The Clash of the Straw Men: An Unorthodox Review of Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday

rachel held evans

by John Ellis

“But if the world is watching, we might as well tell the truth. And the truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t offer a quick fix. The church offers death and resurrection. The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace” – Rachel Held Evans[1].

Whoa. For those of us who grew up in the stifling cage of American Evangelicalism, and especially fundamentalism, that statement from Rachel Held Evans has the bracing freshness of the waters cascading over Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. Washing away our shame and guilt, our disgust at ourselves and, hence, others, and the need we confused evangelicals feel to conform to what our parents, our pastors, and our Third Day loving friends expect, Evans holds out the refreshing cup of communion and says, speaking for God, “I’m throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine”[2]. I do love wine.

I also love my sin. I love myself even more. I love who I am, and in her book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans offers a picture of Christianity that will allow me to be me. I mean, as long as “me” is committed to social justice, the acceptance of all (no judging, ya’ll), and I stand on the Temple steps and declare for all to hear that I thank God that I’m not like those materialist Republicans. There are rules in Evans’ vision for the church, after all (although I doubt that she’d use the word “rules,” but make no mistake, rules are decidedly there), but repentance and rejection of most sins are not included; especially not in regards to sexual ethics, which Evans makes abundantly clear in almost every single chapter. In this church, when Jesus said to “go and sin no more,” He was referring to those middle-class, American suburban sins that my bi-sexual, tatted up barista wants me to repent of. And I want her to think I’m cool anyway.

“Cool” and “church” are generally considered antonyms. Those pesky “thou shall nots” get in the way of self-expression, after all. Solving that problem, Searching for Sunday has introduced me to a church that allows me to dismiss whatever Bible passages I find personally offensive or embarrassing – a la carte Christianity. Which is good, because in this brave new church, communion, the Lord’s Table, is open to all, and it would be awkward to invite someone to the Table and then expect them to place their identity somewhere other than where they want it. Communion is available to you no matter what you think, feel, or believe about the Bible. In chapter 21, Evans takes to task those silly “Christians” who deny the Table to the person who hasn’t met Jesus yet[3] and then tells “them to come back when they are sober, back on their feet, Republican, Reformed, doubtless, submissive, straight”[4].

Searching for Sunday is more than a memoir; the book is also partially the articulation of Rachel Held Evans’ beliefs about the ways in which churches can stem the tide of exiting parishioners, how the Church can become relevant and useful. She frames her advice within the context of her own personal experiences and comes to conclusions based on the failings that she’s witnessed. Which is fine, I guess, except that the longer I interact with her experiences, the harder it’s becoming for me to believe that the church to which she’s responding actually exists.

You see, I have a memoir of my own. But my memoir apparently takes place in an alternate church universe than that of Rachel Held Evans’.

Like Evans, my memoir does have an elementary school in it. And, like pretty much every other elementary school in the history of elementary schools, recess was the preferred class of choice for me and my classmates[5]. Beyond the normal adolescent frivolity of playing TV-tag, red-rover, and general abuse of the 1980s’ era deathtrap playground equipment, recess was a time of exploration. To be clear, naughty-ish exploration. My friends and I would debate over which girls to ask to “go with us” based on the likelihood that they would allow us to kiss them[6]. We shared dirty jokes. In fact, every dirty joke that I remember, I learned on my elementary school playground. Holding our filthy little tongues, we would giggle out, “I was born on a pirate ship.” I’m fairly confident that my elementary school playground shenanigans weren’t the activities of outlying perverts. However, my elementary school was vastly different than the elementary schools attended by almost everyone else born in the last fifty years. My elementary school was a Christian school.

And not just any Christian school, mind you. Founded in 1962, my school was one of the flagship institutions in the fundamentalist Christian school movement. The school’s founder was, within the movement, an acknowledged expert on Christian education. He wrote books. He gave lectures. He was a Christian school big-wig[7]. On top of that, my mom was a much respected teacher at the school. I think that it’s safe to say that I had as close to the quintessential fundamentalist Christian school experience as is possible.

My classmates and I knew that we were different. And most of us didn’t like it. Going to the mall was simultaneously thrilling and humiliating. Thrilling, because it was our best opportunity to establish a benchmark for “cool.” Being in close proximity to the almost mythical public school kids, seeing their clothes of choice, and listening to their usually elusive banter was a coolness gold mine. Shoring up our social cues and speech idioms, we would return to our decidedly uncool Christian school and parade our new found cool signifiers for all to see. But, on the flip side, moving in close proximity to the public school kids heightened our awareness that we were different. We were not cool.

By the time we were in high school, “going bowling” had become code for “going to the movie theatre,” an illicit activity in fundamentalist Christianity. Our favorite chapels or church services were the ones featuring preachers whose “expertise” was the devil’s music. During the pre-internet age, those sermons were some of our best opportunities to discover new bands; we let the preachers do our research for us. And games of hide-n-seek were our fundamentalist youth group equivalent of seven minutes in Heaven.

