Rachel Held Evans and Her Legacy
David: Rachel Held Evans grew up in the 1980s in an evangelical family, in a town and a community that was also solidly evangelical, but then she came to challenge many things about the worldview that she had inherited. Orthodoxies about the role of women, homosexuality, race, and much more. Held Evans went on to become an influential writer with a string of best-selling books that dealt with questions of faith. She was a linchpin in a movement among younger evangelicals away from conservative dogma.
Here's Evans speaking on the podcast called Nomad in 2015.
Rachel Held Evans: I kept feeling like I wasn't allowed to ask these questions and yet those were the questions I was asking, and those were the questions that a lot of my readers were asking. It seemed worth addressing in books and on blogs, but it got me in a little bit of hot water with the evangelical establishment here in the US.
Speaker 3: Progressive Christian author, Rachel Held Evans, died this morning at the age of 37. She was known for her best-selling books and her progressive activism in the evangelical church and--
David: Evans died young after a sudden illness in 2019, and she left behind an unfinished manuscript. That book has now just come out. Its title is Wholehearted Faith, and it was completed by a co-author, Jeff Chu.
Eliza Griswold writes for us about religion and other subjects, and she's been reporting for us on Rachel Held Evans and her legacy.
Eliza, you traveled recently to Dayton, Tennessee, what were you doing there?
Eliza Griswold: I went to visit the family of Rachel Held Evans, and to get to know the people who were closest to her. There was a dinner in her honor at the home of her husband, Dan, and he invited about 20 friends, including Rachel's parents and her sister, Amanda. That day they had driven me around downtown Dayton.
Peter: This is where Rachel and Amanda went to school. This is Dayton City School. It's--
Eliza Griswold: Dayton is a pretty sleepy place. It's brick storefronts, most of them seeming pretty empty. Kudzu overgrowing the edges of streets. [crosstalk]
Peter: Right up here, we'll show you [unintelligible 00:02:24]
Eliza Griswold: In that tour, they really wanted to show me the courthouse which plays a central role in Dayton's history.
Peter: This is the courthouse, right here on your left. We'll get out here and you can see the two, if you want to.
Eliza Griswold: I would love to.
Peter: There's the two statues here.
Amanda: You can't miss this.
Speaker 5: It's the destination for anyone interested in the history of evangelicalism and America. You don't want to miss this.
Eliza Griswold: The courthouse is not just a Dayton landmark. It's also really important in Rachel Held Evans' story. It's the site of the Scopes Trial, which was often called the Monkey Trial as well, and really was a turning point in modern biblical fundamentalism.
David: The famous Monkey Trial that was almost 100 years ago.
Eliza Griswold: Yes. Dayton played a big role in Rachel Held Evans' upbringing. It was really the backdrop for how she grew up thinking about the need to defend evangelicalism. That involved a lot of absolute thinking that she came over time to reconsider. That was really a huge evolution for her and for many evangelicals. She writes about it in this book, which she very funnily calls Evolving in Monkey Town. Here's that argument at work. "If we can adjust to Galileo's universe," she writes, "we can adjust to Darwin's biology, even the part about the monkeys. If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that faith can survive just about anything, so long as it's able to evolve."
This was not old history to her. This was really a battle over what means to follow Jesus today.
Peter: These statues are fairly recent. The Darrow one came much later than the Bryan statue. Then it was several years later that, and I don't know who commissioned the other statue, said, "If you're going to have a Bryan statue, you've got to have a Clarence Darrow statue." There was a little resistance to that, but not much.
Amanda: Bryan has a light that shines on him all night long, but Darrow doesn't get a light at night. They didn't put a light up for Darrow.
Eliza Griswold: This is so great.
Amanda: Not a whole lot's changed [unintelligible 00:04:35] in 100 years.
Eliza Griswold: Amanda, what was the idea growing up of the Scopes Trial? Was that like--
Amanda: William Jennings Bryan was the hero.
Eliza Griswold: Yes, and defending against the carpetbagging, the northerner.
Amanda: Yes. Who didn't believe in God and didn't respect the Bible. I don't even know that that was explicitly taught. It was just the tone. You know what I mean? It was just the general understanding. No one really knew that the town folk had been the butt of the joke in terms of the media coverage and things like that. We didn't really talk about that. That's something I learned later.
David: Eliza, I think we can hear from even that the beginning of the culture war somehow.
