Whenever Rachel Held Evans — a leading voice of progressive Evangelicalism and bestselling author— was working on a new manuscript, “one of her greatest fears was that she might die before it was published. She told me writing was the way things became real to her,” says her husband, Daniel Jonce Evans.
Her fear almost came true. She was 11,000 words into the draft of her fifth book, Wholehearted Faith, when she was wracked by seizures and died from swelling on the brain on May 4, 2019. In obituaries, The New Yorker called her “radically inclusive,” and “one of the most formidable figures in contemporary Christianity.” The Christian Century dubbed her “the C. S. Lewis of her time.” The New York Times described her leading a new diaspora, a church for the women who wanted to become ministers, gay Christians and “those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith.”
Daniel, deep in grief, suddenly alone with their two very young children, recalls, “I knew how much her work meant to so many people and I didn’t want it to disappear.” So, he turned to two close friends to give Rachel’s ideas another life.
First, veteran Christian author Matthew Paul Turner completed the text for what was to be the young mother’s first children’s book, “What is God Like? (Convergent) which was released in June. People of all ages, shapes, sizes, ethnicities are portrayed in exuberant scenes of love, delight, forgiveness, and hope — all signs of God, whose pronouns are He/She/They. Three more children’s books are possibilities, says Daniel, who describes himself as the “back office” partner in her publishing and speaking efforts.
Now, Wholehearted Faith, which HarperOne releases in November, is intended to capture one last time Rachel's vision of Christianity in her own words. Daniel entrusted completing the manuscript to Jeff Chu, a veteran journalist, editor, author (Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America), and pastor.
Chu says he worked from Rachel's blogs posts, her voluminous tweets, her four books tracing the evolution of her Christian life from a fundamentalist childhood to embracing a loving God and an open-door church. He even read the margin notes she made on her Kindle, where she read deeply and widely. Chu also had her testimonies at the “Why Christian” events she held for several years with pastor-author Nadia Bolz-Weber and her talks at the Evolving Faith conferences created by Evans, author Sarah Bessey and Chu that highlighted progressive perspectives. Kathryn Hamilton, the HarperOne senior editor who drew Evans to her first contract with the house, worked with Daniel and Jeff to sort through it all. "We think Jeff did an outstanding job," says Michael Maudlin, executive editor and senior v-p for HarperOne.
Both Maudlin and Chu address why Rachel was such a force in American Christian life. Maudlin observes that people are drawn to her work because "her criticism of the church and her disagreements about some established evangelical positions are in service to something more important. At heart, she is a positive voice for Jesus, for being a Christian today. It is only out of these passions do we understand why she worked so hard and so graciously to call Christians to do better." And Chu calls her as "a magnetic force" who "showed up in the world flowing with encouragement. Her vulnerability was her great strength.”
In the book, Evans writes, “Wholeheartedness is about seeing and comprehending my place in a bigger family of faith, just as parenthood has transformed my understanding of my role in a biological and social unit. It is about risking hurt and confusion for the sake of the thing that so many of us seek: belonging.”
Her theology long infuriated fundamentalist and Calvinist critics. In the upcoming book, she writes: “Religion has torn a lot of people to pieces. Whenever it has embarked on a quest for purity, crusaded for certainty, strived for survival, religion has done so at great cost, asking so many humans to ignore their conscience, to pretend to believe things they don’t really believe, to squeeze into ill-fitting gender roles and cultural norms, to snuff out desires and squander talents, to live one way during the week and another on Sunday morning, to sacrifice sons and daughters on the altar of conformity, to feign certainty, to fake happiness, to strive for perfection, to look the other way in the presence of injustice—indeed, to renounce some aspect of their very humanity.”
Her bestselling books took them all to task beginning with her 2010 spiritual memoir: Evolving In Monkey Town (Zondervan) sparked by recalling her high school years in Dayton, Tenn., home of the infamous Scopes Trial in 1925. The book was reissued in 2014 with a new name, Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions, after her 2012 title: A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” (Thomas Nelson) became a bestseller. She followed with Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Thomas Nelson, 2015) and Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible (Thomas Nelson, 2018).
While she was massively popular with millennials and seekers of all ages, response to Evans by conservative evangelical authorities and authors was often sharp: One public voice (unnamed in the book) called her “a Honey-Boo-Boo publicity whore and embarrassment to the church.” At the conservative Gospel Coalition website, commentators treated her as a heretical busybody. Owen Strachen, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, blasted Evans for a reference to “God Herself,” and her public calls for conservative leaders to repent. He wrote that, “for a prophetess of light, Evans sure seems to throw a lot of shade.”
Evans' mantra became “Thick skin, tender heart.” In a chapter with that title, she describes how she once gathered up a hefty pile of hate mail and printouts of excoriating emails and tweets and folded the papers into scores of origami cranes and critters.
Wholehearted Faith captures her emphatic style, even when admitting she doesn’t have absolute answers. “When I was a Bible-thumping, churchgoing, know-it-all Republican, God used bleeding-heart, politically correct, question-everything liberals to teach me a little bit more about how to be human and to toy with my concretized notions of who my enemies were. And now that I’m a bleeding-heart, politically correct, question-everything liberal, God still insists on using Bible-thumping, churchgoing, know-it-all Republicans to teach me a little bit more about how to be human and to toy with my concretized notions of who my enemies are.”
In the book’s epilogue, Evans envisions living in the new home that was then still under construction, picturing a place where “we’ll all be doing what we were meant to do.” That is, she writes, “to love lavishly and indiscriminately, as our God has loved us.” The epilogue is titled “Telos,” a Greek word for “ending,” which carries the connotation of “completion and contentment,” she writes. “It carries the satisfaction of doing what you know you’re called to do and the fulfillment of being who you were always meant to be.”
She never slept a night in that new house. But Daniel, their children, and all the words she wrote are there now, keeping her vision alive.