On Saturday, May 4th, author Rachel Held Evans passed away at the age of 37. For the last ten or so years, Rachel had been a significant voice within the (ex)evangelical Christian community. Through her blog, her books, and organizing conferences, Rachel had an impact on many people, including several of WIT’s contributors. As we wrestle with our grief over her unexpected death, we wanted to gather our thoughts and share the impact her work and her person had on us.
Someone posted an article critiquing the intentionally of the church in choosing to abuse women through patriarchal doctrines and further brainwashing women to perpetuate the same doctrines. When I scrolled to the bottom of the article, there was a picture of a young woman, smiling near a tree or church building. I cannot remember the backdrop, but I remember the smile. Her appearance did not match the fiery words of truth that made me want to shout – in a Pentecostal manner. How can a young woman – like this – be so brave and know how to accurately “check” the church on their patriarchy? To follow there were tweets from Rachel confronting racism, sexism, xenophobia and more. But I really began to recognize her brilliance in the 2012 publication of “The Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’”. There were random facebook moms sharing this book with me. They, too, struggle with the idea of remaining committed to traditional religion as it possesses some great tenants for family building yet remains cemented with the premise of women being seen as less than equal to a man despite being made in the imago dei ….just like a man. Rachel’s work crossed boundaries and reached all women seeking for answers beyond what was taught in their church homes.
Today, I am within weeks of divorce and raising three little girls on my own. I have gladly been there for them 100 percent emotionally, spiritually, physically and developmentally. There are days where I am juggling dinner, laundry, lunches, ironing clothes, house work, church, all extracurricular activities, finishing a PhD in theology, putting out emergencies like flooded basement and now an archaic HVAC unit needs to be replaced in the North Carolina heat. This doesn’t include the moments of balancing hugs, still breastfeeding at night, listening to the drama from school, requests about sleepovers/playdates, potty-training and last night it was my oldest daughter accidentally eating my vegan cashew ice cream and a 911 call due to her peanut allergy. I do not mention this for any sort of pity, but what I remember was that Rachel was also married and mother of two small children. Still, she kept with her craft and mission to own full agency of herself; and this required doing the written work that helps the world.
Somedays, I ask myself, “Is there time for me?” Rachel’s bravery reminds me that I am to take full agency of my life in every area as mother, doctoral student, writer, minister, in pursuing the love I deserve and being my best healthy self. Today, I can say that all areas are flourishing, and I am proud to no longer be held back by patriarchal restrictions that suggest I do otherwise.
I honor Rachel’s legacy and light; may our work be the healthy reaction needed to rid the church from the anti-Christian pathogens of hate and refusal to change.
I have been writing for the past few months about the two years I spent living and teaching in Jakarta, so I have been thinking about Rachel a lot. My deconstruction process, which began in college, became more intense and even more isolated after I left for Jakarta. I had no spiritual community and no real hope of finding one. Rachel was a light during this time, a tender, dynamic guide. I lived for her Sunday Superlatives—I read everything she posted and everything she recommended. I felt deeply connected to the community she created, and I have thought of it as my first true experience of church.
I feel as though I’ve just lost a real-life friend and mentor, one I haven’t spoken to in years. As you may have read, and as you may be able to subsequently assume, the grief I am feeling is somewhat complicated. It was only three months ago that I publicly remembered the way that Nadia and Rachel responded to Tony Jones’ ex-wife, Julie, when Julie reached out to them for help.
“Words and deeds and lies and truth are all mixed up in me and are perfectly sincere”—a Dostoevsky quote that came to mind as I tried to find a way to express that I did and do believe that Rachel meant well. That’s what was so special about her: she was trustworthy, at least in the sense that she tried to be. She had an innate goodness that I trusted absolutely.
Women of valor make mistakes too. This one was dark, consequential, for many. It brought up old wounds, and for some of us, it was the last betrayal, the last time we were able to trust anyone or anything associated with the church. But the ocean of darkness and the ocean of light flow together, to vaguely reference George Fox and also multiple others. The effect Rachel had on us, the light she shared with us, was good and real. I cannot yet fathom what we are going to do without it.
Though I can’t help feeling that some enormous measure of light has now left us, I keep remembering the scene near the end of The Half-Blood Prince, where everyone gathers and raises their wands, their lights, as they say goodbye to Dumbledore. I remember seeing it as symbolic—he was gone, but his light flickered in every soul at that school.
