Q&A: Rachel Held Evans’ blog plumbs faith, finds readers

Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans is a blogging phenomenon, having built a huge audience, particularly among young people, for her candid, searching and often witty posts about Christian faith. (See http://rachelheldevans.com.)

Her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (Zondervan, 2010), describes her emergence from conservative evangelicalism, while continuing to live in Dayton, Tenn., home of the Scopes Trial. Her second book comes out this fall. Of late, she has become a popular speaker, including at UM churches.

Ms. Evans, 30, agreed to an email interview with managing editor Sam Hodges.

I’m going to try to force you to be immodest by asking: How big has your blog gotten? And why do you think it has caught on so?

I’ve been blogging since 2008, and when I started, the only people reading and commenting on my posts were my husband and my mom. This was probably a good thing, because I had no idea what I was doing; I had yet to find my “blogging voice.” Fast forward to spring 2012, and in the past month, the blog has received more than 250,000 unique visitors and nearly a million pageviews. This is the result of a lot of hard work, some trial and error, and learning to listen to my readers to get a sense of what they like to read and discuss.

The blog seems to attract people of faith who are in the midst of a spiritual transition. They may be struggling to find a church, to make sense of the faith with which they were raised, to figure out which religious tradition best represents their hopes and convictions, to work through doubts about Christianity, or to find their unique role in the work of the Kingdom. Since I’m in the midst of such a transition myself, I think a lot of people—especially young people—relate to the stories, interviews, questions and ideas that I share.

You grew up in what you describe as an “evangelical bubble.” In Evolving in Monkey Town, you describe your journey out of conservative evangelicalism. How crucial was the acceptance of evolution to that, and what helped most in bringing you to a reconciliation of evolution and faith?

My parents didn’t raise me to be a fundamentalist, but the Southern evangelical religious culture can certainly lean in that direction. So, growing up, I was told by Sunday school teachers, and even college professors, that belief in young earth creationism was as critical to my Christian faith as belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This was one of many “false fundamentals” that began to bother me in my early 20s.

When I started questioning some of these peripheral beliefs, I thought I was questioning my faith, and a dark period of doubt and loneliness ensued. Learning to adapt my faith to new information—like the science behind evolution, modern biblical scholarship, various theological understandings of heaven and hell, relationships with people of different faith backgrounds and experiences, third world travel, etc.—has been a real learning experience for me, one that has strengthened my faith rather than weakened it.

One of the best resources in helping me reconcile my faith with science has been the Biologos Foundation (http://biologos.org). The Language of God by Francis Collins, The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton and my friendship with (science and religion scholar) Karl Giberson were also instrumental.

How old were you when you first heard a woman preach, and what was that experience like?

When I was a little girl, I saw Joyce Meyer preaching on TV and immediately asked my dad if she would go to hell for sinning against the Bible! (He didn’t think so.) I remember being confused as a child about why women missionaries were allowed to “share” about their experiences on Sunday morning, but not “preach.” It seemed unfair, especially when the lady speakers were more interesting than the men!

More than 20 years later, while visiting my mother-in-law in New Jersey, my husband and I attended a Dutch Reformed church in which a woman preached a sermon about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. By that point, I was fully egalitarian in my views on women in church leadership, but this woman did such an amazing job, she inspired me to become more vocal and passionate about those views.

You’ve written that your generation is tired of the culture wars, and that young people believe the church has mishandled questions related to homosexuality. Would you elaborate?

I am convinced that I am one of millions of young Christians desperate to see the Church shift gears when it comes to homosexuality. We are tired of the culture wars. We are tired of politics. We are tired of seeing our gay friends and neighbors walk away from Christianity because they have been told there is no way to reconcile their sexuality with their faith. We are tired of the culture of shame and guilt the Church has created that has made it just about the worst environment in which to come out.

I realize there will be disagreement among people of faith about whether or not gay relationships should be blessed by the Church in the same way that heterosexual relationships are blessed. I’m not asking that people give up their convictions. But we desperately need to change the culture.

We need to stop talking about gay people and start talking with gay people. We need to drop the political agendas and direct our efforts toward reconciliation and healing. We need to stop treating homosexuality as a “disease” that must be “cured” at all costs. We need to stop encouraging LGBT Christians to keep their orientation a secret and marry members of the opposite sex just to keep up appearances. We need to listen to the stories of LGBT Christians, and welcome them without stipulation into our faith communities. We need to make the Church the safest, most loving environment in which to come out rather than the most hostile.

This, I believe, is a matter of life and death. My generation will not stand for any more needless suicides. We’re ready to change the culture so that it is more loving and inclusive of our gay and lesbian friends.

