Article ID: JAF1905ACK | By: Anne Carlson Kennedy


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A Life Cut Short

Early Saturday morning, May 5, 2019, Rachel Held Evans, only thirty-seven, died suddenly after a brief hospitalization. She left behind her husband, two very young children, and a theological legacy that will take years to unravel. She was immediately and intensely mourned on Twitter, her preferred social media platform and a Christian subcultural space she helped shape.

Evans rose to prominence in the early 2000s as a blogger. Her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town (Zondervan, 2010), articulates the doubts about creation and hell that ultimately destroyed her childhood faith. In her second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Thomas Nelson, 2012), she undertook to observe all the biblical commands regarding women  —  or as many of them as she could realistically manage — to their literal extreme. Many of the tributes to her on social media referred back to her as the Proverbs 31 Woman of Valor, a term she popularized in the course of that project. Her next book, Searching for Sunday (Nelson Books, 2015), arose from her exit from evangelicalism and her reception into the Episcopal church.1 This, and her final work, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (Nelson Books, 2018), made her a Christian internet mainstay. Outside of publishing, Evans is well known for the Why Christian? and Evolving Faith Conferences, both rallying points for disaffected evangelicals. There she promoted other now famous voices—Nadia Bolz-Weber2, Jen Hatmaker, and Austin Channing Brown.

The outpouring on social media was immediate, poignant, and heart-breaking.3 During her life, her swift kindness and agile theological combat brought many Christians, both on the right and left, into her circle. She graciously responded to anyone who tagged or questioned her. She privately encouraged a broad range of both well-known and obscure Twitter followers, and there were many stories of people who, no matter whether they agreed with her or not, were moved by her willingness to engage. Indeed, though Evans fled Bible-belt evangelicalism for the comfortable doubts of the Episcopal Church, frustrated that she had not been able to carve out theological space for herself, if she have could have witnessed the heartbreak, she would have seen that she had irrevocably altered the face of American evangelical Christianity. Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s prescient commentary in 2015 still rings true: “From her self-made pulpit, Evans has openly wrestled with faith and evolution, where women fit in church leadership and who will end up in hell. With no formal seminary training or institutional backing, she has challenged traditional evangelical biblical interpretation on the place of LGBT people in the church, advocating for allowing them to join and even become leaders, especially contentious topics in evangelical circles.”4

A Refuge of Doubt

Evan’s appeal grew out of her deep roots within evangelicalism and the Bible Belt. Her facility with the Scriptures combined with her wit, humor, and fluid prose gave a way for believer and nonbeliever alike to consider faith in a fresh, lively way. In particular, evangelicals weary of the culture wars, angry about notorious hypocrisy within the church, and disenchanted with the conflation of culture, politics, and biblical faith found in her a refuge.

Evan’s hermeneutic, however, should be problematic for orthodox Christians of every stripe and tradition. She approaches Scripture from a human-centered perspective, rather than a Christocentric one, and her primary exegetical tool is doubt.

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life,” laments Jesus, in combat with the religious authorities of His day, and yet, “it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39 ESV). Jesus Himself is the key that unlocks the meaning of every biblical text. Understanding who Jesus is — both who He claims to be and how He Himself reads the Scriptures — is the first and most critical hermeneutical task. Jesus is fully God and fully man (John 1:1: Heb. 4:15), the second person of the Godhead, the foundational source that holds the universe together (Col. 1:15–17), and the substitutionary atoning sacrifice for sin on the cross (Heb. 10:1–15). His life, death, resurrection, and ascension fulfill the old covenant law and restore a desolate humanity to communion with God (Eph. 2:11–16). Without His divinely ordained and obedient sacrifice for sinners, the whole Bible, but especially the Old Testament, is rendered incoherent.

