Remembering Rachel Held Evans
I’ve wanted to write this post for the last week, but I’ve dreaded writing it, too. How do I write a remembrance of someone I met once, briefly, in a signing line at a conference? How do I mourn someone who was a mentor, a pastor, an elder sister, even though she never knew my name?
I don’t really know how, to be honest. But Rachel Held Evans was precisely the voice I needed in my faith journey and I’m devastated that she cannot continue to point the way, to comfort and provoke, to show the love of God to hundreds and thousands of people through her words.
So I’m going to write about how Rachel Held Evans influenced my life, so that my story can add to the many others in a memorial to her faithful ministry.
I’m almost exactly the same age as Rachel: both of us were born in the summer of 1981, which makes us either very young Gen Xers or very old Millennials. Both of us were raised in the subculture of the evangelical church — I could have given her a run for her money in Sword Drills — and both of us, in our early 20s, began to be dissatisfied with evangelical Christianity.
For me, that discomfort arose in the context of graduate school at a state university. For the first time, I was outside of the (very small) bubble of the homeschooling world and the (slightly larger) bubble of my evangelical college. I was becoming friends with people who were Catholic and mainline Protestant and Jewish and agnostic and I was spending time with kind, compassionate, moral people who weren’t Christians.
More, I wasn’t persecuted or even ridiculed for my faith, as I had been told I would likely be; I didn’t need the apologetics I had learned. In fact, it was my agnostic friends who taught me how to listen with respect to other beliefs as they asked me genuine questions about my faith.
In addition, feminist theory was making more and more sense to me. And when my first daughter was born in 2009, I realized that I was indeed a feminist: I was ambivalent about advocating for myself, but when I looked into her tiny, perfect face I knew that I would do everything in my power to protect her from the destructive effects of the patriarchy.
Secular universities, agnostic friends, and feminists had all been presented as dangers (or conversion opportunities) in my evangelical subculture. But in the university, building friendships with agnostic feminists, I began to wonder: what else might evangelical Christianity have gotten wrong? But what would it look like to be a Christian without being an evangelical?
This is when I first found Rachel Held Evan’s blog. I’m not sure exactly when or how; it was before A Year of Biblical Womanhood was published, so perhaps 2010 or so. And she was asking the questions I was asking: can Christians be feminists, accept evolution, even (gasp) vote for democrats? Can we leave behind the legalistic dogma of evangelicalism while still loving Jesus and seeing scripture as inspired?
As it turns out, a whole lot of us were asking these questions. And Rachel, with her humor and honesty and vulnerability, quickly became a leading voice — a mentor, a pastor — among those of us who wanted to learn how to love God and love our neighbor and care about the environment and support egalitarian theology and work towards social justice.
I’m not one of the many people who kept their faith because of Rachel’s work. But she helped me to articulate my discomfort with some aspects of the evangelical church and, most importantly, she showed me that I could seek to be a faithful follower of Jesus even as I rejected many of the teachings I had grown up with.
Because of Rachel Held Evans, I can read Proverbs 31 without cringing and without despairing of ever being a “biblical” woman.
Because of Rachel Held Evans, I can better sift what is essential (as an Anglican, the Creeds) and what is non-essential (like a literal seven-day creation).
And because of Rachel Held Evans, I haven’t spiraled into anger and bitterness (or at least, not as much as I could have). Rachel was bold, but never cruel. She once said — perhaps on an episode of The Liturgists podcast — that she would gladly receive communion with a person who was, at the time, attacking her on social media. She said, simply, that he was a brother in Christ, so of course she would take communion with him.
This continues to challenge me. It’s easy, when we leave something behind, to decide that it was all bad, to want to burn it behind us. To want to treat others as they have treated us, questioning our salvation when we depart from evangelical dogma and cutting us out of the community.
But Rachel challenged, and continues to challenge, me to be more charitable. To remember that there was much good in the evangelical subculture. To recognize others as my brothers and sisters in Christ even when we disagree strongly.
I can’t believe that she’s gone so soon, that she won’t be with me through her words as I continue to work out my faith. It seems wrong and unfair: why her, when she was so loved and loving, when she helped so many of us stay with Jesus even as we walked through the wilderness?
I don’t know why her. I don’t understand why she died so soon. I’m angry and sad and stunned. But here’s what I do know: because of Rachel Held Evans, my faith is stronger and deeper and richer. And because of Rachel Held Evans, I found freedom and found my voice so that I, too, can help point people to Christ and to the rich freedom and community of life lived in the hope of the resurrection.