Her death is doubly cruel in robbing us of one of our foremost poet-theologians, one who could gaze into deep voids and tremendous griefs and from them craft creeds that could breathe for us when we could not.
Rachel Held Evans (1981-2019) would have had just the right words for a time like this. Her death is doubly cruel in robbing us of one of our foremost poet-theologians, one who could gaze into deep voids and tremendous griefs and from them craft creeds that could breathe for us when we could not. Rachel exuded an incredible influence on contemporary Christian belief and practice. She helped to produce and herself became, as fellow Episcopalian W. H. Auden wrote of Freud upon his passing, “a whole climate of opinion".
Perhaps the comparison feels unwieldy: the cigar-puffing, patriarchal Viennese physician and the ardent, Southern feminist of faith make an unlikely pair. Yet both were brave explorers of the psyche (Greek for soul) in their contexts, diligent discoverers of the controversial, taboo truths we would much rather disavow. They urged us to reexamine delicate and disremembered shards of ourselves to make them precious again. Rachel excelled at this task, refusing to cede the realms of testimony, of scripture, of worship and prayer, even after they had been weaponized against us.
She waved so many of us past the velvet ropes and red tape, out of a conviction that God dwelt also in our midst.
Communities of color frequently model this kind of redemptive creativity, passing on the dividends to future generations. We tend to hold open doors for those coming in behind us, pulling kin into the kitchen, packing tupperware for the folks back home. Rachel was like that. The blogosphere, conference circuits, and literary agents were the tools at her immediate disposal, and she pressed them to their utter limits to include the unheard. She waved so many of us past the velvet ropes and red tape, out of a conviction that God dwelt also in our midst.
Rachel also endeavored herself to so many people of color in part because she elegantly avoided all the major faux pas of others inhabiting her station. She was easily the least egregious of the cishet white woman Christian bloggers of her epoch. Rachel did not project a Hot Mess™ persona, obliquely referencing lavish lifestyle choices to demonstrate sophistication; she did not actively pursue corporate sponsorships to traipse the colonized globe; she did not adopt children of color, then use them as bludgeons against antiracist critique.
Rachel’s writing became a portal to another dimension of religious possibility, beyond the lethal confines of a racist and heterosexist church.
Rachel temperamentally avoided all such entanglements, showing us “a still more excellent way”. She named white supremacy not as external bloc, but as unwanted companion. She blessedly wrote in crisp, prosaic form that was respectful of your time and attention, skipping the sentimental, line-break-drenched style of the postmodern pastorate.
When I first found Rachel’s blog, it felt like thick vines thrown into quicksand. I grasped her words as a newborn grasps, out of instinct and desperation. Rachel’s writing became a portal to another dimension of religious possibility, beyond the lethal confines of a racist and heterosexist church. I quickly became an avid consumer of her literature, feeling as others must when they discover Goethe, Zora Neale Hurston, Eduardo Galeano, Frantz Fanon.
In recent years, I found myself calcifying towards Rachel’s theological projects. Nestled alongside admiration slowly unfurled, alien within me, a sadness and frustration at those times I watched her make apparent purchase in the false promises of liberalism, centrism, incrementalism. Rachel’s explorations of biblical support for same-sex marriage and “racial reconciliation”, once balms to me, did not seem to deepen into the kind of sustained political analysis that has since become central — commitments to examining settler colonialism, citizenship, carcerality, and abolition.
Rachel’s beliefs and practices always evolved alongside our own.
But Rachel’s beliefs and practices always evolved alongside our own. Her death is also the death of all the ways she would have continued to grow herself and stretch her readers in the decades to come. She skillfully navigated the treacherous terrain of capitalist frameworks (“platforming” and “branding”) while maintaining an eschatological curiosity and a liturgical vision that genuinely challenged these systems of scarcity. The prophetic realities she pointed to beckon us further than Rachel herself was able to journey. I pray that we can honor her legacy by tenaciously working to develop decolonized alternatives to the racist strictures in which Rachel worked and, indeed, thrived.
Rachel knew better than most that what we may try to performatively disown often remains embedded, enacted within. While she famously bristled at the inevitable fallibilities of evangelicalism, Rachel never failed to acknowledge the tradition as her parent church, her “mother tongue”. Mothers, and tongues, Freud would also remind us, are not such easy things to banish and to tame.
I hope she knew how much she meant to us. I will miss her so much.
When asked about the ultimate goals of his psychoanalysis, Freud responded simply: “lieben und arbeiten — to love and to work.” Rachel helped those of us on the margins to do exactly that. She helped us see our same-sex erotic desires as beautiful, not sinful. She dismantled the psychological and spiritual barriers placed in our path by a Church that denies our gifts and scorns God’s call in our lives.
For helping us return to love and work, to memory and truth, I can offer only my thanks. I am praying today, in the same gratitude I bear for my ancestors, for Rachel Held Evans’ life and witness — and for her family and loved ones who let her share her gifts with the world. I hope she knew how much she meant to us. I will miss her so much.