Eliza Griswold: For Evangelical Christians, this idea of defending the faith comes very much out of the Scopes Trial. Not just defending the faith against the liberal secular north, but also defending the faith among fellow evangelicals who would choose to recede from society. This group is very much about engagement. Peter, Rachel Held Evans' father, who we heard in the car, is a professor of Bible studies at Bryan College, which is named for William Jennings Bryan. He actually teaches a class on angelology, which is the study of angels and demons and spiritual warfare.
They moved here, so he could be a professor at Bryan when Rachel was in eighth grade. She was not just like an enthusiastic young Evangelical, she was a fiercely competitive evangelizer, and she cornered kids on the school bus and tried to convince them, at 6:45 in the morning, to give their lives to Jesus.
David: Then along comes a turn in her life, a real turn. When you're raised and your father is a professor of angelology, and you've inhaled this powerful belief system, what made her leap out of it?
Eliza Griswold: What happened for her, she was in college when the US invaded Afghanistan. She was watching, on a replay loop, a Taliban execution of a woman who was accused of committing adultery. It was with watching that, that she had this spiritual crisis, because she was like, "How could that woman be going to hell, but by nature of geography, that where she lives, she hasn't heard of Jesus." That, for her, was the beginning of a larger unraveling of these received ideas about absolute faith, about who's saved and damned.
Peter: I remember that very clearly, the coverage of that, was live on television and showing her being executed, and that just started questions about what happened to her? Does that mean she'll spend an eternity in hell, and starting questioning, is that fair? Questions about the justice of God and judgment and how can we believe what we believe, and I could see she was worked up over it?
Amanda: I was thinking that as you were talking, that I think part of it, for Rachel too, was that we grew up in this, it was the height of the evangelical apologetics movement, where we went to all these conferences about how to defend your faith, how to have an answer for what you believe. Just the subculture and church and Bryan. I think that's why it was particularly unsettling to have questions, is because we were taught to have answers. We were taught to be confident, to have a reason, to have an answer, to give an apologetic for why we believe what we did. That's why I think Rachel didn't quite know what to do with her questions. Even though our home was a safe place for that, the subculture at large wasn't.
David: What did Rachel do with that? Where did she take those questions?
Eliza Griswold: After she graduated, she married her college sweetheart, Dan Evans, and she went to work at local newspapers writing style features, like one about hermit crabs, but she was really still struggling with aspects of her faith, and her husband, Dan, encouraged her to start a blog.
Dan Evans: Blogs weren't new at that point. This is 2007 but still a fairly new idea.
Eliza Griswold: She wrote super friendly soft posts like raising kids in faith, and she wrote pretty hard edge controversial ones too, like a takedown of Mark Driscoll, who was the pastor of the hugely popular Mars Hill Church. He and his church have now both totally collapsed due to allegations of abuse. Really, the blog allowed her a whole new audience and a whole new reach.
Dan Evans: I just remember, we first started the blog, we broke double digits, we got up to 10 people who had subscribed. Then when it got a little higher than that, closer to 20, we started thinking counting up on our fingers like okay, there's got to be people reading that we don't actually know. That was a fun experience. I remember watching it grow. It was like, oh man, can we break 100.
Eliza Griswold: Through that blog, other like-minded people who were afraid to ask the same questions found her and began to read her work. Long story short, her blog grew and she attracted this massive community of readers, and started publishing books, her first, Evolving in Monkey Town, her second, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which was a pretty hilarious send-up of what biblical literalism looked like if you actually lived, according to being a good wife, as this culture had called for. She slept in a tent outside, she stood on a roof to do these biblical injunctions, and by doing so, really pointed out the absurdity of them.
Here's Dan in the car showing me where some of those stunts took place.
Dan Evans: In Proverbs, there's a passage that talks about a woman praising her husband at the city gates. Rachel held out a sign that said, "Dan is awesome," and stood right there in front of the entrance to Dayton, because it's also good to have some strong marketing.
David: What was the reception of her work in the greater evangelical world? Were people reading her?
Eliza Griswold: People were pretty hostile about her work while she was alive within conservative circles, and her dad really bore the brunt of that because he's still very much at Bryan within that world. The reception to her work outside of it, or within those who were questioning it, we're talking millions of people who followed her and revered her as really the patron saint of this emerging movement.
Dan Evans: She was making things better for a lot of people, and the complaints against her didn't have anything to do with her ruining people's lives. The complaints against her were always too inclusive, or not using the right terminology or not calling God He all the time, or accepting people who're just gay, things like that. The people who had the complaint didn't really have a ground to say like, "You're hurting me." The people that she was helping had the ground to say, "You're helping me. I didn't kill myself because of your work." Yes, Held definitely invested in that.
