IN REMEMBRANCE OF RACHEL HELD EVANS
Rachel Held Evans recently passed away. Describing her death as having sent shock waves through the Christian world might sound like a cliché, but it doesn’t begin to describe the impact of her passing. At only 37, she’d written and published prolifically about Christian culture and theology. She was distinct from the many other evangelical megastars; though she started a church plant and traveled the country to speak, she wasn’t leading a cult of personality, pushing ever more stringent codes of propriety and she wasn’t quite the prototypical evangelical either.
Faith Unraveled (first released as Evolving in Monkey Town) was the first book I read by Rachel Held Evans. I’d been going through my own deconstruction process and had grabbed any book off the shelves that seemed to defiantly ask the questions that needed answered. I’d read some of Rachel Held Evans’ work before but was still shocked to see how much our experiences paralleled. Her experience was radically different at a surface level. She was the daughter of a Christian college professor, born in the Deep South and raised in Dayton, Tennessee, the town infamous for the Scopes Monkey Trial. Maintaining enthusiasm about her faith, she majored in English at Bryan College, and loaded her schedule with Bible and theology classes. Receiving an education that taught her to ask questions, Held Evans started asking questions about her own faith, and the explanations were what she described in Faith Unraveled as “pond-scum theology.” In essence, that people are such worthless “pond-scum,” Christians should be grateful to have any chance of being saved, the fairness of God’s system be damned.
Rachel Held Evans was one of the few voices brave enough to articulate that this didn’t sit right with her and that it angered her. So many other people who’d been shamed for asking questions were relieved to find that our capacity for critical thinking and compassion wasn't a sin, a flaw, or evidence of “worldliness.” Rachel put words to what was a struggle to articulate: we had been taught “false fundamentals” about what it meant to be good people and (maybe) good Christians. She had a compassionate way of expressing that though a good number of the people in the communities we were raised in might have been well intentioned and loving, but the teachings were still damaging enough that many of us would have to leave.
In 2014, Rachel Held Evans shared that she was leaving the Evangelical tradition in search of a new church home. She was honest about her doubts, cynicism and periods of non-attendance as she chronicled her and her husband’s search for a new spiritual community in Searching for Sundays. She visited Methodist churches and Churches of Christ, high churches and low churches, megachurches with multiple campuses and congregations that met by rivers as she traveled around for speaking gigs and visited churches with her husband. She even established a church plant as part of a group, the failure of which became a precursor to future talks and writing she would do on learning how to be sincere a part of a community. Held Evans offered a lens that helped people remember what all of those communities had to offer at their best: connection, support, and hope. Ideally a place where a person could be vulnerable and yet still feel understood and find guidance. She shared that she felt she’d found a home for herself in the Episcopal Church, and her ongoing relationship with Christianity was a beacon that there was faith to be found for egalitarian science-believing NPR-listeners.
In order to write the book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel set out to live according to the Bible’s instructions for women for a year. The year found her making her own clothes, staying silent in church, and camping out in the yard during her period. She also spoke with women from Amish, Quiverfull, and polygamist backgrounds to better understand their complementarian philosophy and with Jewish women in order to learn about other perspectives on the same scriptures. Even now women writing about theology or culture is still perceived as being at odds with a submissive spirit and biblical womanhood, but when Rachel started her blog in 2004, she was a singular figure in Christian media and what she did forged space for women to articulate spiritual ideas beyond feigned thankfulness for the “dirty dishes of life.” She was honest and brave in her writing and unmatched as someone who could draw out well-reasoned theology from an overlooked passage or practice. Her last published book Inspired sought to find ways we could find meaning and hope in scripture without burying our ethics under legalism or compromising our intellectual honesty.
Rachel Held Evans’ work connected with and inspired so many people. Even the pillars of conservative Christianity who chastised Held Evans for expressing her views were able to recognize something good in her as they’ve been trying to find the words to express how momentous her death is for so many current and former evangelicals. We’ve lost an amazing figure and a compassionate person with her passing. Let us keep our thoughts with her family and friends as her husband Dan and her son and daughter grieve the loss of a woman of valor.