Rachel Held Evans: A voice crying in my wilderness

As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “in an age of information overload … the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned them dry as dust …

Rachel Held Evans, Searching For Sunday

For me, Rachel Held Evans represented the wrestle.

We had similar stories — bruising experiences in the evangelical church, but a deep commitment to understanding both the faith traditions that we emerged from and the very real theological frameworks that we had worked hard to construct, as well as a shared, genuine love of scripture and a desire to keep interest in the text alive, in the face of apathy and misunderstanding and lazy exegesis and genuinely foolish disinterest. I was drawn to her, and her voice, and her writings, and her struggles, for these reasons. I find her books genuinely inspiring, and resonated with her handling of the biblical text and her views on its inspiration and worth and relevance. I also resonated with her disgust of Trump and Trumpianism and the Trumpian evangelical church, and loved her bravery in voicing that disgust, at the cost of being personally attacked by so-called heroes of the faith, some of whom I also, at one time or another, had respected. We engaged on Twitter several times, both publicly and privately, but most of what I know of Rachel is what anyone knows — the public theologian, defender of the faith, prophet, poet, thinker.

But for me, personally, I valued the wrestle itself, because as someone who also wrestles, I have found very few people like her with whom I can so fully resonate. And by ‘wrestle’ I’m referring to the place where we both found ourselves, which is outside our faith traditions but with this burden that we are theologically trained and hooked into faith from a very deep place, so that we can give away neither our love of the scriptures nor our love of Jesus. I found, as she found, that this combination of factors places a peculiar burden on you. You speak and write as one who has been rejected by the very traditions that birthed you, so you can’t help but disrupt both those still inside those traditions and those outside.

It’s a lonely place to be, but I faced the loneliness a little easier knowing that people like Rachel existed in the world. Because for the most part, the post-evangelical Christians that I know have given up. They might speak of God but they’re just as likely to speak of the ‘universe’. They might even call themselves Christian, but there’s little evidence that they wrestle with what that actually means for them or anyone else in this crazy, fucked up world. I was already raging with these ideas and was on the verge of publishing some of them before news of Rachel’s death came through. Now that space feels more isolated than ever.

Whose voice will I seek out now?

For as long as I can remember, my faith journey has involved having to wrestle with the fact of people around me — including mentors — leaving the faith, from my first Sunday school teacher, to my favourite uncle, to my dad, to theological colleagues, favourite writers, and close friends. The hardest thing was not that they left, or that they left — many of them — because they were fucking around and didn’t want to be held accountable for their actions — but that they left and didn’t seem to wrestle at all with what they had left behind; that their leaving was too easy, too comfortable, which belied the shallowness of their faith journey to begin with.

Some of what I’m feeling, I know, is self-righteousness. But some of it is also envy. I wish I could just walk away and not wrestle with faith again. In fact, I’ve tried it. When I left my lecturing position at Laidlaw College I made a conscious and determined decision to be both secular and profane, to not think theologically again, to make decisions that were not framed by evangelical guilt or the gaze of a distant father God, or accountable to the Christians in my orbit. Having left the church, the faith community I was closest to was that of Crave cafe, which was an accident of convenience in the early days. But there were spells in which I avoided Crave because I didn’t want to be accountable to Christians any more — I didn’t want to wrestle with the voice of conscience that proximity to them seemed to stir inside me. And as for the Bible … you could say that I was embarrassed by its growing irrelevance, and as the world became more polarised along religious lines I found a handy excuse as to why I no longer dipped into the text for daily sustenance — not that I was ever particularly faithful to that devotional practice.

But then I got the chance to be the inhouse theologian and Bible guy of a gaming company that was trying to fashion a kids’ fantasy version of the Bible story, and it re-awakened my appreciation for a text that actually hadn’t lost its relevance, but which again demanded that I do the serious work of a theologian and biblical scholar to understand its relevance in a rapidly changing (if not deteriorating) social context. It was in this season that I discovered Rachel Held Evans.

I am not like Rachel. Far from it. She was full of grace. I am not. My appreciation for Rachel’s commitment to the wrestle is matched by my disdain for people of faith who have given up the fight. She was forgiving, and I am judgmental. She nurtured and cajoled and supported people from her former tradition, whereas I will happily leave them behind. She was bold enough to write out of her struggle to be a voice for others. I have only latterly stopped being ashamed of my faith traditions and theological heritage and still don’t know what my voice is.

Which is why I’ll miss her words. Rachel Held Evans reminded me that people like us don’t always have to lob grenades back into the church; that we don’t have to respond to the deep hurts with violence; that we can use our words to nurture and not shame; and that what I most often think of as a burden (my ability to see and then to write) is actually a gift — a gift that’s meant to be shared.

I watched her example, I listened to her voice, and I read her words, with a humility that I don’t often have. I was happy to submit to her greater gift, and I was looking forward to learning how to tread a path in her shadow.

Now that she is gone, the shadow — my cover — is gone too. Which leaves me feeling more exposed than ever.

She is a huge loss.