Thinking Out Loud

December 4, 2021

Rachel Held Evans’ Wholehearted Faith

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 1:55 pm

There might have been moments as you’ve read this pages when you’ve felt frustration and even despair, because it has seemed as if I am asking you to do more, try something different, think in a way you’ve never thought before… (pp 173-4)

Fifty years from now, all things being equal, I can envision a world where the words of Rachel Held Evans are being studied, long after the works of many of today’s popular authors are no longer considered. In the face of criticism for her approach to Christian belief, she was always gracious, and to those for whom her writing fully resonated, it was as though she sparked an entire movement.

Wholehearted Faith (HarperOne, 2021, no subtitle) is in part the next book Rachel Held Evans was working on before her untimely death in 2019, and excerpts from her blog posts. That being said, I was expecting a rather disjointed collection of chapters, but honestly I have to confess I didn’t know where the book manuscript ended and the other material began. Her writing is just … so her.

Some of that continuity is owing to longtime friend Jeff Chu, also pictured, who assembled the final manuscript.

Sometimes in reviewing a book, unless you make notes, your final impressions are tied to later chapters, not unlike the situation where your most vivid memories of a loved one are those final days of old age and not the vitality of their youth. That’s how I was impacted when, toward the end of the book (pp 163-6) there is a detailed description of Rachel taking the hate mail she received electronically, printing out the worst of it, and then folding those printed pages into origami “swans and then sailboats, flowers and then foxes.”

You have to either laugh or cry as you read that.

Earlier in the chapter (p 159) she remembers her own words posted to Twitter on hearing of the death of Osama bin Laden; “Trying to keep in mind that how I respond to the death of my enemies says as much about me as it does about my enemies.” Forget the adage about lemons and lemonade; when the world seems full of hate, you make paper “birds and ships, flowers and kites.”

But why would anyone send Rachel hate mail?

I suppose there is simply something unsettling about someone who challenges our conventional lenses for looking at spiritual life; who states truths without falling back on the familiar words and phrases that have become clichés.

Or if they openly wrestle with doubts and misgivings.

…Most people live with some uncertainty in life, even with — especially with — complex religious and moral questions. Indeed, as I began writing about my experiences on my blog and in my books, a whole community of kindred spirits emerged. Many of them felt as lonely in their questioning as I at times have. They expressed through their letters, emails, and social media posts the affirmation that every spiritual wanderer and religious misfit deeply craves — that I was not alone in this. (p 37)

Later she writes that

…certainty isn’t faith. And faith is marked by the humility to let yourself question — which is not a shortcoming but an acknowledgement of one’s humanity. (p 56)

And that simply, is where some of the hate mail possibly originated. Many people in our churches simply crave a doctrinal system of belief that dots every ‘i’ and crosses every ‘t’ and ties a bow together on top. A faith that leaves no room for mystery; that doesn’t allow that, as Paul said in his famous ‘love chapter,’ presently “we see in part.”

But Rachel knew that need for theological tidiness all too well from personal experience.

This system was comforting in the way that math can be comforting, or the perfect creases, or a row of books neatly arranged. The quintessence of Enlightenment rationalism, the system had its own tidy, self-reinforcing, seemingly airtight and therefore undoubtedly divinely inspired logic. (p 70)

This up-ending of the theological apple cart will definitely produce some unfriendly mail, but the consideration of other possibilities is also what drew a greater number of people to Rachel’s writing and later conferences she helped organize.

She then modeled for her readers a more grace-filled approach to responding to the people who are theologically different.

After Christ’s departure, the first apostles allowed themselves to be changed by the goodness they encountered in the world. When law-abiding, kosher-eating, Roman -hating Peter encountered a centurion who feared God and gave to the poor, Peter, to his own astonishment, said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Then Peter even went so far as to share a meal, as Jesus might have, with his new friend. “You are well aware that it is against are law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile,” he said to Cornelius. “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (p 115)

As Jesus might have. Indeed.

If Peter had been closed to such God-shaped possibilities, we wouldn’t have Acts chapter 10. Early on in the book she allows for the possibility of cultivating a faith which occasionally, like the GPS on your car when you’ve turned two blocks too soon simply says, “Recalculating.” Those are my words, but I think Rachel would concur. Her description is,

…But like so many things, faith is best held with an open hand, nurtured by both boundaries and improvisation, tradition and innovation. What a gift my parents gave my sister and me in their blessing of holy exploration. (p 38)

concluding that

…as she [Anne Lamott] had chronicled the meanderings of the heart as well as anyone, and as she famously puts it, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

When I read that I found it reassuring. If uncertainty is a marker of faith, then I must be pretty darn faithful… (p 40)

She adds,

I believe not in spite of all my questions but because of them. I believe not in spite of all the theological points that I undoubtedly have gotten wrong — and the ones I’ve gotten right — but because of them. I believe not in spite of my sins but because of them, just as I am — and just as all those saints and sinners who came before me. (p 47)

This is a long review, and I’ve excerpted far more quotations than reviewers are usually permitted, but I wanted you to get of taste of why Rachel’s words are so enduring and so transformational for so many. She’s all-in. Wholeheartedly.


Thanks again to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publications Canada (HCCP) for the opportunity to read and own a copy of Wholehearted Faith.

 

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