Amanda: I think Rachel really founded a movement, I think that she did. I think that partly because, as I watched the fissures of evangelicalism, I meet so many people who are like, "Oh, I have the courage to do this because I watched her blog." She gave them permission to speak out what they really-- because they saw there was an audience.
Dan Evans: My ego wants to agree wholeheartedly.
Eliza Griswold: David, it's important to understand about Rachel Held Evans, that she was a pretty rigorous, self-taught scholar. One of the things that she did was reground the Bible in Hebrew tradition in which it actually belongs, and by doing so, reclaim the authority and reclaim the roominess, and reclaim that intellectual underpinnings of a face that allowed people to find space for themselves in it again. Dan showed me this important text on the wall of their house where she wrote books.
This is a picture of a crown in Hebrew?
Dan Evans: This is a scroll.
Eliza Griswold: Okay.
Dan Evans: This was done by a rabbi in Israel, because this is Eshet Chayil, Proverbs 31, Woman of Valor. You have Proverbs 31 in the shape of a crown. Proverbs 31 was, at one point, a sticking point for Rachel because it's about this valorous woman, and in evangelicalism, it was always held as an ideal that you're supposed to ascend to. In Jewish culture, it was a song of appreciation for the things that you have already accomplished as a woman.
Eliza Griswold: I see.
Dan Evans: It's a completely different perspective. Eshet Chayil, Rachel's bringing of that understanding to evangelical women, had such an impact, people got tattoos of it on their arms. It was one of the things that Year of Biblical Womanhood brought to evangelicalism, that Rachel facilitated.
Eliza Griswold: It's like a freedom from some of that misogyny and carrying any complementarian ideas?
Dan Evans: You don't have to ignore the Bible, you can use the Bible and say, "Look, recent Christianity is not the only way this has ever been interpreted. In fact, there's entire generations of people that precede us that have a better understanding of their own scriptures that we can listen to. Guess what? It doesn't throw them under the bus. In fact, it elevates them." That was the entire point.
David: That's Dan Evans, who was married to the late writer, Rachel Held Evans. Our story about Evans' life and work continues in a moment.
We'll continue now with our story. Rachel Held Evans' new book, which comes out two years after her death, is called Wholehearted Faith, and it was co-authored by Jeff Chu.
Jeff Chu: Can I get a pound of pork bellies? Let's do both pieces. Yes, I want to make sure they have enough food.
Eliza Griswold: I went to Tennessee with Jeff Chu. Jeff was a dear friend of Rachel Held Evans, and he also finished her book for her after she died. In addition to being a writer, he's also quite an accomplished Chinese cook.
Jeff Chu: Can I do two pounds of cod, please?
Eliza Griswold: For this night, he had offered to cook dinner for Rachel's family and friends in order to celebrate the book. He hadn't accounted for the fact that Dan Evans might invite 20 people. It was a little bit of a Hail Mary going to this whole foods to get everything that he thought he needed.
?Speaker: [unintelligible 00:16:26]
Jeff Chu: We're going to make a big dinner.
?Speaker: Yes? What are you making?
Jeff Chu: Chinese food.
?Speaker: Put it on.
Eliza Griswold: It was really Dan Evans who chose Jeff Chu to finish Rachel's book. Jeff, quite honestly, was pretty reluctant about doing it.
Jeff Chu: I wanted to say no, for multiple reasons. Probably the biggest one was that saying yes would mean I would have to admit that she's not here anymore. I was just afraid that I wouldn't live up to her standards of writing, which I knew were extraordinarily high.
Eliza Griswold: Jeff did finish the book, over really a painful period of pandemic, sifting through, not only the chapter she'd left behind, because she'd left behind 11,762 words, but also talk she'd given, blog posts she'd never posted, family stories, old Christmas lists, anything that was on her computer, he used as source material as a journalist to try to piece together, not only a life, but the evolving theology of his dear, dear friend. In a way, there was a parallel as he made between trying to just work with what you've got and then making this huge gift of a Chinese feast for her family and friends with basically whatever he could figure out on the spur of the moment.
Jeff Chu: I'll stir it all and then put it in the stew.
Eliza Griswold: Jeff spent all day cooking. The kitchen grew warm and redolent with garlic and scallions, and people began to arrive, first of all, her family. Her sister, Amanda, just went right to work, rolled up her sleeves, washed her hands, and started rolling wontons and spring rolls at Jeff's very specific instructions.
Jeff Chu: Can you fold a square piece of paper into a triangle?
Amanda: Sometimes, usually, if the cooking doesn't involve pork fat, but I don't know how to do it. All I know is Appalachian Southern cooking, that's all I know.
