The Radically Inclusive Christianity of Rachel Held Evans
May 6, 2019
Rachel Held Evans, a formidable figure in contemporary Christianity, called for an intersectional approach that embraced people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. people, and women in all roles in the church.Photograph by Robin Rayne / ZUMA
Late on Friday evening, as Rachel Held Evans, a thirty-seven-year-old Christian activist, lay in a coma, in her hospital bed, in Nashville, Tennessee, her friend Nadia Bolz-Weber, a progressive pastor, anointed her forehead with frankincense. “Lord, let your servant go in peace,” Bolz-Weber intoned, beginning the liturgy of last rites. She couldn’t believe that she was performing them for her friend, and she told me later, “In times that we are collapsing, these are words that have been worn smooth by generations of the faithful.” To Bolz-Weber, and to Held Evans’s millions of fans, her sudden illness was inconceivable. She had two small children, and, just a month earlier, she and Bolz-Weber had been laughing about the challenges of motherhood. But soon after, while hospitalized for complications from the flu, doctors realized that she was experiencing seizures and placed her in a medically induced coma. Later, after weaning her off the coma medication, the medical team found that swelling of her brain had caused extensive damage from which she could not recover. She died on Saturday morning.
Rachel Held Evans, or R.H.E., as she was known, was one of the most formidable figures in contemporary Christianity. Raised in an evangelical household, she spent much of her adult life challenging the harmful role that conservative American culture plays in Christianity. In her four popular books, her talks, and her frequent presence on Twitter, she called for an intersectional approach to Christianity that embraced people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. people, and women in all roles in the church. This wasn’t a question of politics for Held Evans, who’d begun attending an Episcopal church in order to leave the culture wars behind; it was a matter of religious doctrine
. She fiercely insisted that God’s love included everyone, and she attempted to offer those who’d been shunned by the church a way to return. “Rachel pried open the door and then put her foot in the threshold and kept it open for other people,” Bolz-Weber told me. Like other progressive millennial Christian leaders, Held Evans believed that Jesus’ life and teachings embodied a radically inclusive love—for prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors, among other outcasts. Her work involved both welcoming and “amplifying” disparate voices within Christianity. “She understood that the gospel was for the flourishing of all people,” her friend Jeff Chu, a gay seminarian and the author of “Does Jesus Really Love Me?
,” told me. “She saw the disconnect between so much of the church and what Jesus was saying.”
She was also wickedly funny and used her mischievous wit to point out the contradictions of a literal interpretation of the Bible, which is central to the conservative evangelicalism in which she was raised but often leads to absurdities in the modern context. “I’m the sort of person who likes to identify the things that most terrify and intrigue me in the world and plunge headlong into them like Alice down the rabbit hole,” she writes in “A Year of Biblical Womanhood
,” the book that propelled her to fame. She spent much of 2011 enacting Biblical verses word-for-word, which led her on several humorous exegetical adventures. She climbed onto her roof in Dayton, Tennessee—a deeply red town where several neighbors were openly hostile to her progressive views—to recite a list of her transgressions, which is recommended in Matthew 10:27. For more obscure scriptural reasons, she quit drinking coffee.
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One afternoon in February, 2011, her husband drove with her along Highway 27, in Dayton, until they reached the city limits. For thirty minutes, she stood next to the welcome to dayton sign holding up a placard that read “dan is awesome!”—an enactment of Proverbs 31:23, which reads, “Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.” Thirty-five people drove past to little fanfare. “No one honked or waved or crashed their car in surprise,” Held Evans wrote.
“She was so incisive with her critique of Christian culture,” Bolz-Weber told me, adding that Held Evans was “fierce in her protection of the heart of Jesus’ message—that Christianity was intended to be a practice of faith and mercy and grace.” Held Evans credited Bolz-Weber—a foulmouthed and heavily inked orthodox Lutheran—with showing her how to remain a Christian despite past and current abuses within the church. The two women met a decade ago at a conference, and, after she heard Held Evans speak, Bolz-Weber approached her and said, “Girl, you’re smart as fuck.” In 2015, the two women launched a popular conference, called Why Christian?, in which progressives take to the stage to offer a form of evangelical storytelling called testimony, in order to provide a counter-narrative to the stories being told in conservative circles. Held Evans and Bolz-Weber insisted on using the conference to promote the work of young Christian writers, including Jeff Chu and Austin Channing Brown, an African-American woman and the author of “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness
Held Evans didn’t simply offer a platform to other progressive thinkers and writers; she actively sought them out. Before Chu’s memoir about being a gay Christian was published, Held Evans wrote to the publisher, requesting a galley and asking what she could do to help with the book. She discovered Brown’s work on a blog and asked her to write about religion and racial reconciliation. On Twitter, where Held Evans used her large following to promote more marginal voices, people have begun sharing stories of the support she offered them under the hashtag #BecauseofRHE. At the Why Christian? conference, Held Evans and Bolz-Weber flew speakers in a day early, to mentor them on the publishing process and to answer any questions these budding theologians might have. She also modelled how to speak to a Christian community, even if it was hostile to your ideas. “She made it cool and popular to be rejected from this mainline world,” Brown said.
Held Evans’s ideas often set her at odds with many white evangelicals, and she didn’t shy away from public conflict on social media. She frequently sparred with religious conservatives on Christian Twitter, where leaders of all stripes wage daily battles over what it means to be faithful. At one point, she called an article about Christian marriage, written by Karen Swallow Prior
, an English professor at Liberty University, “most un-cool.” “One hostile quote-tweet from her would bring down the wrath of her fans from all corners of the Web,” Prior told me by e-mail. Still, the two bonded over a shared love of Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, and Flannery O’Connor.” In 2013, Prior wrote, “What I love about Rachel is her uncanny ability to slice through multi-layered, longstanding categories and assumptions and grab hold of a truth that suddenly turns obvious in her hands.”
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