Monday, October 18, 2010

A Conversation with Rachel Held Evans

I discovered Rachel Held Evans through a blog comment and was immediately drawn to her very honest style. I eagerly awaited her book, the cleverly titled Evolving in Monkey Town and enjoyed breezing through it one summer afternoon.

Unfortunately I don't have a review and as a member of the INSPYs Advisory Board I'm not allowed to post one until after the winner has been announced (congratulations on making the short list Rachel!) but I do have this email conversation Rachel was kind enough to do with me. I hope you enjoy!

What drove you to write a memoir about doubt and faith?

Rachel: Well, in third grade I dressed up like an author for career day at
school--complete with glasses, a legal pad, and pencil behind my
ear--so the notion of writing a book has been in my head for a while!
Having grown up in the evangelical church, I naturally gravitated
toward spiritual memoirs, but I never would have guessed that my first
book would be about doubt. It wasn't until my early twenties that I
really started to struggle with questions about Christianity. As I
began sharing some of those questions in articles and blog posts, I
found I was not alone. So I wrote "Evolving in Monkey Town" with the
goal of providing hope and companionship for others like me who aren't
always satisfied with neat, air-tight answers about faith.

Have you found it difficult to be completely transparent about the struggle of faith? What sort of reactions have you encountered?

Rachel: It's actually been a lot easier to be transparent online than in my
hometown. The Bible Belt can be a tough place to wrestle with doubt,
and I've been the subject of quite a bit of gossip in local churches.
Unfortunately, the rumors tend to originate with people who haven't
actually read the book, so the next thing I know, I'm hearing all
these crazy things about myself that aren't even true--that I'm a
Buddhist, that I don't believe in the inspiration of Scripture, that
I'm a closet communist. I never thought I would lose friends over my
views on the age of the earth or health care reform, but I have, and
that's been really painful. Fortunately, my husband and I are part of
a new church in town that prioritizes reconciliation, so no one gets
turned away for his or her political or theological positions which
means I am free to be honest about my faith. And like I said, I've
encountered so many people through the blog who really resonate with
the message of the book because they've struggled with doubt too. It's
been encouraging to be a part of a little online community where
people feel safe sharing stories from their journeys.

Wow! I never would have imagined such extreme views, but thinking back on my growing up years, I was probably guilty of cultivating a few of those myself about people. It's interesting because as much as the internet creates problems, it also connects us to others who share our interests and values.

You blog really regularly in addition to writing. Do you find it hard to
balance the life of a writer with a consistent social media presence?

Rachel: As I'm sure you are well aware, social media is the writer's best
friend and worst enemy! I love it because it keeps me connected to my
readers and makes it possible for a first-time author like me to
actually sell some books. I hate it because it tends to distract me
from writing. The best antidote is a deadline. Knowing there's an
editor waiting for me to send in a manuscript or article forces me
back into reality and reminds me of what is actually necessary.

I also try to remind myself and my fellow writers that our most
important work happens away from the computer. We've got to be moving
around in the world--tasting it, smelling it, breathing it in-- in
order to write well. Whenever I sense that social media is taking over
my life, I try to put it aside for a day or two and just live.

Sounds like good advice but naturally, one must live to write!
Once you start to think differently about the faith you've accepted as true growing up, many other changes take place as well. Your point in Evolving in Monkey Town is that faith can adapt and evolve to new information and ideas. Have you ever thought about what a new deal breaker might be for your faith? In other words, are there still things you believe must be true in order to believe it's all true?

Rachel: Good question! I stand with a long line of apostles, theologians, and
everyday Christ-followers in affirming that the resurrection of Jesus
is central to the faith. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthian church
that "if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be
pitied more than all men." If I learned that the resurrection did not
happen, I would have a really hard time confessing Jesus as Lord.

The resurrection is something that Christ-followers of all
denominations celebrate, and I think it's important to focus on this
thing that we all have in common, rather than allowing our differences
to be deal-breakers. Too often, non-essentials morph into essentials
and then threaten to divide (or even destroy) the church. That's why I
spend a lot of time advocating for a more simplified, ecumenical
Christianity. We can't allow things like the culture wars or politics
or evolution tear us apart when our king has defeated the grave!

And that's a great answer. I think it all boils down the basics as well. :) You mention in your book that your husband was supportive while you were first coming to terms with doubt and questioning what had been a life long belief for you. What do you think is the most helpful thing someone can do for a loved one in their life who might be questioning?

Rachel: The most common mistake I see friends and family members making as
they relate to loved ones who doubt is trying to "fix" them with
arguments and answers. This often comes across as dismissive and can
actually make the situation worse. One of the best gifts my husband
has given me is the space to wrestle with tough questions. He listens
well and is quick to acknowledge why certain issues trouble me.
Sometimes he humbly offers advice, but most of the time he simply
listens and affirms. Doubters like me don't really need apologists or
preachers to set us straight. We just need friends willing to come
alongside us as we travel this journey.

How much do you think fear plays a role in a reluctance to give someone that space?

Rachel: I think fear can certainly play a role, but I try not to ascribe
motive to those who can't relate to my story. It's taken me a while to
accept the fact that some people doubt and some people don't. Some
will resonate with my questions and some will dismiss them. Some
already understand and some really want to understand. Out of my own
insecurities, I am often tempted to assume that those who are secure
and satisfied in their faith are simply frightened or ignorant or
calloused. But that's not fair. The truth is, doubters and believers
need one another, and if we can stop judging one another long enough
to listen, I think we will learn something important.

What do you think are most important elements of a memoir? In other words, what do you think makes a memoir successful?

Rachel: In studying other memoirs, I'd have to say: humor, self-depreciation,
relatability, and honesty. When you're writing a memoir you have to
avoid taking yourself too seriously, (lest you come across as
completely self-absorbed!) and you have to make your story relatable
to your readers by honestly exploring those universal truths (and
quirks and fears) that we all share. In short, you have to think
about being a friend to your readers, being likable. I like people who
are authentic, funny, and kind, so I tried to write with those
qualities in mind.

What are some memoirs you'd recommend that have those qualities?

Rachel: Anne Lamott's "Traveling Mercies," Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz," Sara Miles' "Take This Bread." David Sedaris' "Me Talk Pretty One Day."

You've been very transparent on your blog about some of your insecurities (for example confessing to your jealousy of Anne Jackson) and how you sometimes adjust your language depending on who you are around. (blessed vs. lucky) On the internet this can sometimes lead to some serious backlash. Have you ever regretted sharing about something?

Rachel: Nah. Blog posts are pretty forgettable. Whenever I say something I regret I just hurry and put a new one up. :-)

What can we look forward to from you in the future?

Rachel: Just signed a contract with Thomas Nelson Publisher for Book #2! I'm making a big announcement about the topic on the blog on October 4. (Hint: It's a creative twist on the debate regarding women's roles in the home, church, and society.)

Well as you can see I put this up a little later than Rachel's announcement which she made on her blog last week. She is a far braver woman than I. Thanks again to Rachel for this email conversation! I hope you all have enjoyed it.


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