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Evolving in Monkey Town: A Good Read on Religious Doubt

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I recently had a great experience with a book, one that will go onto my long list of reasons why books are wonderful and must never be allowed to go extinct. The experience was reading Rachel Held Evans memoir Evolving in Monkey Town on the shore of Indian Lake in Millville, New Brunswick, a humble body of water where my family has a "camp." (It would be called a "cottage" if the lake were anywhere near my home in Boston.)

My greatest reading experiences happen at Indian Lake, and for good reason. The lake has no electricity, no running water, and -- imagine this -- it is miles from a cellphone signal. I have had no contact with the outside world for days. The Celtics either won or the lost the NBA championship series with the Lakers, and the Dodgers played the Red Sox, with Manny Ramirez back in town for the first time since he was traded, but I don't know the outcome of either of those games. I don't know what Wall Street did yesterday, how the political assault on BP is going. It could be that a European country has gone under or North Korea has invaded South Korea. I don't know.

What I do know is that the beavers still have the end of the lake dammed up. The water level of this huge mile-long lake is determined by a few feet of dams built by nature's most aggressive engineers. The loons still live here, alternately laughing at some private joke or rolling mournful laments across the water. They return faithfully every year from their winter migration, just like me. I watched one take off from the lake yesterday, an amazing acrobatic feat -- running on the surface of the water and flapping furiously to become airborne. One landed in front of me earlier this morning while I was out in the canoe. Landings are more graceful.

Reading at the lake lets me encounter books the way authors intended for their readers -- as an engrossing experience uninterrupted by emails, phone calls, tweets, and news updates. Usually I answer at least 250 emails in the time it takes me to read a book. Evolving in Monkey Town was interrupted only by my need for dinner and a night's rest. I stopped reading when the sun went down last night. Reading by candlelight is too hard, and it attracts mosquitoes into the camp.

Evolving in Monkey Town is Rachel Held Evans' memoir about growing up in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the infamous "Scopes Monkey Trial." Raised a die-hard fundamentalist on the buckle of the Bible Belt, where the local culture and Christianity were one and the same, Evans began to wonder about the tidy package of ideas she had been handed. She developed questions. Do Muslims and Jews really go to hell? "If salvation is available only to Christians, " she worried, "then the gospel isn't good news at all. For most of the human race it is terrible news."

And why do we highlight the occasional biblical comment about homosexuality but ignore the way fathers in the Bible barter their daughters to advance political agendas? Why does the bible suggest that young women should be or forced to marry men who rape them? Did God really approve of Joshua's genocide?

Evans' personal journey is told with a charming openness, even as she introduces the reader to unsavory characters like "June, the Ten Commandments Lady," or "Mark, the Evangelist." Here she is on the "gay question," introducing us to "Adele, the Oxymoron":

I'd always wanted a gay friend. But, as embarrassing as this is to admit, I wanted the sort of gay friend who would give me fashion advice and add some diversity to my clique, the kind of gay friend who would make me look edgy and open-minded, not the kind who would actually challenge my thinking or stereotypes.

Evans' meditation on religious doubt is consistently readable, even if you aren't on the edge of a peaceful lake. It's a perfect gift for smart teenagers beginning to formulate their own questions about their faith. But what struck me the most is Evans' philosophical depth. Her comments on the Bible are insightful but never sound the least bit like a primer on hermeneutics. In fact, I don't think she even used that ponderous word. The book is permeated with a kind of "Yoda-like" wisdom, as deep insights pop out in simple, homey prose. Here, for example, is her summary reflection on the search for truth: "I suppose that if absolute truth exists, it must be something we experience indirectly, like the sun. We see it in shadows, watch it light up the moon, and feel it tingle our skin, but it's generally not a good idea to stare at it or claim it as one's own."

I suspect that the opaque French architects of post-modernity -- whose names do not, thankfully, appear on the pages of Evolving in Monkey Town -- would agree with Evans, but they would need 50 inscrutable pages to make the same point.

As I write these words, I am looking out over the calm waters of the lake. A mottled hillside, textured in shades of green, looks back at me from the other side. Leaves rustle and birds sing. The woods are full of life and there is something magical about settings like this -- places only lightly edited by civilization. The grandeur of nature is, for me, a part of what keeps disbelief at bay. Like Evans, I don't understand the Holocaust, or why Christians need to persecute gays so relentlessly. But I don't understand the connection to nature, either, or exactly what role that plays in sustaining faith for so many. Faith is fertile soil for questions and we would do well to heed the advice given in Evolving in Monkey Town and let them flourish. Just as the lonesome call of the loon authenticates the Canadian wilderness, unanswered questions are reliable markers for genuine faith.