Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans (TGC Review)

searchingforsunday_229_350_90Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015. 288 pp. $16.99.

Disclaimer: Rachel Held Evans is an “internet friend” of mine, meaning we’ve never met in person but over the last couple of years we’ve laughed online, shared prayer requests, and encouraged each other in difficult moments. We’ve also argued, publicly disagreeing in articles and on Twitter about important issues. So I hope this review is read in that spirit: one of affirmation and critique from a friend.


While her first book (Faith Unraveled, 2010) tackled issues of doubt, science, and faith, and her second (A Year of Biblical Womanhood, 2012) examined problems with, well, “biblical womanhood,” the title of her third entry, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, similarly says it all: Evans shares her story about leaving and finding the church again in a new way. Arranged in seven sections corresponding to the seven Catholic and Orthodox sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, marriage), she chronicles the various glories and pains of growing up in a conservative/fundamentalist evangelical tradition and offers an apologetic of sorts for leaving(?) for the mainline when the incongruities of the former proved too great. It’s a story about death, and yes, resurrection.

Beyond that, Searching for Sunday is purposely presented as an archetypal story (xi). According to the stats, millennials are apparently leaving the church. Evans’s own story of departure and return aims to articulate some of the millennial experience to a confused church: their doubt that won’t be satisfied with easy answers; their fear of exclusion; their burnout from the culture wars and the marriage of evangelicalism with conservative politics; their fatigue once the strobe lights, hip music, and gimmicky youth games didn’t distract them from their burning questions or the pain of their LGBTQ friends. Evans also aims to point the way to a Christianity—a church—with arms open wide enough to draw them back, just as it has drawn her—questions, struggles, and all.

You can read the rest of my review over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Killswitch Engage, Edwards, and the Hell Inside Us All

disarmKillswitch Engage’s new album Disarm the Descent came out this last week. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to it already, but I know I’ve got a few hundred more to go. Needless to say, it’s text-book shredding perfection. Adam D. is a metal machine; he couldn’t produce a weak metal album if he tried. Also, for those of you worried about the loss of frontman Howard Jones (who was amazing), Jesse Leach has returned to the helm stronger than ever both vocally and lyrically. He even manages to do a pretty good job filling in for Jones on the live version of “My Curse” included in the special edition.

Now, this is isn’t a full album review. In fact, I mostly just want to call attention to Leach’s forceful lyric-writing in the opening track, “The Hell in Me.”


Now, once I stopped air-shredding and paid attention to what he was saying, I realized he was speaking of the spiritual struggle at work in us all he sings:

Fall down into the chaos
Staring into the depths of pain darkness and suffering
I will not be from this place, inside of me
Until I understand this part of me that bleeds and captures my spirit
If it’s the death of me, then I will loosen its grip.

[Chorus:]
Protect me from the hell that burns inside me
No one can see this is the hell in me
Bring light into the darkness
Awaken and stir this war within us all
Reveal my true intentions

[Chorus:]
No one can see this is the hell in me
Lead me out of the darkness
Strengthen and protect the voice that makes no sound
Suffer and bleed for me
Pulled from the hell that is in me
Set me free
Will you set me free?

Leach picks up on the very biblical image of fire, torment, and hell to speak of the way a soul is consumed from within by sin. Sin burns the spirit. Indeed, this is ultimately the darkest truth of the doctrine of hell–we carry its seeds around within ourselves. Paul testifies that the wrath of God is seen, not so much in his active judgment, but in handing us over the the darkness of our own hearts as they lust after those things which dehumanize them. (Rom 1:18-15)

In depicting our spiritual struggle this way, Leach channels the spirit of Jonathan Edwards who brilliantly laid out this truth in his (in)famous sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”:

There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments as they do in them. The souls of the wicked are in scripture compared to the troubled sea,Isa. 57:20. For the present, God restrains their wickedness by his mighty power, as he does the raging waves of the troubled sea, saying, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further;” but if God should withdraw that restraining power, it would soon carry all before it. Sin is the ruin and misery of the soul; it is destructive in its nature; and if God should leave it without restraint, there would need nothing else to make the soul perfectly miserable. The corruption of the heart of man is immoderate and boundless in its fury; and while wicked men live here, it is like fire pent up by God’s restraints, whereas if it were let loose, it would set on fire the course of nature; and as the heart is now a sink of sin, so if sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone. -Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, sec. 6

Songs like this remind me to thank God for his restraining hand. Even more, I thank God that he saw the hell in me and decided to “suffer and bleed for me”, to set me free, fully and finally from the torment of sin in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Vital by Anberlin (Or, When Anberlin Decides to be Awesome Again)

I bought my first Anberlin album back as a sophomore in high school. Blueprints for the Blackmarket was revolutionary stuff for the Christian music scene, which is what I was primarily limited to at the time,  and I’ve been a fan ever since. Now, I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of their last couple albums New Surrender or Dark is the Way, Light is a Place.  There were some stand-out tracks (“Miserabile Visu”, “Closer”, “To the Wolves”), but on the whole, I’d been worrying whether they lost the magic–or their coffee machine. With the release of their latest album, Vital, my fears were taken to the back shed and beat down to the sound of Stephen Christian’s lovely, raging falsetto, aggressive guitar riffs, and catchy drums. Anberlin delivered this time.

