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Evolving in Monkey TownHow a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions
By Rachel Held Evans
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Rachel Held Evans
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Best Christian Attitude Award
People sometimes ask me when I became a Christian, and that's a hard question to answer because I'm pretty sure that by the time I asked Jesus into my heart, he'd already been living there for a while. I was just five years old at the time, a compact little person with pigtails sticking out of my head like corn tassels, and I remember thinking it strange that someone as important as Jesus would need an invitation. Strange now is the fact that before I lost my first tooth or learned to ride a bike or graduated from kindergarten, I committed my life to a man who asked his followers to love their enemies, to give without expecting anything in return, and to face public execution if necessary. It is perhaps an unfair thing to ask of a child, but few who decide to follow Jesus know from the beginning what they're getting themselves into.
I cannot remember a time when I didn't know about Jesus. Stories of his dividing the fishes and loaves, calming the stormy sea, and riding the donkey into Jerusalem were as familiar to me growing up as Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella. I learned them from my parents and from pretty Sunday school teachers who smelled like peppermint and let me call them by their first names. They were more than stories really. They were grand narratives that flowed like streams into my own story, creating the currents that would move me forward and give me direction in life.
I had a simple but enviable childhood. We lived in Birmingham, Alabama, until I was twelve, in a small house with a big back yard that sat atop a hill overlooking the airport. A giant oak in the middle of the back yard shaded us in the summer and dropped shining amber leaves every autumn. During the day, my little sister, Amanda, and I gathered acorns and set shoebox traps for rabbits. At night, we sat on the front porch and watched the lights of airplanes rise and fall like wandering stars. For all we knew, we were rich as queens. The only time I suspected otherwise was when I overheard a friend of my mother teasing her about how she washed and reused plastic cups. Apparently we were poor, but not that poor.
The daughter of a genuine, certified theologian, I'd memorized the "Four Spiritual Laws" before I'd memorized my own address. My father earned a graduate degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, a school famous for producing megachurch pastors like Chuck Swindoll, Tony Evans, and Andy Stanley. Instead of pursuing full-time ministry, however, my father committed his life to Christian education, which I suppose explains the plastic cups. A college professor, he often invited his brightest students over for coffee and long talks about hermeneutics and eschatology and epistemology. I loved falling asleep to the sound of their voices undulating from the living room. I felt secure in knowing that while I slept, my father was awake having important conversations about God.
I always looked up to my father with a sense of reverent awe. It wasn't that I thought he possessed supernatural powers or anything; I just imagined that he and God had a lot of things in common, that they subscribed to the same magazines and wore similar shoes. Looking back, I realize how important it was that my father loved me so openly and listened so carefully. My first impressions of my heavenly Father were that he too was gentle, playful, and kind.
Despite knowing about dispensationalism long before I probably should have, I never felt trapped in a world of endless churchgoing. My mother had been raised Independent Baptist and as a girl was forbidden to dance and go to movies. Determined to avoid legalism, she let Amanda and me wait until we were good and ready before we got baptized, took communion, or asked Jesus into our hearts. Her private disdain for potlucks and church business meetings kept us from being at church every time the doors were opened, and I noticed that she got a little fidgety whenever the pastor discussed wives submitting to their husbands. I loved this about her, the same way I loved the scent of her cherry-almond lotion when she tucked me into bed at night.
A substitute teacher at my elementary school, my mother earned a reputation for doting on the needy kids. Those with absent parents, stained shirts, runny noses, and learning disabilities always left her classroom beaming with self-confidence. I think I must have gotten my bleeding heart from her, which, combined with my father's cautious idealism, accidentally made me into a liberal. If my father gave Christianity a head, my mother gave it a heart and hands, and it was her tender telling of the story of the cross, mingled with cherry almond, that first moved me to ask Jesus into my heart.
When you're a kid, being a Christian is like being part of a secret society. I remember getting all excited whenever I spotted one of those silver ichthus emblems on someone's car or heard Amy Grant music playing in the background at the grocery store. Nothing thrilled me more than identifying fellow believers, especially famous ones. "Did you hear that Donnie from New Kids on the Block got saved?" my best friend, Julie, asked as we gathered acorns from under the oak tree. "My dad says Michael Jordan is a Christian," I added. It meant that they were one of us, that they too knew the secret password for getting into heaven. I'll admit I was a little disappointed when I learned that something like 85 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians. Knowing you're in the majority makes the whole thing a lot less dramatic and sexy.