David: Eliza, it sounds like you were having a good time, a real feast. Who was at the table?
Eliza Griswold: It was like a southern episode of Friends. It was her high school and college friends gathered around, telling stories that many of them hadn't heard before. She died in 2019, but for many of them, this was the first time they had come together to really celebrate her and to do what she did the best, which was poke gentle fun at her like her playing the piccolo and closing a flute in the door of her high school band bus. She was this enthusiastic, almost rabid evangelist who would seek out anybody she could find to try to bring them to Jesus. There weren't many atheists or even Presbyterians at the Dayton High School, but Rachel did her best to find the tiny handful that she could.
Amanda: I think one of them rode the bus with us. She was like, "This is amazing. This is why God is allowing me to walk through this hardship of having to ride the bus."
Amanda: Because mom and dad wouldn't buy her a car, and so she had to ride the bus. Fortunately, she sat down next to an atheist.
Eliza Griswold: Rachel's friend, Kathleen, was there too. Kathleen was Rachel's freshman year roommate at Bryan.
Kathleen: I remember, for me, coming to Bryan was freedom, and I grew up in legalism, and abuse, and definitely thought that I was bad because I was a woman, so I shouldn't trust my emotions or my feelings, and even my mind. This is what I was taught.
Eliza Griswold: Kathleen grew up in a fundamentalist church in Pennsylvania, and she and Rachel would lie in bed and they would talk about womanhood, basically, and what it meant to be a devout woman. In particular, they'd talk about Proverbs 31, which in white evangelical culture is one of the principal texts by which women are defined as like staying home, and being good mothers, and being good wives and submissive to their husbands.
Kathleen: The Proverbs 31 woman gets up early for her man, [unintelligible 00:20:53] my whole life. It's not me. Sometimes I tell my husband, I'm the bad Proverbs lady. There's the one that you're warned against, I think that's me. Anyways, so I think it was just perceived as the formula for how you're supposed to be, which was translated into being a woman who your life is kids, keeping the home and getting up early, and cooking and making things from scratch and just a woman who can do it all.
I remember with girls talking about that, and wanting to be that, and Rachel pushing back against that. I'm not sure that we're using this passage in the right way or as simple as I don't think we really have to do all that to be godly. I loved that. I was like, "Oh, all right."
Eliza Griswold: Kathleen told me that she had left her church when her pastor came out in support of Trump's policy of child separation at the border, and she was pretty appalled, and she was also scared. She gave Rachel a call, and Rachel told her to come right over.
Kathleen: I just couldn't be alone, I was just so scared. I went to her house, and she gave my kid goldfish, sat him on a couch with Paw Patrol, gave me some of Dan's birthday cake, and then I remember asking her, "Am I going to hell?" I'm just like crying, and her response was just so comforting. It was just like, "Of course not." She just held me and I just sobbed, just shook and sobbed, and she let me talk with her the rest of the day.
Eliza Griswold: Kathleen, one question I asked these guys earlier is, how Rachel's journey of faith affected your own?
Kathleen: I would say, I still have faith because of Rachel, because I almost lost it.
Eliza Griswold: David, this is something we probably should emphasize, that there's this common misperception that either you are a conservative evangelical Christian, or you leave that and you become agnostic or atheist. The truth is that Rachel Held Evans is part of this turn within Christianity away from conservative Republican culture, have a reclaiming of faith outside of politics.
David: You mentioned that her father, Peter Held, bore a lot of criticism about Rachel while she was alive, especially in conservative evangelical circles. What's been the response more recently.
Eliza Griswold: The response is overwhelmingly positive, and I know that among the conservatives, I talk to pretty regularly there's regret at not hearing her wisdom earlier, and hearing some of the misogyny and the racism that she was calling out, has really now fallen from grace. At the time she was alive, it was still pretty risky and pretty brave of her to name some of these things so publicly.
David: Now, you're talking about people who are either former evangelicals or progressive evangelicals. What is the scale of that community? Give me a sense of it relative to the, I would assume, much larger community of traditionalists conservative right-wing evangelicals.
Eliza Griswold: The scale is pretty overwhelming. If you look at it numbers-wise from 2006 to 2020, you can see the number of white evangelicals in America, dropping from 23% of the adult population, so nearly a quarter of Americans identified with this movement. Now that number has fallen to 14%, so very roughly, that's something like 15 million people. I think, where we get it wrong sometimes looking in from the outside, is we see this as like growing secularization, but that's not necessarily what it's about. Dan and I talked about this, and we were on his porch in a torrential rainstorm.
