The past week began with a tremendous loss. The funny, generous, and spirited Rachel Held Evans passed at the heartbreaking age of 37. Held Evans was an influential Christian author and speaker who challenged traditional thinking in evangelical spaces. Today on Beliefs we’re listening to stories about her influence, her magic, and her impact on Christian life.
Our guests are Aaron Monts, a pastor from United Church in Seattle, Washington, Jana Riess, senior columnist at Religion News Service, and Brian Estrella, senior pastor at Evangelical Covenant Church in Riverside, Rhode Island.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
BILL BAKER: Contemplating the loss of a profound voice in Christian thought:
JANA REISS: Rachel had a big part to play in women finding their voices, which I think, particularly in the evangelical space, has been so important. It’s been really remarkable and marvelous to see on social media over the last four weeks since she became incapacitated—to see people sharing their stories about how Rachel had encouraged them. And women, in particular—also women of color because she made it such a priority that people who had been on the margins needed to have a place at the table –and she was willing to take her own platform and share it with other people.
BILL BAKER: This is Beliefs. I’m Bill Baker.
This past week began with a tremendous loss: the funny, generous and spirited Rachel Held Evans passed at the heartbreaking age of 37. Today, we’re listening to stories about her influence, her magic and her impact on Christian life.
Our guests are Aaron Monts, a pastor from United Church in Seattle, Washington; Jana Reiss, senior columnist at Religion News Service; and Brian Estrella, senior pastor of Evangelical Covenant Church in Riverside, Rhode Island.
AARON MONTS: My name is Aaron Monts. I’m a pastor at United Church in the heart of Queen Anne in Seattle, Washington.
Rachel was brilliant in how she was able to communicate. One of the eulogies that that is out there called her a ‘prophet with a pen.’ She was this beautiful, brilliant communicator, not only in how she wrote but how she spoke as well. She really wrestled deeply with faith and what that meant, not only within the system of religion but apart from it.
How can you move away from some of these systems and structures that have traditionally oppressed people? That have pushed people down, and kept their voices silenced—specifically women, people of color, men and women within the LGBTQ movement? How the church has systemically oppressed them and pushed them down and invalidated their voices for ages.
Rachel worked to say ‘This is not how it’s supposed to be.’ And the way in which the church has worked for so long, I think for her–it’s really hard for me to put words in her mouth–but I think for her it was this wrestle between the two great commandments of love God and love people.
And oftentimes she openly wrestled with her doubts, openly wrestled with what faith was for her and how to walk through it well and in a beautiful way.
And yet at the same time, when she doubted, she leaned really, really well into what it means to love people. It’s this is beautiful two sides of the same coin–that in order for you to truly love God, you have to love people. I think that’s perhaps why Rachel has meant so much to people. And as she carved out this new way of being and living, she taught all of us what it means to put ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ at the forefront of our faith, at the forefront of who we are as a people, as followers in Jesus.
For many people, Rachel was the champion of women in ministry.
There are so many people that have these beautiful stories of ‘it’s because of Rachel that I am in ministry,’ and those are beautiful and brilliant stories, and for me the question between complementarianism and egalitarianism—are women equal or are they just complements to men?— that was never an argument for me. So that was never something that that for me I looked at and was like, ‘Oh Rachel, that’s just terrible, terrible.’ That that never happened for me. I’m not sure that there was one thing in particular that I can remember—I’ve been interacting with it, with her and her stuff, for so long that I’m not sure there’s a moment that I would say, ‘Oh man, she is so wrong.’ Because I feel now, years removed from everything, that it’s become almost just second nature: Yeah, love people. Love people.
And I might even say that her influence has influenced this new church that we’ve started, this church called United. We’re trying to build this new community and this new church on an ethos of loving others, of loving each other, in the ways of Jesus.
Martin Luther King Jr. said that we have to build this beloved community that has an ethos, an ethic of love, and that’s what we’re trying to do. And I would say that Rachel had a tremendous influence on me and how we started, and really pushed forward this new church.
So, Rachel had this one quote that has really impacted me. She said, ‘This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.’
That’s what we hope for as a church: that there is always one more seat. That there is always one more table that we get to gather around together, no matter who you are, no matter where you have come from. I think Rachel really, really in beautiful ways, created this environment of openness for all: that the table is open for all, that Jesus is a person and a god that is there, that is open to everyone, no matter who you are and no matter where you’ve come from.