I first heard her warm Southern voice in 2012 when she gave a radio interview on CBC about her new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. She was responding to her critics by saying that they were conflating “a challenge of their interpretation of the text with a challenge of the text itself.” She went on to describe her disappointment with some dismissals of her and her book:
One of the reasons I wanted to do this is because I love the Bible, and I hate seeing it reduced to an adjective, I hate the reductive way in which we talk about the Bible as if ‘biblical womanhood’ is clearly this or clearly that. But instead of really engaging me in that conversation, what I’ve seen, time and time again, is this ‘Well, if you disagree with my interpretation of the Bible, then clearly you don’t love the Bible, clearly you hate the Bible, clearly you don’t regard it as sacred,’ when nothing could be farther from the truth.
She was speaking my language. At the time, I had recently finished my MTS. During my studies I had encountered wonderful feminist theologians for the first time. While I had much joy in what I had learned, I also had an accompanying sadness: Why did it take until I was working on a second degree in religion and theology before I heard of these ideas? “Surely these good things should be easier to find!” I thought. In my ministry with teens, undergrads, and young adults I kept having conversations about gender but felt frustrated because I didn’t have any good, accessible resources to answer people’s questions or to counter the constricting narratives of the complementarian framework. But then! There was Rachel. She, in her imperfect, honest, thoughtful, human way was the one I was (we were) waiting for. She helped bridge the gap and put big, liberating ideas I knew and loved into the colloquial of our shared religious “mother tongue.”
Since then I have drawn on her work again and again. I have admired her wrestling with a changing faith, and her refusal to cede to those who claimed to have the monopoly on ‘taking the bible seriously’ (which is indirect evangelical-speak for being a “real” Christian). She taught me, among many other things, the phrase eshet chayil –“woman of valour”– as she resuscitated Proverbs 31 for me.
Rachel Held Evans learned to substitute a faith based on empirical certainty with one based on trust and faithful question asking. As she opened her eyes and ears she reckoned with her own white privilege and her participation in the marginalization of LGBTQ+ persons. She then committed to doing her best to elevate voices that didn’t fit the straight-white-evangelical mold, and shared her platforms generously. In the midst of a religious space that is often preoccupied with boundary maintenance, she spoke loudly against the dominant voices that tried to say “God doesn’t love you, there’s no room for you in this house.” She told us all that there was room for our questions, our doubts, our intellects, and our bodies amongst the people of God; we all counted and mattered.
I learned from her and looked up to her. I am grieving the loss of her as a person and the loss of the remainder of her journey that we won’t get to see and learn from. I’ll close with one of my favourite quotes from this beloved woman of valour: “God may be pleased with a gentle and quiet spirit, but not in every case. As long as the world is filled with oppression, injustice, sickness, and war, there will always be things worth making a big ole stink about.”
Rachel was the reason I first ventured out of the house when my second child was born. A women’s study at my parish was reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and even in my newborn fog (my daughter was just a few weeks old), I knew I wanted to go. I’d just come across RHE’s blog post article on Proverbs 31 (I was apparently Googling Proverbs 31 woman back then), and was delighted to hear that there might be other women like me who found a kindred spirit in RHE.
There are so many things to love about her writing: her wit and humor, the way she was able to take complicated concepts and make them accessible, her relentless commitment to do research and talk to experts across denominations and faith traditions. But the one thing that always stood out to me was that this was someone who clearly loved God and Scripture who, in the face of doubt and an unraveling of her faith, was willing to dive in and wrestle with God. I didn’t know it back then, but her voice has made me feel less afraid and not so alone, now that I am navigating the shifting waters of my own faith.
Earlier this year, I was on the road listening to Jen Hatmaker’s podcast For the Love, and heard the episode with Rachel. At one point she talks about Midrash and the Jewish posture towards Scripture — that the Bible is “a conversation starter, not a conversation ender.” She puts into words something that I’ve found to be increasingly tiresome over the years, the use of Scripture like it’s a weapon:
So many Christians kind of come to the Bible like we’re looking for ammunition to win a debate, you know? We think there’s just one meaning from this story. We have to figure out that meaning and then defend it at all costs. It’s kind of this zero sum game.
Whereas the Jewish posture towards the Bible is; where there’s a contradiction or a question or an unanswered question–where there’s even kind of a hole in the story–you get to imaginatively fill in that hole. There’s an invitation to sort of play and to accept the Bible as … to accept scripture as an invitation to conversation…into community.
At a time when so much of our culture is marked with hatred and division, Rachel’s voice has been a clear and consistent reminder of the generosity and bigness of our God. Along with so many others, I am so saddened by her loss and challenged by her example to dig deep, to wrestle with God, and to live a life that speaks the truth that there is room at God’s table for all of us.
Today, I pray that your words reach those who most need them and may God hold your grieving loved ones with the tenderness of a mother. Eshet chayil, sister.