Friday, August 14, 2015

Book Review: Searching for Sunday

Although I had heard of the name of Rachel Held Evans, I really didn't have a clue what she stands for or believes. The subtitle drew me in - Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. I was fairly sure I could relate to the subject of the book since we, personally, have gone through a process of leaving the church and are even, to this day, fairly sporadic in our attendance.

I believe my own leaving of the church began back when my parents were Salvation Army officers and my father felt the Lord was leading him to leave officership. Although evidence now clearly indicates the Lord's intentions in this radical move, at the time many Salvationists felt that my parents (because becoming an officer entails signing a lifelong covenant, similar to marriage) were stepping out of the Lord's will and violating their covenant. It was a difficult time in many ways and I remember feeling a strong sense of alienation from people who, at one time, had presented themselves as supportive and friendly. The hostility, the judgmental attitudes, the condescension, the fickle nature of their support ... it all rankled.

My difficulties with my own denomination continued when I decided to marry a Baptist. My pastor (corps officer) pulled me aside to question how I could turn my back on the Army after all they had invested in me. It was as if God could only work through me if I were in their favored little framework of use, within their denomination. I felt very strongly that every investment made was made for the Lord and not for any particular denomination. I could serve the church, regardless of which branch I plugged into. Moreover, it seemed like Salvationists were working hard to alienate my future spouse, instead of welcoming him into our part of the fold. This was a very destructive time.

When my marriage took a turn for the worse, even the new church we had sought out (and one we both loved dearly), failed to be a sanctuary in the storm. Instead of sitting with us in the pain, many wished to simply brush the pain under the carpet and present a more polished surface. I felt alienated from my Bible study group, when I was told I shouldn't bring up any of the issues we were struggling with. Thus, I was sure, I would be able to relate to this book on many levels. I anticipated hearing similar stories and feeling a strong sense of "me, too!"

But, I had a hard time with this book. I'm guessing it is primarily because the author is much more progressive than I tend to be. It felt like so much whining and seeking out argument just to prove that deeper thought naturally leads to doubt. It felt like the author was saying, "Any reasonable thinking individual would call into question the many vagaries within the church's doctrines and belief systems. Anyone as intelligent as I am, would have problems with the church and thus seek to leave it, all the while resenting the necessity of departure." At least that is how I perceived the author's stance. This grated on me.

Moreover, it didn't seem to offer up any tangible solutions to her disillusionment. She simply left the church behind for a period of time and eventually found another one where they attend sporadically and are, by her admission, not really "plugged in" or anything. I guess I was hoping she would come to the conclusion I made, that church shouldn't really be about how others support you or encourage you. It is more about your individual relationship with your Creator and living out your faith in whatever community you find you can fit into. Are you going to agree with every little thing spoken from the pulpit? Probably not. Should you set aside those disagreements and come together anyway for the good of the body as a whole? I believe so. I just didn't feel very strongly that the author went into things with a good attitude toward the purpose of church or God's grand design for the church. The book didn't ring hopeful at all.

That is not to say I didn't connect with several of the stories. I did, indeed. The author apparently carries on conversations about dissatisfaction with the church on her blog and receives many visits and comments from others who feel her pain. I could totally relate when she wrote:

"I get a lot of e-mails from people like Claire [a woman reeling from the platitudes expressed after the stillborn birth of her child], people who fit right into the church until ... the divorce, the diagnosis, the miscarriage, the depression, someone comes out, someone asks a question, an uncomfortable truth is spoken out loud. And what they find is when they bring their pain, their doubt or their uncomfortable truth to church, someone immediately grabs it out of their hands to try and fix it, to try and make it go away. Bible verses are quoted. Assurances are given.... With good intentions tinged with fear, Christians scour their inventory for a cure."

This was certainly our experience in many of the difficulties we faced as a struggling married couple and later, in another difficulty life presented down the road (one of those uncomfortable truths which meet the response of others assuring you that such a thing would never happen to them because they are more spiritual, more vigilant, or walk more closely with the Lord - it is clear that they wish to distance themselves from the sullied subject and make sure nothing rubs off on them).

It reminds me of something Chick Yuill brought up in one of his sermons at camp. He said "We don't eat family." And yet, too often Christians do tend to eat their own. Individuals turn away from the church because church members have treated them abominably. For many of us, our experience of the church's reaction to our difficulties/conflicts has not been in line with the lyrics of Plumb's new song, "Exhale," where she sings, "It's okay to not be okay. This is a safe place. This is a safe place. Don't be afraid. Don't be ashamed. There's still hope here. There's still hope here."

But, like the author, I have not left the church entirely. I believe in my deepest need of the body of believers, even when it is functioning as an imperfect body of believers. We were meant to walk together in unity and, even though I may not agree with the political and theological leanings of the author, I consider her a sister in Christ presenting her own take on the difficult subject of dealing with the faults and failings of the church.

So, while I could not agree with everything presented in this book, and while it often felt far too petulant and whiny (and especially vicious toward evangelicals), I did glean some useful bits from it. It was a good sounding board for my own disillusionment with the church. In the end, I came away wishing to draw nearer to the church instead of pull away further. That has to be a good thing, right?
I have labelled this memoir, in addition to non-fiction, because it really had the feel of a memoir. It was primarily the story of Evans' experience with the church. Although structured around the sacraments (a structure I didn't particularly benefit from), it was clearly her life story, rather than a proactive treatise on finding the appropriate church home.

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