Respecting Rachel—At Last

Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans Headshot, from Wikimedia Commons, photo by Dan Evans

by Anne Linstatter

Although we don’t like to admit it, probably all of us at one time or another may find ourselves being judgmental and closed-minded. I am a case in point.

When I first heard about a book called A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master,’ my response was “Pu-leeze!  I’m not interested.”  I did a blog post in November 2011, about a year before the book came out, basing my comments on a report on NPR’s All Things Considered.

But the book went on to become a New York Times best-seller and the author, Rachel Held Evans, had amassed 64,000 followers on Twitter and 50,000 fans on Facebook by 2015.

Others in EEWC-CFT had taken the work of Rachel Held Evans more seriously than I did. Alena Amato Ruggerio reviewed it for Christian Feminism Today in April 2013, applauding Rachel’s wit, yet seriousness, as she “demonstrates the absurdity of trying to take all the Bible’s teachings about women literally for one year.” To me that absurdity was obvious, and I wanted nothing to do with the book.

RHE—she came to be known affectionately by her initials— is “currently one of our best hopes of getting the message of Christian feminism out into the discourse of popular culture,” observed Alena, chiding her only for her exclusively-masculine pronouns for God and her unwillingness to claim fully the f-word (for us that’s feminism) in identifying herself.

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott had already reviewed RHE’s first book, Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions, for the CFT website in summer 2011.  Rachel Held Evans writes well, Virginia noted, quoting her insight that “doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves.”

Now we are approaching the one-year anniversary of April 2019, when Rachel was hospitalized for an infection and then died on May 4 at age 37.  I’ve just finished reading Monkey Town, now renamed Faith Unraveled, and I was deeply moved.

I need to make amends to Rachel for being so contemptuous of her books without even having read them and not considering them worth my time when I first heard about them.  Now my attitude is altogether different. I respect her as a feminist, a journalist, a good writer, and an evangelist for biblical feminism.

What moved me most in Faith Unraveled was a chapter that begins with a little boy and his sisters in India losing their mother to HIV after their father had already died.  Rachel had met the little boy and prayed for his mother to be healed.  Back in the US, she learned that his mother had died, “that Kanakaraju was struggling to accept his mother’s death, that he was crying for her every night.”  Rachel’s selection of this story to write about feels eerie in light of her own death when her two children were ages four and one.  She had had so much compassion for these kids in India, as if in the realm of eternity their lives were already linked to hers by similar fates in what she called “the cosmic lottery.”

Although she used the lottery metaphor to refer to where and when humans are born and whether they will hear about Jesus, I extend it to the circumstances of one’s death.  Her journey in questioning some aspects of evangelical orthodoxy began with doubts about eternal damnation for people who had never heard of Jesus and never accepted him as their personal savior.

I cheered when I read of Rachel as a junior in a Christian college feeling uncomfortable with the idea of “feminism as a threat to the biblical role of women in society” and also when she meets “Sam the Feminist,” who says  “‘I’m not into all this hellfire and damnation stuff, and I’m definitely not into this submit-to-your-husband stuff.   I can’t imagine telling my gay friends that they’ve got to force themselves to be straight….’”  Rachel ends up with views on LGBTQ issues very much like those of CFT members, and she changes her membership to the Episcopal church.

Her years as a journalist working for the newspaper in Chattanooga, Tennessee, also won my respect.  Rachel Held Evans was a serious person, not just a blogger who had decided to camp in her front yard during her menstrual cycle.  I realized that her frustration with “biblical womanhood,” and her desire to reach women still caught up in it, had led her to this extreme publicity stunt.

This re-evaluation led me to wonder what caused me to scorn RHE for so many years. Virginia and Alena had reviewed her books; Jamie Calloway-Hanauer had posted in ViewPoint on Rachel’s critique of an online conference for scheduling only four women out of one hundred speakers.   In another ViewPoint post, Reta Halteman Finger in “Submission, Subjection, and Subversion in Household Codes” applauded RHE’s blog post on female submission.   Letha Dawson Scanzoni had referred to her “excellent critique and list of related resources about the abusive teachings of Debi Pearl and her husband” in an article for CFT.  In the Where She Is blog, Lē Weaver summarized RHE’s warm and humorous speech to the 2014 Gay Christian Network conference.  In 2013, Lē had responded in their blog to RHE’s challenge to complementarians to explain exactly what they think the Bible prescribes regarding gender roles.  Melanie Springer Mock in CFT’s FemFaith blog mentioned hearing her speak on the campus of George Fox University.  Letha, Lē, and others directed many Link of the Day posts to RHE’s writing.

