Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015.
Summary: As the subtitle suggests, this is a narrative of the author’s struggle between loving and leaving the Church, only to find her loved renewed through the sacramental practices that she sees at the heart of the Church’s life.
True confessions. I’ve had a like-dislike affair (love-hate is too strong) with the writing of Rachel Held Evans. Ever since I first encountered her blog posts, I have admired the freshness, authenticity and downright beauty that I find in her writing. What I’ve always dis-liked was that the central thread of her writing was the public critique of and increasing disaffection with the evangelicalism in which she grew up.
At the core of this is simply our different responses to the pain we’ve experienced in our church experiences. I guess I’ve always felt that my relationship with the church was much like marriage–it could be rocky as well as glorious at times, but opting out just wasn’t an option. I’ve only ever left a local congregation because of moves, and even then sought their counsel and left with their blessing. Yet I’ve struggled with forms of legalism, cultural captivities, unholy political alliances, what I thought was the wrongful subjection of women, and just good old-fashioned church conflict. Memories of some of these things still hurt. I wanted to leave sometimes, but I never did.
Perhaps what I really don’t like is the exposure of my own self-righteousness in all this and the questions this raises. Am I really just jealous that I didn’t have the courage or authenticity to do what she did? As a fellow blogger, am I simply jealous of her success?
All that and more was swirling about as I sat down with this book. Could I even give her a fair reading? And what happened is that I got surprised by a narrative of someone who has not given up on church for many of the same reasons that hold for me; who has hung in there and found a kind of resurrection in her relationship with the church and her Lord. And in all this, she reminded me of all the gospel beauties that have held me true to this faith over half a century.
The book is organized both around a narrative loving, leaving, and finding the church, and around the seven sacraments of the Episcopal church where she presently worships, that have served as the road back to church for her. She summarizes her renewed embrace of the church in these terms:
“…Sunday morning sneaks up on us — like dawn, like resurrection, like the sun that rises a ribbon at a time. We expect a trumpet and a triumphant entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground, God is here.” (p. 258)
Along the way, I found places where I both agree and disagree with her. I am with her in her criticism of many of the cultural and political captivities of evangelicalism (and I hope that she will become increasingly aware of similar dangers in the mainline churches). I would affirm her critique of dogmatism and legalism, but would also hope that she could come to the place of Dorothy Sayers who wrote that “the dogma is the drama”, which in fact I think she is affirming in her love of the practices of the church, which in fact are rooted in creed and dogma. I would agree that we have badly transgressed against LGBT persons and missed the ways LGBT sisters and brothers may be gifts to the church. Yet I find her critique and affirmation so unqualified that it does not address the question of the discipleship of our sexuality for all followers of Christ, no matter what our orientation or sense of gender identity.
Yet there is so much of value here. For one, Evans’ narrative gives voice to and reflects the narratives of many young men and women who have distanced themselves from church. Whatever we think of the reasons and beliefs, if we don’t take these things on board, particularly if we lead churches or ministries, then we are heartless shepherds! Slick and trendy programs won’t address this alienation. And that leads to the second value to be found here, that there is a deep longing for the church to be the church; a community of people loving God and each other whole-heartedly and living and proclaiming the gospel of the grace and truth found in Christ in word and sacrament.
As you can tell, I haven’t become an unqualified fan. Rather, I’ve discovered someone who loves many of the same things I love, who has challenged and enlarged my thinking, and while we are each on unique journeys from different places, we are both on a journey toward the Sunday of resurrection. May God keep and form us both for that day!