You’ve documented your experience in the evangelical world. But one of your most popular posts is titled “The Mainline and Me.” You acknowledge in it that you’re generalizing, but you say that when you’re among mainline Protestants, you find that a lot of them don’t really seem to know the Bible well, and that some of the clergy seem reluctant to preach the gospel with passion. You credit mainline Protestants with great social outreach, but note that often they don’t make clear that they’re doing the work out of religious conviction. How did that post go over, and do you have recommendations for mainline Protestants as they try to remain relevant?

That post really seemed to resonate with people, especially disenfranchised evangelicals who, like me, had gone to the mainline in search of more inclusivity and grace only to miss that high esteem for Scripture and fire-in-the belly spirituality that has come to characterize evangelicalism. I also heard from a lot of mainline pastors who essentially said, “We hear you! We’re working on this!” which encouraged me.

Relevance has nothing to do with music style or image and everything to do with connecting the gospel to everyday life. So my advice to mainline Protestants would be the same as my advice to evangelicals: Help Christians make the connection between the gospel and social justice, the gospel and the spiritual disciplines, the gospel and worship, the gospel and art, community, Eucharist, family, failure, success, life, death and grace. What does it mean to follow Jesus? Why does it matter that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not? How does that change the way we interact with the world on a daily basis? Those are questions every Christian should ask, and pastors should never shy away from helping us find the answers to them.

Have you formed a specific impression of the UMC—good, bad, or indifferent?

What I’ve loved about my experiences with UMC churches so far is that each one has been different than the last. Once I spoke to a UMC church plant that met in a theater and was comprised primarily of young adults under 40. Another time, I preached at a UMC church in which most of the members had white hair. Once I shared with a UMC gathering that included a beautiful mix of old and young, homeless and well-to-do, black, white, Asian and Latino.

So you guys are hard to prepare for! Each group is different! Of course, I also love that the UMC celebrates and affirms women in leadership, and I appreciate the tradition’s history regarding social justice and reform. Every time I interact with a UMC congregation, I learn something new—about the tradition, about its people and about Christ.

How about John Wesley? Is he someone you’ve checked out in depth?

Not in depth. I know the quadrilateral, and it’s been helpful to me in analyzing and understanding the various ways in which I think about, and try to make sense of, my faith.

You did a funny, but not entirely unserious, post titled “12 Ways to Make Arminianism Cool Again.” Would you wish for an emphasis on Arminianism—starting with teaching what it is—in United Methodist churches?

Yes! . . . I think we Arminians should offer some refresher courses on what it means to be Arminian. Young Arminians today have no idea how to win 3 a.m. dorm room debates with their Calvinist roommates, and that has to change!

Your parents brought you up in a conservative evangelical environment, and your father taught at Bryan College—named for William Jennings Bryan, a key figure in the Scopes trial—there in Dayton. How have your parents reacted to your spiritual journey and your candid writing about it?

My parents have been nothing but encouraging and supportive as my faith journey has taken all these twists and turns. They are people of compassion and grace, and they’ve always been good at making a distinction between the important faith stuff (following Jesus!) and the less-important stuff (the age of the earth). They often tell me how proud they are of me, which means a lot. We don’t always agree on the details regarding politics or theology, but we love and respect one another and are very close.

How about others there in Dayton?

I’ve been on a few prayer lists, that’s for sure!

Some folks in Dayton have been really receptive to my writing, while others have not. Most don’t have any idea what I do for a living, which is fine by me.

Your next book, due out in the fall, is about the year you spent trying to be true to “biblical womanhood,” carefully following the instructions to women found in Scripture. Given your faith trajectory, that seems a curious project. Why did you want to do it? And, briefly, explain the “vagina” controversy and where that stands.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood releases in October with Thomas Nelson, and it documents my misadventures in biblical living as I attempted to follow all the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.

Obviously, I was inspired by A.J. Jacobs’ fantastic book, A Year of Living Biblically, but because my experience emerges from the evangelical Christian subculture where “biblical womanhood” is still held as a standard for which women must strive, my hope is that it will generate some laughs, as well as a fresh, honest dialogue about some of our assumptions regarding biblical interpretation. The goal is to inspire women to cut themselves and one another some slack, seeing as how none of us are actually practicing “biblical womanhood” . . . at least not all the way.

Regarding “Vaginagate,” I had a bit of a back-and-forth with my publisher when my editor asked me to remove the word “vagina” from my manuscript in compliance with the general standards of Christian retailers. I mentioned the dilemma to my readers in a blog post, and they responded by creating an Amazon petition to “put ‘vagina’ back in Rachel’s book!” So we decided to put it back in. We’ll have to see if Christian bookstores still carry it. Crazy, right?

Who are your writer heroes, particularly on the subject of faith?

Anne Lamott, Donald Miller, Lauren Winner (her latest, Still, is amazing!), Sara Miles, Kathleen Norris, Barbara Brown Taylor. And of course St. Madeleine (L’Engle) and St. Emily (Dickinson). Only my very favorite writers achieve sainthood!




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