by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Several weeks have now passed since the beloved Christian author and blogger Rachel Held Evans died at age 37. It’s still hard to believe she is really gone— and that her funeral will take place on June 1. Our hearts ache for her husband and the couple’s three-year-old son and baby daughter.
As both major media and social media announced Rachel’s death May 4, countless articles about what she meant to so many spread rapidly across the globe and continued appearing in the weeks following. What brought such worldwide news coverage and the tremendous outpouring of grief and gratitude for the gift Rachel Held Evans gave to the world in her brief lifetime?
When she began writing her first book, Rachel mused that she was “probably too young to write a memoir.” She was 27 then. Yet, by the time of her death a little more than a decade later, she had gifted to the world not only that book, but three additional books, more than eleven years of blog posts, innumerable contributions to her Twitter feed and Facebook, audio and video interviews, numerous sermons and public talks to a variety of audiences, and insightful articles with a wide outreach online and in print, as well as innovative networking and conference planning.
Expanding Circles of Influence
After she died on May 4, 2019, it was clear immediately that her circles of influence would keep expanding. Many people, who said they’d never heard of Rachel before the extensive news coverage, now vowed to read everything she had ever written. Sales of her books climbed. And since so many people reported changed lives because of Rachel Held Evans (often referred to by her initials, RHE), a new hashtag quickly appeared on Twitter: #BecauseOfRHE. Scores of people told stories of the new direction their lives had taken “because of Rachel.”
Rachel loved stories, as she demonstrated in her 2018 book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Learning to Love the Bible Again. She not only believed that every person, every family, had their own unique story but that we would understand the Bible better if we realized “the Spirit spoke the language of stories” rather than giving us pat answers to tough questions (see ch. 1, “Origin Stories”).
A Special Kind of Leadership
Back in 2013, Fred Clark in his popular Slacktivist blog on Patheos, pointed out her style of leadership—a style the evangelical gatekeepers and powers that be wouldn’t be able to recognize, he said, because to them, leadership meant acquiring power and fame. Not so with Rachel Held Evans. The kind of leadership he saw in her was “not about amassing power for oneself” but about empowering others. “It’s a walking-with rather than a standing-above kind of leadership.” He said if she read what he was saying, she would squirm, uneasy about being singled out because she’d want him to mention so many others as well. At the time he was writing, the long list of female bloggers was already growing; and he pointed out that their voices hadn’t yet drawn “the full attention of the evangelical powers that be, partly because those voices are women’s voices.”
That lack of attention by conservative evangelical’s gatekeepers changed in the ensuing years as Rachel’s influence grew. She confronted many of the most reactionary voices in conservative Christianity, dialogued with them publicly and privately, and at times drew their respect while at other times their wrath.
She was never afraid to speak truth to power, including the power of highly influential conservative religious leaders whose followers thought they had the final word from on high and expected to stop any argument by triumphantly citing some Bible passage. Such proof-texting didn’t sit well with Rachel, who knew her Bible from cover to cover and could challenge their interpretations. A year ago, she strongly disputed John Piper’s claim that the problem of sexual abuse, brought into sharp focus by the #MeToo movement, could be solved by what Piper considered the Bible’s teaching on “masculinity” and male headship, with men designated by God to be the protectors of women.
Rachel took issue with his interpretation in a long blog post spelling out how such teachings do just the opposite. “Contrary to Piper’s argument,” she wrote, “patriarchy isn’t about protecting women; it’s about protecting men. It’s about preserving male rule over the home, church, and society, often at the expense of women.”
A Prophet in Our Midst
After her death, many of us regarded her as having been a young prophet. Jonathan Merritt, in an opinion piece for USA Today, spoke of her as a “prophet with a pen”—although perhaps “prophet with a keyboard” would be more fitting. Merritt explained the prophet’s role in both Jewish and Christian history. “They often emerge in the midst of oppressive situations, when religious leaders have been co-opted by earthly rulers and politicians,” he wrote. “In such times, prophets appear from within the religious community to critique it and call it into a new reality.” Certainly, that description fits Rachel and the times in which we live. In his article, Merritt also called attention to Walter Brueggemann’s characterization of prophets as people who have had “some emancipatory experience in their own life,” which causes them to reject a definition of reality imposed by an outside power structure. That again fits Rachel as she dared to break free from the fundamentalist thought strictures imposed by the “Bible Belt” culture in which she grew up. She had doubts and questions that many in that religious subculture appeared not to think about or wouldn’t admit because of where such thinking might lead and how others would regard them.