With my fundy street cred established, I want to reiterate – the Christian school and churches that Rachel Held Evans writes about in Searching for Sunday are almost utterly unrecognizable to me. In fact, by chapter two I was left scratching my head in puzzlement at her statement, “I should mention I attended a Christian elementary school where ‘my dad’s hermeneutic can beat up your dad’s hermeneutic’ served as legit schoolyard banter”[8]. What?!? On my Christian school playground, using words like “hermeneutic” would’ve ensured that you never got invited to birthday parties; if we had known what “hermeneutic” meant, that is.

As for Evans’ depiction of evangelical churches as judgmental, unloving, and legalistic[9], the first church that I attended after the Holy Spirit brought my utterly pagan, weed-smoking, and fornicating heart to its knees before King Jesus was a strict, some would say “legalistic,” independent fundamentalist Baptist church. And that church loved me. Even before I took out my multiple piercings, cut my long hair, and quit smoking. And they loved me in physical ways, too. A deacon and his Christian school teacher wife took me into their home rent free. While in-between jobs, the church paid me way over market rate to trim bushes and weed eat the parking lot. And they even let me weed eat the parking lot with my earrings in.

After getting married for the second time, my new wife and I moved across the country and began attending a conservative evangelical church. That church didn’t gossip about me after I wrote the Elders and several other people in the church an email declaring that I no longer wanted to be a Christian because I found God’s sovereignty despicable. No, they took me out for meals and let me rant and rave. They prayed for me. The loved me. They gave us money so that we could go visit my mother who was dying of cancer. Any shame that I felt when meeting one of them in the grocery store aisle was solely due to the fact that I knew that my philosophical arguments were pretenses in order to cover up the fact that what I really wanted was to be King over my own life. After the Holy Spirit broke my heart over that act of overt rebellion, I, as a new and immature Christian, still didn’t believe all the right things. My conservative evangelical church never once made me feel less-than because I wasn’t sure what I believed about gay marriage. They didn’t even bar me from communion when I proudly and very openly voted for President Obama in 2008.

Of course, all of that is my experience, and may be a one-off experience. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that it is, and I definitely believe that my experience is far and away closer to the norm than the straw man that Rachel Held Evans constructed. In other words, I would put money on my straw man in a fight against Rachel Held Evans’ straw man.

Taking worse case scenarios, which has been her modus operandi for years, Evans constructs an evangelical scarecrow in Searching for Sunday in order to warn off those who are lost and in pain from landing in what she perceives is a spiritual wasteland of unloving legalists. Under the pretense of offering a loving corrective for the Church, she then sets that scarecrow on fire, but, in the process, she unwittingly burns the entire field down.

Evans doesn’t mean to torch the entire field; I’m not even sure that she’s aware that she did it. But she does. Throughout the book she often speaks about how the church should be a place of healing and a haven for the broken and hurting. What she doesn’t do is discuss what that looks like in any specific ways beyond advocating for completely open communion. The healing needed, in Rachel Held Evans’ church, is of the existential kind and Jesus wants you to accept you just the way you are because He accepts you just the way you are. But, if that’s true, then why did He die? And, why bother with church to begin with? As Evans’ points out, “the holiest hour of the week occurs not in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings but in the basement on Tuesday nights, when a mismatched group of CEOs and single moms, suburbanites and homeless veterans share in the communion of strong coffee and dry pastries and engage in the sacred act of telling one another the truth”[10]. For Rachel Held Evans, AA meetings are holier than the elect’s worship of the Creator God on the Lord’s Day.

According to Evans, the problem with humans isn’t our ethical estrangement from a holy God, but our existential estrangement from each other, and, many times, ourselves. Her doctrine of sin, that has been largely informed by liberation theology, states, among other things, that humans’ existential estrangement from each other results in oppression; a doctrine of victimhood replaces the Biblical doctrine of personal rebellion against a Holy God, and salvation is solely found, it seems, in things like feeding the poor, combating racism, and affirming any and all sexual identities – reversing the power dynamics and ironing out oppression[11]. Now, before someone pushes back with the rejoinder that she’s simply offering a corrective to an out-of-balance evangelicalism, God’s promise of salvation, first pronounced in Genesis 3, isn’t a rhetorical game. It’s both prescriptive and proscriptive. The problem for all humans is first and foremost that we have rebelled against God and His definition of what it means to live holy and justly. Because of our willful sin/rebellion, we are ethically estranged from God and under His holy and just judgment, and if we don’t bow the knee in faith AND repentance to Jesus Christ, we will die under God’s judgment. Not once in Searching for Sunday does Rachel Held Evans even allude to the Gospel as defined and articulated by God in His word, the Bible. Of course, when a person doesn’t believe that the Bible is inerrant, salvation can be defined however one wants; one gets to speak for God instead of listening to God. Rachel Held Evans’ salvation is what is stereotypically found among post-evangelicals who have found a home in the warm and fuzzy, non-threatening arms of liberal theology. None of what Evans is preaching is new, but I’m not sure that she’s aware that down the road of liberal theology are empty churches – that torched field I was talking about.

