I argued with a church leader and teacher a few months back about Rachel Held Evans, best-selling author who died tragically last weekend at the age of 37. I’d recently read her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, and I suggested it as a book study for our church’s Adult Education Hour.
The church leader, who, like me, is a former evangelical, actually snorted. “You need to move past evangelical writers. Some of her work is just silly. I left those people behind when I was 19. She needs to get a good therapist and do the same.”
I’ve thought about that conversation a lot in the days since I first read Evans’ last posts on Twitter on April 14:
The responses to Evans’ tweet about Game of Thrones revealed what her most loyal readers knew about her: She had found the sweet spot between talking to people about weighty subjects and speaking in the language of pop culture. She moved easily from writing thoughtfully about literature and theology to making her case in social media.
I tried to explain this to the church leader—that Evans might appeal to wider audience in the church than if we discussed a more academic book. I told her that I especially liked the chapter “Church Stories,” in which Evans says, “To make peace with the Bible, I had to make peace with Paul.” Like Evans, I’ve never found Paul to be a favorite. I far prefer the uncertainty of Peter and the doubt of Thomas.
I explained to my fellow Presbyterian that after leaving the evangelical churches of my childhood, I wrestled with Paul’s letters and grew suspicious of Christians who seemed certain that smack-down-on-the-road-to-Damascus style conversions were the only authentic ones—never my own experience of faith. I said that reading that chapter—with such a wise blend of literary and theological knowledge—changed my perspective of Paul.
The more I tried to explain, the more the church leader scoffed and cut me off before I could finish a sentence. She named a number of life-long Presbyterians that would make for better reading material for me as an elder and for our church’s adults than Evans. She assumed I had not read those writers. I had read many of them, and though she was surprised when she learned that I had, she refused to see that reading Evans held any value for progressive Christians.
I read Evans’ tweet again and again in the days between her hospitalization and her death. I was struck by the wording—that she didn’t ask for prayer in the way so many of us do when we face illnesses or challenges. In fact, she didn’t ask for prayer at all—just implied that she needed it and would welcome it.
I prayed for her every day until she died on May 4th, when my prayers shifted to her husband and the two small children she leaves behind.
As I’ve read countless tributes to her in the days since her death, I’ve wished I’d had a more articulate response to the church leader who scorned those of us who read her. I respect this church leader, who is a warrior for social justice and progressive causes, but I gave up trying to change her mind about this woman of valor whose wisdom and tenacity in speaking her truth has taught me much about the church I left, the church I found, and my place in Christianity.
“If you’re the praying type…” That phrase speaks volumes about what Rachel knew about her audience. I imagine, from following her on Twitter and reading the responses of others, that her readers were much like the masses who came to hear Jesus—people who had lost faith in the religious leaders of their time, people who couldn’t quite abandon God, people who were looking for hope.
I gave up. I felt it was futile to try to convince this leader. Rachel never gave up. Even when Rachel expressed frustration at those who trolled her Twitter feed and questioned her faith, she continued to try to engage them in dialogue.
I gave up. Since my conversation with that church leader, I’ve written only three blog posts. I grew weary of having conservatives attack me for being too liberal and liberals attack me for not being liberal enough.
Rachel never gave up. She lived by the words of Paul, that apostle she finally made peace with:
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Galatians 6: 9-10)
The fruits of Rachel Held Evans’ labor are clear in the tributes of other writers and her readers.
Rachel did not give up. And perhaps I shouldn’t either.