My first encounter with Rachel Held Evans’s writing must have come about a year ago, almost certainly through her Twitter account. I read her first two memoirs, Faith Unraveled and Searching for Sunday, and was stuck by her accounts of growing up in an evangelical Christian environment, learning that the world isn’t quite as cut-and-dry as that mythology makes it out to be, and then struggling to find a mode of life where the better aspects of her Christian faith could continue to flourish. I eagerly awaited her next book, Inspired, which explored her relationship with the Bible—not as a set of edicts handed down to the world, but as a collection of stories and poems and aphorisms that still, after thousands of years, have the potential to move us as individuals.
Just before Easter, RHE took some antibiotics for the flu she’d been dealing with, and had an adverse reaction. The seizures got bad enough that doctors put her into a medically induced coma while they tried to figure out what was going on. Last week, they attempted to wean her out of the coma, but her health did not improve, and she died on Saturday, May 4. Her death—but also, perhaps more importantly, her life—dominated the conversation on progressive Christian Twitter all weekend, and as I write this on Monday afternoon, there are still fresh expressions of grief being posted.
I was closer to RHE’s writing than I was to RHE herself. We followed each other on Twitter, and we had the occasional back-and-forth. She knew that Inspired was one of my favorite non-fiction books of 2018; she liked something I’d written about Jesus’s encounter with the Canaanite woman. That’s all… but it’s also plenty.
This is a newsletter about “the writing life,” so I’m not going to wade particularly deeply into theological specifics, but: Rachel Held Evans was somebody who poured her life into her writing—her loves, her hopes, and her struggles. Her books were an ongoing account of grappling with the things that mattered most to her in this world. Not just how to make sense of the things she’d been raised to believe and the circumstances in which she found herself, but how to build a life around what she discovered in the process. How to look at the world with clear eyes, recognizing both its splendor and its imperfections, and how to share what you see with others.
Through hashtags like #BecauseOfRHE, her friends and fans have been sharing their testimony of the ways in which she inspired them—and, in many cases, the ways in which she supported them. Several writers have come forward to talk about how she was willing to share her platform, whether it was by referring journalists and event organizers to them if she thought they could speak more directly to an issue, or simply offering an encouraging word. She understood that the book world—the world of ideas—is not a zero-sum environment; a good outcome for one writer can lead to a better environment for many writers, and a world in which many writers thrive is a better world for readers.
That’s a lesson that transcends specific religious perspectives… which isn’t to say that I want to minimize RHE’s Christian perspective. If you read any of her work—and I hope you do—you’ll see that Christianity was a central concern in her life. And though she experienced doubt and frustration, Christianity was not something she fought against, but that she wrestled with, and eventually came to what she found to be a better understanding.
I’ve taken no small degree of inspiration from that, and if you do as well, that’s great! But even if your central concerns are different than hers, RHE’s books will introduce you to a writer who had made great strides in learning to express herself authentically—to share with others the things that she felt most passionately about, and to strive to convince them that those things were worth their passion, too.
If you let her example inform your own writing practice, I think you’ll likely discover some things about yourself that will make that practice more rewarding, on the page and in your heart.
(Disclosure: If you buy any of RHE’s books through the Powells.com links above, I will receive a small commission on the sale. I like Powell’s because they’re an indie bookstore with a good online setup, but if you have a local indie you like, shop there!)
photo via RachelHeldEvans.com