Searching for Sunday, Finding Communion: The Refreshing Orthodoxy of Rachel Held Evans

searching for sunday

If hype is something to be trusted, then Rachel Held Evans’ new release Searching for Sunday promises to be one of the most influential publications in pop theology this year.

For a long time I’ve followed Evans’ career with abstract interest. I’ve not read much of her work for no reason other than a lack of available time. But I’ve admired Evans nonetheless. One does not need to be a football fanatic to appreciate the prominence of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. And I’ve often felt the same way about Evans. She is unique. She’s different. She’s provocative in a love-’em-or-hate-’em kind of way. And she’s a necessary voice rising above the status quo, speaking into the realm of western theology which all too often is an Anglo-Saxon sausage fest. For that alone, I hold Evans in high esteem.

And in following the recent buzz around Evans’ new book, particularly in this interview with HuffPost Religion‘s Zach J. Hoag, I’m really excited. I’m excited because her views are refreshing. I’m excited because her insights are creative. I’m excited because her assertions are transparent.

But mostly, I’m excited because her theology rings of orthodoxy.

The backbone of Evans’ posture is her belief that:

“…the church in the U.S. is indeed changing and indeed losing some of its unchallenged dominance over the culture.”

This isn’t news. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Church attendance has been and is rapidly decreasing. Denominations are dwindling. A majority of what is reported as “church growth” is really church cannibalism; other congregations gaining the remnants of faltering parishes. The American church is dying. And denial can only bail the boat out for so long.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Says Evans:

“Death is something empires worry about…not something resurrection people worry about (…) my hope is that, if the American church must ‘die,’ let it ‘die’ to the old ways of dominance and control and be resurrected into the way of Jesus, the way of service and sacrifice.

It’s statements like this that incite a conniption fit to advocates of the Moral Majority. And it underlies a deep tension among older generations in American churches. We are moving out of the era of “Christendom.” The opinion of the church is no longer a commanding presence in society. America is no longer a Christian nation (not that it ever was).  Churches that once attracted converts are now in the headlines for their collapse and decay. 

Evans’ herself has experienced the cycle of church life through her involvement with a church plant that eventually closed its doors. The question is not whether or not the American Church will die, but too what will the church be resurrected? In other words: what will the death of American Christendom mean for the future worship of Christians who happen to be American?

Evans’ presents a vision by saying that, for starters, the American Christians need to come to to the realization that:

“…’right’ is not the point. What I (read: millennials) longed for with church, and what I think a lot of people long for, is not an exclusive club of like-minded individuals, but a community of broken and beloved people, telling one another the truth and taking it all a day at a time.”

At first glance, Evans’ statement rings of inclusivism, of relativism and everything (we’ve been taught is) evil about postmodernity. But, truth told, this is an orthodox way of approaching faith. Evans’ proposes a form of Christianity that does not die on our mountains of propositions regarding who God is (ie: pro-life, Republican/Democratic, pro-America, pro-family…etc) but is rather held by the faith that there are certain things God isn’t (evil, unjust, dead, absent, etc). We can say with absolute certainty that there are some things God is not but the nuances of who he is are simply questions that spend our lives trying to figure out- so why not ask them together?

Along these lines, Evans doesn’t hold any punches in outlining her belief that the resurrection of the American church is going to require a reassessment of our priorities:

“The gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out.”

And perhaps Evans pushes the envelope a little to much at such points. But perhaps not. There’s something to be said for the American church needing more of Zaccheaus & Mary Magdalene and less of the Pharisees. And, on her worst day, I would align Evans with the former.

Evans’ goes on to say:

“Jesus doesn’t need a bunch of gatekeepers committed to keeping the ‘wrong people’ out of the kingdom. (We’re all ‘the wrong people,’ after all.) Jesus needs is a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, ‘Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy. It’s a kingdom for the hungry.”

