Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu
What Is God Like?
Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner
(Convergent Books, 2021)
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“In any case,” writes Rachel Held Evans in the middle of her posthumously published work, Wholehearted Faith, “I wonder sometimes whether we’re playing at death and calling it life.”1 In characteristic and prescient candor, at the time of her death, Evans was in the act of asking the peculiar and essential questions that strike to the heart of what it means to be a creature created by God. She was circling around the most elemental issues of Christianity, of death and life, of love and truth. In her last words, we find a legacy of doubt, the grief of a person who was putting her finger on the central point without yet acknowledging the Verity Himself — Jesus — standing before her.
Along with the beautifully illustrated children’s book, What Is God Like?,2 Wholehearted Faith gives us a picture of what sort of god Evans was sketching out — not the God of the Bible, not of Jesus who makes that God known to us in the fullness of His astonishing and glorious mercy, but the god of ourselves.
Wholehearted Faith falls into two sections. The first part is the uncompleted 11,000-word manuscript Evans had been writing at her death. The second part consists of salvaged previously unpublished blogs, tweets, and notes. The two parts, masterfully sewn together by her friend, Jeff Chu, reminded me of wandering around the ruins of Pompeii or Herculaneum. They show a person caught unaware, in the act of living a life full of promise and hope, her warm, bright, occasionally cutting authorial voice crying across the chasm of the grave.
Taking It Apart and Putting It Back Together. The first, unfinished portion of Wholehearted Faith shows the beginnings of what Evans certainly meant to be the enfleshment of her own freshly reconstituted Christianity. Why would she still call herself a Christian? Was she a “believer?” What is faith, anyway? These were her pressing questions. A deconstructionist before the term became ubiquitous and unoriginal, Evans had begun laying down the paving stones for disaffected evangelicals and fundamentalists to call themselves “Christian” without having to adhere to the traditional requirements not only of doctrine and practice but of faith itself.
The task on its face was autobiographical. Contrasting the openness of her, at that moment, spiritual state, a place of asking many questions without there needing to be any answers, she traced out the narrow and prescriptive Christianity presented to her as a child. In a kind of Pauline-esque litany, she claimed to have been a pharisee of the pharisees, the master of AWANA verses,3 the person who did so much evangelism that her neighbors drew their shades as she passed by on her bike.4 She wore the clothes,5 won the awards,6 and organized the Bible clubs.7 But all it amounted to, in the end, was a deep sense of fragmentation. “The faith that I had once possessed demanded disintegration,” she writes.
Of course I could use my brain — as long as it led me to the correct, predetermined conclusions about science, biblical interpretation, and public policy. Of course I could use my heart — as long as it didn’t empathize with the wrong people or end up on the wrong side of complex moral dilemmas. Of course I could use my conscience — until it grew troubled by certain teachings and actions of the church. Of course I could use my body — as long as it remained heterosexual, cisgender, attractive but not too attractive, feminine but not too feminine, modest, appropriately clothed, restrained, demure, uncomplicated, and especially sexually dormant until my wedding night, at which point it would magically transform into a sex carnival for my husband. In other words, I could be a Christian as long as I loved God with half my heart, half my soul, half my mind, and half my body.8
The reintegration and reconstruction of her faith meant letting go of external constraints and beliefs. What she really needed — wanted — was to be known, to be found worthy by God. Reaching out for help from Brené Brown, she circled around the question of human shame and worthiness, rejecting utterly the idea that something called “original sin” could have so complicated humanity’s relationship with God as to break it entirely.9 “I didn’t want to be pitied or tolerated by the God who made me,” she writes, “as if I were a battered old teddy bear that had lost an eye and its appeal; I wanted to be cherished by God. I didn’t want God to look at me and ‘only see Jesus’; I wanted God to see me, all of me, all of what God had created and all of what life had wrought” (emphasis added).10
This great desire to be seen by God, according to her own specifications of worthiness, drove her to a contrary definition of faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for,” she quotes from Hebrews, “the conviction of things not seen.”11 Nevertheless, “At its best,” she writes, “faith teaches us to live without certainty and to hope without a guarantee” (emphasis added).12 This absence of a guarantee ironically comes into crucial focus when she admits that she has no ability to recognize, in her words, “absolute truth.” “It’s not that I don’t believe absolute truth exists, but if it does, it would take the mind of God to know its fullness. I don’t think that absolute truth is sitting there in plain sight, waiting to be noticed.”13
A god Who Bends the Knee. That line, when I read it, took my breath away, for in the kernels of Wholehearted Faith, Evans was fascinated by one of the central moments of Christian history — the Incarnation itself, the time when God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, came to His own creation as the Light and the Truth. Tragically, the implications of that glory and power were lost on her. In a heart-breaking twist, she began to see not that God would humble Himself to rescue His creation, but that God Himself had to become small. “God,” she writes, “shrinking himself down to the size of a zygote, implanting in the soft lining of a woman’s womb. God growing fingers and toes. God kicking and hiccupping in utero.”14 This God who, she says, “shrinks down” was mediated to her by Mary, to whom “God trusted God’s very self, totally and completely in bodily form….Before Jesus fed us with the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, Jesus needed to be fed, by a woman. He needed a woman to say: ‘This is my body, given for you.’”15
