RHE: a wandering, wondering soul heads home


The first time I heard of Rachel Held Evans was probably after the publication of "The Year of Biblical Womanhood" in 2012. 

Evans, a native of Birmingham who spent her adulthood in Tennessee, spent a year taking Biblical instructions for women as literally as possible. 

The book was quirky, popular and controversial. Patriarchy wasn't part of the national conversation, and her critics charged that she was making a mockery of Scripture. A prominent Christian bookstore chain refused to carry the book.

Her reputation solidified with the growing popularity of her blog. Outrage at injustice was a default position. She spoke out against abuse of power before its existence was acknowledged or consequences were fully known. 

As her positions evolved, Evans made her way to the Episcopalian church. She later confessed on her blog that evangelicalism was the boyfriend she had broken up with years ago but continued to stalk on Facebook. It was time to let go. 

"Evangelical" was a label that Evans had identified with for a long time. She was raised with it, the good girl who did everything by the book and was as on fire for God in her youth as anyone can be. Still, she found herself in a place she never expected — on the outside.

Evans terrified me when I first started following her story. I once heard in a college class that people who are afraid of heights may think they have a fear of falling but deep down they're likely just as afraid that they might jump. 

Around this time, I began collecting spiritual memoirs by women, a bias for which I make no apologies.

Their writings were a call from across the wilderness, the parachute I was scrambling for. Though Evans was not one of them, I recognized that their voices were being heard because she had first lifted hers and had dared to be vulnerable.

Last year, I picked up Evans' "Searching for Sunday" and read one chapter a day during Passion Week. Somewhat to my surprise, Evans the writer was nothing like the public persona that I thought I knew.

She devoted each chapter to one of the sacraments. She was occasionally sarcastic but never flippant. Her words were beautiful and true and at times mirrored my own thoughts so closely that I felt exposed and had to resist the urge to throw the book across the room.

Her grief oozed from the pages. I envied her for submitting to it.

One week ago, Evans died at the age of 37. She had gone into the hospital several weeks ago because of complications from the flu. She began having seizures and was placed in a medically-induced coma for two weeks. She died after doctors discovered there was swelling on the brain from which she could not recover. 

She left behind a husband, a 3-year-old child and another child who will turn 1 this week.

To the end, there were those who openly celebrated the death of a woman they deemed a heretic, but there were many more stories about lives she had impacted. The hashtag #becauseofRHE trended throughout the weekend.

There were women who obeyed the calling they felt to the ministry, LGBTQ people who made the decision not to walk away from church, people of color who felt they had an ally in the pursuit of racial justice. There were also countless emails of encouragement she had sent to fellow writers, some of whom owe their careers to Evans championing them when they were unknowns in the blogosphere. 

Even people with whom she had publicly disagreed had stories to tell about times she had been unfailingly generous and kind to them, seeking consensus where it could be found.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, admitted that "even in her dissent, she made all of us think, and helped those of us who are theological conservatives to be better because of the way she would challenge us.”

Evans was not a preacher, a prophet or perfect in her theology. I don't think she ever made any of these claims.

She was a daughter of God who surely spent a lot of lonely hours in struggle and used a gift of language to tell others they were not alone. 

She set an example for a disenchanted generation who are checking out, not in walking away but in never giving up on the belief that God would eventually redeem all things, even the Church that sometimes struggles to reflect the Kingdom well.