After Rachel’s death, Letha wrote a beautiful memorial reflection for this website about her life and work and its outreach, and CFT also published a Link of the Day with a complete reference list to the four articles and seventeen Links of the Day about Rachel on our site over the years.

In light of all that CFT interest and respect, I realized my disinterest in Rachel’s blog and books came down to my own woundedness and arrogance.

She seemed to be reinventing the wheel.  As Lē points out, “…people have been doing this work for more than 40 years”—re-evaluating what the Bible says about women, closely examining the texts and contexts, getting ignored, being accused of heresy.  Many of those doing this work are leaders in EEWC-CFT, but RHE doesn’t seem to be aware of the history.  It’s not even clear whether she had ever read Letha’s ground-breaking book with Nancy Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today (1974).

Instead of reaching out to Rachel Held Evans with friendship and with welcome into a long history, I ignored her.

It’s kind of like my response to those who worked to get Virginia’s Senate and General Assembly to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.  They succeeded recently, making Virginia the 38th state to ratify; but Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia are all 37 years too late. I carry a lot of hurt and anger about the defeat of the ERA in 1982, and I have zero enthusiasm for refighting that battle.

Can I join in to debate “the biblical view of womanhood”?  No, thank you.  The very terms are abhorrent to me—womanhood as a monolithic concept, the essentialist idea that men and women are fundamentally very different, and that gender can be defined.  These binary categories ignore the reality of a non-binary Creator who made us in the divine image but with an ability to reproduce.

Yes, I can get fairly heated about this.  I’m not healed of the wounds I’ve sustained in fifty years of being a biblical feminist.  But I do recognize my arrogance and the harm it has caused.  I’m still impatient with those who don’t have the whole truth, as I sometimes think I do.  I’m wary of Christian feminists who don’t support LGBTQ rights, or those who still argue with complementarians over whether women should be in submission to their husbands.  I have to watch my tongue, pause my tweets, and pray for guidance.

I also pray for patience with Christian feminists whose hermeneutics or online profiles don’t match my definition of “biblical”—and for patience with people whose political views are different from mine in this election year that also included a vote by the House of Representatives to impeach the president and a Senate trial which ended in an acquittal.

In the closing chapter of Faith Unraveled, “Living the Questions,” RHE writes about Christian certainty and arrogance: “We learned as Christians that we alone had access to absolute truth and could win any argument.”  She prescribes a little healthy doubt and humility.

I hope we in CFT will interact more with the many other Christian feminists springing up all around us:

  • Southern Baptist leaders like Molly T. Marshall, Shirley Taylor, Beth Moore, Laura Mayo, and Susan Codone.
  • Those blogging and writing books like Sarah Bessey, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jory Micah, Diana Butler Bass, and Lily Burana.
  • Those planning or attending conferences of Evolving Faith, Q Christian Fellowship, The Justice Conference, Christians for Biblical Equality, Sheology, Equity Live, and others.
  • Women pastors and leaders who may not describe themselves as feminists but are walking the talk—Ann Voscamp, Kay Warren, and Gayle Haywood, for example.

We each need to companion one or more of these leaders or organizations, reading their blogs and tweets, listening to their talks on YouTube, reviewing their books, attending their conferences or speaking engagements, and welcoming them to the wider history of which EEWC-CFT is a part.  We can learn from them, and they from us.

That’s how I’m going to make amends for closing my heart and mind to Rachel Held Evans—by being open to other women working to change our churches.

1 COMMENT

  1. This is really powerful, Anne, and reflects my own initial irritation with RHE and other young feminists who seemed to be “re-inventing the wheel.” I appreciate your humility in this post, and your willingness to call our attention back to RHE and the powerful work she’s done.

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