Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Rachel Held Evans

Here's an article that was posted at Christianity Today, then withdrawn a few hours later. It strikes me as a very balanced article. It's not a hit-piece.

By: John Stonestreet – christianitytoday.com – May 6, 2019
If Twitter were an Olympic sport, Rachel Held Evans would’ve been a gold medalist. Maybe in the Hall of Fame, if there were one. She bested me in the exchange of short bursts more than once, most recently just a few months ago. Those of us who saw in Governor Northam’s comments an implicit, if not explicit, endorsement of infanticide were, she believed, guilty of misrepresentation, if not outright lies.
In the back and forth, I became personally offended and unwisely reacted to something she wrote. I felt it was unfair. She immediately (and strategically) stepped out of the debate.
On the bright side, during the next 48 hours, I received more mentions on Twitter than I’ve ever received. (I’m no Twitter guru.) On the not-so-bright side, the mentions, courtesy of the faithful following she’d built over the last decade or so, were excoriating. The whole episode underscored the passion, influence, and cleverness that propelled Rachel into one of the most formidable progressive thinkers and writers of this generation.
Everyone, including those we think of as our opponents, has a story. Since Good Friday, when I learned Rachel had been placed in a medically induced coma, I’ve wrestled with why God chose for her story, at least for a time, to be intertwined with mine. Today, I’m among the thousands undone by her untimely death and grieving for her family, especially her husband, her two young children, her parents, and her sister.
Rachel sent me a signed copy of her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. On the title page, she wrote, “for John, one of my best teachers.” The world quickly discovered what a talented writer she was. I already knew that. I quickly discovered I was the topic of chapter four. I’m “Greg the Apologist.”
Like Rachel, I used to live in Monkey Town, a not-appreciated moniker for Dayton, Tennessee. Like Rachel, I attended Bryan College, though a few years before her. And like Rachel and everyone else who attended a Christian college, I sat through more college chapels than I could possibly count, much less remember. But I do remember one. The speaker was Rachel’s dad.
When I was a student at Bryan, Peter Held was the vice president of student life. He’s a man full of grace and truth, known for taking students and their issues seriously while embodying the kindness of Jesus. That chapel, sometime during my junior year, enabled me to understand, in a way that forever changed me, God as he had revealed himself to the world in Christ. I’m indebted to the insights of that sermon in a way that I’m indebted to J. I. Packer’s classic Knowing God.
Later, after I returned to Bryan to join the staff and, eventually, the biblical studies faculty, Peter and I co-taught a Christian worldview class together. That semester, I learned that truly great teachers could simultaneously argue the truths of Christianity while struggling with the uncomfortable implications they often carry. Peter had the courage to do it in front of the students, even with the students, and they were better because of it.
I met Dan Evans before he and Rachel married, or even dated. He ran A/V for the traveling student group I directed at the college. Eventually, he produced videos used in our presentations. For a college kid handling VHS tapes, he did impressive work.
I liked Dan immediately and grew to respect him even more. Over three years of road trips throughout the Southeast and Midwest, we talked about faith, movies, music, technology, worldview, and culture. Even then, the entrepreneurial creativity he’d later use to help build Rachel’s significant platform and the commitment to everyday faithfulness he’d later exhibit as her husband and as a father were evident. I’ve often thought that if I could hire Dan and he’d accept, I would.
My interactions with Rachel were comparatively limited. As she would later describe in that semi-biographical chapter of her book, I spoke to her youth group a few times when she was still in high school. A few years later, Rachel staffed a Christian worldview camp I directed.
By her senior year at Bryan, it was clear that she was a force to be reckoned with. As senior editor of the college newspaper, she was willing to question college norms, administrative decisions, and evangelical sacred cows. I recall one conversation we had in which she was highly critical of a highly regarded evangelical organization she’d interned with the prior summer. I was surprised by her bluntness. It was an early indication that she wouldn’t entertain her growing doubts quietly.
And of course, she didn’t. When I learned that Rachel had begun blogging, I reached out to her by email. Her writing was brilliant, but her views had changed. I suggested that an email exchange on those areas where we disagreed could sharpen our thinking and perhaps provide mutual fodder for future writing projects. Of course, I was also hoping to change her mind.
The exchange survived only a few rounds, but she did use one of my emails in her first book, to introduce “Greg the Apologist.” I read the chapter over and over, touched by her kind description of me but also stunned by her critique of my teachings. In my view, she generously overstated the former and misrepresented the latter.
In the closing paragraph of the chapter, Rachel wrote:
The last time I interacted with Greg, we were engaged in a little email debate about how best to care for America’s poor. These days it seems like he and I disagree on a lot of things: politics, theology, gender roles, environmentalism, economics, and so on. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’ve disappointed him. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m wrong. But I hope Greg understands that in the same way he had to change to make sense of his faith, so I had to change to make sense of mine.
Rachel’s profile and platform quickly outgrew me. Her online interlocutors became a who’s who of evangelical leadership: John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, Ed Stetzer, Russell Moore. We’d have an exchange or two every other year or so but, regrettably, only on Twitter. Something she wrote or said was occasionally the topic of a BreakPoint commentary, but I doubt she even knew.
Over the years, I’ve run into Peter a few times at conferences or events. I suppose it goes without saying, I was never able to hire Dan. Both of those relationships were victims of geographic distance and, at least partly, the growing distance between Rachel’s views and my own. Rachel’s list, written nearly a decade ago, is incomplete. To round out our disagreements, we’d have to add religious freedom, the church, sexual orientation, gender identity, and based on our most recent Twitter exchange, abortion rights.
I think Rachel was wrong, seriously so, about many things, including things of grave importance. In tribute, many have written how she helped expand the tent of evangelicalism and convinced many skeptics to stay at the faith table. I think, as a friend put it, she often ushered the vulnerable into her doubts and championed wrong ideas. Rachel once wrote that the scandal of the gospel is not who is kept out but who is allowed in. I think she was right about that, but we’d probably not have to dig too deeply below the surface of that statement to find disagreement as well.
If there is some sort of lesson or morale to what I’ve written, I don’t know how to articulate it other than to remind us that everyone, even those we deeply disagree with, has a story. Their stories, like ours, include life experiences, friends, family members, and deeply held beliefs about life and the world. I don’t know why God decided our stories should cross, and I’ve no idea why her story came to an end when it did. Death is awful. I just pray that God surrounds her sister, her parents, her children, and her husband with grace and comfort.


  1. Pretty neutral. If only journalists could write like that about those they disagree with.

    OK so you weren't posting on the guy who played Chewbacca last week. Gotcha.

  2. my take is a bit different. It sprawls, and reads like a first draft that should have gone through a few edits. Given the CT op ed James Macdonald ran I'm inclined to give the author a pass and put the onus on CT editorial. That's not to say RHE's fans haven't had a penchant to dogpile people they dislike, but it does seem CT's op ed pages have run some stuff that was rushed to print too soon or maybe should have been reconsidered (i.e. with Macdonald).