Jonathan Merritt Remembers Rachel Held Evans as a ‘Torchbearer,’ an ‘Arsonist,’ a ‘Prophet with a Pen’

The reason a writer as young as Evans mattered to so many is that, religiously speaking, she was not just a writer. Evans was a prophet with a pen.

When Christian author Rachel Held Evans died unexpectedly last week from brain swelling, it set off a wave of lament online. After the announcement of her passing, the hashtag #becauseofRHE trended globally on Twitter as people retold stories of how Evans and her work had impacted their lives. A GoFundMe campaign launched to help cover her family’s medical expenses set a goal of $70,000. It has raised more than $200,000.

The widespread outpouring of grief is a testament to the reach of her words, but it also raises questions about why Evans’ passing has struck such a nerve. At a mere 37 years old, her entire career began only in the early 2000s. But the reason that a writer as young as Evans mattered to so many is that, religiously speaking, she was not just a writer. Evans was a prophet with a pen.

In the most formative moments of both Jewish and Christian history, prophets play critical roles in birthing faith’s future. They often emerge in the midst of oppressive situations, when religious leaders have been co-opted by earthly rulers and politicians. In such times, prophets appear from within the religious community to critique it and call it into a new reality.

As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “Prophets are people who, because of their roots in the theological tradition and because of some emancipatory experience in their own life, refuse to accept the definitions of reality that are imposed upon us by the socioeconomic political power structure.”

Evans: A writer by the church door

Evans was raised as an evangelical Christian in the South and experienced the many affectations that come with such an upbringing. She sprouted from the soil of the blogosphere in 2008, when the tectonic plates of traditional Christianity in America were shifting. Yet it was her 2010 memoir, “Faith Unraveled,” that gained her a broad hearing among Christians. The book recounted her struggles with the fundamentalism of her childhood and charted out her adult quest to make peace with doubt, science and other religious boogeymen. Evans’ “emancipatory experience” and religious roots resonated with the disillusioned masses with similar stories. She made disillusioned believers feel less alone.

I’ve referred to Evans as a writer who sat by the church door. For those just beginning to explore Christianity, her work greeted you with a reminder that not every Christian resembles the caricatures so often encountered in the news media and entertainment. If you were a believer who was ready to call it quits and walk away from it all, her work beckoned you to stay and reimagine the faith alongside of her.

As Evans matured, her voice grew louder and her opinions became more pointed. Like the prophets of old, her ire was often aimed at the religious aristocracy and political powerbrokers whom she perceived to be agents of injustice and marginalization. Evans spoke out against Christians who ignored the rise of white supremacy, decried pastors who propped up Donald Trump after he was revealed to be a sex abuser, and championed the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in the life of the church. Untethered from any institution with power to censure her, Evans was free to say what other Christians were thinking but felt too afraid to say aloud. Over time, she sparked courage in others to add their voice to hers.

Evans used her life to show the truth

“The folks you’re shutting out of the church today will be leading it tomorrow. That’s how the Spirit works,” she once declared. “The future’s in the margins.”

One of the notable characteristics of prophets in the Jewish Scriptures is their desire to dramatize the truth rather than just preach it. To illustrate God’s coming judgment in their day, Jeremiah smashed a jar and Isaiah wandered naked for three years. Ezekiel ate a scroll to remind people that God’s word is inside our bodies rather than just on the page. It’s not that surprising then that in 2011, Evans took a vow to obey all of the Bible’s instructions for women literally for 12 months. She made her own clothes, stayed silent in church, awoke before dawn, covered her head, and camped out in her front yard while menstruating.

Her experience during this period was cataloged in her New York Times best-selling book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” and it exposed the weaknesses and inconsistencies of conservative Christian views of womanhood and sparked a wide conversation about how to read the Bible’s teachings on gender.

Evans eventually left evangelicalism altogether and became an Episcopalian, but she refused to leave Christianity. Instead, she reimagined what a life of faith could look like. She penned a book rethinking how to relate to the church and another reimagining how to read the Bible. From her new perch in mainline Protestantism where she wrote, Evans regularly critiqued conservative Christian leaders and exclusionary churches. Indeed, critiquing a community from within its walls is an earmark of prophets. Her opponents came to fear her razor wit, but Evans claimed that her critiques were born out of her desire to see Christianity become a more positive presence in the world.

The prophet has penned final words

Of course, when someone dies in the prime of their life, the temptation is to lionize them like Elvis. But Evans was far from perfect, and she’d be the first to tell you that. In her infamous social media spats, her passion sometimes seemed to get the best of her. On more than one occasion, she was forced to issue an apology online for something she said or the way she spoke it. Of course, this willingness to admit her own fallibility only made her more endearing to her followers.

I knew her first as a colleague, and I admired the way her words sparked like struck flint off pages and screens. To spiritual seekers wandering in the dark cave of doubt, Evans wrote as a torchbearer to be trusted. To Christian leaders intoxicated by power and complicit in injustice, she was an arsonist to be feared. She and I did not always agree, and we had a disagreement or two online. Yet we guarded our friendship first, and I never questioned her love for the faith we shared.

As the Catholic mystic Richard Rohr says, “The dualistic mind presumes that if you criticize something, you don’t love it. Wise people like the prophets would say the opposite.”

In a time of resurgent bigotry and hatred during which many Christians seem content to side with the oppressors over the oppressed, we need Rachel Held Evans more than ever. But she is gone, never to return. The prophet has penned her final words. For more than a decade, she spoke truth to power, never seeking to establish a legacy or ensure that she would be remembered.

Maybe that’s why she is so impossible to forget.

Jonathan Merritt is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and author of “Learning to Speak God from Scratch.” Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanMerritt