I had not heard of Rachel Held Evans until she died on May 4. My wife noticed a write-up about her online and pointed it out to me. “An influential progressive Christian writer and speaker who cheerfully challenged American evangelical culture.” That descriptor from Slate seemed pretty typical, from what I was beginning to gather.
Intrigued, I started reading more. Only 37 years old, Evans died after a series of medical events: a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics that led to sustained seizures; a medically induced coma to address the seizures; the return of seizures when doctors attempted to wean her from the medications that were inducing the coma; severe swelling of her brain, and ultimately her death.
She leaves behind a husband, Dan, two children, and from what I am beginning to gather, a legacy of courageous thought, prayer, and truth-telling that earned her an admiring, loving, and faithful following, as well as respectful, engaged critics.
I’m just at the tip of the iceberg in discovering Rachel Held Evans, a woman who shared deeply of herself and her journey of faith (raised an evangelical, she left and joined the Episcopal Church in 2014). But given what I am discovering is the importance of her voice, also its resonance with many of the thoughts and sentiments of others I’ve encountered in working on this website and blog, it would feel remiss not to acknowledge Evans’s passing.
What follows is the barest of introductions, two quotations that suggest a side of Evans that appears to have endeared her as much as anything to those who read her work, agreed with her, debated her, and admired her authenticity, courage, grace, and humor. It’s the side that says none of us yet knows how to be a Christian, and we need each other to learn.
On May 21, 2016, Evans wrote a blog “rewrite” of a commencement address she had given in 2003 to her classmates at Bryan College, a small conservative Christian university in Tennessee. An excerpt from that 2016 blog post follows.
“I thought I was called to challenge the atheists, but the atheists ended up challenging me. I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead God used gay people to show me how to be Christian. I thought the world needed my answers, but as it turns out, I needed the world’s questions. I needed to learn how to doubt well, listen better, and be humbled by how little I know. I needed to discover that evangelicalism is just one table in Christ’s banquet hall, the Great Cloud of Witnesses far more sprawling and diverse than I’d ever imagined. . . .
I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead God used gay people to show me how to be Christian.
“And lest you think I count myself finished, know this: When I was a Bible-thumping, church-going, know-it-all Republican, God used bleeding-heart, politically-correct, question-everything liberals to teach me to be human, to challenge my notions of who the enemy is. But now that I’m a bleeding-heart, politically-correct, question-everything liberal, God insists on using Bible-thumping, church-going, know-it-all Republicans to teach me to be human, to challenge my notions of who the enemy is.
“God, it seems, is rather stubbornly committed to extracting me from the notion that this is all about being right.”
Glennon Doyle Melton, author of Carry On, Warrior and founder of Momastery.com and Together Rising, wrote in a foreword to Evans’s 2015 book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church:
“Rachel’s Christianity is a daily discipline of boundless grace—for herself, for the church, for those the church leaves out. The faith she describes in Searching for Sunday is less of a club to belong to and more of a current to enter into—a current that continuously carries her toward the people and places she’s been taught to fear. Rachel finds herself not only loving these people, but learning that she is these people. In Searching for Sunday, Rachel convinces us that there is not them and us; there is only us. This idea of hers is both comforting and slightly terrifying. I have a hunch that comforting and terrifying is exactly what faith should be.”
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Research