Rachel Held Evans, the popular and controversial evangelical writer, has died. She was 37.
I know many in the raceAhead community are keenly feeling her loss today.
Evans had become widely known for her inclusive and progressive Christian views. She was a popular blogger, the author of four best-selling books, and the co-founder of two conferences for progressive Christians, Why Christian and Evolving Faith.
Back when many white evangelical women preferred to avoid hot button topics like race, LGBTQ exclusion, sexual abuse, and politics, Evans took them on with a signature mix of earnestness, grace, accountability, and humor. For as many fans as she had, she had — and sparred with — a great many detractors.
She was a #TimesUp trailblazer. In 2013, Evans published a series on her blog about abuse in the church that asked everyone to do better. “Thinking “biblically” (…or perhaps, more accurately, thinking Christianly…) about abuse doesn’t mean keeping abuse in the shadows or shaming those who would come forward as troublemakers,” she wrote.
Slate’s Ruth Graham did a beautiful job explaining why Evans meant so much to so many:
Evans was a forceful and winsome public voice for progressive evangelicalism… She started her eponymous site more than a decade ago, and in her years of writing she confronted every controversial issue in American evangelical culture. She wrote about biblical literalism, racism, abortion, evolution, theology, marriage, patriarchy, women in leadership, and evangelical support for Donald Trump. She advocated for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church and analyzed her own complicity in racial bias after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The Washington Post once called her “the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism.”
Evans’ political and cultural polemics attracted the most attention. But she also wrote passionately about her own evolving faith, her prayer life, her wrestling with doubt, and her love for the church. “Anyone who has loved the Bible as much as I have, and who has lost it and found it again, knows how a relationship with the Bible can be as real and as complicated as a relationship with a family member or close friend,” she wrote in her most recent book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.
Evans was admitted to the hospital last month with the flu. After a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics, she began having seizures. On April 19, two of her friends and colleagues, Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu, announced #PrayforRHE, a global online prayer vigil. The hashtag trended on Twitter almost immediately.
Doctors placed Evans in a medically induced coma in an attempt to save her life, but the seizures returned after she was weaned off the medication. She developed swelling on the brain and died on Saturday morning.
Evans posted her last blog entry, Lent for the Lamenting, on Ash Wednesday, the solemn pre-Easter season for many Christians around the world.
It’s worth noting that her last public words were ones of inclusion:
As the season of Lent commences, I am aware this year of all who find themselves in a season of frustration, grief, and lament over the church or their place in it. The evangelical embrace of Trumpism. The abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention. The United Methodist Church’s divisions over LGBTQ inclusion. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t reach out to me, in person or online, to tell me they feel betrayed by their family of faith—by what has been done, and by what has been left undone…
It strikes me today that the liturgy of Ash Wednesday teaches something that nearly everyone can agree on. Whether you are part of a church or not, whether you believe today or your doubt, whether you are a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic or a so-called “none” (whose faith experiences far transcend the limits of that label) you know this truth deep in your bones: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Death is a part of life.
My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.
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