being finished.

To Jesus, “by faith alone” did not mean “by belief alone.” To Jesus, faith was invariably linked to obedience.

Some Christians are more offended by the idea of everyone going to heaven than by the idea of everyone going to hell.

What if I’m wrong? It was a question loaded with uncertainty, possibility, and hope, and it was a question to which I often would return. To be wrong about God is the condition of humanity, for better or for worse.

In the end, it was doubt that saved my faith.

God’s ways are higher than our ways not because he is less compassionate than we are but because he is more compassionate than we can ever imagine.

I can never open my Bible without being aware of my own presence beside it. It reminds me that I’m always there, that I cannot read a word of this glorious, God-breathed book without bringing myself along, baggage and all.

Perhaps our love for the Bible should be measured not by how valiantly we fight to convince others of our interpretations but by how diligently we work to preserve a diversity of opinion.

I am convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals.

Taking on the yoke of Jesus is not about signing a doctrinal statement or making an intellectual commitment to a set of propositions. It isn’t about being right or getting our facts straight. It is about loving God and loving other people.

Doubt is a difficult animal to master because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God. The former has the potential to destroy faith; the latter has the power to enrich and refine it. The former is a vice; the latter a virtue

Sometimes Christians worry that if we don’t provide bullet-point answers to all of life’s questions, people will assume that our faith is unreasonable. In reaction to very loud atheists like Richard Dawkins, we have become a bit too loud ourselves. Faith in Jesus has been recast as a position in a debate, not a way of life.

Most of the people I’ve encountered are looking not for a religion to answer all their questions but for a community of faith in which they can feel safe asking them.

Yes.  The Truth is big enough to handle your questions. Your hard, agonizing, terrifying doubts and what-if’s about God and the Universe and How Things Work.

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