For a long time, the church is talking about this. The church has said ‘Yes, this is what we believe.’ But the church hasn’t lived it out. I think Rachel showed us how to live it out. I think Rachel challenged us to live it out in greater ways. And I think Rachel’s example and her words and the ways in which she championed the other—those that are not a part of a central part of society—I think she has left a legacy for us to live in into and I think that legacy will last.
It’s really difficult to look at someone’s legacy when there were only 37 years old when they died. That’s such a difficult thing because it’s not something that anyone is really prepared for, right?
All of the reflections that have taken place over the course of the past week or so have been really difficult because I don’t think it’s anything that anybody really recognizes or is ready for. There are other people who have passed that have been up in age. And I think we’re more ready for that. Whereas with Rachel—37. It was the flu. It’s just such a tremendous loss for the church, especially when there’s so much more that she has left to give us.
So, I’m not sure we can really quite define her legacy just yet. I don’t think that it would be necessarily completely fair to do that, because she still has more to give us—even in death.
My name is Aaron Monts. I’m a pastor at United Church in the heart of Seattle.
JANA REISS: I’m Jana Reiss. I’m a senior columnist at Religion News Service, and I’m also an editor and an author.
My first encounter with Rachel’s work was when she was sending out galleys for her first big book, which was A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It’s a memoir of Rachel’s quixotic attempt to live the commandments of the Bible, particularly as they pertain to women.
And so I said, yes. I was kind of surprised actually by my own agreement, and wound up loving the book, gave it a very enthusiastic endorsement, and that was the beginning of my becoming a fan of Rachel and then later came to meet her in person and expressed that to her.
You know, I came to be a fan of her work through the book, but actually I think that was unusual at that part of her career. Most people came to know her through her blogging and through her social media presence, and in that context in particular, she had such a wonderful way of treating people as people, which, I’m sorry, but we can’t take for granted on social media that that’s going to be the case and that you will not treat people as though they’re instant enemies if they disagree with you.
But she also just carried that sense of trying to kind of accompany people in their pain, not shying away from people’s pain, being a friend to strangers, a friend to people she’d never met. And also, I think this deep vulnerability that she was willing to exhibit—that frankly blew my mind. Because I’m a blogger too, and I don’t typically blog about my personal life. And part of the reason that I don’t do that is that I’m protecting my family, but part of the reason is that I’m protecting myself. Because, I’m sorry, but there are so many people who are eager to, I don’t know, exploit that sort of weakness.
And Rachel didn’t care. She and I both faced the same kinds of criticism of our feminism and desire to change our respective religious situations. And to me, I just watched it awe, because I felt like she was almost giving them ammunition. But what I learned from that is that actually, she was building conversation through that vulnerability.
Rachel had a big part to play in women finding their voices, which I think, particularly in the evangelical space, has been so important. It’s been really remarkable and marvelous to see on social media over the last four weeks since she became incapacitated, to see people sharing their stories about how Rachel had encouraged them. And women in particular, and also women of color, because she made it such a priority that people who had been on the margins needed to have a place at the table–and she was willing to take her own platform and share it with other people.
Rachel was outspoken and courageous and loved people. And I think that she created her own ability to reach even more people. She also had a remarkable ability to apologize if she discovered she was wrong about something, which is just not something that you see often enough on social media and in public discourse today. She was willing to position herself as someone who was learning, rather than someone who knew all the answers already.
One thing that I have noticed in the last few years: I am considered to be a progressive Mormon and in that context, I’m involved with a number of conversations of other progressive Mormons. I didn’t grow up Mormon, and so for me, I can have a lot of sympathy with their story, which is very similar in many ways to Rachel story of growing up in a conservative religion and then feeling somehow the fraying of that feeling that it’s unraveling and you were trying so hard to hold on to the safety of what you used to know.
But you’ve discovered things about your faith or about the Bible or how your religion is handling contemporary social issues that you don’t agree with, or how it’s dealing with women, and it all just starts to unravel. And what I’ve seen over the last few years is that many of the progressive Latter-day Saints, Mormons, that I have seen on social media, have discovered Rachel, and that was beautiful: to see so many people say, ‘Have any of you heard of this woman, this Rachel Held Evans? Because her story is my story.’
