When the writer Rachel Held Evans, who was my friend, died unexpectedly Saturday, all I could think was that we were so close to the time when she was alive that maybe we could bring her back. There is something about proximity to a particular death that makes the condition feel, possibly, reversible. The closer in time you are to a person's passing, the more it feels like time travel might — or at least should — be possible. The author Matthew Salesses, in a recent essay about his wife's death, wrote: "I held her lifeless hand and thought: Let me go back just one minute. I thought: Don’t leave me yet. ... Time was the only distance; life felt close by."
If we could just go back in time an hour, I thought. Then two hours, then a day, or maybe a month, to the last time I saw Rachel, when she was vibrant and healthy and speaking to a crowd of hundreds of people about the lifelong process of reclaiming her faith in God. Bring her back, I kept thinking. Bring her back, we all prayed. But she wasn't coming back.
Rachel, who was only 37, was many things: a New York Times best-selling author; a sought-after speaker; a mother and wife, a friend, daughter, and sister. Her second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, propelled her into the spotlight as a new and vital force in the larger Christian landscape. Rachel spent her high school years in Dayton, Tennessee, where the 1925 Scopes trial took place, ultimately punishing a local teacher for teaching evolution in his classroom.
Dayton was the background for Rachel's first book, Evolving in Monkey Town (later republished as Faith Unraveled), in which she grappled with what would become a defining theme of her life and career: Could questioning God and the Bible actually draw a person closer to God, rather than moving them away? Could it be that challenging the status quo was an act of love?
For those who are not so familiar with the culture of evangelical Christianity, it is hard to overstate the impact Rachel Held Evans had on it. As Anne Helen Petersen said on Twitter, "Whatever subculture you are/have been a part of, think of the person who spoke truth to power about the more messed up elements of it. That's who Rachel was."
A Year of Biblical Womanhood found Rachel doing outrageous things in the name of arguing against biblical literalism. Fed up by the evangelical gatekeepers who kept women from positions of leadership based on a select few Bible verses, she endeavored to "take the Bible's instructions on women as literally as possible for a year." In the course of writing the book, she grew out her hair, wore only long skirts and other modest clothing. She camped outside when she had her period (Leviticus 15), remained silent in church (1 Corinthians 14), and held a sign proclaiming "Dan is awesome!" just inside Dayton’s borders (Proverbs 31: "Her husband is respected at the city gate").
Rachel didn’t have a lot of patience for those evangelical gatekeepers, maybe because she was so different from them. She held no PhD in theology; she hadn’t graduated from a seminary; she hadn’t been ordained. She was a woman in a tradition that elevated male voices; she was a Southern woman in a religion that expected Southern women to concern themselves more with getting dinner on the table for their husbands than with Hebrew commentaries or the refugee crisis.
For millennia, men have been debating the ins and outs of Christian theology, and those same men took to Twitter like fish to water, debating and arguing with one another — until Rachel came around. She wasn’t sitting on the sidelines and hoping the men would ask her what she thought; she was reading, studying, and jumping right in. Rachel got in the best Twitter fights — which she did often — because they were almost always pointing out logical fallacies or real harm committed by supposedly respectable theologians or annoying Christian men online, who felt free to opine on subjects, like gay marriage and abortion, that they had no real personal experience with. She criticized powerhouse pastors like John Piper and Mark Driscoll, earning plenty of animus from conservative evangelicals along the way. Rachel Held Evans only ever punched up.
In the beginning of her career, Rachel had a popular blog, but it wasn’t about motherhood or travel or interior design, so no one knew quite what to do with her. Instead, Rachel tackled heavy theological questions and featured regular guest posts about faith from lesser-known writers. Rachel was a breath of fresh air in a world — Christian women on the internet — that is mostly known for a sense of "curated imperfection," a polished messiness that is more interested in domestic achievement or kitchen renovations or faux female empowerment than in actual systemic change or in the person of Jesus Christ. Rachel never posted a picture of her dishes piling up in the sink as shorthand for vulnerability, never posed in a floral print dress while bemoaning the state of her house or her kids. The idea of her doing so was laughable, even though she was a Christian woman on the internet, because Rachel wasn't trying to draw attention to herself. She was not a brand. She was a warrior in a cardigan.
The last time I saw Rachel was a month ago, in San Francisco at an annual conference she and the pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber had started organizing five years earlier. The conference, called “Why Christian,” had become a gathering place for people who had struggled to believe that they belonged in church — people of color, LGBT people, people who had been abused or harassed in their faith communities. I was lucky enough to be part of a speaker lineup of progressive Christians, which included people from a huge range of backgrounds — organizers and artists, black women professors and queer pastors. As writer and seminarian Jeff Chu said this weekend, "Rachel, you didn’t just *try* to include us—you did it beautifully. You embraced us—PoC, women, LGBTQ people. You elevated us—doubters and seekers. You amplified us. You defended us. You advocated for us. You listened to us. You loved us. My heart is broken."
The public legacy that Rachel leaves is the gift of seeing a 2,000-year-old religion with fresh eyes. She did not fall prey to the cynicism that beleaguers so many former evangelicals when their faith changes. Instead, she cultivated hope. “Cynicism may help us create simpler storylines with good guys and bad guys," she wrote in her book Searching for Sunday, "but it doesn't make us any better at telling the truth, which is that most of us are a frightening mix of good and evil, sinner and saint.”
Her work continued to help others reshape the predominantly white and male Christianity of their youth, as the Vox TV critic Todd VanDerWerff wrote on Saturday: "Rachel was a big part of me realizing Christianity could do more than build a wall between the straight, the cis, and the white and everyone else. She meant more to me than I even knew." Countless women — and some men — shared that they were in seminary because of her, that they were still Christians because of her, that because of Rachel, they knew questions weren’t anathema to faith — that perhaps questions were its lifeblood. Still others left abusive faith communities, or moved away from churches where questions and doubt were discouraged. One of the best parts of Rachel’s teaching was that it encouraged freedom in anyone who heard it — and where freedom was, for Rachel, there was God.
I have dozens of emails from Rachel in my inbox, emails encouraging me as I wrote or when I was the subject of some pretty nasty online harassment. She also did weird, outrageously wonderful things for her friends, like DM’ing Ava DuVernay to try to get her to read her friend Austin’s book; she texted people asides about the latest theological argument, and always, always shared their work with her massive Twitter following. Rachel’s generosity was entirely without ego.
"There are times we hold our faith and times our faith holds us," Rachel said at that conference in April. She preached a sermon about how her faith held together because of the women in the Bible — the women present at Jesus's resurrection, the very first Christians. And now, what I want to be able to say is that Rachel's faith is finally holding her. But it is just too sad that she is gone. Time is still the only distance; her life feels close by. What will we do without her? ●
Laura Turner is a writer in San Francisco.