The culture wars of the 1980s and '90s raged throughout my most formative years, culminating with the election of George W. Bush my freshman year of college. In this political environment, being a good Christian meant adopting a range of causes, such as protecting the traditional family, keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and supporting the right to bear arms. I knew what abortion was before I knew where babies come from, and I learned how to effectively blame everything from crime rates to suicide rates on the removal of prayer from public schools. I cried for hours when I learned that my paternal grandfather, a lifelong Democrat, supported Bill Clinton in 1996; I was under the impression this meant Grandpa would go to hell.
An evangelical in the truest sense of the word, I once wrote the plan of salvation on a piece of construction paper, folded it into a paper airplane, and sent it soaring over the fence into the back yard of our Mormon neighbors. Amanda tattled on me, so I spent the rest of the afternoon on my belly in the dirt, trying to drag it back under the fence with a stick. I saw my neighborhood as my first mission field, often coaxing Amanda and Julie into going along with some crazy evangelistic scheme like sticking tracts in people's mailboxes or singing hymns at the top of our lungs as we rode our bikes down the street. According to Julie, once when I spent the night at her house, the dryer buzzer startled me so badly that I jumped out of my bed and announced that Jesus had returned to rapture us all.
I guess when you grow up listening to Ravi Zacharias on your way to kindergarten in the morning, you kind of turn into a Jesus freak. I was the nutcase kid who removed wise men figurines from manger scenes at Christmas to more accurately depict the historical time line of Advent. I gently corrected my Sunday school teacher when she referred to Jonah getting swallowed up by the whale (everyone knows that the word is literally translated "big fish") or referenced the forbidden apple in the garden of Eden (which was more likely some sort of Middle Eastern fruit, like a fig). My mother reminded me almost daily that my primary responsibility in life was to go to a good Christian college and marry a good Christian boy. I guess I just assumed that I would stay a Christian forever. It was like being an American-not something you could just go and change.
By the time I reached fourth grade, I knew so much about defending the existence of God that I used the same apologetic strategies to defend the existence of Santa Claus to my increasingly skeptical classmates. Our conversations on the playground usually went something like this:
Skeptic: How do you know that Santa is real? Have you ever seen him? Me: No, I haven't. But Santa leaves enough evidence of his existence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Every year I find presents from him under the tree and little crumbs all over the kitchen table where I left his plate of cookies. I might not see Santa himself, but these things point to him, as bending trees point to the existence of wind. Skeptic: How come there's a different Santa in every department store? Me: Those are Santa's helpers, who, with his permission, disguise themselves as Mr. Claus in order to more efficiently compile a list of what the children across the world want for Christmas. Skeptic: Everyone knows that reindeer can't fly. How does Santa get around? Me: Yes, it is true that most reindeer cannot fly. However, reindeer empowered by the Holy Spirit can do anything God tells them to do, and those are the kind of reindeer Santa owns. For a prototype, read the story of Balaam's donkey in the book of Numbers. Skeptic: How can one person make it to every rooftop in the world in just one night? Me: Who says Santa is a person? Although Saint Nick is not mentioned by name, the Bible clearly points to the existence of supernatural angelic beings whose primary directive is to protect, inform, and bless humans. If Santa is an angel on a mission from God to reward the good children of the world, he's likely to boast supernatural strength and speed. Skeptic: What about those kids who say they saw their parents sneaking presents under the tree on Christmas Eve? Me: Unfortunately, these kids may be telling the truth. You see, the scope of Santa's power in our lives is ultimately dependent upon our willingness to accept it. Parents who choose not to believe in Santa forfeit the blessing of his visits forever, and so they must rely on their own methods for supplying kids with presents at Christmas. Skeptic: Why do bad kids still get presents? Me: Why, grace, of course.
I could have written a book called When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Yuletide Evidences, but of course, after a long and gruesome internal battle, I eventually gave the thing up. I suppose the realization came gradually, as I grew old enough to recognize the playful nuances in the voices of adults when they asked what Santa had brought me for Christmas and the puzzling inconsistencies in how he distributed gifts. It also occurred to me that if Santa were in fact real, my favorite apologist, Josh McDowell, would be using him as evidence of the supernatural.