“Biblical”

And yet, many Christians throw around the word “biblical” as a mere device by which to make decisions, untethered to the complex narrative of Scripture and the person of Jesus. Evans is not far wrong when she writes in the beginning of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, “Now, we evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like it’s Martin Luther’s middle name. We especially like to stick it in front of other loaded words, like economics, sexuality, politics, and marriage to create impression that God has definitive opinions about such things, opinions that just so happen to correspond with our own. Despite insistent claims that we don’t ‘pick and choose’ which part of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity” (emphasis in original).5

Her point is well taken. Christians have contended for centuries over how faith in Christ should inform and shape daily life, let alone political and ecclesial order. Every age comes to its own conclusions, by turns excoriating the past and succumbing to nostalgia. That being so, the church has adopted certain hermeneutical principles to guide the Christian’s reading of Scripture. Some of these principles are basic common-sense practices. One is to let the teaching portions of the Bible shape the reader’s interpretation of the narrative portions. That Jacob married both Rachel and Leah does not mean that polygamy is “taught” in Scripture. Another principle is that the Old Testament Law, which regulated without condoning certain practices, must be read in light of new covenant teaching. Old Testament laws concerning polygamy find their answer in Jesus’ restoration of marriage to Eden (Matt. 19:3–9) and ultimate establishment of it in Himself (Eph. 5:32).

Evans, whether she intends to or not, ignores both these principles. She writes, “After all, technically speaking, it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father (Exodus 21:7), biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28–29), biblical for her to remain silent in church (I Corinthians 14:34–35), biblical for her to cover her head (I Corinthians 11:6), and biblical for her to be one of multiple wives (Exodus 21:10)” (emphasis in original).6 In this way she claims that the Bible “canonizes contradiction,”7 that a “biblical” view of marriage includes polygamy, intimating that perhaps the sin of misogyny may be laid at the feet of God Himself.

New readers of the Bible will often be appalled by the bad life choices of the patriarchs, by callous acts of violence, and by the calamitous behavior of King David’s children, not to mention David himself. As the novice labors along through the text, humanity’s evil mounts up into an overshadowing mountain of guilt — guilt that God judges by sending His own chosen people into captivity to the Assyrians and Babylonians. For the modern reader who is used to having every moral lesson spelled out plainly, it can be frustrating to find little or no judgment declared within the Old Testament’s narrative portions. The Levite’s concubine is brutalized and left dead with only hints in the shape of the story that something has gone terribly awry. Evans does not adopt a harmonizing posture toward those notoriously difficult passages, letting the didactic sections of Scripture govern biblical narratives and the New Testament interpret the Old. Instead she nurtures the natural inclination of the reader to stumble over them.

Picking and Choosing

Christians have historically understood that it is not about “picking and choosing,” and that Jesus Himself is not arbitrarily throwing away some part of the law, as Evans alleges here:

As a Christian, I do take some comfort in the fact that Jesus got Himself into quite a bit of trouble for his own selective literalism. Known for healing on the Sabbath, touching the untouchables, and fraternizing with prostitutes and tax collectors, Jesus liked to begin his sermons by quoting a passage of Scripture (“You have heard that it was said…”) and then turning it on its head (“but I tell you…”). Perhaps the most famous example of this technique is captured in Matthew 5:43–45, where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”8

There is no text in any portion of the Bible that commands anyone to “hate your enemy.” Jesus is addressing either a scribal or popular misapplication of the Old Covenant Law, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which justified the adversarial treatment of Samaritans in particular and Gentiles in general (Luke 10:25–37).

A coherent Christocentric reading of the Bible reveals that loving one’s enemy is the very heart of the gospel. Beginning in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve become enemies of God, God, in response, sets about to love them — and all their fallen ancestors — with the self-sacrificial love that characterizes His own person. It is a complicated story, a story of love, of agape, a story that takes millennia to unfold. It culminates in a dehumanized, rejected Christ on the cross. It is the perfect picture of a God reconciling Himself to His enemies. The close reader understands that Jesus did not “overturn” the law but perfectly and fully embodied it. Love has to be defined by His character, person, and actions in the Scripture. We cannot take a twenty-first-century me-centered definition of love and impose it on the text.

Furthermore, the preponderance of the times Jesus said, “You have heard it said that…,” He was not quoting the law itself but rabbinical additions to the law. When He said, “But I say…,” He was stripping the law back to its root, affirming its goodness and offering Himself as its merciful fulfillment to those who could never keep it.