And this lays the foundation from where Evans’ orthodoxy hits home. Being the disillusioned Christian that she is, the last thing I expected to find in Evan’s Searching for Sunday‘s Table of Contents was a book organized according to the seven sacraments!

As such, Evans’ book once again outlines a perspective on the next phase of the American church that is arranged on the framework of orthodox Christianity. Says Evans:

“I have found that it is in those moments when we recognize God’s presence in ordinary, tangible things — bread, wine, water, words, suffering, singing, a gentle touch, a casserole on the doorstep — that we create church, we create sanctuary.”

I left an Anglican church to go to seminary. Today I attend a beautiful church with beautiful people. We sing along to Hillsong renditions. We listen to thoughtful and profound sermons. But worship doesn’t feel complete. Because we only take communion once a month. We don’t use a liturgy. There’s no daily confession, no responsive reading of the Psalms. The service ends in time for us to grab lunch and catch the game. It ends with a benediction. It ends with us leaving the sanctuary- but there’s no body and blood for nourishment and no procession paving the way.

Which is not to say any of this is a bad thing. But it’s worth pointing out that I – and, statistics will tell you, many in my generation- leave these services, sometimes feeling a little empty. Because there’s an identity attached to the tangible nature of the sacraments.

The Lord’s Supper is a very real event. This is not a Catholic notion; Luther and Calvin both espoused the significance of the event in the life of a Christian. It was not merely a remembrance but an act, a celebration; an articulation of the grace of Christ into the practical, everyday needs (food and drink) of the believer. In the Lord’s Supper, grace has a taste, a feel, a scent. It’s something real that I can hold in the palm of my hand. If I come to church after a week of being unable to read the Bible, a week when I’ve sinned gregariously, a week following which I’m feeling undeniably broken, lost and stumbling, desperately looking for Christ, after that week I can still “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) as opposed to just hearing a sermon about how good and great he is while my mind is wandering, preoccupied by the past week and burdened with the stress of the days to come.

Evans’ relates to this struggle. “Being a Christian,” Evans states, “was (presented to me as) all about believing the right things, finding the right denomination, living the right life.” American Christendom was founded upon the drawing of lines, the explanation and apologetics of salvation, and the “yes” or “no” label it attaches to life, regardless of it’s nuances.

But this black-and-white approach to faith fails to translate the reality of grace into a postmodern context. It is not tangible, just theoretical.

And what we’re coming to find is that the post-modern individual must be approached by the church as the post-modern person: body, soul, spirit, and mind. Too often the American church acknowledges and cares for the heart or the spirit but in discarding the use of and reliance upon the sacraments they’ve also discarded a spirituality that engages the entire individual, a spirituality that is pragmatic and heavenly. The sacraments connect the grand spiritual experiences of confession with tangible dunking in the water; they connect the sacrifice of Christ and the spiritual nourishment it provides with the actual bread and wine. They bring Christianity down from abstraction to real life. And if Christianity has a hope in a world that is increasingly relational, increasingly emotive, it has to find itself rooted, once again, in real life itself.

If Sunday is to be found, then it must be found within an orthodox communion of saints that evolves around the sacramental understanding of faith as a journey, a road on which we all must trod. The sacraments are the foundation from which a faith of open doors and feasting banquets is built.

As a colleague of mine once put it, the use of the sacraments present an environment in which: 

“…the edifice of belief doesn’t shift no matter who is inside the building. You don’t (personally) believe in the resurrection anymore? Okay. We do. Now come to the Lord’s Table with us and let’s learn together. You don’t feel comfortable calling yourself a Christian? Okay. But you’re still an Episcopalian (Lutheran, Mennonite…) because that is who you are. And we’re not going to abandon you.”

Which is comforting though, again, hardly revolutionary. Which should be taken as a compliment. For such sentiments echo Karl Barth’s reminder that:

“…everyone who has to contend with unbelief should be advised that he ought not to take his own unbelief too seriously. Only faith is to be taken seriously; and if we have the faith as a grain of mustard seed, that suffices for the devil to have lost his game.”