Anyway, I was revisiting some of her writing and came across this passage that I think speaks to a lot of those people who have in some ways gone through a pretty serious faith transition. She wrote, ‘There are recovery programs for people grieving the loss of a parent, a sibling or spouse. You can buy books on how to cope with the death of a beloved pet, or work through the anguish of a miscarriage. We speak openly with one another about the bereavement that can accompany a layoff, a move, a diagnosis, or a dream deferred. But no one really teaches you how to grieve the loss of your faith. You’re on your own for that.’
One of the gifts that Rachel had was her willingness to just be completely open about that story and about that evolution and how much it hurt. For people who are going through it, for people who are going through that pain, they don’t need platitudes.
I’d like to talk about her sense of humor. Oh, I love this passage. This is from A Year of Biblical Womanhood. When I saw this, it made me laugh so hard. This was before I ever met Rachel and knew her at all. It’s in the scene in A Year of Biblical Womanhood where she is dealing with Christmas. She says, ‘There seems to be some kind of universal agreement that the advances achieved through women’s liberation need not apply during the holidays. It’s as though the first trumpet peels of ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ sent blasting over the P.A. at Bed Bath and Beyond are designed to trigger an internal short that shocks us all into Stepford mode, donning aprons and strained smiles and sweaters that have no business surviving another decade. From the baking aisle, to the post office line, to the wrapping paper bin in the attic, women populate every forgotten corner of Christmas. Who got up at 4 a.m. to put the ham in the oven? A woman. Who elbowed you out of the last reindeer pillow left on the shelf? A woman. Who sent the Christmas card describing her 18-year-old son’s incarceration as, ‘A short break before college’? A woman. Who remembered to include batteries at the bottom of each stocking? A woman. And who gets credit for pulling it all off? Santa. That’s right. A man.’
Oh my gosh, I just howled with laughter when I read that. I thought, ‘It’s exactly right.’ I mean, it’s this fantastic feminist manifesto about Christmas, but it’s totally true.
I’m Jana Reiss. I’m a senior columnist at Religion News Service.
BRIAN ESTRELLA: My name is Brian Estrella and I’ve been serving this little church in Riverside since 1996.
I think what drew me to Rachel was that she seems to be on a path that I had walked prior to her, except she was walking it with a little more grace, certainly more intelligence and eloquence than I did. I never met her, but I felt like I knew her and certainly felt like I loved her.
I think 2011 was the first time I think I tweeted something like, just a note of appreciation. One experience I could recount—it wasn’t uncommon for me to quote from her in sermons, and she had done a couple of blogs—Why I Left the Church and Why I Stayed— and I shared some of that blog as part of my sermon.
And a woman came up to me after the service with tears in her eyes, visibly shaken and she said, ‘Thank you.’ And I said, ‘You’re welcome. What for?’ She said, ‘I never knew it was okay to doubt. I thought there was something wrong with me whenever I had doubts.’ And I think something that Rachel did for a lot of people: to reassure them that it’s okay.
I posted a quote from Evolving in Monkey Town, which I think was later renamed, Faith Unravelled, perhaps. She said, ‘Doubt a difficult animal to master because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God. The former has the potential to destroy faith. The latter has the power to enrich and refine it.’
You needed to only see the pushback that she got on social media to know that she was pushing the needle, and she was fearless in that regard and I really respected her for that. And really admired the way that she seemed to work really hard not to take cheap shots, to honor those that she disagreed with, without backing down from her convictions. And yet at the same time, I think she held her convictions humbly and somewhat loosely, in the way that only someone that has really gone through an evolution of faith like she has can do.
This was my experience: when I came into my denomination, I was not supportive of women in ministry, for example, and learned so much from so many colleagues to the point where my mind was changed. I was convinced that I had been reading scripture wrong about that.
I believe her work is going to be multiplied. I don’t believe it was God’s will for her to die. God gets his way in the end, and I believe that he will use her death to multiply, to expand her voice and her influence. That’s certainly my prayer.
I’m a pastor of the little church in Rhode Island. Thank you for having me.
BILL BAKER: Our guests were Aaron Monts, pastor at United Church in Seattle, Washington; Jana Reiss, senior columnist at Religion News Service; and Brian Estrella, senior pastor at Evangelical Covenant Church in Riverside, Rhode Island.
The conversation continues on our Facebook page and we tweet at @beliefspodcast.
Beliefs is brought to you with the support of the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. J. Woodward is our producer. The theme music is by Edward Bilous.
I’m Bill Baker and thank you for listening.