Rachel Held Evans, Hero to Christian Misfits

The firebrand writer died unexpectedly over the weekend at the age of 37.

Courtesy of HarperCollins / The Atlantic

Rachel Held Evans, a well-known Christian blogger, author, and joyful troublemaker online, died on Saturday from massive brain swelling after being hospitalized for an infection, according to her family. She was 37. Evans leaves behind two little kids, a husband, and four books to her name. Her death has been met with an up-swelling of grief and appreciation from loyal readers, famous pastors who sparred with her, and, especially, young people who saw her as a mentor.

This bevy of tributes is a testament to the distinctive role Evans developed over her decade-and-a-half-long writing career: She was part of a vanguard of progressive-Christian women who fought to change the way Christianity is taught and perceived in the United States. Especially for people who have felt hurt by or unwelcome in the Church, Evans provided a safe shore, full of encouragement and defiant acceptance. Many of those who befriended her and followed her work have, in turn, become well-known figures in the progressive-Christian world, such as Reverend Jes Kast and Austin Channing Brown. Evans helped forge new space for diverse voices who are denied authority or power in the Christian world—a legacy that will last far beyond her death.

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Evans gained a following early in her career in part because she took a wry and provocative approach to writing about Christianity. Her debut book, first titled Evolving in Monkey Town and later sold as Faith Unraveled, was about learning to question her faith after growing up in Dayton, Tennessee—famous for the 1925 trial of a teacher, John Scopes, who allegedly taught students about evolution. For her second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans followed biblical instructions for women to their most literal extent, including covering her head and camping out in her yard during her period. She wrote about what it meant to be an eshet chayil, a Hebrew term that means “woman of valor,” which she came to see as another way of saying “You go, girl!” As the news of her death spread on Twitter on Saturday, many people expressed their appreciation for her—an ex-evangelical and lifelong Christian—by using this traditionally Jewish phrase.

The most striking thing about Evans’s writing, though, was her vulnerability. In adulthood, she decided to leave the evangelical church where she had grown up, in part because of its stance on LGBTQ rights. As she and her husband moved into a new phase of their Christian life, she wrote in her third book, Searching for Sunday, that she wanted a space where it was okay to be broken. “A lot of liberal, progressive people are afraid of the word sin,” she told me in a 2015 interview. But this is the core of Christianity, she said, the “bizarre truth of Christian identity.” Her conviction was clear in the way she held herself in conversation: acknowledging human fragility and failings, including her own. Speaking with care and humility. Summoning grace for the abandoned.

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That book, and much of her work, was explicitly written for people who had been pushed away from Christianity. Especially after 2014, when she announced that she was “done fighting for a seat at the evangelical table,” Evans spent significant energy arguing for LGBTQ inclusion in the church. She also wrote about the importance of women’s voices in traditionally patriarchal Christian subcultures, and reached out to Christians of color who were developing their own writing and platforms. Following her death, many people commented on her efforts to reach people at the margins of traditional Christianity: “Her impact on our community was enormous and deserves to be recorded,” wrote Matthew Vines, an influential Christian writer who focuses on LGBTQ issues in the Church. He encouraged people to “share your stories about this amazing woman of God.”

Evans spent much of her professional life working on her books and speaking around the country, but her voice was perhaps most influential online, where she forged a large circle of fellow bloggers and self-fashioned misfits. As Christianity, like the rest of life, has moved online, new digital communities like this one have offered refuge and fellowship for people who often feel pushed out of brick-and-mortar church spaces. Although Evans’s fans were diverse, she was particularly influential among women, which is one of the most powerful lessons of her work: Along with other progressive writers of her generation, Evans demonstrated that Christian women are hungry for serious engagement with their faith, often in ways that don’t fit traditional frames offered by men.

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Even as Evans rejected certain traditionalist notions of Christianity, often throwing herself into the middle of intense fights over race, gender, sexuality, and politics, she retained the respect of her adversaries. In the days following her death, conservative Christian figures—from the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore to the blogger and provocateur Matt Walsh—have expressed their shock and shared their condolences for her family. Beth Moore, one of the most popular female Bible teachers in the country, wrote on Twitter that she was “thinking [about] what it was about [Evans] that could cause many on other sides of issues to take their hats off to her in her death. People are run rife with grief for her babies, yes. But also I think part of it is that, in an era of gross hypocrisy, she was alarmingly honest.” Her friends and allies shared this grief, and more: Over the weekend, many people posted personal stories about Evans’s kindness online, which were shared thousands of times.

“Death is a thing empires worry about, not a thing resurrection people worry about,” she told me in 2015. “As long as there’s somebody baptizing sinners, breaking the bread, drinking the wine; as long as there’s people confessing their sins, healing, walking with one another through suffering, then the Church is alive, and it’s well.” The lasting legacy of Evans’s writing, and of her public life, is her unwillingness to cede ownership of Christianity to its traditional conservative-male stewards—her unwillingness to give up on Christianity, period.

Evans did not lead a denomination or a movement or even a church, but she did invite people to come along as she worked through her relationship with Jesus. Her very public, vulnerable exploration of a faith forged in doubt empowered a ragtag band of writers, pastors, and teachers to claim their rightful place as Christians. Evans spent her life trying to follow an itinerant preacher and carpenter, who also hung out with rejects and oddballs. In death, as that preacher once promised, she will be known by her fruits.