(Dogmatics in Outline, 21)

What Barth alludes too, my colleague articulated, and Rachel Held Evans is postulating, is that the way forward requires that first we to step back. The way forward is to return to the beginnings of a movement begun by a poor Galilean hanging on a cross. It’s to erase divisive lines and just eat at the table together. It’s to immerse ourselves in the water of baptism and let it’s cool drops remind us of his grace upon us all; to embrace the act of confession as personal laments, not legislative dogma. Which is where the sacraments become imperative. Because, the sacraments engage the whole person wherever they’re at.

Young evangelicals are entering an age of Christendom that is going to force us to settle for orthodoxy. In doing so, we are going to find that orthodoxy does not look like the Christianity we grew up with. Orthodoxy looks like a church that’s always dying. Granted, resurrection is in its future, but its dying nonetheless. It looks like a church filled with beautiful people but ugly sins- awkward sins, despicable sins, sexual sins, societal sins, broken hearts and weeping wounds. It looks like a community of lost people who went searching for Sunday, searching for faith, searching for home, and found ourselves dunked in the water, healed in confession, and feasting at a table in the communion of saints. Now we just want to tell the story in a way that everyone can hear. Because the journey is long but the feast is grand and there’s plenty room for all who may wish to join. 

I’m excited because Rachel Held Evans’ is searching for such a faith. And I, for one, want to join her in the journey.

























On Loving God (Part III)

Jesus and Peter

“Who do you say I am?” Jesus asks.

Peter gulps. He’s been put on the spot, he’s got cards in his hand but he has to play them. Either he’s dead on and he’s talking to the climax of history, he’s allying himself with the right hand of Yahweh himself…or he’s going to an insane asylum when the lunatic he puts his faith in makes a break out of town. Either way, the cards are in his hand and he’s got to play them. He takes a deep breath, and looks him in the eye: “I think you are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Jesus nods, and smiles, just a little- like all the mountains and all the hills were a mustard seed Peter had planted. Like the words “good and faithful servant” exist solely for the purpose of describing Peter. Jesus, the Messiah, The I AM That Is And Was, looks at him and says: “Blessed are you.

“Blessed are you”, the words rang with the grace for eternity! The grace for the next moment, when…

Then Jesus turns, and pauses for a moment. “So,” Jesus continues, speaking to the rest of them, “Now we must go to Jerusalem. Just a heads up, I’m going to suffer quite a bit at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes.”

Peter squints, confused.

“And they will kill me,” Jesus finishes and the rest of his disciples gasp a little. They look scared. Betrayed. Confused. But Peter’s not confused- Jesus is making a mistake. And he doesn’t realize it! He keeps going: “Though on the third day I wi-“

Jesus feels a hand take his arm, grab him, and pull him away halfway through his sentence. Peter turns Jesus to face him. “What do you think you’re doing?” He asks him. “Do you have any idea what you’re saying? God help us, have you read the Torah? Have you taken a moment to consider the oppression these people are facing? We need liberation, not someone to come along and get killed with us! Did you come to add to our misery? To add to our confusion? Far be it from you!!” He takes a deep breath. “If you’re God then start acting like him!”

Jesus does not react physically, his jaw doesn’t even quench. But the fire of an eternal rebellion, his hatred for Lucifer and all the armies of evil He’s about to conquer, burn deep within them and Peter’s hand loses it’s power and falls from Christ’s arm to his side.

“Who,” Jesus says, in a whisper so low it cuts through all the normal words of life and burns into Peter’s memory.

“Who in all of hell,” Jesus says, “ Do you think you are… that you might presume to tell God who He is.” Jesus turns and redirects himself to the crowd, not before uttering an unforgettable phrase to Peter’s befuddled and bleeding ears: “Get behind me Satan!”

