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Rachel Held Evans and the Scandal of the Evangelical Heart

Sometimes I encounter a blog post so compelling, it stops me in my tracks.

The other night I couldn’t sleep. Wind shrieked outside as a cold front clawed through Columbus. I padded downstairs over thick carpet and curled on the couch beneath my blue blanket.

Cozy.

I drank a cup of blueberry coffee and turned on my iPad. What is Rachel Held Evans up to these days? I wondered. I’ve only ever read a couple of her posts, but she always has a way of provoking me to think.

She entitled one of her recent posts “The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart,” a play on the book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll.

The post honestly addressed some of Rachel’s struggles with doubt, including her inability rachel-held-evans-the-scandal-of-the-evangelical-heartto understand God-ordained genocide in the Old Testament. It received over 500 comments from people who agreed, disagreed, or were flat-out scandalized by Ms. Evans’s new-found comfort with embracing tension and mystery.

Here are some of my favorite parts of her post:

“For what makes the Church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority?”

Rachel goes on to say that Christians must not only exercise intellectual integrity, but also emotional integrity. To disconnect our emotions from our minds is to create a sub-human, sociopathic monster. (As a person who grew up in a cerebrally-oriented Bible cult, I can testify to the dangers of living a life unbalanced by honest emotion.)

Rachel says of this emotional-intellectual disconnect:

“Richard Beck has also observed this phenomenon and refers to it as ‘orthodox alexithymia’:

When theology and doctrine become separated from emotion we end up with something dysfunctional and even monstrous.

A theology or doctrinal system that has become decoupled from emotion is going to look emotionally stunted and even inhuman.  What I’m describing here might be captured by the tag “orthodox alexithymia.” By “orthodox” I mean the intellectual pursuit of right belief. And by “alexithymia” I mean someone who is, theologically speaking, emotionally and socially deaf and dumb. Even theologically sociopathic.

Alexithymia–etymologically “without words for emotions”–is a symptom characteristic of individuals who have difficulty understanding their own and others’ emotions. You can think of alexithymia as being the opposite of what is called emotional intelligence.

Orthodox alexithymia is produced when the intellectual facets of Christian theology, in the pursuit of correct and right belief, become decoupled from emotion, empathy, and fellow-feeling. Orthodox alexithymics are like patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex brain damage. Their reasoning may be sophisticated and internally consistent but it is disconnected from human emotion. And without Christ-shaped caring to guide the chain of calculation we wind up with the theological equivalent of preferring to scratch a doctrinal finger over preventing destruction of the whole world. Logically and doctrinally such preferences can be justified. They are not “contrary to reason.” But they are inhuman and monstrous. Emotion, not reason, is what has gone missing.” Read the entire post.

Rachel says: “It’s not enough for me to maintain my intellectual integrity as a Christian; I also want to maintain my emotional integrity as a Christian. And I don’t need answers to all of my questions to do that. I need only the courage to be honest about my questions and doubts, and the patience to keep exploring and trusting in spite of them.

“The bravest decision I’ll ever make is the decision to follow Jesus with both my head and heart engaged—no checking out, no pretending.”

Amen!

As Professor Michael J. Svigel of Dallas Seminary recently tweeted: “Orthodoxy often involves holding several paradoxical truths in excruciating tension. Heresy always relieves the tension.”

Let’s think hard, love well, and be okay with a little bit of tension and doubt. Christ calls us neither to sacrifice the integrity of our mind nor our heart as we follow him.

*For anyone interested in an evangelical book which deals with the genocide issue in the Old Testament, I highly recommend Show Them No Mercy, in the Zondervan Counterpoints Series. You can locate it here. I read this book during my first year at seminary, then wrote a summary of it. If you want a detailed 25-page summary instead of reading the whole book, click on my paper: Show Them No Mercy Summary by Stephen Smith. As I look back at my conclusion in the spring of 2009, I realize that I disliked the emotional tension that the topic presented, so I opted for an intellectual solution. I’d nuance it different today.

