Some people are very good at asking questions. They turn things over, ponder them, assess from multiple angles, and articulate a question many of us may have missed. I admire people like this. Their questions cause us to pause, contemplate, and perhaps even discuss before acting. Their questions are a gift and an opportunity for deeper perception.
Interestingly this gift doesn’t necessitate that these same folks have the answers worked out. Sometimes the best answers come through communal discernment. Rachel Held Evans was just such a person. Impressively she didn’t just ask the big questions—she lived the questions, always seeking that elusive integration of faith and conscience in a contemporary pluralistic society.
Raised in the evangelical Christian tradition and immersed in church youth programs, Bible camps, competitive memorization of scripture passages, and a devout religious family with a theology professor father, Held Evans had a self-proclaimed “crusader complex.” However, as she was attending a Christian college, the events of 9/11 shook her worldview and stirred in her inquisitive mind questions about religious motivations and reevaluation of core beliefs such as eternal damnation for the unbaptized. Unwilling to settle for easy answers, she struggled in the in-between, clinging to her faith in God but clearly seeing cracks in her theological worldview.
This set her on a spiritual journey that she brilliantly describes in her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Thomas Nelson). A talented writer, Held Evans does something on par with St. Augustine’s Confessions. She describes her journey while simultaneously expressing her theology. What’s impressive, though, is that she’s exploring ecclesiology. In fact, she discovers a sacramental worldview from the ground up as she goes from church to church looking for a community and a theology that she can embrace.
As she is welcomed to give talks by multiple denominations across the country, Held Evans shares meals, is offered hospitality, sees struggles and successes, questions, and through it all expresses an understanding of sacrament and church that is stunning and inspiring. She dreams of a place where everyone is welcome and no one is made to feel like they don’t belong. She had encountered too many people and heard too many stories of those who have suffered in church communities because of their race, gender, sexuality, or politics to perpetuate that in her own writing.
Listening to her voice in the audiobook version of Searching for Sunday, I was struck with how small my own vision of church can sometimes be. Despite my interest in global Catholicism, local churches, and experiences of the Catholic Church in different parts of the world, Christianity is still so much bigger. Listening to Held Evans express her pain at leaving her church tradition and setting out to find a church where she can worship in good conscience was not only eye-opening but inspiring.
There was a time when I set out every Sunday to a new church and a different denomination, trying to get a bigger sense of the whole, but I wasn’t looking for a new church. I just wanted to get a broader sense of how Christianity is lived out. Rachel Held Evans had that idealistic spark, hoping to find a place where she could live out her faith with integrity. Listening to her reflections, I felt a strange kinship, because while I discovered so many good things in different churches, I also had questions and observed limitations. Her strength came in the commitment to keep searching “in faith.”
Along this journey she also discovered the importance of vulnerability. More specifically, to acknowledge our vulnerability as something that doesn’t go away. Christianity doesn’t “fix it.” Too many Christians try to almost weaponize Christianity as the solution to all our problems. Instead, it’s the path of the vulnerable who know their own weaknesses and can acknowledge they don’t have all the answers. Impressively this was her key to embracing the Eucharist. After years of experiencing a church where her lived experience was that “holiness” and “worthiness” were something that needed to be earned and proved, Eucharist became a source of God’s unconditional love no matter how she may be feeling about herself. As she says so powerfully in Searching for Sunday, “I need the Eucharist because I need to begin each week with open hands. I need the Eucharist because I need to practice letting go and letting in. I need the Eucharist because I need to quit keeping score.”
Listening to Rachel Held Evans describe the Eucharist, I found myself renewed in the hope that the Holy Spirit is still mysteriously guiding us all to one table, one day. Moreover, the Eucharist is most certainly “bread for the journey” as Pope Francis recently emphasized. Here again Held Evans had me pondering that maybe the Eucharist is bigger than we may think as well.
Much of Rachel Held Evans’ following came from social media. She was a popular blogger and had a prominent presence on Twitter. Her questions and penchant for challenging Christians to welcome the marginalized as Jesus had done also garnered her a fair amount of hate mail. In her posthumous book Wholehearted Faith (HarperOne), published in 2021 after her 2019 death at age 37, she writes of how she came to grapple with this hate mail. Reading between the lines it’s clear that this mail hurt her, and she couldn’t just set it aside. So she came up with a admirable Lenten practice. She decided she would learn origami and transform the pages of hateful words into something beautiful, believing in a God who can bring good out of the worst of circumstances. Choosing to look for the good and create something beautiful in the world is something I, as an artist, deeply resonate with. To do this with people who are turned against you is something she models for me.
In Daneen Akers popular book Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints (Watchfire Media) Akers holds up Rachel Held Evans as someone who asked important questions. But perhaps more than this, I appreciate that the questions came not only from a place of sincerity, but from an idealism she refused to relinquish. It’s a type of seasoned idealism that desires to know and speak the truth—even when it reveals things we don’t want to see. It doesn’t shy away from suffering and injustice. It names it, gets angry about it, and tries to do something about it. It does all of this while living in hope. When I find a voice such as Rachel Held Evans’ I listen attentively. I listen not just to learn from her wisdom and experience, to ponder her questions, or even to laugh at her quirky sense of humor. I listen because she nourishes my hope in a better church and a better world.
This article also appears in the April 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 4, pages 45-46). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: © 2009, Maki Evans