The instructions of Jesus and His apostles in the New Testament make it very clear that God’s own people — whom He nursed in His bosom—rejected Him, that His just wrath demands a true sacrifice for a rebellious humanity, and that His mercy rescues the repentant out of that just fire. To reiterate examples in the previous section, Abraham sinned in taking Hagar. Israel herself was vomited out of the land for her idolatry. And yet God loved His enemies and accomplished the salvation of those who hated Him.

A Cacophony of Voices

Evans everywhere misuses the term “literalism,” applying it disparagingly to those who believe the Bible is understandable and consistent with itself. Because she does not believe that God is able to speak clearly, the text becomes for her a useful “cacophony of voices.”9 Without a substitutionary atonement, without a respectful and nuanced reading of the Old Testament law that takes Christ as its fulfillment and culmination, without the dual natures of Christ, and without the distinction between teaching and narrative, the Bible is fragmented and unintelligible.

And yet, for centuries, Christians have known that God speaks coherently in every age and in every place. God is a poet, a teacher, a master of metaphor, a narrator so devoted to a perfect arch that He encompasses the totality of human history within His divine purposes. Indeed, God so relies on the complexities and subtleties of human speech as to adopt for Himself the name “The Word.” When God says, “Do not lie,” everybody understands what He means. When Jesus stands sorrowing over the city of Jerusalem, grieving that He would have gathered her as a hen gathers her chicks (Matt. 23:37), even a small child understands that He is not a chicken, but that He deeply desires not the death of sinners but that they should turn to Him and live.

Increasingly marginalized American mainline denominations embraced a splintered reading of Scripture throughout the last century without making any real mark on evangelicalism. Evans popularized this confused reading, reaching many disenfranchised evangelicals just at the moment when they hungered and thirsted for a more culturally palatable Bible. As modern-day heresies press upon the church, Evans made a way in the Bible Belt for advantageous, unorthodox, incoherent interpretations. Most of all, she nursed ordinary people into a strange comfort, not of bringing the difficult and terrifying questions of life and death to be answered by a kind and merciful Savior in the life-giving Scriptures but of finding refuge in their own doubts, their supposedly unanswerable questions. This is perhaps the most tragic portion of her legacy, and one with which the church will have to wrestle for many decades to come.

Evangelicals now, along with the mainlines, can “live into the questions,” can use a radically inclusive definition of love to redefine God Himself, and can discount the Scriptures. What the New York Times intended as a tribute is a grievous indictment of the state of the church today: “Her congregation was online, and her Twitter feed became her church, a gathering place for thousands to question, find safety in their doubts and learn to believe in new way.”10

Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016) and blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventingrace.com.

Notes: 

  1. Evans articulates some of her reasoning in the blogpost “What Now?” April 1, 2014, https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/what-now-world-vision.
  2. Douglas Groothuis, “Shamelessly Wrong: Book Review of Shameless: A Sexual Reformation Nadia Bolz-Weber,” https://www.equip.org/article/shamelessly-wrong-book-review-of-shameless-a-sexual-reformation-nadia-bolz-weber/.
  3. Faith Leaders React to Rachel Held Evans’ Death Over the Weekend,” Relevant Magazine, May 6, 2019, https://relevantmagazine.com/current/faith-leaders-react-to-rachel-held-evans-death-over-the-weekend/.
  4. Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “How Rachel Held Evans Became the Most Polarizing Woman in Evangelicalism,” The Washington Post, April 16, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/04/16/how-rachel-held-evans-became-the-most-polarizing-woman-in-evangelicalism/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6e9cdb8047ba.
  5. Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), xix.
  6. Evans, Biblical Womanhood, xx.
  7. Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (Nashville: Audible, Thomas Nelson, 2018).
  8. Evans, Inspired, 53.
  9. Evans, Inspired.
  10. Elizabeth Dias and Sam Roberts, “Rachel Held Evans, Voice of the Wandering Evangelical, Dies at 37,” New York Times, May 4, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/04/us/rachel-held-evans.html.