Editorial Note: Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the unexpected death of Rachel Held Evans—a 37-year-old author and activist beloved by progressive Christians, but often berated by conservatives. Many progressives yesterday lamented Held-Evans’ passing, asking “What would Rachel Held Evans do?” and exploring “Why the Sadness Won’t Go Away.” But I found a Facebook post by Brandon Showalter, a reporter for The Christian Post, especially moving and profound.
Brandon is a staunch conservative and a passionate opponent of the LGBTQ ideology that Held-Evans championed. With gut-wrenching honesty, Brandon admits he once hated Held-Evans for leading so many young people astray. But with similar honesty, he acknowledges the pain and hypocrisy in the church that likely drove Held-Evans’ advocacy. I believe his message is important and one conservatives desperately need to consider. I am republishing it here with permission.
Okay…I don’t do this often but I’m gonna say something sort of controversial and vulnerable. So brace yourself for some raw, transparent ramblings ahead. (Note: This is not to be taken as the official opinion of the publication I work for, The Christian Post.)
A year ago yesterday, on my 34th birthday, (May 4th, 2019) I was on my way to the airport in Atlanta to fly back to Washington, DC when I was flipping through my phone and saw the news that progressive religion writer Rachel Held Evans had succumbed to a nasty infection and had died from complications due to swelling on her brain. She was in her late 30s and left behind a husband and two very young kids, one of whom was around one year old.
Her death rattled me deeply. Immediately I became distressed and nearly broke down crying. Upon sharing the news with two good friends who were sitting in the back seat of the car, they laid their hands on my shoulder and started praying for me.
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You see…I hated Rachel Held Evans. And I mean I absolutely HAAAAATED her. Loathed her. Viscerally. To the point where I physically felt in my body persistent disgust and rage toward her.
In fact, I distinctly remember at one point it got so gnarly that I phoned a good friend and told him that I needed to confess and repent (and I did) because I could not get away from the nagging voice of the Holy Spirit that I had crossed a dark and scary line in my heart where the contempt I was holding toward a person — who, lest I forget, was made in God’s image and Jesus died for — was rotting my soul. It was that bad. It was ugly. I was countenancing some profane, Pharisaical sin. I’m not proud of it at all.
I still believe that like few others in recent history, through her widely-read blog and other platforms on which she published, RHE paved the way for and furthered some of the most virulent, manipulative deception under the guise of “love” and “inclusion” in the church today. I say this with trembling and no glee whatsoever: In many respects, she was a purveyor of several false teachings that led many astray into aimless and hopelessly cynical deconstructionism. And though I believe she was sincere and had good intentions, the damage she did to small-o orthodox Christian faith was grave and extensive.
But you know what else? She was a voice for many who had been wounded by supposedly “biblically faithful” churches. She poignantly cried out for many disaffected young people who have been abused by pastors that purport to proclaim airtight “sound doctrine.” A good friend for whom I have enormous respect that would sometimes graciously challenge RHE’s writings from an influential platform of her own once told me: “You know, I strongly disagree with Rachel and think her characterizations of certain things are not fair but I do have real sympathy for her because she sure writes like she’s been hurt.”
Rachel was indeed deeply hurt by the church.
Rachel Held Evans experienced deep, DEEP wounds that, though I didn’t know her personally and thus can’t say authoritatively, she seemed to have internalized. Those internalized wounds then informed her worldview. This hurt came from being told to shut up and sit down by a right many Christians. In some ways, she was indeed wronged.
If we fail to understand the contributing factors that led RHE to the place she went and fail to at least consider the legitimate grievances she had, we may as well kiss the furtherance of the Gospel goodbye in the United States.
She was a skilled communicator. While I didn’t follow her writing assiduously during her latter years because I thought she became a rather predictably liberal hack, she nevertheless managed to point out some of the worst hypocrisies and weaknesses in the contemporary church with remarkable precision. Some of her observations were painfully on-target albeit mixed with off-kilter theological prescriptions. And, to be sure, some of the bullies she stood up to happened to be religious figures I also couldn’t stand. And stand up to them she did.
I still don’t quite know what to make of her early demise.
But I do know this.
For the past few years, I’ve had both a uniquely insider and birds-eye view of the modern church in the United States from my perch at a Washington, DC newsroom. I’ve gotten to know some wonderful people in the ministry world who have integrity and who are honoring the Lord Jesus Christ in everything they do and say. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen the unbearable compromise, corruption, and double standards that have led many millennials and Gen Z-ers, like RHE, to throw their hands up and say: “I just can’t do this anymore.” It’s a frustratingly awful mixed bag.
My point is this. If we fail to understand the contributing factors that led RHE to the place she went and fail to at least consider the legitimate grievances she had, we may as well kiss the furtherance of the Gospel goodbye in the United States.
And if I’ve learned anything at all in the past few years recording the first draft of history through the lens from which we at CP report, it’s usually the voices we dislike the most that have some of the most important insights for us even if, indeed especially if, they happen to be dreadfully wrong on primary theological matters.
It really isn’t a cliché. Truly, there but for the grace of God go any of us.
Brandon Showalter is a reporter with The Christian Post and often writes about the intersection of faith and public life. Brandon holds a B.A. from Bridgewater College of Virginia, is a fellow of the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society, & Law.