Book Review: Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans

Review
04.28.2015

Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the ChurchThomas Nelson, 2015. 288 pages.

 

Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church is about how to include “church” in a paradigm of spirituality relevant to the times—not “relevant” by being cool but by providing sanctuary and community with at least something of the transcendence for which we long. I expect that Searching For Sunday will satisfy people who already resonate with Evans’ overall outlook. I doubt it will convince others. It certainly troubles me.

I NEED SOMETHING MORE BIBLICAL

Evans arranges the book around the seven Roman and Orthodox sacraments, which she summarizes in these terms:

The church tells us we are beloved (baptism).
The church tells us we are broken (confession).
The church tells us we are commissioned (holy orders).
The church feeds us (communion).
The church welcomes us (confirmation).
The church anoints us (anointing of the sick).
The church unites us (marriage).

Within these traditional categories, Evans believes “a generation that is struggling to make sense of what church is for” (page xv) might more readily find some answers.

All of us desire patterns for living out our Christianity together. Who isn’t searching for a Sunday that can be believed in today? But here is another proposal—the nine marks of a healthy church:

Expositional preaching
Biblical theology
The biblical gospel
A biblical understanding of conversion
A biblical understanding of evangelism
A biblical understanding of church membership
Biblical church discipline
A concern for discipleship and growth
Biblical church leadership.

As I look at those two paradigms of Christianity, here is the question I cannot escape: Which of the two is more convincing as true to the Bible? To me, the answer is obvious. But for someone less motivated to require a biblical pattern, Evans’ proposal might satisfy just as well, and maybe more so.

Personally, the Sunday I want for myself and for everyone in the world today must be authentic. What I want forces me all the way back to the New Testament. I have been so disappointed so many times by plausible substitutes and by my own missteps that the only Sunday I will trust is the one that came down from above 2000 years ago. I am staking my eternal soul on the biblical pathway to Jesus himself as my only possible liberation into that which is ancient, lasting, true.

Evans is a skilled writer with a sharp eye for detail and a fine sense of irony. She is interesting. I am boring. I can only admire her abilities. But Searching For Sunday is not biblical enough. It is engaging. It is well written. But not biblical enough to satisfy me. It doesn’t seem to have been intended as, above all else, biblical. So Searching For Sunday ends up too limited for me to stake anything on it.

I NEED SOMETHING MORE SERIOUS

Here is another way of stating my concern. Searching For Sunday doesn’t come across as a book that can help people in really serious trouble. The flipside of searching for Sunday is being stuck where I am. Trouble is, the overall tone of this book, though it makes some good points and makes them in striking ways, remains too unserious to help me.

I am sorry to say that. But here is the reason I do say it: I am a serious sinner. And I am not helped by clever and amusing.

I need books that say to me, “I understand you, and I have here a word with divine power to sustain someone in desperate trouble like you” (Isaiah 50:4).

I have many joys in my life, every one a gift of grace. But it is also true that the world I live in connects well with, say, the terror of Francis Bacon, “Head VI,” or the anguish of Reynolds Price, Letter To A Man In The Fire, or the guilt of Macbeth, Act 5, scenes 1 through 3. I just don’t see how Searching For Sunday can help people in my world.

Mark Rutherford, in The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane, said, “If your religion doesn’t help you, it is no religion for you; you had better be without it.” That’s blunt—and it’s what I believe. Sinners like me don’t have time for anything but real help. Maybe people whose lives are sailing along more smoothly will enjoy Searching For Sunday. But I doubt that others will find what they need.

Serious sinners need writers who will declare the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus with all the blunt but tender clarity of the apostles. A fashionably vague maybe-ism doesn’t evoke the liberating powers of New Testament Christianity. It comes across as an artifact of this odd moment in modern Christianity that will soon pass away. And I am left unhelped.