Evans found, then, that it was not Jesus, but other women who kept her tethered to Christianity. “I have come to believe,” she writes, “that I am a Christian because of Mary, and because of Mary’s midwife, and because of Mary’s spiritual ancestors — Rahab and Ruth, Bathsheba and Tamar. I am a Christian because of a sex worker and a refugee, an assault survivor and a woman who pretended to be a sex worker in order to seduce her father-in-law so that she would have some leverage over him in case he tried to kill her.”16 Beyond them, tracing her spiritual journey through her childhood to her crisis of faith, it was her mother and grandmother, her Sunday School teachers, and finally, Nadia Bolz Webber, whose storytelling, she writes, “made me believe that, as she put it, ‘Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own.’”17
Ultimately, though, a poem by a man, Daniel Landisky, settled her anguished wrestling over the question of evil and the goodness of God. Like so many troubled souls before her, most notably Harold Kushner in his moving though inadequate answer in When Bad Things Happen to Good People,18 it was God who would give way before humanity’s goodness. God would be the one to bend the knee and adore His creation. She quotes Landisky: “And sometimes when we passed a soul in worship, God too would kneel down. I have come to learn: God adores His creation.”19
This shrinking, kneeling God made way for her to consider her own worthiness, and the worthiness of the women who helped her along her path. This was the God who finally “saw” her and accepted her. This God made way for her faith in herself to be the reintegration of the heart, mind, and soul. “Wholehearted, vulnerable faith,” she writes, “lives not in the mental citadel but on the open, windswept plains of the heart. And on that vast terrain, we are called first not to proclamation but, once again, to observation, to listening, and to love: ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”20 Listening, looking out for the answer she knew must be there, she did not, at least as her fingers sought for the words on her keyboard, apprehend the very God who did not shrink, who did not become smaller, but who brought the full and total glory of the Godhead, the power of His everlasting love, to rescue sinners from themselves.
“God” Is Really “Like” You. “Religion,” writes Evans, the irony of her own words once again lost on her and her gathering of new “believers,” “has torn a lot of people to pieces.”21 To insist on true, absolute knowledge, would mean, she claimed, clinging to “reductive thinking,” to “the idolatry of sharp contrasts between black and white.”22 And yet, in the text of the children’s book, What Is God Like?, she grasped for the solid, vibrant, images Jesus uses of Himself — the Shepherd, the Light, the strong tower. She jumbled them together with creation itself — the rainbow, the wind — and the Creator, the Father. None of these are incomprehensible, though when they are joined together they produce a sort of pantheistic amalgamation of religion lite. She crowns them with the surprising and surreal picture of a perichoretic dance in drag, mapping the pronouns “She,” “He,” and “They” onto “what God is like.” Even more disheartening than the awkward gender ideology and the confusion of categories, persons, and images is her failure to look at what God is really “like” — the very Image that displays the Truth of the Word of God, Jesus Himself.
The Mind of Christ in the Body of Christ. Long before the Son of God joined humanity to Himself by humbling Himself and taking on flesh, the prophet Isaiah found the invisible curtain between the Most Holy Place in the temple and the very throne of heaven opened up (Isa. 6:1). He felt himself coming apart at the seams, his whole person fracturing before such unexpected holiness (6:5). To halt the fragmentation, one of the angelical creatures, whose sole purpose is to sing the endless praise of the One on the throne, took a coal and seared Isaiah’s lips (6:6–7). The burn drove away the imperfections of Isaiah’s unclean mouth, the rot, the corruption of his soul, and made it possible not only for him to join in the adoration of the angels but to proclaim God’s goodness to the peoples of the earth (6:8). The body joined once more to the spirit, the heart and mind made congruous — this moment foreshadowed typologically the coming of Christ, the very Word who would come out of Isaiah’s mouth.
“Have this mind,” St. Paul admonished, many hundreds of years later, “among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:5–7 ESV, emphasis added). The word for “form” in English is morphe in Greek. It indicates an outward display so that if you wanted to see something in its perfection, its fullness, its beauty, you would look at its morphe.23 If you want to know God, in other words, you have to look at Jesus. If you want to be known by Him, you have still to look to Jesus.
Throughout her public life, Evans was committed to recasting the way of doubt as faith. In her final writings, she was still asking the questions even in the face of the Answer who was always there, holding out His merciful hand to take hers. This God does have the power not only to see each of us as we are but to remake us into His own image, the image of Jesus. This same Jesus gives Himself as the food that drives away the gnawing hunger of fear. He is a strong tower to whom the doubting and anxious can flee for strength. His love is greater than the cosmos and yet He deigns to live in the hearts and minds of those who run to Him for help. Rather than trusting yourself, trust Him to make your faith whole. —Anne Kennedy
Anne Kennedy holds an MDiv and is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People (Square Halo Books, 2020). Anne blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventingrace on Patheos.com.
- Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu, Wholehearted Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2021), Kindle Edition, 103.
- Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner, What Is God Like? (New York: Convergent Books, 2021).
- Evans, Faith, 38.
- Evans, Faith, 39.
- Evans, Faith, 41.
- Evans, Faith, 94.
- Evans, Faith, 41.
- Evans, Faith, 45.
- Evans, Faith, 86.
- Evans, Faith, 80.
- Evans, Faith, 34.
- Evans, Faith, 34.
- Evans, Faith, 59.
- Evans, Faith, 19.
- Evans, Faith, 19.
- Evans, Faith, 21.
- Evans, Faith, 26-27.
- Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken Books, 1981).
- Evans, Faith, 79.
- Evans, Faith, 62.
- Evans, Faith, 45.
- Evans, Faith, 54.
- Gordon Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 204.