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Faith Seeking Understanding

Review by Zachary Guiliano

“It isn’t a diminishment,” said Brother Kevin. It was a wintry Christmas in 2012, and my wife and I had been invited to lunch at the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s monastery in Harvard Square. The invitation was especially welcome for a young couple away from their family and friends, struggling financially during their first year in the Boston area, on the verge of losing their apartment in one of the poorer neighborhoods of the city. I do not know what we would have done that Christmas if we had not gone to the monastery. It was one of many divine kindnesses worked for us through the hands of individuals and communities within the Church.

Searching for Sunday
Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church
By Rachel Held Evans
Thomas Nelson. Pp. 288. $16.99

We discovered at lunch that a good number of the SSJE community had grown up evangelical, and Brother Kevin gave voice to a sentiment that many felt: joining the Episcopal Church did not mean giving up on evangelicalism. Anglicanism can be more like a fulfillment of its deepest and best impulses. I remember nodding my head, realizing I had experienced one of those infrequent moments of shared community, intellectual and emotional, when someone else gives voice and form to one’s own deepest convictions.

“It isn’t a diminishment.” I have treasured that phrase in my heart, hardly expecting a similar experience anytime soon. I’m happy to say I’ve been surprised again.

Reading Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans was something like sitting down for coffee and a lively conversation with a really close friend, with similar struggles, frustrations, and experiences. As someone who made his way through a fair number of churches before becoming Anglican (and as a manuscript historian), I found one of her phrases especially redolent:

Madeleine L’Engle said, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” I think the same is true for churches. Each one stays with us, even after we’ve left, adding layer after layer to the palimpsest of our faith.

Throughout much of the book, phrase after phrase hit so close to home that I hesitate to confess how many highlights and bookmarks my Kindle edition bears. I’m not one to mark up books, whether paper or digital, but I simply could not resist this time around. It would be tempting to turn this review into an 80-page stream of quotations: some long and eloquent, others pithy and poetic, but all carefully crafted and seasoned with wisdom.

This is not because her story and mine coincide. There are many differences. Her father teaches at a Bible college; mine owns a diner. She’s a blogger of no little fame, writing from Cleveland, Tennessee; I’m a graduate student in the U.K. studying a rather obscure topic. She talks “about growing up evangelical, about doubting everything I believed about God,” when I would talk about growing up outside the Church, about believing everything I once doubted about God. Her childhood secured evangelical roots that grew slowly through a long enculturation; my experience was more intense: evangelical faith was driven into me like fresh furrows in a dusty field after a rainstorm. She helped plant a new church when she despaired of those around her (even though it too failed); I remember sitting in a room with some friends and contemplating that option, before turning it down.

But there are crucial places where our experiences converge. I remember the dread of dragging myself out of bed on Sundays to try out yet another church, of slipping out early to avoid “yet another awkward coffee hour,” of sometimes feeling that I found church more by meeting some friends to make lunch on a Sunday afternoon than in going to any service. And we both seem to have had important vocational experiences at Roman Catholic monasteries, before finding our church homes in Episcopal parishes of the Bible Belt.

In truth, her story of millennial Christianity was so achingly familiar that it took about all my power not to write an embarrassingly long fan letter. This review will have to do. Whatever else Rachel has done, she’s managed to do that rare thing: to write about a very particular set of experiences in a way that captures the tone and tenor of many lives. I cannot think of another book I’ve read recently that has so stirred me to think about the darker corners of my journey of faith, or to own its unexpected twists and turns, rather than ignore them. The book’s organization around the seven sacraments is a sheer delight: her introductions to each new section sizzle with creative energy.

If you’re younger than 35, Christian, and have any experience of evangelical subculture, Searching for Sunday will make you laugh, grimace, or nod your head in understanding again and again. If you’re older or share little of the same experiences as Rachel, you ought to read it for insight. The contemporary Christian experience is more and more one that involves multiple churches, serial disappointment, confusion, pain, and heartbreak, long before it settles down; and that’s when things go well. If that’s not your story, well, you need to hear it, so you know what’s going on out there.

There’s much to disagree with in Searching for Sunday, of course, and I understand the criticisms of some reviewers: support for same-sex marriage occupies a curiously central place, the criticism of evangelicalism can be unnecessarily dogged, and the valorization of the mainline and the Episcopal Church can occasionally sound like the starry-eyed wonder of the recent convert. I felt tempted to say: “We too will disappoint you.” But it would be foolish to imagine that she’s not aware of these issues and more: aware of her ability to conjure “a storm” where there is none, to succumb to lazy criticism, or to take offense too easily.

It’s for this reason that I read her work as something like a love letter to the Church mixed with a confession: an honest, theological wrestling with her past and present. As she has said of her blogging, this sometimes means she is “airing unpopular opinions like red bras on a clothesline.” But in the confessional, there is no time for dishonesty; true charity cannot allow it. Our sins and offenses, as well as our little victories and insights, are all on display, unless we wish to hinder the work we’ve come to do with our Lord and with his Church.

I have been disappointed by the knee-jerk heaping of scorn or of adulation upon this book, if that’s not too high-handed to say. Rachel’s work demands more of us. The Church is not often graced with people willing to write a true essay: to put forth ideas, stories, and opinions in public, to try and try again to revisit or reformulate their thoughts in the hopes of learning to think and speak more truthfully and more honestly. I think we have that in Rachel Held Evans, and it doesn’t help her or us to censure or endorse her without qualification.

What may be the biggest danger for her at this stage — indeed for any writer — is to become stuck. Many of us in the Episcopal Church might be tempted to wish that for her because her entry into Anglicanism could appear like a validation of the sensibilities and positions of some of us: our criticism of the Religious Right; our entitled sense of cultural superiority; our tendency to succumb to a vague institutional traditionalism, all form and occasionally no substance; or even our hope that it really is hip to be square. I sincerely hope that Searching for Sunday is the new beginning it appears to be: not a total erasure of what’s gone before, but another step in the development of an engaging, astute thinker who is a gift to the Church.

We’ll have to wait and find out.

Zachary Guiliano, a PhD candidate in history at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge, and a Gates Cambridge Scholar, is the editor of TLC’s weblog, Covenant.


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