I NEED SOMETHING MORE CHRISTIAN

Here is yet another way of saying it. I am uncertain that Searching For Sunday represents real Christianity, that is, the original Christianity of the New Testament. The problem is not the open declaration of false doctrine or ethics; the problem is more profound—a pervasive tone of indefiniteness, tentativeness, aloofness.

Perhaps the most assertive moment in the book is on page 149 where she rebukes evangelical “alliances and coalitions formed around shared theological distinctives.” What is wrong with them? “They slam the door of the kingdom in people’s faces and tell them to come back when they are sober, back on their feet, Republican, Reformed, doubtless, submissive, straight.” That is a serious and—I believe—unfair accusation. But the message stands out because, overall, Searching For Sunday is much more equivocal.

A liberal pastor who reviewed J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism in 1923 rightly said, “Liberalism is an atmosphere rather than a series of formulas.” Formulas and creeds and doctrines matter, but so does atmosphere. And Machen was convinced that the decided clarity of the apostles versus the vague hesitancy of the liberals “are not two varieties of the same religion but two distinct religions proceeding from altogether separate roots.”

I am struck, for example, by the boldness of the apostles in Acts 4. “Boldness” is the key word in the chapter, appearing in verses 13, 29 and 31. And this apostolic boldness was not bravado, but “frankness, a plainness of speech that conceals nothing and passes over nothing,” to quote the Lexicon by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich.

I am struck also by Paul’s ministry as portrayed in 2 Corinthians 4. He commends his ministry to the Corinthians for its “open statement of the truth,” not as a matter of style but of conscience before God (v. 2). He claims that the brilliant luminosity of his message is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (v. 4). He compares its clarifying power to nothing less than God creating light out of darkness (v. 6). His influence, he says, is suffused with “the spirit of faith” so open and plain that he sums it up with “I believed, and so I spoke” (v. 13). There is something magnificent about this man so sure of God. His certainties did not exempt him from suffering. No, his commission from God drove him down deep into an honest acceptance of every painful reality. But I cannot imagine that man, that apostle, transported into our time and place, writing a book so theologically underwhelming as Searching For Sunday.

I NEED TO BE PREPARED FOR THE LAST DAY

All of which compels me to conclude this: I am not confident that, if I took this book to heart and swallowed its Christianity whole, I would be ready to stand before God on that great and final day.

I can find the gospel in Searching For Sunday if I bring the gospel with me and read its clarity into this book’s ambiguity. But if Searching For Sunday were my starting-point and guide, I would risk being led into a semi-Christian religiosity that would neither help me in time nor save me in eternity. Nor would I, in this life, be equipped to help other sinners and sufferers find God and prepare to meet God.

This is a terrible thing to say. It troubles me to say it. But if I were to allow Searching For Sunday to reshape my life, it would require a departure from everything I most believe in and desire for myself and everyone.

HAVE I MISUNDERSTOOD?

Maybe Evans is not offering this book as a paradigm of Christianity. Maybe it is intended only as a series of stories and thoughts hung loosely around the Roman and Eastern sacraments. If so, then my critique is too radical, and I ask Evans’ forgiveness for my misunderstanding. But then, it would be a less significant book. If, however, Evans intends Searching For Sunday as a serious proposal for redesigning our Christianity today, then it is a significant book, and significantly wrong.

Rachel, if you read this review, and if I haven’t alienated you completely, let me ask you for something. Please commit your strong gifts of perception and insight and expression to another book, a book that speaks straight from the Bible directly into our misery, a book that takes us deep into God’s heart in Jesus, a book with humane understanding about where we need relief at our worst, a book filled with biblical clarity so striking that it cannot be mistaken. Please write that book. Please make its message so reassuring by the force of its faithful good news that even in my sin and weakness I can receive it joyously and be helped by it and commend it to other sinners and sufferers. If you will write that book, I—for what it’s worth—will rejoice over it.

I want to be your next big fan.

By:
Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is the lead pastor of Immanuel Nashville in Nashville, Tennessee. You can find him on Twitter at @rayortlund.