Rachel Held Evans and the Democratization of Theology

Rachel Held Evans and the Democratization of Theology May 4, 2019
Me and Rachel in November 2012 at a Virginia Methodist youth conference

I was motivated to start this blog after I discovered Rachel Held Evans in 2011 through her blog series “rally to restore unity,” which she posted in response to the backlash against Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I was such a fanboy of hers for so long. I almost fainted when I discovered that she was going to be speaking at the Virginia youth conference that my old church’s youth group was attending in 2012 where I got this selfie.

I don’t know how to grieve her death so I’m trying to write my way through it. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that she had a historically significant impact on American Christianity as a major spearhead of the post-evangelical movement. Rachel was at the center of the whirlwind in the democratization of Christian theology.

In the 15th century, the invention of the Gutenberg press meant that every literate Christian could read the Bible for themselves. This sowed the seeds for the Protestant reformation in which the self-interpreted Bible supplanted the church magisterium as the basic authority for Christian teaching. In the 21st century, the Internet and specifically the blogosphere has created an analogous shift that I don’t think is less monumental. Now Christians not only have our own Bibles to read. Today our authoritative biblical interpreters are vetted not through carefully controlled publishing houses and theological education systems, but through the likes and shares of the masses.

Rachel Held Evans insisted that a reasonably educated, smart, masterfully articulate but not-officially-theologically-credentialed journalist and memoir writer from small-town Tennessee could debate scripture with powerful, scholarly credentialed white men whose authority had never been challenged in the same way. While there have been many Christian bloggers that have risen up over the past 15-20 years, none of them contributed more to today’s shift in theological authority than Rachel did.

Rachel established, for better or worse, that theological authority is not established by conformity to interpretive tradition, exhaustive scriptural proof-texting, or institutional imprimatur, but by what resonates with a lot of people. And that shift in theological authority is cataclysmic in ways that won’t be fully recognized until the millennials have actually taken charge of our society and the megachurches baby boomers built around authoritative, confident white men with lapel microphones are all empty warehouses with “For lease” signs in the window.

To authoritarian Christians, authority as popular resonance is the definitive apostasy of our age; it is everything they are against. And certainly there are cringe-worthy examples of the way that “relatable-ness” produces hollow self-help pyramid schemes (e.g. Girl, Wash Your Face). But what Rachel did was different than the trashy carnival barker content-producers who usually dominate the Internet. She did her homework. She was a total nerd who was painfully earnest. She pontificated about Hebrew words, most famously eshet chayil (the “woman of valor” from Proverbs 31). And she broke the most basic rule of blogging that the marketers gave us. Her posts were 2000 words or longer, not 500 or under.

The theological authority of personal resonance need not be 2 Timothy 4:3 (“For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires”). Maybe it’s actually what “has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

Furthermore, I would hypothesize that the harsh, misanthropic theology that’s so popular in bourgeois white suburbia might actually be scratching the itching ears of people who need to feel “counter-cultural” to compensate for how selfish and comfortable their lives are. And I would also suggest that people like Rachel who have gone against a subculture that comprised everything and everyone they knew because of an inkling that something was very wrong, in which they lost their entire community in the process, are probably motivated by something more than following their “itching ears.” I suspect Gamaliel would agree (Acts 5:34).

What Rachel had the audacity to insist was that theology submit to basic Christian common sense, even if that meant deviating from tradition without fulfilling whatever impossible standard of justification is expected to do so. What I call basic Christian common sense is the straightforward understanding someone would have of what Jesus cares about by perusing the gospel stories to see how he treats people, what teachings he prioritizes, whom he champions, whom he fights, etc. For people who do this, it’s impossible not to see Jesus’ argument with the religious authorities and championing of the outsiders they judged as the centerpiece of the story. Which is what Rachel saw.

Thus, Rachel straightforwardly took on the people who are saying the same things and posturing the same as the religious authorities whom Jesus battled. And she got pummeled by them. And she got pummeled by people to her left as well. Sometimes rightly. Rachel was not perfect. She sometimes did the cheap and dirty things we bloggers all do to build our platforms. She may have done a few too many hot takes on Mark Driscoll’s shenanigans back in the day. At first, I rolled my eyes at A Year of Biblical Womanhood for being a publicity stunt, but I learned so much from reading it, and Rachel’s teaching on eshet chayil in that book probably motivated at least several dozen if not hundreds of women to go to seminary.

Some people won’t let Rachel off the hook for associating with Tony Jones after his ex-wife accused him of abuse. I don’t fault them for that, but I will say that if Rachel were an amoral, opportunistic platform-builder, she would throw people away without blinking when they became bad for her brand. Whether it was right or wrong for her to refuse to condemn Tony, she didn’t burn her friends in effigy to appease her critics. Though I wasn’t in her inner circle, I was close enough to see that that scandal was one of the most acutely painful seasons of her life and she really wasn’t the same person after that.

Rachel’s democratization of theology went far beyond simply asserting her own unauthoritative voice on the basis of her readership base. She consistently lifted other people up. She had a Sunday Superlatives section on her blog every week for several years where she did nothing but share other people’s blog posts. In the last five years, she very specifically and intentionally promoted queer and POC voices. I was just talking with a queer woman of color who would often debate Rachel online when she was engaging in aloof white feminism, and she said Rachel was one of the only white women she’s ever met who actually listened and changed. I’ve seen so many stories today from religious outsiders whom Rachel supported when they needed somebody to believe in them.

I myself was mad at Rachel for a time, because I saw her as a celebrity connection I could cultivate and exploit to build my own brand. When she came to a speaking event in New Orleans several years ago, I gave her the first printed copy of the manuscript for my book. I thought if she blurbed it or said something about it on her blog, I would be set. She didn’t. She was too busy blurbing and promoting other writers who weren’t entitled white guys like me. The disappointment of not reaching the A-level tier of progressive Christian celebrities is actually the most important blessing and liberation I’ve experienced. And it helped alleviate my sinful egotism enough that I could be a better soldier in the movement to democratize theology.

Nothing can put a happy ending on this story. Two small children lost their mother today. I can’t imagine being Dan Evans right now. People who actually knew Rachel a lot better than I did have lost someone they deserved to build many more decades of memories with. But Rachel’s death ends nothing about the movement she was such an important midwife to. Too many people have been empowered. Too many people have been set free from toxic Christianity. We are not going to fade into the woodwork now. We will only be bolder and fiercer. I hope that we will always be rooted in the deep love that was at Rachel’s core.

One of Rachel’s last blog posts was an excerpt from her book Inspired about “the power of testimony,” which is to say the democratization of theology. I will close with some of her words from that post.

I had forgotten the power of giving testimony, of publicly recounting our unique “gospels according to . . .” We can know a person for decades, share a pew with them in church every Sunday, without ever knowing their testimonies, without ever asking them, “Hey, why Christian?” We can spend a lifetime singing hymns and reading the Bible without honestly answering that question for ourselves.

Jesus invites us into a story that is bigger than ourselves, bigger than our culture, bigger even than our imaginations, and yet we get to tell that story with the scandalous particularity of our particular moment and place in time. We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God.

May we never neglect the gift of that. May we never lose our love for telling the tale.

Please help Rachel’s family pay for her exorbitant medical expenses. They will probably be a lot more than the $70,000 goal that was initially set.

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