No single person has been more important to my thinking about the changing nature of evangelicalism than Rachel Held Evans. Like thousands of others who have been impacted by her writing and her encouragement, I’m struggling to process the sense of loss I feel at her death.
On this May the Fourth, I keep hearing Obi Wan Kenobi saying “there has been a great disturbance in the force”. Something is wrong with the world today and a great void has been opened with Rachel’s passing. I’m sure that those who love her will step into that space, but it will take us a bit of time to feel comfortable taking on that mantle.
In her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, she characterized herself as the Christian girl who knew all the answers — Bible drills, youth group contests, apologetics classes. Great at debate, she knew how to pick holes in secular arguments to show how Christian worldview answers could stand up to scrutiny. And then she found that the broader world didn’t fit the tight apologetics box that she had constructed.
What does one do when the world is more complicated than one’s faith perspective suggests? Many simply abandon the faith as a bunch of fairy tales. Others double-down on their prior perspectives and attempt to pretend everything is fine.
For her, the conflict was the beginning of a long and challenging journey to make sense of her faith in ways that grappled with the complexity she found. That she never forgot her roots even while frustrated with contemporary expressions of evangelicalism is testimony to how hard she worked to have it all make sense in a Jesus-honoring way.
Many in the evangelical world did not see her hard work, courage, and faith as I did. They saw someone who wasn’t sufficiently biblical, who was speaking beyond her training, and who, of course, was a woman attempting to correct men. I like to think that Year of Biblical Womanhood was directed at those critics.
Her concerns about the institutional expressions of evangelicalism were captured in a piece she wrote on the CNN Belief blog on why millennials were leaving the church. My response affirming that piece remains the single highest one-day view count this blog has ever had.
The complexities of life she tried to work through included views of science, acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, and the nature of salvation for those in foreign lands. When conservatives evangelicals were willing to stop supporting needy children as a message to WorldVision opposing its proposed stance to hire LGBTQ staff members, she declared herself no longer an evangelical.
I’ve always taken her departure from evangelicalism more in the spirit of “if that’s what it takes, then I can’t be part of it”. That’s more or less what she told her home church pastor as she described in Searching for Sunday.
And yet Rachel was committed to a life of faith. She believed the Bible is God’s word for God’s people and thought it should be taken seriously. She was devoted to following Jesus as Savior and guide and longed for the coming Kingdom. She gave herself to endlessly sharing that message with thousands of others.
If that’s not the Bebbington Quadrilateral, I don’t know what is.
I was privileged to attend the Evolving Faith Rachel hosted along with Sarah Bessey in Montreat last October. It was a delightful event with a great lineup of speakers: you can find my account in the archives.
Three things stand out to me as I remember Rachel at that event. The first was her leading a conversation about all the good seed that had been planted through her evangelical upbringing. The second was her interest in honestly struggling with the various perspectives those great speakers shared. Third, and most importantly, it was clear that Rachel was a person who loved relating to others whether that were her fellow conference speakers or random people who came up to talk (there’s a reason the book signing session ran an hour long!).
Rachel showed us all that evangelicalism has more resilience than either its most vicious critics or it staunchest defenders have ever considered. That it was okay to ask yourself questions about faith and culture while striving to follow Jesus. That God is not afraid of the questions or the moments of doubt.
That in the midst of the politics and the structures and the patriarchy and the pain, there was still Good News and that we need to embrace it.
In her much too short life, she lit a path that shows us a way forward. It will now fall to those she influenced to step into the void she leaves and continue the work. Based on what I’ve read online today, I’m tremendously encouraged about what the future holds in store.
Thank you RHE for all you brought to us. For your wit and grace and honesty and struggle and faith, we give God thanks.