“The problem with fundamentalism is that it can’t adapt to change,” Rachel wrote at the beginning of her first book, now published under the title, Faith Unraveled (originally titled Evolving in Monkey Town, because she grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, site of the famous 1925 Scopes Trial about teaching evolution in the schools). “When you count each one of your beliefs as absolutely essential, change is never an option. When change is never an option, you have to hope that the world stays exactly as it is so as not to mess with your view of it.”
Yet, Rachel Held Evans rejected the title “prophet” as applied to herself.
In an interview during the 2017 Writer’s Workshop at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, she told Rev. Roger Nelson that she felt the word prophetic was overused and that her life was “too comfortable” to call herself prophetic. Her quick-witted response was an example of not taking herself too seriously. “People still pay me to speak, and they don’t usually pay prophets to speak!” she continued with a laugh. She said she considered other voices to be prophetic and hoped to serve by “making those voices more accessible and amplifying them.”
She also pushed back when Pastor Nelson spoke of her as a “pastor.” He said she seemed to have served his congregation in that way during the year his church’s board of elders spent studying her third book, Searching for Sunday. She did, however, acknowledge a kind of pastoral role in her desire to “be a companion” with people in their journeys. (In the “Wisdom Stories” chapter of her book Inspiration, she spoke of the importance of simply sitting with people in their pain, “without judgment or solutions, and remain[ing] present and attentive no matter what the outcome.”)
To answer more fully Nelson’s interview question about exactly how she did regard herself, her characteristic humility showed through. “I see myself as just a writer who’s trying to be faithful to the work God has given her,” she said, “and to the people who happen to be in her life.”
Nelson mentioned that the people who had read and discussed Searching for Sunday in his church ranged from 30 to 70 years of age. Their engagement, as well as the comments from various age groups since her death, shows the influence Rachel’s writings have had in reaching across generations, even though she is primarily considered a voice for her own generation, the millennials.
According to the Pew Research Center’s definition of generational categories, millennials are those who were born in the years, 1981 to 1996. (Rachel was born in 1981.) The other categories include Generation X (born 1965-1980). Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), and the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945). Those born after 1997 are considered as Generation Z.
Around the time that I, as a member of the silent generation, discovered Rachel’s blog, one of my sons (a baby boomer) also had become aware of her work and suggested I write to her, knowing I and others of my generation had also written about some of the same concerns during our own younger years as evangelical Christians, especially about gender roles. Unfortunately, life’s vicissitudes intervened, and I never wrote to her, though I had hoped our paths would cross sometime. But regretfully, I never met Rachel except through her writing and online presentations. I think now of the good discussions we could have had.
During the time of the 1970s women’s movement, some of us members of the “silent generation” had been not so silent—especially within the evangelicalism of that time! Nancy Hardesty and I wrote All We’re Meant to Be in 1974 (which took issue with the traditional evangelical teaching that God intended male headship and female subordination everywhere and for all time). And in 1978, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott and I wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (which emphasized the rights and personhood of gay men and lesbians as being created in God’s image and loved). In between those two years was what Newsweek and other publications called the “The Year of the Evangelical.” The term evangelical had not taken on the toxic connotation it has today.
During that 1970s period, we were part of a progressive group of evangelicals, sometimes called “the Evangelical Left,” “the Young Evangelicals,” “the New Evangelicals,” and even “the Worldly Evangelicals.” To get out our message to open-minded people, wherever we could find them, we had to depend on writing articles for the few progressive evangelical publications available. We used the postal service to send out information to the mimeographed mailing lists we carefully compiled. Phone calls were prohibitively expensive, and of course, no cell phones nor internet existed. We gathered together with like-minded Christians for meetings and conferences when possible, and we attempted to find courageous book publishers who were willing to go against the status quo of evangelicalism with its smug assurance that all the answers were already in on most topics.
Not only did we have limited means of communication while doing our best to promote questioning and working for social justice, but we had to push against both the evangelical subculture and the larger American culture of that time. Society and its laws supported traditional patriarchal standards for marriage and family; limited higher educational and career opportunities for women; and considered homosexuality a sin, a crime, and a sign of mental illness.
So I marvel today at the communication tools available to Rachel and how she so deftly seized opportunities and maximized the possibilities of modern technology to bring together a vast community at just the right time and in just the right way to confront today’s enormous challenges. That doesn’t mean she disregarded the influence and outreach of those who preceded her and had raised many of the same questions she cared about—though perhaps not with the creativity and drama she used to make her point in A Year of Biblical Womanhood!
During a recorded conversation with Rachel Held Evans, along with an interviewer, Bible scholar Ben Witherington said it seemed women kept having to prove themselves in every generation. He recalled that in the late 1970s, when he was preparing his dissertation on women in the New Testament, he looked back on the sixties and seventies and naively thought everything was becoming settled— that women’s ordination and other signs of continuing progress toward women’s equality would grow. But then came the 1990s and the 21st century, he said, and the work “had to be done all over again.”
