A Review of
Rachel Held Evans (with Jeff Chu)
Reviewed by Carolyn Miller Parr
When she died in 2019 at the age of 37, Rachel Held Evans was a thorn in the flesh of many white (mostly male) evangelical Christians. She asked embarrassing questions. Publicly. About doctrines she doubted.
Her previous book titles describe her spiritual journey (and her quirky sense of humor): Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again [on Biblical inerrancy]; Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church [on the value of creeds and historical church sacraments]; A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering her Head, and Calling Her Husband, “Master” [on the role of women in the church]; and Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions [on her personal struggle with the doctrines of substitutionary sacrifice and other issues].
She also took on the evangelical stance on homosexuality and the politics of Donald Trump, thereby incurring the hatred of the Christian right. She needed a thick skin to weather the daily slanders and insults on social media.
In spite of her critics, Rachel was greatly loved and admired by others who, like her, wrestle with some doctrines but wholeheartedly love Jesus. I think she intended this book to be a positive affirmation of why she is still a Christian, in spite of her doubts. She would call it Wholehearted Faith.
Rachel had completed about 20 percent of her new book when she died suddenly and unexpectedly from an allergic reaction to flu medicine that caused her brain to swell. She left Dan, a husband she loved, a three-year-old son, and a baby girl whose first birthday would arrive between Rachel’s death and her funeral.
Dan invited Rachel’s friend and fellow Christian writer Jeff Chu to finish the book, augmenting the material already completed with blogs, tweets, correspondence, and other notes Rachel had written. He did this well, maintaining Rachel’s tone and thought. He captured her voice well. If I’m right that her goal was to reaffirm God’s overwhelming love as lived out in Jesus, in an ironic sense she’s still “evangelical.” How well does this book succeed?
One of my favorite parts is the Prologue: “Because they said yes.” She explains that she’s still a Christian because of the testimony of other women, ranging from Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Nadia Bolz Weber, the heavily tattooed former standup comedian and drug addict whose Christian ministry focuses on society’s outcasts. She knows how it feels.
Rachel chooses Israel’s ancient prayer, the Shema, as her focus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Jesus called the Shema the first and greatest commandment. And the second, he said, was “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The basis of faith is love, flowing two ways: from God to us, and from us to God and neighbor. God is all in for us, and we’re to be all in for God and our neighbor. (And ourself.) She rejects the doctrine of original sin – never mentioned anywhere in the Hebrew scriptures or by Jesus, and stresses that God deemed his creation “Good.” Her take on the creation story and God’s interaction with Adam and Eve does not change that.
This means humanity is not irredeemably depraved and worthy of hell, except for the sacrifice of Christ. Sin is real, but that doesn’t stop God’s love. Even still, it is helpful to better understand sin. In a chapter called, “Jonathan Edwards is Not My Homeboy” she dips into the writings of Brené Brown to distinguish between guilt (I did something bad) and shame (I am bad). God loves us anyways and always.
We can take our cue from God. “There’s risk and vulnerability for God, too.” We may choose not to return God’s love. But God continues to love us wholeheartedly. For us to love wholeheartedly means loving our enemies. Rachel talks a lot about her difficulty in loving her accusers. There’s a role for vulnerability and pain in wholehearted loving.
Can faith dance with doubt? Does our doubt put into question our love for God? Back to the Shema: we’re to love God with our whole selves – including our minds. God is not put off by our questions and doubts, even if religious leaders are. Jesus himself doubted on the cross.
Rachel’s evangelical parents helped her to better understand doubt. They had “created an environment in which wholehearted faith was never at odds with questioning or with uncertainty…. [W]e can be doubtful and still find rest in the tender embrace of a God who isn’t threatened by human inconsistency” (38). With wisdom Rachel concludes that, “acknowledging uncertainty doesn’t make a person less faithful; it just makes her more honest” (39).
One day in Lent someone gave Rachel an origami kit. She had an idea: she printed off tweeted insults and turned the pages into swans and sailboats, flowers and foxes. Friends joined her. Their fingers prayed when they couldn’t say the words, transforming hate and ugliness into beauty.
There are places where Wholehearted Faith seems a little disjointed; others where it’s repetitious. (The risk and danger of asking questions. The assertion that doubt can be a part of faith.) But, considering the challenge, Jeff Chu did an amazing job of putting together Rachel’s thoughts in as authentic a way possible.
This book is important; it’s a keeper, and one that I’ll read again.
Carolyn Miller Parr
Carolyn Miller Parr is a retired judge and mediator. She was ordained by The Church of the Saviour in 1989 and now lives in Annapolis, Maryland. She is the co-author with Sig Cohen of Love’s Way: Living Peacefully With Your Family as Your Parents Age (Hendrickson Publishers, 2019) and, with Jerry Parr, In The Secret Service: the True Story of the Man Who Saved President Reagan’s Life (Tyndale, 2013) Find her online at: CarolynMillerParr.com.