How Rachel Held Evans became the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism

The Washington Post/April 16, 2015

By Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Talk to an evangelical today and bring up popular author Rachel Held Evans. Chances are, that evangelical will either love or hate her writing. Nearly everyone seems to have an opinion about the 33-year-old woman dubbed “RHE” who has become so polarizing in the past decade.

Since Evans started her blog in 2008, she has amassed a large base, including around 64,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 50,000 fans on Facebook. And even those who don’t formally follow her networks watch her blog to see what she is writing.

Last month, Evans told Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt that she has joined the Episcopal Church. But long before that, her writing was setting off debate about how far evangelicals can go in stretching theological boundaries and still call themselves evangelicals.

From her self-made pulpit, Evans has openly wrestled with faith and evolution, where women fit in church leadership and who will end up in hell. With no formal seminary training or institutional backing, she has challenged traditional evangelical biblical interpretation on the place of LGBT people in the church, advocating for allowing them to join and even become leaders, especially contentious topics in evangelical circles.

The conversation over evangelical identity is decades-old, but it has been growing in intensity over the past 10 years. Four years ago, former megachurch pastor Rob Bell pushed the envelope on heaven, hell and salvation, but now he finds his home on Oprah’s network more than he does in evangelical circles.

As more states allow same-sex marriage, LGBT issues have flared up more frequently in evangelical churches and institutions. Some have been kicked out of their denominations — the wide evangelical umbrella includes many –after announcing that LGBT people could become members or be included in leadership.

For the informal gatekeepers of evangelicals — those who preside over the business of evangelicalism, such as the editors at publishing houses and conference organizers — what people say and how they define themselves as evangelicals still matters. (Evangelicalism is defined, in part, by its lack of traditional leadership hierarchy.)

But Evans is among a growing number of young evangelicals who are questioning the status quo promoted by these gatekeepers.

“A lot of millennials are on a similar journey where they’re trying to place themselves,” said Wes Granberg-Michaelson, who is an expert on ecumenical relations. “Do they try to hang onto the evangelical label and reclaim it, or do they try to forge their own path? That’s still an open question.”

Finding her voice

Evans speaks at evangelical and mainline Protestant conferences, churches and colleges across the country. But she came to evangelical prominence by an unusual path.

She isn’t a pastor or a theologian, and doesn’t lead an organization or a specific cause. In fact, she is not connected to any institution other than her evangelical publishers. She usually writes from her home in Dayton, Tenn., where her husband, Dan, runs her Web site.

She emerged over  the past decade as part of a wave of evangelical bloggers who gained independent followings.

“I just know I’m not the only one who sits in the pew sometimes and asks, ‘Am I the only one who’s doubting all of this?’” she said. “I want people to know there’s somebody else out there who feels the same way.”

Writers like Evans are attractive prospects for publishers who have come to rely heavily on authors who already have large social media followings. But Evans’s voice is unusual for traditional evangelical publishers like her own Thomas Nelson. Some have quietly speculated that Evans maintains her evangelical connections even as a member of an Episcopal Church so she can reach more readers.

“I know that there’s a lot of people who feel like, ‘Well who is she? She didn’t go to seminary, she hasn’t cut her teeth as a pastor,’” Evans said. “I think some people feel like it’s a little bit of a threat to authority, that somebody can just be a blogger, and people will listen to what they say.”

Female authors and speakers, such as Beth Moore or Joyce Meyer, have usually focused on Bible teaching or spirituality. But Evans also reflects a recent crop of popular female bloggers willing to push theological boundaries, including Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sarah Bessey and Elizabeth Esther.

Many evangelicals contend that Evans’s biblical interpretations have gone too far, said Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“She has a presence because she’s willing to ask questions and that taps into a millennial narrative about searching for answers,” Walker said. “What she offers as an answer is unbiblical and theologically dangerous.”

The proverbial slope

Evans’s first book, “Evolving in Monkeytown” (published in 2010 and later re-branded to “Faith Unraveled”), chronicled her openness to evolution, even though she went to Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., a school that taught her a literal understanding of biblical creationism.

Evans was raised the elder of two daughters in a nondenominational evangelical home. Her mother is a fourth-grade teacher, and her father is a theology and Christian worldviews professor at Bryan, where his daughter studied English literature and journalism.