Rachel tried to reassure him of her appreciation of the research and study done by earlier scholars.
“It makes it easier for each generation to come along when folks have done the work ahead of time and made the arguments, and combed the scriptures, and addressed the passages that are relevant. I’m incredibly, profoundly grateful for that,” she said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.”
But Rachel knew how to keep that wheel turning—especially when it came to her own generation. She knew the language, its popular culture, its anxieties, its loneliness, its hurts, its pleasures, its questions. She knew how to talk with millennials. And she knew exactly where to find them—online. So that’s where she went. There she would find an audience, learn more about what they cared about, and begin building a community.
A Blog Community
“Most of the people I’ve encountered are looking not for a religion to answer all their questions, but for a community of faith in which they can feel safe asking them,” she wrote in a chapter titled “Living the Questions” in Faith Unraveled. That awareness would guide her as she worked on the book (her first) and as she started her blog in December 2007. There she shared her story and invited her readers to share theirs. She wanted it to be a collaborative effort from the beginning, inviting comments and discussions. She would also frequently feature guests from a variety of traditions and experiences. She hoped that all who came to her blog would listen and learn and not fear asking questions. It would be an inclusive community with everyone welcome to participate. (See her series “Ask a _________” and note the diversity of people and views represented there. And look at some of her other series, too, as well as individual posts not connected to series.)
In a 2013 interview at the Loma Linda Writer’s Conference, Rachel somewhat humorously spoke about her experience of blogging (including her initial obsessiveness with checking statistics on how many were reading the blog at a given time). She also pointed out that blogging gave her a platform she otherwise wouldn’t have had and helped her know her audience and what they cared about. And it brought together what she spoke of as “a faithful following of readers”—in other words, a community.
As historian Kristin Du Mez has pointed out, the community Rachel Held Evans created had become a coalition, a force to be reckoned with that caught conservative evangelicalism’s patriarchal establishment off guard. No longer could the gatekeepers try to stifle women’s voices by weaponizing prooftexts to prevent today’s women from following God’s call to exercise their Spirit-given gifts. No longer could power-seeking men stop women from being heard or read by limiting where they could speak or be published. The internet and the ways smart, determined, talented Christian women were utilizing advances in modern technology was giving them an outreach that would prove unstoppable.
The Concerns of Millennials
In her prologue to Searching for Sunday, Rachel spoke about telling church leaders that millennials are “tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power” and that millennials want to be known by what they’re for, not what they’re against. “We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith,” she emphasized. Millennials want church to be a safe place for asking questions and discussing “tough stuff”—a place where both hearts and minds can be brought honestly, without “wearing a mask.” She stressed that millennials want authenticity. And they want their LGBTQ friends to be welcome.
She had made similar points in a widely read and oft-quoted article for CNN’s Belief Blog in 2013. Already in the early years of her blog, she was asserting that church leaders had It all wrong in thinking the way to attract young people was through being “hip” and providing fog machines and light shows to entertain. Her 2011 blog post, “Blessed are the un-cool,” was one of her most popular and brought in hundreds of comments.
Rachel knew especially the struggles of young people who grew up within the evangelical subculture where questions were neither welcome nor considered necessary, since its leaders believed they had figured everything out and had passed on all the answers within an ironclad system of understanding the Bible. Many in that generation thought they had given the younger generations the gift of certainty. “So ready with the answers, we didn’t know what the questions were anymore,” Rachel wrote in her “Living the Questions” chapter in Faith Unraveled. She went on: “So prepared to defend the faith, we missed the thrill of discovering it for ourselves.”
But the questions kept popping up. And that’s a major reason Rachel’s work has resonated so much with millennials. She voiced her own questions and doubts, which mirrored their own.
Love for the Bible
Her questioning also drew much criticism from certain quarters and even charges of heresy, some of which continued after her death. But Rachel’s personal love of the Bible comes through especially in her book, Inspiration, where she demonstrates her desire to teach her readers about how the Bible came to be and the variety of literary genres in the library of books that comprise it. This knowledge can guide us in our interpretation. “For those who count the Bible as sacred,” she wrote in the closing chapter of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, “interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We are all selective.” She stressed we need to be honest with ourselves about any biases we might have in our interpretation and applications.
Will we be reading the Bible through the eyes of love or “with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest, and greed?”
Rachel’s love for Scripture also shows up in her interview with Roger Nelson at the Western Theological Seminary Writer’s Workshop, cited earlier, where she described the Bible as “endlessly giving,” never running dry. Near the end of the video, one can see her eyes shining as she spontaneously and enthusiastically talks about having discovered a meaning that she had never noticed before in Isaiah 46 as she pointed out its beautiful mother imagery of God’s people being carried in God’s womb in contrast to heavy, inanimate, hand-crafted idols who couldn’t carry anyone but had to be carried on the backs of animals.