I don’t know if it’s the return of Aaron Sprinkle producing, or just a need to turn a corner, but Anberlin has recovered and produced an album that tops their magnum opus, “Cities.” In many ways this album flows naturally out of moves they made in Dark is the Way–an appreciation for and tasteful use of electronics and synth, but without the falsified feel of so much vocoder-pop playing on the radio. They’ve crafted a new sound while simultaneously returning to the angsty, guitar-driven alt-rock of “Paper-Thin Hymn” and “Feel-Good Drag.”

I’ll name stand-out tracks but honestly, this is one of those don’t-skip-a-song albums where each listen through gives you a new appreciation for a song previously ignored. The opener “Self-Starter” is a typically strong lead-in to the rest of the album. The nice thing is that it’s sustained through-out, even on the ballads. I consistently come back to “Desires” and “Other Side.” “Desires”, featured above, sounds almost like a throw-back to “Feel-Good Drag” both musically and thematically. “Other Side”, with its use of synth notes dripping with longing and low-end, bass and guitar work, reminds me of Tron for some reason, only with some emotional depth. “God, Drugs, and Sex” is a slow, but rich closer that won’t beat out “Miserabile Visu (ex malo bonum)” or “Fin”, but still carries on in the same tradition.

Lyrically, the song I’ve been thinking about most is “Modern Age.”

It reads like a commentary on some of the incoherencies and angst of contemporary, postmoderns. There is a deep desire to be known, to be loved, yet most will “Fall asleep alone. Safer then the off-chance, Of getting your heart attacked, one more time.” The vulnerability that love requires is painful, and postmoderns are reluctant to get hurt, to get burned. A generation born with that misleading but looming 50% divorce rate statistic hanging over their heads, or even more, the painful reality of growing up in one of the those homes, grows up a bit skeptical of attaining the love it deeply desires. Indeed, this skepticism about love bleeds into our other relationships–Christian sings, “Have we all hid ourselves from friends?” We’re a generation that is constantly communicating, surrounding ourselves with friends, and acquaintances, while simultaneously hiding from them. Afraid of true honesty and relational risk we camouflage ourselves, create false identities, and hide in plain sight.

The chorus though, is really what got me thinking:

Don’t we all, want to be loved?
Don’t we all, write our own tune?
Let our silence break tonight
Don’t we all, learn right from wrong?
And don’t we all, want to be loved?
Let our silence break tonight

I was immediately struck by the incoherence between the desire to be loved,  learning right from wrong, and “writing our own tune.” Writing our own tune is a typically modern/postmodern way of thinking about freedom and purpose.  For our life to be truly ours, for the song we sing to be our own, we must have written it ourselves, without any help, so to speak. To be liberated on the modern view is to live unconstrained by expectations, commitments, destiny, fate, social conventions; there can be no moral grammar to which the lyrics of our vitality must conform–anything other than a wholly self-determined song is inauthentic.

The problem is that this is exactly what love and “right and wrong” are; morality is a grammar that provides patterns of existence within which love can flourish and grow. Love by its very nature requires restraints, fidelity, honesty, vulnerability, exclusivity, that impose a limit to the kind of tune we can write. The contradiction appears when we realize that if our lives are going to be anything more than lonely little melodies, if there are going to be deep and beautiful harmonies, we have to allow ourselves to be captured by a different kind of freedom–one that finds itself most deeply in a passionate commitment to something beyond ourselves. It’s the freedom of goodness, of truth, of living in line with the deep rhythm of reality and finding our place in the divine harmony God is writing. See, only then, only when we’ve surrendered ourselves to the truth, submitted to honesty, embraced a song greater than our own can we begin to give ourselves to each other without fear, to risk commitment, to dare to be truly known, to take off the mask–to love.

I’d like to say that Christian gets this, with his anthem-style call to “Let our silence break tonight.”  While there is no explicit deconstruction of this generation’s discordant values, the call itself begins to draw us out. Truly communicating is the first step towards emerging from the self-induced isolation; breaking the silence with honesty is a movement toward true freedom and love.

This is all deeper than I intended to go in an album review. Still, identifying and giving voice to the tensions of a generation is one of Anberlin’s greatest talents. Their ability to do it on a rockin’ good album is why I keep them on repeat. If you haven’t already, go check Vital out–it’s worth your time.