Until we realize we are all idolaters, we have no hope of seeing past our idols, contrived beliefs and perceptions of God so we can actually begin to glimpse God passing behind the storm cloud. We have no hope of seeing the God disappearing in the fog; of glimpsing the only part of him we can still glimpse and possibly survive long enough to comprehend. Until we learn to call God by another name, or better yet no name, to hear the phrase “Allah” and realize it’s our English “God” just in a foreign tongue, until we can promote ourselves to seeing God as the Divine, the Great Healer and Judge, until we un-name God and in doing so smash our golden calves, we are just the Israelites balking at our golden calf and wondering where the hell Moses has gotten too.

There’s a reason the Orthodox Church holds strongly to the mystery of God, to the unknowing aspects of God. Rather than utter what God is, and risk heresy, they proclaim what God is not. There’s a reason the Israelites refused to spell out God’s name, a reason they quivered upon hearing it, and a reason that his many names throughout the Old Testament range from “I AM” to “God of Jacob, Isaac…” to “The Lord Your God The Lord Is One”. The reason is because none of these names contain the Divine. None of them begin to describe him. They’re just words attached to an object and given to us, because without a name attached to something, our minds cannot comprehend that something exists. We cannot grasp the unnamed potential of eternity.

Love God, I boldly and adamantly declare. This is the foundation of who I am and how I live. I am not a believer in inclusivism or universalism, but I am a believer in Mystery. I am not a believer in pluralism, in anything goes, in being so open minded that your mind itself falls out. But I am a believer in the existence of relative experiences. I am a believer in relative experiences which point to the absolute truth of the Universal, the Universal I Am, the Universal Beyond Words, The One Who Is And Am And Will.

I am a believer in stepping back from my golden calf and contemplating that perhaps this isn’t the best way to melt the gold. I’m a believer in pausing when I write an essay on anti-abortion, in reflecting on my stance on social justice, homosexuality, tattoos and binge drinking, pausing while I take a hymnal out of the church pew and proceed to sing the words in a worshipful manner because it’s the best way I know how.

I’m a believer in rethinking the ways in which I build my Babeling Towers of intellect and critical thinking. In contemplating such, I hope to realize that the tower I’m building is itself a horrible idea, that the golden calf before me isn’t just a little off kilter, but is actually nothing more than culture’s idea of what and who God should be meanwhile the real Divine is a moment away from mixing up our languages and truly befuddling the hell out of us. His goal is not just to confuse us- per say, though that is a comedic and retributive side effect, but to give us a shot at expressing ourselves in a thousand different manners and hopefully this time finally figuring out how to express the idea of God. Of course, thousands of years later, we still haven’t gotten it right. We still attach God with political parties, personal agendas and individual moralities. Our towers still stand, still fall, and are still rebuilt day after day.

If we are to love God, then we must do just that. We must love God more than just our idea of God, more than our preconceived notions of God, more than the impulse to tell our Savior “what the hell do you think you’re doing? This isn’t how you’re supposed to act”. If we have a chance of accomplishing this, then perhaps we have to start with unthinking our ideas of God. Perhaps we have to start with disbanding cultural platitudes and seeking the Mystery afresh and anew. Perhaps we have to start not with just our hearts, just our heads and just our hands, but with all of them at the same time. Perhaps we have to start with realizing that grace surrounds us every moment, that conclusions are okay as long as they are not golden calves set in stone. Perhaps we have to start with the realization that loving God requires loving God above all else, above our hopes for God, our hopes for salvation, our hopes for redemption, morality and all the liberation the world might find. We have to start with loving God above our holy and sacred ideas of God.

Perhaps what this really means that we have to start with unstarting, as T.S. Eliot penned, arriving at the place we began and truly knowing it for the first time. It means we have to find ourselves bowed over in humility, laying at the foot of a wooden cross, the most despicable and humiliating form of execution on which the Atoning Sacrifice was hung. It means we have to face each day with a mind that is open to the possibilities of lives that are not our own and a plan for redemption stretches beyond us and out to the entire cosmos. Perhaps it means we have to start everything in prostrate prayer, fists clenched, begging, crying over and over again: “I believe, open my eyes so I can see! Mercy! Mercy! Mercy! Help my unbelief!”