Dan Evans: For a long time, people wanted to shift evangelicalism, but that's not really what's happening. I think what's happening is evangelicalism is shrinking as less fewer and fewer people describe themselves as evangelical. I think evangelicalism's issue with people being gay, for whatever reason, is probably still a part of that identity. I just think the shift is people moving out of evangelicalism.
What I will say is, the people leaving that community are still looking for the spiritual community. There's a lot of social inertia to still be able to claim some part of Christianity and spirituality, and not ostracize the group that raised you. It's just such a real thing, to not want to lose that group, and it is a search at some level for meaning.
Eliza Griswold: Rachel and Dan actually left evangelicalism, and they went searching for a new church. They started their own, which didn't take very well, and so Rachel ended up going on to join an Episcopal Church.
Why the Episcopal Church? Was it this particular church? Was it Episcopalianism in general? Was it its welcoming, affirming stance for gay people?
Dan Evans: That was certainly a part of it. A larger part was the liturgy. Having all that history, that was meaningful to her. Words were always meaningful to her, and the fact that the climax of the service wasn't the pastor. The climax of the service was communion. That shifts the perspective of what's most important in a church. Is it really a certain person in that building, or is it the community?
David: Eliza, who's going to carry on her legacy? She was a major figure in this movement.
Eliza Griswold: In terms of the nuts and bolts of Rachel's legacy, Dan feels the responsibility, at least for now, but he's really careful about speaking for Rachel. He always refers to what she herself has written, and he's struggling to build his own life. He has two tiny kids to raise. He has a new fiancee, and he's really between two lives. It's important to him, as his kids come to him now and keep asking questions about her death, that he explains what that loss means in terms that are incredibly literal, and don't branch into any ideology or supposition or any talk about heaven.
Dan explained this to me when we were outside on his back deck, in terms that were wrenching, and stark, and really honest.
Dan Evans: This is our back deck--
Eliza Griswold: Oh, it's beautiful.
Dan Evans: -and that is where I had the hardest conversation of my life. That was when I set my three-year-old down and had to explain to him that his mom died. I said mommy died, and he said, "Why mommy die?" He's not even sure what that means like, is a died the thing that she got, and so I said, "Well, died is when your body doesn't work anymore and you can't move your arms you can't move your legs and say, there's no pain and it doesn't hurt and she's not sad."
Eliza Griswold: Does he ask about things about like heaven, and does he ask where she went, and do you get into some other people must talk to him about that stuff.
Dan Evans: We've had multiple meetings over. Everybody has different belief systems. What I have suggested is we talk about the things that we all know to be true. As he grows and develops a sense of spirituality, I think he's going to probably have his own examining to do, but for me, it's worked really well to frame it as, guess what, grown ups don't know. We don't know what consciousness even is. Best thing just to go ahead and let the kids know, we don't have this figured out.
Eliza Griswold: Wholehearted faith impart is about embracing that doubt, because for Rachel growing up, the idea of doubt was sinful, faith had to be absolute. One of the tragedies on her page is that these questions she's asking of doubt, of the idea of worthiness, of being beloved by God are not finished questions, and that theological journey, which she talks about evolving, just stops, and I'm like--
Dan Evans: Forever, those will be the last 11,000 words that she ever wrote for the book, at least.
Eliza Griswold: : Because her evolution was such a beacon for other people, it's like how are they going to go on.
Dan Evans: Rachel did a really good job of ensuring that she was walking on the same path with people and she wasn't really leading them along, and this is why I think people resonate so much with her work, it's she was giving words that people couldn't say themselves. It was because Rachel's unique way of putting those words together gave voice to the thing that already existed in all the people. Those people are going to still have those thoughts, and there will be other people who are able to put into words some of their feelings, but it's not going to stop for them just because Rachel died. There's going to be one less traveler, it's one less person to translate for them, but there's more people born every day.
David: Eliza, this new book is coming out without its main author alive to talk about it, and we both know how important book promotion can be. Do you think that will make any difference in the reception of the book?
Eliza Griswold: : You know, she had a children's book come out that was also posthumous, and it was the number-one New York Times children's bestseller, and I think that this book, because of the hunger for her message, I don't think it's going to matter whether she's there to speak it aloud or not, it's on the page.
David: Eliza Griswold is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and her story, The Afterlife of Rachel Held Evans is at newyorker.com. You can hear more from Eliza on the State of Christianity and more on the podcast of The New Yorker Radio Hour.
[00:32:26] [END OF AUDIO]
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