Dayton is famous for the Scopes Monkey Trial, the 1925 case that publicized a debate about teaching evolution in Tennessee public schools. The trial also highlighted a larger Christian controversy between fundamentalists and modernists who argued over biblical interpretation.

In some ways, that debate over science in her hometown almost a century ago is still alive today, though some evangelicals are less concerned about evolution.

“The fact that Rachel grew up in Tennessee in a conservative Christian subculture is telling,” said Katelyn Beaty, managing editor of Christianity Today, who wrote a critique of Evans. “I don’t think you could understand her without looking at her geographical background.”

Many evangelicals, Beaty said, have already reconciled their views on evolution and creation and believe the two can co-exist. But some more theologically conservative evangelicals are focused on literal biblical creationism. “For a lot of Christians, she’s giving voice to doubts that they’ve had about a literalist Christianity,” Beaty said.

Evangelicals like Billy Graham split with fundamentalists in 1957 over his cooperation with more liberal Protestants. Though they take a less literalist biblical understanding than fundamentalists, evangelicals still emphasize the Bible as the ultimate authority without error.

Evans’s second book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” (2012), dealt with women’s roles in the church and in the home, promoting women in church leadership and an egalitarian approach to marriage. Although evangelicals tend to hold different opinions about gender, they agree to disagree. Some evangelicals believe, however, that once evangelicals embrace women’s ordination, LGBT ordination will follow.

Evans’s new book, “Searching for Sunday,” documents her transition in and out of churches in her 20s and early 30s. A year ago, Evans began attending St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tenn., because she felt like she didn’t have to fight issues like women’s ordination or LGBT inclusion, though she has not been confirmed in the church and says she’s in no rush to do so.

The question of whether good people like Holocaust victim Anne Frank might be in hell sent her down the “proverbial slope” in college, she writes. “Evangelicalism gave me many gifts, but the ability to distinguish between foundational orthodox beliefs and peripheral ones was not among them…” she writes.

Questions over LGBT inclusion has become something of a a litmus test to determine who is a true evangelical.

Scholar David Bebbington has identified four areas, the combination of which set evangelicals apart from other Protestants: a conversion experience, faith-driven activism, a regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority and a stress on Jesus’s death and resurrection. For a majority of evangelicals, the concept of LGBT inclusion collides with the authority and proper interpretation of the Bible.

Evans’s evangelical church’s activism on a Tennessee campaign to ban gay marriage eventually led her to leave that church. But she says she still feels connected to evangelicalism.

“You can’t just divorce yourself from it,” she said. “I can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, they’re not accepting LGBT people so I just need to check out.’ I want them to be, because I want to see LGBT people be able to worship in an evangelical setting and not feel marginalized or left out. I want that to happen, even though it’s not necessarily my tradition.”

A new generation

Because evangelicals have no pope or official doctrine, they have long wrestled with how large to make the umbrella. Evangelicalism includes a wide range of denominations and traditions, and many evangelicals can be found in mainline Protestant churches.

“I wish I could just pull apart every part I like from every tradition and make this little mosaic that is the Rachel religion, but I can’t do that,” Evans said. “I can’t take a little Lutheranism or a little Catholicism. I think especially this generation is okay with dabbling a little bit, and I don’t think there’s any reason to look down on them for that.”

Evans says that the Nicene Creed, a creed that many Christians recite in churches, is where her theological boundaries begin. Her theological progression parallels other “post-evangelicals,” including authors and speakers like Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass.

Bass, who documented her departure from evangelicalism in her 2002 book “Strength for the Journey,” notes how Evans mirrors an older generation who started in evangelicalism but ended up in mainline Protestantism.

“The baby boomer generation made a similar journey, and it’s interesting millennials are doing the same thing 30 years later,” Bass said. “On one level, it points to an inherent instability in evangelicalism.”

Her adopted faith home, the Episcopal Church, faces its own challenges, including a 12 percent drop in membership over the past decade, according to the most recent statistics available.

“The Episcopal Church is no less plagued by troubles than any other, but for now, it has given me the room to wrestle and it has reminded me what I’m wrestling for,” she writes. “And so, with God’s help, I keep showing up.”

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