Criticisms from the Right and the Left on Two Major Issues.
Some conservative Christians, even if they didn’t go so far as to pronounce Rachel a hell-bound heretic (as some ultra-fundamentalists did), deemed her questions, doubts, and inclusiveness as having gone too far and too fast. On the other side, some progressive Christians felt she didn’t at times move fast enough or far enough. At times over the years, two of the topics that drew criticism from both sides were homosexuality and language for God.
My own observations of her writings and social media postings show me she was always aware and open to new concerns and revisiting older ones, including the two mentioned. She preferred to consider them not as abstract, impersonal “issues,” however, but rather in terms of people, all of whom she regarded as having been made in God’s image.
LGBTQ Concerns. In her very first blog post, Rachel Held Evans used the journey metaphor and hoped she and her readers could journey together. As part of her journey, she generously shared how her own thinking was evolving over time on many topics, including LGBTQ concerns, beginning with her first year of blogging when she urged readers to speak out against gay jokes. To see how her thinking on the topic of homosexuality kept unfolding throughout her journey, see the posts in this section of her blog. In 2014, she wrote of her amazement at the Spirit-filled energy and love for Jesus she observed among those who attended the Gay Christian Network Conference (GCN is now called Q Christian Fellowship), where she spoke. [Read a summary of that presentation here on CFT.] She became convinced that “LGBT Christians have a special role to play in teaching the Church what it means to be Christian” and said the church would suffer if it kept marginalizing and stigmatizing LGBTQ people. She determined to take a stand affirming LGBT Christians even though she knew it would likely put some of her work in jeopardy.
The timing of Rachel’s decision to leave evangelicalism (and later to join the Episcopal Church) was also directly related to her devotion to LGBTQ people. Her decision came about after World Vision, reacting to financial pressure from evangelicals, retracted its previously announced decision to employ Christians in same-sex partnerships. And her support for LGBTQ people continues even after her death. Her obituary lists an organization working for affirmation and inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church as one of the suggested places to donate gifts in her memory.
God and Gender. Three weeks before she died, one of Rachel’s final discussion threads on her Twitter account was in response to a far-right conservative video condemning what its producers considered to be a dangerous trend in popular culture and in liberal theology and feminism. It singled out Rachel for her one use of a feminine pronoun for God. She tweeted that some people still considered that as a reason she should be hastened into hell (April 11, 2019 thread).
She then tweeted that she wondered how “freaked out” such people were going to be when “they enter the full presence of God at resurrection and are suddenly hit with the reality that God’s not a dude?” This of course angered some people further. She said such critics actually misrepresented her position. “I don’t believe God is a woman. God is spirit. But all people are made in the image of God, which means God is not exclusively male either.”
Some Christian feminists have felt Rachel has not been aware enough or sensitive enough about the importance of feminine imagery for God. They might not realize the thinking she was already doing on this topic even during the first year of her blog. In April 2008, she wrote “Sometimes I think we need reminders that God is not who we expect Him/Her to be, that He/She is wholly other, both transcending and inhabiting our pronouns. It’s not about being politically correct; it’s about confronting the ways in which we have made God in our image.”
In a May 2014 blog post (well worth reading), Rachel Held Evans developed that point much more fully, saying we are “flirting with idolatry” if we view God as exclusively male or female. “And the fact that some people find the notion of a feminine God so repulsive reveals the degree to which this type of idolatry has snuck into the Church,” she wrote, “and the degree to which women in our society are still seen as lesser beings than men.”
She went on to explain that she usually avoided gendered pronouns to avoid controversy but was intentional in those times that she did speak of God in feminine terms. At the same time, she acknowledged how meaningful such terminology had come to be for her personally as a woman who was “indeed created in the image of God, not as some lesser being who exists in perpetual subordination to men, but as an expression of God’s very self.”
A Legacy for All Generations
In her CNN article mentioned earlier about reasons millennials are staying away from churches, Rachel said that it wasn’t only millennials who agreed with her assessment. Other generations did as well. “I hear from forty-somethings and grandmothers, Generation Xers and retirees, who send me messages in all caps that read “ME TOO,” she wrote.
One of my goals in preparing this article has been not only to honor Rachel’s memory and express gratitude for the legacy she has left us but also to introduce her work to some of the people in different generations who may be less familiar with it. We are all on a journey (one of Rachel’s favorite metaphors). And as she wrote in her “Living the Questions” chapter in Faith Unraveled, “Faith isn’t about being right, or settling down, or refusing to change. Faith is a journey, and every generation contributes its own sketches to the map.”