4 comments on “Rachel Held Evans and the Scandal of the Evangelical Heart

  1. Anthony Hoekema: “If we wish to understand the Scriptures, therefore, we must accept the concept of paradox, believing that what we cannot square with our finite minds is somehow harmonized in the mind of God.”

    Vernon Grounds in an essay entitled “The Postulate of Paradox” writes, “In Christianity, as I see it, paradox is not a concession: it is an indispensable category, a sheer necessity—a logical necessity!—if our faith is to be unswervingly Biblical…. Let us emphatically assert ‘apparently opposite truths,’ remembering as a sort of criterion that very likely we are being loyal to the Bible as long as we feel upon our minds the tug of logical tension. Let us as evangelicals unhesitatingly postulate paradox.”

    G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy: “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

    James Packer: “The antinomy which we face now is one of a number that the Bible contains. We may be sure that they all find their reconciliation in the mind and counsel of God, and we may hope that in heaven we shall understand them ourselves. But meanwhile, our wisdom is to maintain with equal emphasis both the apparently conflicting truths in each case, to hold them together in the relation in which the Bible itself sets them, and to recognize that here is a mystery which we cannot expect to solve in this world.”

    This side of eternity our knowledge is partial, incomplete. In Scripture there are mysteries concealed and revealed. Why is it, then, in the evangelical world that what I regard as mysteries others hold as doubt? Where I suspend my disbelief (for the sake of moving deeper into the mystery) others suspend their belief and in the spirit of Augustine’s explication: “Dubito Ergo Sum—I doubt, therefore I am,” these evangelicals build their theologies of doubt. I don’t understand it. Neither does Richard Wurmbrand who writes, “believers find it difficult to entertain doubt.”

    • Wow, such fantastic quotes, Monax! Thanks for your great input to so many of the posts on this blog. I appreciate your timely, thoughtful, and wise contributions. How do you come across all of these perfect quotes? I’m jealous 😉

  2. Stephen,

    don’t know if you’ve come across Anthony Hoekema before. I would hope your professors of Soteriology at DTS would have had him on their reading lists. The late Hoekema has left us an outstanding trilogy of books—The Bible and the Future (1979); Created in God’s Image (1986); and Saved by Grace (1989). The first four quotes above are from his Saved by Grace (pp 5-7) where he appeals to his readers to accept the concept of paradox in our efforts toward understanding the mysteries of God. In this case, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in the process of our Salvation. If you haven’t read him may I commend his last two books to you, they’re quite accessible and perhaps the best expository studies we have on Christian Anthropology and Soteriology. My guess is if Hoekema isn’t all that well-known among DTS students—maybe the force of DTS’ Dispensationalism has dismissed Hoekema’s last two books for his first book on Eschatology. [Just like Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is dismissed in liberal seminaries for his Complemetarianism.]

    In my readings and listenings when I come across good quotes I’ll either transcribe them into my Book of Quotes, and / or place them into their prospective files having categories like “Love,” “Grace,” “Sin,” “Truth,” “Identity,” “Desire,” “Story,” etc. And then these jewels are cached away for when I may need them for a sermon, class, blog comment, etc.

    Your “Who needs lions when you can throw Christians to the Christians?” has been transcribed into my Book of Quotes. I have, as yet, read only a handful of your posts, However, as time allows I’d like to read more.

    . .

    I’m still wondering (re: my last paragraph in my comment above) Where is our Scriptural grounding for doubt?

  3. Neither yourself nor Rachel cover the case where people do have Alexithymia.
    Alexithymia is sometimes co-morbid with Asperger’s syndrome. Somehow, it is on the autistic spectrum and there is a genetic component. I am now 55 and discovered late in life at the age of 53 that I have both and several tests have confirmed this. I am also a Christian since 1982.

    I understand Rachel ‘s choices for both intellectual integrity & emotional integrity.
    But for me, intellectual integrity is all I have. I make the right choices in life even if there is little emotion behind them.

    .

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