We grieve for her young family, and we feel the gap she leaves online. We grieve, but we do so with hope. As a believer in the physical resurrection of Jesus I am confident that she is with Jesus right now, awaiting his return.
Perhaps my favourite Rachel Held Evans quote is one I only read after writing the first draft of this article. It is so important that I simply had to include it in an update, and it was written when Rachel decided to no longer try to cling onto the label “evangelical”:
Finally, you can take the girl out of evangelicalism, but you can never take evangelicalism out of the girl. And that’s fine by me.
I will forever be grateful for all the beautiful gifts evangelicalism gave me—a high esteem for and knowledge of Scripture, a heart for activism, and a deeply personal experience and expression of faith. It was, after all, evangelicals who baptized me, evangelicals who taught me to read and pray and cook. It was evangelicals who first called me a Christian, evangelicals who first told me I was beloved by God.And it was evangelicals (my parents) who let me sob in their arms yesterday, evangelicals who risked their reputations to reach out in peace last week.
Evangelicalism has been and always will be home. I suspect a part of me will always miss it.
But there’s something strangely liberating about standing in the middle of this scorched earth terrain with the resolution to stop fighting, the resolution to give up. I am reminded of the one thing all we Christians have in common, whether we’re Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, Anabaptist, Quaker, or something in between: We are Resurrection people.
Our God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life, so if we want in on God’s business, we better prepare to follow God to all the rock-bottom, scorched-earth, dead-on-arrival corners of this world—including those in our own hearts— because that’s where God works, that’s where God gardens. There’s no ladder to holiness to climb, no self-improvement plan to follow. It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair.
Most days I don’t know which is harder for me to believe: that God reanimated the brain functions of a man three days dead, or that God can bring back to life all the beautiful things we have killed. Both seem pretty unlikely to me.
One of those, an anabaptist shared a prayer which Rachel had adapted showing both her great skill in writing and her compassion towards the needy:
God, go with us. Help us to be an honor to the church.
Give us the grace to follow Christ’s word,
to be clear in our task and careful in our speech.
Give us open hands and joyful hearts.
Let Christ be on our lips.
May our lives reflect a love of truth and compassion.
Let no one come to us and go away sad.
May we offer hope to the poor,
and solace to the disheartened.
Let us so walk before God’s people,
that those who follow us might come into his kingdom.
Let us sow loving seeds, words that are quick with life,
that faith may be the harvest in people’s hearts.
In word and in example let your light shine
in the dark like the morning star.
Do not allow the wealth of the world or its enchantment
flatter us into silence as to your truth.
Do not permit the powerful, or judges,
or our dearest friends
to keep us from professing what is right.
I miss the early days of blogging when Rachel’s name was familiar to Christians of all persuasions. Back then the echo chambers hadn’t formed so comprehensively as they have now. All too often we talk past those who disagree with us.
Google now has clever algorithms which often seem to serve us articles that it knows we are likely to agree with. Back then Google searches often delivered articles that articulated deeply contrasting views. You expected some results would surprise you with views that challenged your own. Now it often feels like you have to make a real effort if you want to seek out writing from authors from outside your own perspective.
I fear that this tendency towards creating intellectual bunkers is at least as much at fault as fake news is making society and the church more and more polarised. Where is the calm reasoned and respectful dialogue between diametrically opposite views?
In the early days of Christian blogging, at which time Rachel was clearly a leading voice, blogs like hers helped many Christians understand one another’s perspectives. I found myself agreeing with her more often than some others in my tribe would think I should.
In those early days we would read emerging writers from all kinds of different tribes in the Church and we were all the richer for it. Instead of interacting with straw men and women we could read short articles from real life people who followed different theological traditions than our own. And as a result we better understood other people’s positions and through having to explain them properly, we also better understood our own views.
As an early blogger, if you wrote a criticism of someone else, before you knew it that very person might be replying and explaining why you had misunderstood or misrepresented them! More than once Rachel Held Evans helped me understand better different perspectives to those I had learnt as a young evangelical.
Sadly the level of interaction between different schools of thought doesn’t seem to happen as much today. We seem to have largely retreated into only listening to people who we agree with, and we are much the worse for it.
In life Rachel was ruthlessly transparent. Beth More explains what drew so many to Rachel “in an era of gross hypocrisy, she was alarmingly honest.” She was never afraid to share her doubts as well as her criticisms of the Evangelical Church.
Rachel cried out for authenticity and drew huge respect from many who agreed with much of her diagnosis, and admired her clarity of thought, even if they didn’t agree with some aspects of her theology. Rachel described how as a young woman her concerns about the church threatened her faith:
“When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity: I didn’t like how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were being treated by my evangelical faith community. I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts. And, contrary to popular belief, the fog machines and light shows at those slick evangelical conferences didn’t make things better for me. They made the whole endeavor feel shallow, forced and fake.”
But Rachel didn’t ultimately give up on the church, eventually becoming an episcopalian. She also had a vision for how church could be:
“Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary”
“The church is God saying: ‘I’m throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine.”
“I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.”
“But the modern-day church doesn’t like to wander or wait. The modern-day church likes results. Convinced the gospel is a product we’ve got to sell to an increasingly shrinking market, we like our people to function as walking advertisements: happy, put-together, finished—proof that this Jesus stuff WORKS! At its best, such a culture generates pews of Stepford Wife–style robots with painted smiles and programmed moves. At its worst, it creates environments where abuse and corruption get covered up to protect reputations and preserve image. “The world is watching,” Christians like to say, “so let’s be on our best behavior and quickly hide the mess. Let’s throw up some before-and-after shots and roll that flashy footage of our miracle product blanching out every sign of dirt, hiding every sign of disease.” But if the world is watching, we might as well tell the truth. And the truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t offer a quick fix. The church offers death and resurrection. The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace. Anything else we try to peddle is snake oil. It’s not the real thing.”
― Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church
Rachel has always held a torchlight to the way in which many American Evangelicals have mixed religion and politics. A recent tweet was a fairly typical example of this:
“A conservative friend from South Africa posed an interesting question regarding Trump’s support among evangelicals. We tend to focus on the lies, racism, & sexual predation, but he asked, “How can followers of Jesus support someone famous for boasting about his wealth? ” March 29 2019
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