Mine is a stubborn and recalcitrant faith. It’s all elbows and motion and kicked-up dust, like cartoon characters locked in a cloudy brawl. I’m still early in my journey, but I suspect it will go on like this for a while, perhaps until my last breath.
Like Rachel Held Evans, I sometimes find that having faith feels like being in the middle of a cloudy brawl. This year in particular has caused me to view some of my most cherished and often hard-won beliefs in a different light, and it’s not easy to have to rethink foundational ideas or accept the unpleasant consequences of significant beliefs. As I’ve been working through this process, I decided to acquire a few books by people who’ve been thinking about the same kinds of things and let them help me think through these thoughts. Most of these are newer books, because, frankly, I don’t have the energy for John of the Cross or Augustine of Bonhoeffer right now.
First up is this memoir and examination of church life by Rachel Held Evans. I’ve followed Evans’s blog for years, and much of her journey resonates with my own. Like her, I grew up in a conservative evangelical church and spent much of my young adulthood in that world, but in my late 20s, frustrated and sometimes downright disgusted with the church’s view of women, I had to figure out a different way to have faith. Leaving my church was the only way I could keep believing. I was lucky enough to find a fairly progressive Baptist church in my city and then to find another when I moved to DC. If such churches didn’t exist, I doubt I could have maintained my faith. (Eventually, I decided I needed a church experience that centered more on the Eucharist than on the sermon, so I moved to the Episcopal church. But that’s another story and a far less complicated one.)
Evans structures this book around the seven sacraments, and each section includes stories of her own experiences with that sacrament, as well as stories shared by her friends and blog readers. Within that structure, she offers a roughly chronological account of her own life within the church. We see her growing frustration with a community that doesn’t encourage hard questions or that offers “easy” answers when those questions appear. We experience her hope when a new community is born that embraces people just as they are, and we see her despair as that community sputters to its end. By the end of the book, she has found a new spiritual home in an Episcopal church. But she’s also found church at a conference for gay Christians and their allies, a community that offers healing for abused women (and healing oils for their supporters), and at a grotto filled with miniature replicas of famous sites made from bits of glass and garbage, turned into art.
I think that this book would have meant the world to me 15 years ago, when I was fighting the same fight Evans describes. Now, much of it involves revisiting a previously well-worn path, although there is value in that. Still, the later chapters resonated somewhat with where I am now, trying to not to roll my eyes at expressions of faith from my past when similar expressions pop up on my Facebook feed from old friends. It’s easy to get cynical about a way that we’ve rejected, but as Evans writes, “Cynicism may help us create simpler storylines with good guys and bad guys, but it doesn’t make us any better at telling the truth, which is that most of us are a frightening mix of good and evil, sinner and saint.” It helps to remember where I came from and how I felt then when interacting with people who’ve found it best to remain in that world.
One of the things Evans does really well is express how difficult it is to have doubts and how liberating it is to talk about them. Her chapter, “Easter Doubt,” is particularly good as she discusses how it feels to step away from the church for a while, knowing what people think about such “Easter Sunday Christians.” She writes that “there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude it takes to whisper just one of them out loud.” I think the reason the church is important, whether it’s an actual church building or a more informal community of believers, is that, at its best, it offers a place to speak these questions out loud. It’s a shame that speaking those questions often leads to shunning or a patronizing offer of prayer. But when it offers room to sit in those questions, to live in those doubts, and to come before an altar together despite those doubts and questions, church is a beautiful thing.