Tag Archives: book review

review: Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday

searching for sunday review

Rachel Held Evan’s Searching for Sunday is about church: its triumphs and failings, its hypocrisy and grace. Rachel, like me, grew up in a well-intentioned Evangelical community where the Bible is accepted as fact and the “plain truth” is within easy reach. It’s a culture of black and white morality, where spiritual cliches are a dime a dozen, rolling off the tongue the second something happens that doesn’t jive with the accepted worldview. Naturally, it has its limitations. Suffering is not easily alleviated with a dismissive utterance of “it’s all in God’s plan.” Rachel, like me, was encouraged to have a sense of ownership over her personal relationship with Jesus and, when the questions she wrestled with in the quiet started to gain momentum – when she started to ask them out loud – the church was unequipped to answer in anything but cliches.

Rachel, like me, flailed around, trying out new churches and new denominations, but the questions burned unanswered still, and she left.

Searching for Sunday‘s framework, quite fittingly, is the Sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing the Sick, and Marriage. These themes, like the Sacraments themselves, act as a jumping off point for a journey of faith. They encourage exploration and mystery; they don’t operate in spiritual cliches. One begins to realize that sometimes, the best answer to our questions is simply the space to wrestle with them. Rachel deals eloquently with this wrestling, acknowledging that the hurt sometimes makes it impossible to be in community, but always seeking the Truth of Christ’s unconditional love. She never gives up on that, and I think that’s the key to learning from the dark times in our spiritual lives. You may feel directionless, but you are moving forward if you are oriented toward love.

Searching for Sunday is memoir, but it is more than that. It’s theology. Steeped in the Gospel narratives, deeply respectful of those first disciples, and appreciative of the long, tumultuous years of violence perpetrated by and against the institutionalized church, it seeks to explore and understand what it looks like to do church now. It reminds us that Christian community was essential from the very beginning, that we don’t get to do Christian life on our own. 

Searching for Sunday gave me closure. I’d been hurt so badly by the church years ago, and I thought I’d moved on. But the truth is that I needed this reassurance that my pain was real, that my concerns were legitimate, and that the dark path I trudged through in the aftermath of leaving was not in vain. I needed someone to say, simply, “me too.”

As I sit here now with the sunshine streaming through the window and the birds singing and a cool spring breeze hitting my legs, I can tell you that I’m no longer searching for Sunday. I have found home in church community again. I am thankful for the path, and the hands that held me in the darkness, nudging me forward. I am thankful for space for the questions. I am thankful that God gave Rachel Held Evans the voice, and the heart, to tell her story, because it is my story, too.

I received an advance copy ofSearching for Sunday Searching for Sunday for review. Searching for Sunday is available for preorder here. It’ll hit store shelves this Tuesday, April 14.

*Artwork: Baptism by Ruth Catherine Meharg; used with permission.

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book review: Flight Behavior

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This was a living flow, like a pulse through veins, with the cells bursting and renewing themselves as they went. The sudden vision filled her with strong emotions that embarrassed her, for fear of breaking into sobs as she had in front of her in-laws that day when the butterflies enveloped her. How was that even normal, to cry over insects? (Flight Behavior, p. 215)

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior describes the plight of the monarch butterfly in an extensive and complex narrative. Dellarobia, the tale’s protagonist, discovers a migratory flock of monarchs living on her Tennessee property by mistake, but takes their presence as a sign to turn her life around. Millions of orange bodies pulsate against trees and fill the air like fire, like a burning bush. Soon she and the butterflies gain local and then national attention and the area is flooded with tourists, news crews, and scientists.

Though the story is about Dellarobia’s personal transformation, it’s just as much about the impending devastation of the earth due to climate change and other man-made obstacles. The butterflies aren’t supposed to be here; their presence is an indication of the ultimate decay of earth’s natural wonders. As Dellarobia and Ovid Byron, an ecologist, work together to answer the “whys” of the Tennessee monarch phenomenon, they also come to terms with the cultural barriers that keep academics and farmers from working together. The narrative held my attention for all 464 pages and it taught me about monarchs through the gripping lens of character conflict and conversation. It’s a brilliant example of narrative ethics; it demanded personal, emotional investment in monarch survival as I measured, observed, and discussed alongside Ovid and Dellarobia. It worked its way into my heart; it refused to leave me unscathed.

Monarchs don’t roost in Tennessee. This part is fictional. But it’s clear that monarchs are dying out and that we have a lot to do with it. According to a recent Washington Post article, “deforestation in Mexico, recent bouts of severe weather, and the growth of herbicide-based agriculture destroying crucial milkweed flora in the Midwest” are significant factors in their decline. From 2012 to 2013 – that’s one year – butterflies overwintering in Mexico declined by nearly half (60 million versus 33 million).

I’m ultimately disturbed by what feels like the inevitability of their demise. It’s a well known fact that Monsanto products obliterate native ecosystems in North America, but lobbyists have had very little success convincing the government to ban their products. Activists would also have to convince Mexico to halt deforestation at monarch roosting sites. I want to think we can do it, but we’re so perverse, so corrupt, so bent on taking the easy way out, I don’t know if we can reverse it in time.

Monarchs are beautiful creatures, welcome sights. And their dauntingly complex migratory path is inspiring. It forces you outside your tiny, day-to-day concerns. When I first saw video footage of their post-winter departure in Mexico, I cried, just like Dellarobia. We can’t let this happen. We can’t let them die.

*Book cover image via NPR

Reading Lolita in Tehran: a brief review

lolita

Reading Lolita in Tehran is the best memoir I’ve ever read. It’s intelligent, creative, intimate, and intricately and artfully narrated. I paused several times throughout my reading so that I could participate in author Azar Nafisi’s classroom just a little bit longer.

Her firm grasp of English Literature and Literary Criticism serve as a surprising, but really quite fitting, foundation to a discussion on revolutionary Iran. The memoir is about politics and fundamentalism, but it’s ultimately about the human condition, about how our proclivity for self narration informs the way we see and form ourselves and our societies. Stories can obstruct as much as they reveal, destroy as much as they create. The book, then, can be understood as a literary critique of the story Iran tells about itself at the start of the Iranian Revolution and of the thousands of personal narratives spilled out to counter it. Perhaps in peeling off these wordy layers – narratives piled on top of narratives – we can begin to arrive at something closer to the truth. But the truth we discover is less tangible, though just as moral in its aim as the black and white ethics imposed upon the Iranian people. It is seeing, really seeing, the multifaceted nature of humanity; we are strong, dishonest, cowardly, loving, kind, hateful, and oblivious all at once. We are all capable of evil. We all lean toward apathy.

I can only assume that those who say they “couldn’t really get into it” were expecting the light stuff of Eat, Pray, Love and its equals. But Reading Lolita in Tehran is the pinnacle of what memoir can be. It’s what memoir should be. You should leave with more than a feeling. As Nafisi explains within the book, literature exists to provide context for the individual, to explore the nuances of human interaction and behavior. Reading Lolita in Tehran bridges the gap between literature and autobiography; you should leave it with a better understanding of the other and yourself, and with a great deal more empathy.