The Work of Provocative Christian Writer Rachel Held Evans, Dead at 37, Still Speaks to Many
The Wired Wordfor the Week of May 12, 2019
In the News
Rachel Held Evans, once named "the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism" by The Washington Post, died at the age of 37 on May 4 at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, from complications arising from a brief bout with the flu. A best-selling Christian author, who moved from conservative evangelical beliefs to progressive theology, she is survived by her husband Dan and two young children.
Many expressed shock over Evans' death, some crediting her with rescuing their faith, and others (women in particular) attributing their pursuit of ministry to the writer's encouragement. "Thank you @rachelheldevans," wrote Alexandria Beightol, a young evangelical, on Twitter. "I'm still a Christian thanks to you."
Born in Alabama in 1981, Rachel and her family moved when she was 14 to Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" in which a teacher was prosecuted for allegedly teaching evolution in school. In 2003, Evans graduated from Bryan College, named for William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor in the case. One of her professors, John Stonestreet, wrote that Evans was willing to question "evangelical sacred cows."
In 2010, Evans published her first book about her spiritual journey from religious absolutism to a faith with room for ambiguity, mystery and uncertainty, Evolving in Monkey Town, later released under the title Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions.
Evans spent a year following the Jewish holiness rules for women, which she documented in the often humorous 2012 New York Times best seller A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master.
Some who hold to more traditional views of the role of women in marriage and the church took exception to Evans' celebration of a more egalitarian perspective.
While Evans had proudly worn the label "evangelical" in her earlier years, she increasingly became uncomfortable with a brand of conservative Christianity she viewed as "too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people."
Evans clung to the belief that Jesus "embodied a radically inclusive love" in his life and teachings. Many remarked how she sought to welcome everyone to the table of Christ, and to amplify the voices of those whom she felt were often unheard in the American church, including women, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transexual-questioning (LGBTQ) persons, and people of color. In 2014 she joined the "#exvangelical movement" and began attending an Episcopal church, a development she described in her 2015 book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.
Evans won fans as well as foes by questioning conservative views in the church about a wide range of issues, including gender, race, biblical literalism, abortion, six-day creationism, theology, patriarchy, marriage, and politics. Some of those who held more traditional views nonetheless respected her for her honesty, intellectual prowess, and kindness.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, was a frequent target of what he called "her Twitter indignation," but said Evans "made all of us think, and helped those of us who are theological conservatives to be better because of the way she would challenge us." Evangelical author and speaker Beth Moore described Evans as "alarmingly honest … in an era of gross hypocrisy.”
Singer and songwriter Nichole Nordeman wrote, "I will really miss how @rachelheldevans could just get right to the heart of it, without superfluous poetry or fanfare. She had a black belt in truth telling, unsullied by ego or self-consciousness or branding or platform. Just unadorned truth."
Just as Evans had wrestled with her understanding of the nature of her faith and the church in her earlier books, she wrote about her questions regarding the foundational scriptures of that faith in her fourth and final book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.
Katelyn Beaty, Editor at Large for Christianity Today, commented that Evans "wrote unflinchingly about how hard it is to trust God, to forgive church leaders, to wrestle with scripture. There was a quiet sadness to her writing, a grief over having lost a simpler faith and faith community." But Evans' fans tend to view the loss of "a simpler faith and faith community" as a necessary step toward development of a more mature faith and openness to a broader faith family.
"RHE [as Evans was known online] taught the beauty of a messy and complicated faith," wrote an Evans follower, Cristina Rosetti, on Twitter. "She showed us how to hold multiple perspectives in tension. She made people feel safe to talk about doubt."
In October, Evans was to host the Evolving Faith conference she co-founded where progressive Christians, "wanderers, wonderers and spiritual refugees," could discover that they were not alone in their journey.
More on this story can be found at these links:
Rachel Held Evans, Christian Writer of Honesty and Humor, Dies at Age 37. Religion News Service
Rachel Held Evans, Hero to Christian Misfits. The Atlantic
Rachel Held Evans, Voice of the Wandering Evangelical, Dies at 37. The New York Times
Reflecting on Rachel: Why She Mattered. Christianity Today
The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Bill Tammeus
The Big Questions
1. Have you ever felt like a spiritual refugee, unsure whether you really belong in your congregation -- or even in Christianity? Do you still feel displaced? Where, if anywhere, are you finding a safe place where your faith can grow and thrive?