Searching for Sunday was released right before the massive kerfuffle caused by the Pew Research Center’s report “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” From a marketing standpoint, it had to have been a gold mine for the book’s publisher. On the CNN website the headline, “Millennials Leaving the Church in Droves” gleefully spread the word. Not to be outdone, USA Today gave us “Christians Drop, ‘Nones’ Soar.” The report, at least the way it was being skewed in the media, seemed to validate Evans’ concerns; the Church in America is dying, and progressive thinking, like the kind offered by Rachel Held Evans, is desperately needed. Except the Church in America isn’t dying, and if the Church did take her advice, it would die.

The Pew Report revealed something that many of us already knew – liberal theology kills church attendance. In their landmark book The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers In Our Religious Economy, statistical sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark discovered that the facts about church attendance flew in the face of the received wisdom on the subject. Before the book, most people, including the book’s authors, believed that churches with robust traditional doctrine suffered in terms of membership. What they found, after combing through and analyzing over two-hundred years of data, is that “to the degree that denominations rejected traditional doctrines and ceased to make serious demands on their followers, they ceased to prosper”[12]. Finke and Stark go on to break it down in terms of cost-benefit analysis, but the fact remains that when denominations succumb to liberal theology, people leave. The Pew Report bears this out. The market share for evangelicals has remained consistent; which means that evangelicalism is growing in terms of raw numbers. Liberal denominations, however, are losing adherents. And in Searching for Sunday, embracing liberal theology is Rachel Held Evans’ fix.

Not only is her solution for the Church the exact opposite of what actually works[13], but her description of evangelicalism is a caricature. Straw men are easier to deal with than recognizing that bowing the knee to King Jesus is also an acknowledgment that He has claims on your life – and not just the claims that you can brag about to your bi-sexual barista. Yes, God calls us to feed the poor and combat racism, but He also has non-cool things to say about sexuality, for example. Rachel Held Evans isn’t searching for Sunday; she’s searching for a god who’s compatible with her view of the world.

[1] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015), 209.

[2] Evans, Searching for Sunday, 153.

[3] “I believe Jesus is present, so it seems counterintuitive to tell people they have to wait and meet him someplace else before they meet him at the table.” Evans, Searching for Sunday, 148.

[4] Evans, Searching for Sunday, 149.

[5] I’m sure that there were one or two, here or there, who preferred another class over recess. But that other class was probably “lunch.”

[6] For the record, the girls were likewise plotting. Our search for kissing partners was a two-way street.

[7] Although as a young kid, even though I was a little frightened of him, he was always very kind to me – which, considering my exploits, took heaps of grace on his part.

[8] Evans, Searching for Sunday, 7.

[9] You RHE apologists can proof-text her book all you want. The fact that you can lift quotes from the book that talk about how nice it is that Evangelicals are quick to bring casseroles to people who are hurting  does not change the fact that the tone of the entire book is one of disgust and dismissal of all things conservative and Evangelical. It’s true that RHE says through gritted teeth that we are to love Evangelicals, too. But she also makes her belief that people shouldn’t attend conservative Evangelical churches explicitly clear.

[10] Evans, Searching for Sunday, 66.

[11] For the very clear record, I believe that a robust Christian worldview WILL feed the poor and combat racism. But, salvation is not mediated through those good things. Those good things are done because of our love for God and in response to our salvation.

[12] Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 1.

[13] With the understanding that whatever does work in the Church is solely through the work of the Holy Spirit.


6 thoughts on “The Clash of the Straw Men: An Unorthodox Review of Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday

  1. I believe RHE is wholly wrong in her assessment. Her insistence, that since we cannot know completely the hearts of others we ought to embrace any and everyone, finds no positive relationship to a trust in God’s revelation through his Word. I do understand her repulsion at legalism’s extremes (and legalism’s extremes do exist whether or not they were experienced by John Ellis). But RHE’s fault is in determining that everything to the right of her belief structure must necessarily fall into that category of extremism.
    There is definition in God’s revelation. To argue against that definition because Jesus invited all to a feast is not to understand the feast, the purpose, or the invitation.
    And yet, simply to recognize her faults does not give credence to the critic’s own views. If God created merely for king-to-subject authority recognition, we lose much of Scripture–the very portion that commentators like RHE emphasize. God created for relationship–of the everlasting love kind. It was a violation of his covenant of life–exhibited through God’s provision and our trust in that provision–that death (separation from him) necessarily resulted. It is the heavy, unfeeling god of the hierarchically ensconced mindset that puts off so many of those seeing actual desire for relationship in God’s revelatory communication. Perhaps the “legalist” label could be redefined to encompass those who see God only as authoritative rule demanding obedience and offering grace to only those who submit their will to his rule. That is not the God of the Bible who created for loving embrace and seeks out those who fell from trust in him by revelation of his loving favor in the offer of redemption. The necessity for this relationship is in understanding that his truth, goodness, and beauty are the only truth, goodness, and beauty by which relationship can exist. Taste and see. But don’t wield a heavy-handed master-slave club to ensure the bowing over the embrace.


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