Yes, perhaps we have to start there.

If you liked this then you may also like:

On Loving God (Part I)

On Loving God (Part II) 

Settling For Orthodoxy

My apartment building was originally built as a tavern in 1806. For a while, it functioned as the first class hotel in the town, hosting many famous visitors; John Adams actually referenced the host and hostess of the building in some of his letters. In recent years, the building has fallen into a state of disrepair making it still quite livable but a long cry from luxurious and thus gratefully affordable for my modest budget.

From the outside the building is little to behold. It has four stories, the fourth of which is set back from an expansion on the third level. For some reason or another a previous owner decided to adorn the building’s addition with a different color than the rest; the third story consists of an obtuse yellowish-pink siding. Reasons and intentions may vary, but at least ascetically it was a poor choice. The rest of my street is lined with high-priced colonial buildings, all with proud historic registrations hanging next to their doors. At best, mine has the unbecoming nature of a used minivan at soccer practice. At worst it looks like the sound of a fart in a funeral.

During my undergraduate work, I wrote a memorable paper on Dante’s Divine Comedy. I built my thesis on elusive and non-concrete facts, an argument built on sand to support a point I figured to be entirely genius because not once had it been mentioned in class. It was that obscure. In my efforts towards profundity, I even withheld from getting the teacher’s advice; God forbid she steal my idea for her next academic publication.

Years down the road as a seminary student, I feel that the quickest way to make my place in this field is through some sort of controversy. These days heretics aren’t burned, usually they’re best sellers. Pulled by this current, I find myself sacrificing common sense and truth on the wacky, tripped-out altar of originality. The problem with this perspective is that a hundred years from now, my controversy will be overlooked as dull and obnoxious at best, while true reverence is saved for those who knew how to preserve, tweak and further illuminate the beauty of things that in and of themselves demanded saving. Just because it’s led to momentary fame and spotlights for other people doesn’t mean I want to be the one to publish the next vampire romance of theology.

When my paper on the Divine Comedy was graded and returned, I was adequately humiliated to find the pages riddled with red markings. At the bottom was a note from my professor pointing out that I’d built my thesis on a misconstrued definition of a single word (Literature student seeking humility? Granted). Though she admired my originality, she advised me to use a dictionary next time. The dreadful irony in the situation was that I had used a dictionary; the paper was littered with multi-syllabic concoctions I wouldn’t otherwise know from my grandmother’s prescription. I’d just never bothered to look up that word because no one wants to come to the self-realization that their genius is stupidity in sheep’s clothing.

I have aspirations of success, just like any other human. Every now and then I may think I’ve found the edge on some issue or topic. But the more I study theology the more I find that my edges are hardly a new color. In fact, their color that is so old and renowned for its doofuscity that it sticks out like a sore thumb and demands that someone question my taste in décor. This is the cross of many intellectual-wannabes in my generation. It seems that I am continually finding, against my most earnest and rebellious wishes, that the new and intriguing sometimes gives way to a retrospective “what the hell was I thinking?”

And so I’ve brought myself to a point of settling for orthodoxy. I’ve brought myself to the point of looking at a building and not wanting to change it to something economical or modern, but perhaps just preserve the way it is. I’ve come to the point of realizing that nothing is novel in this world, nothing is new under the sun. I’ve come to the point of finding beautiful in the ordinary, the placid and the settled, of seeing what is new and reformed to frequently be the most narrow-minded of all. I see it this way not because tradition is perfect or stories unscarred but because in my rush to something fresh and new I find myself ignoring a history of fascinations, heresies, wars and trivial undertakings that all have lessons to teach me. The buildings I try to adapt into my new way of thinking are actually one of the strongest links to the past from whence I come.

And when I really think about it, that’s not too bad for settling.