2. How comfortable are you asking questions about the teachings of the church? What prevents you from asking those questions, or what encourages you to express them?
3. What is the difference between questioning your beliefs about God, and doubting or mistrusting God?
4. Look at Russell Moore's comments in the "In the News" section above. His theological position is within the evangelical faith that RHE challenged, yet he was able to find value and integrity in her views, even while disagreeing with her. Are you able to do the same with Christians whose conclusions about the faith are different from yours? Why or why not?
Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:
2 Timothy 3:14-17
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (For context, read 3:10-17.)
In her final book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Evans spoke of her reverence for the sacred writings upon which our faith is built, a reverence she learned from her parents. Evans learned that it is okay to question and struggle with scripture, but the freedom to do that grew out of how deeply she revered it.
Paul wrote that Timothy's grandmother Lois and mother Eunice passed their faith to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5). No doubt they were part of the reason Timothy "knew the sacred writings" from childhood. Timothy had the added benefit of observing Paul's teaching, his conduct, his aim in life, his faith, patience, love, steadfastness in persecutions and suffering (vv. 10-11).
Both Evans and Timothy sought to construct a durable faith with the help of family members and in the fellowship of the church, using scripture as building blocks of faith.
Questions: How has the development of your own faith been hindered and/or helped by the church? How has scripture taught, reproved, corrected, trained, or hindered you in righteousness? [NOTE: The idea of “being right with God’ is similar to the concept of being One with God. Righteousness isn’t about morality judgments. — PM]
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. (For context, read 25:3-9.)
[Jesus said,] "Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last." (For context, read 13:22-30.)
In her book, Searching for Sunday, Evans wrote: "This is what God's kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there's always room for more." Scriptures such as the two above have been cited to support the idea that God's kingdom is a "big tent" with room for all, regardless of the particularities that define their identities.
The prophet Isaiah foretells a time when death and sorrow are destroyed forever and all peoples feast and celebrate life together. The salvation of God's people is to happen in the context of fellowship among all peoples in all nations and the alleviation of suffering and grief from all the earth. That joyous feast is possible because God brings down the ruthless, who are mentioned three times in vv. 3-5. Those who do violence to the poor and needy are to be thwarted, their power eviscerated.
Jesus declared that people "from east and west, from north and south" (presumably from Gentile nations) would be admitted into the kingdom of God, while those who relied on their membership in the right tribe or religion, or who did evil, would not be allowed to enter. Hanging around Jesus, breathing the same air he breathed, sharing meals with him, would not suffice. Jesus calls his followers to act like him, as well.
Questions: What might a modern equivalent be of the appeal, "We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets"? Where might you hear such an appeal, and who might offer it? On what basis are people admitted to or excluded from God's kingdom (if anyone)? To whom is God's grace extended? How should people "strive to enter" God's kingdom? How does "striving to enter" jive with God's grace in these passages?
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." (For context, read 15:1-7.)
In her book, Searching for Sunday, Evans wrote: "The gospel doesn't need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, 'Welcome! There's bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.' This isn't a kingdom for the worthy; it's a kingdom for the hungry."
"If people are hungry, let them come and eat. If they are thirsty, let them come and drink," Evans wrote. "It's not my table anyway. It's not my denomination's table or my church's table. It's Christ's table. Christ sends out the invitations, and if he has to run through the streets gathering up the riffraff to fill up his house, then that's exactly what he'll do. Who am I to try and block the door?"
Questions: What was at the root of the Pharisees' and the scribes' grumbling against Jesus in this chapter? When, if ever, have you identified with the Pharisees and the scribes in this passage?
Under what circumstances might you be disinclined to include certain people at your dinner table? Are there ever legitimate reasons for excluding some people? Explain.
When, if ever, have you identified with the tax collectors and sinners in this passage? What do you think it meant to people in this category to be welcomed by Jesus, and to sit at table with him?