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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Rachel Held Evans and Her God

rachel held evans

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

I am thinking about Rachel’s passing a year ago, along with many of you. I continue to mourn the tremendous loss to her family and to tens of thousands of fellow pilgrims who looked to Rachel as a beacon of hope (to use the tired but so apt phrase) for moving onward in faith while embracing the struggles that seem inevitable for those who take the faith, and the Bible to which this faith is anchored, seriously.

When I first met Rachel—in the summer of 2010 at a science and faith conference—I only knew her as a blogger. Her first book, Faith Unraveled (known back then by its way cooler title Evolving in Monkey Town) had just recently come out. Rachel “seemed really nice” and with a self-evident spark of curiosity, but I was clueless about what a force of nature she would soon be.

Rachel would wind up meaning so much to so many, and if I had to name the reason why, it would be this: the way that Rachel spoke of God. 

The God she was pursuing (though now no longer needing to pursue), is the God of liberating hope, uncompromising justice for all, and compassion for us in our struggles and doubts. 

Rachel’s God. That is the heart of her legacy—in her books, her blogging, her speaking, her advocacy for the marginalized, and just being a plain old decent human.

Rachel had a following because she reminded us of the God worth following.

The God Rachel talked about got her into some hot water now and then (you go, girl) with those who see God differently. Some people, it turns out, have a vested interest in the topic, and they went after Rachel as if the universe were in threat of collapsing in on itself. 

Such “feedback” is par for the course, and if you can’t handle conflict, don’t talk about God—and certainly don’t write best-selling books about God. A lasting impression of Rachel for me was how well she handled animosity—which is a lot harder to do than it looks. Few of us are perfect, but how Rachel treated her motivated detractors was consistent with how she talked about God.

Things would have been much easier for Rachel had she had the sense to turn her back completely on her conservative past and go full out “liberal” or “postmodern.” She would have been written off much more effectively, but that wouldn’t have been Rachel. She lived a public life of authentic vulnerability, tracing out for all to see her journey from a conservative Christian past into uncharted territory, and working it out as she went as we all do. 

Rachel lived publicly and courageously the life that many live privately and despairingly. She was in this sense like a prophet—holding out a sketched-out vision of a better path, where God was already out in front waiting for us rather than scolding us from behind. 

I wonder how many of Rachel’s books were bought by people who wanted—needed—to give them away, those who were wandering and felt lost. I could tell my own stories of young women (two of them my offspring) and many others for whom Rachel was their hero—a true “woman of valor”— who realized after reading her books that they are not broken after all for quietly confessing in their hearts that the faith of their youth was no longer adequate for explaining their adult reality, and that maybe the Creator is more than they had been told to believe. 

And of course, Rachel’s influence extends to pilgrims of all walks and stages of life who desperately need reminding that maybe, just maybe, the Creator of the cosmos was infinitely knowable. Rather than a fizzling out of faith, their doubt is in fact a new beginning along a deeper path. So, along with prophet, Rachel was an apologist.

I mourn what Rachel could have become—I hate typing those words. Her humble influence would have continued through her blogging and her books, the Evolving Faith conference, and who knows what else. Yes. Who knows. This generation has lost its Barbara Brown Taylor or Anne Lamott. What could have been. It’s enough to make one despair of faith. Rachel would have been right there.

Still, Rachel did lasting good in such a short time. I suspect that someone someday will come along and write up a sociological study of some sort on the “phenomenon” of Rachel Held Evans. But as far as I am concerned, there’s no need. Rachel was the right person at the right time—with the right God.

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