As a child, the only time I ever doubted God was when my skin flared up. For most of my life, I suffered from such severe eczema that the slightest trigger sent my body into full-out rebellion against itself. All it took was a tiny piece of walnut hidden in a brownie, a stressful week at school, a polyester jacket, or some mysterious unknown allergen, and I'd break out in itchy rashes that had me tearing into my arms and legs for days. I'd scratch until I bled, leaving long red gashes in my skin that could get infected and turn into open sores or boils. Ashamed of what I had done to myself, I hid under long sleeves and pants, and cowered in the corners of the locker room before gym class. I kept a crinkled tube of hydrocortisone with me at all times. I cut my fingernails down to the quick and wore socks over my hands at night.
My eczema added an element of frenzy to everything I did. Home videos show me opening my birthday presents and scratching, reading to Amanda and scratching, sitting on Santa's lap and scratching, looking at Mount Rushmore and scratching. I was all elbows and movement, like Animal in a Muppets special. My parents took me to every dermatologist in Birmingham, each with his own ridiculous home remedy. One routine involved lathering me with petroleum jelly and then rolling me up in bath towels like a mummy for thirty minutes. Another had me bathing in a pungent mixture of lukewarm water and vinegar three times a week. When things got really bad, my mother would relent and let the doctor give me a steroid shot. For a few days after, I enjoyed skin as soft as a baby's.
"You might grow out of it, you know," one doctor told me. "My daughter had severe eczema until she was twelve. She just woke up one morning and it was gone." The doctor's anecdote gave me a goal on which to focus. Every night I scratched and I prayed for God to make me grow out of my skin.
All kids have their paranoias. Amanda went a month without eating solid foods because she was convinced that her throat was closing up, and Julie spent weeks searching for her real parents after reading The Face on the Milk Carton. Growing up, my greatest fear was that I would find God out, that I would accidentally stumble upon some terrible, unspeakable thing that proved he wasn't as great and good as grown-ups made him out to be. Sometimes when I woke up to find my sheets stained with blood, I wondered if God was even listening or if he was busy doing something else. Sometimes I wondered if he even exists at all. All the amorphous misgivings and perplexities that crept around my little subconscious began to take the shape of one nagging question: What if I'm wrong?
It wasn't enough to undo my young faith, but the question stayed with me, like a rock in my shoe.
* * *
I'm not sure why-perhaps because I wanted to impress my father, perhaps because I thought it might catch God's attention -but as a kid, I obsessed over winning awards. From AWANA badges, to gymnastics ribbons, to marching-band trophies, my room glittered with the spoils of overachievement. Of particular pride to me were awards that honored my religious aptitude, the crown jewel of which was the coveted Best Christian Attitude Award.
I attended a private elementary school in Birmingham, where just about all of my classmates were Christians, a fact that had little effect on our behavior, of course, except that being Christians meant that if we were in trouble with the teacher, we were also in trouble with God. Each year just two students from each class, one girl and one boy, received the Best Christian Attitude Award. It was the only award for which the students actually voted, making it a sort of spiritualized popularity contest that even awkward noncheerleaders like myself had a chance at winning.
My strategy for winning the Best Christian Attitude Award each year included keeping extra pens and pencils in my desk to loan to needy students, graciously allowing my classmates to cut in front of me in line at the water fountain, trying not to tattle in an effort to secure the troublemaker vote, and writing sweet notes of encouragement to Isabella and Juanita, to procure the swing minority vote.
During the daily prayer-request time, I made a point of addressing the plight of the poor, homeless, and heathen, while all the other kids droned on and on about their sick hamsters. I toted my Bible around, even to gym class, and took every opportunity to casually mention that my father was a theologian. If I sensed a threat (like in fifth grade, when everyone knew that Christina Simpson wanted to be a missionary when she grew up), I shrewdly reserved all of my tattling for her so that at the end of the year she had a few more demerits than I did. I was remarkably calculating and conniving for my age - starting rumors about the competition, sweeping in to befriend new students, acting especially innocent and saccharine in the weeks leading up to the vote. I suspect I was the only kid in the entire school who thought year-round about the Best Christian Attitude Award.
Excerpted from Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans Copyright © 2010 by Rachel Held Evans. Excerpted by permission.
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