Rachel Held Evans grew up in the Bible Belt. Raised as a conservative evangelical in Dayton Tennessee, the now author and prominent blogger wasn’t supposed to question her faith. But she did.
It began with the topic of hell. Rachel was reading The Diary of Anne Frank at school. One day she raised her hand and asked, “Did Anne Frank go to hell?”
“This of course made the teacher a little uncomfortable! I had that sceptical quizzical mind, and a really tender heart, which I got from my mother. So when something didn’t line up with what felt right, just and good I wondered if it was of God.”
Rachel explains that in a fundamentalist worldview, if you doubt one doctrine, the entire picture quickly crumbles.
“For a while I wondered if this required throwing out my faith entirely but thankfully I worked through that to a point where I’ve realised questions and doubts and evolving in your faith and changing your mind is just a part of the process of following Christ.”
Rachel’s hometown is best known for the Scopes trial where John T Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in public schools back in the 1930s. It wasn’t the easiest of contexts to doubt young earth creationism, but Rachel has nothing but love for her friends and family there.
“They were great people, wonderful people. The first to show up with a casserole when you get sick. But it was a difficult place to struggle with questions about faith just because you don’t doubt your faith in the Bible Belt. But I did so that proved to be interesting and challenging.”
But what of Rachel’s views on hell today? Her answer has clear similarities with Rob Bell’s – another prominent evangelical to question traditional views.
“I’m still struggling through that. As if anyone of us could know for sure what happens after death and what that looks like, so I’m struggling through it with the assumption that that’s not something I’m ever going to know for sure anyway and I find it a bit arrogant that people think they could know for sure.”
Another issue that Rachel has wrestled with is the topic of women in the church. Her latest book 'A Year of Biblical Womanhood' is the result of a year-long commitment to following the Bible’s instructions to women as literally as possible.
“I had to cover my head every time I prayed thanks to the Apostle Paul, I had to grow out my hair. I had to observe Biblical purity laws and hone my domestic skills. I turned Proverbs 31 into a to do list which I don’t recommend. It’s a terrible idea!”
There’s plenty of funny stories throughout the book as Rachel practices everything from cooking to silence, all the while making the point that everyone is selective in which sections of the Bible’s instructions to women that they follow.
“I focused on a different virtue each month so I could have some focus and so I wouldn’t have to do some of this stuff all year long like the levitical purity laws. That was nuts! One month I focused on silence and I wanted to look at the downside of silence and how the Bible has been used to silence women through the years. I also wanted to focus on the upside of silence and why contemplative prayer and stillness and quietness might be a good thing.”
“I spent a couple of days in a Benedictine monastery in Alabama. I’m an introvert so it was like Disneyland. It was wonderful and I learned a lot from nurturing that contemplative spirit and prayer and quietness. I observed all the Jewish holidays which was really really fun. I had some help with an orthodox Jewish lady from Israel. We had a Passover Seder which requires you to drink four glasses of wine so a fun time was had by all!”
'Too Bad You're A Girl!'
The hot topic of women leadership has had implications for Rachel from an early age.
“I gave a little talk and did a pretty decent job of my testimony. I sat down afterwards and a guy said ‘Rachel you’re such a great speaker it’s too bad you’re a girl’. He knew that meant I couldn’t do anything with those gifts in the church.”
“I keep meeting woman after woman who is in the exact same spot but hasn’t been able to articulate why she feels left out when she keeps being told ‘you’re equal you just can’t do this or that’. ‘Equal but…’ is always a problem. I got a message the other day from a woman who said for the first time she felt free to be able to speak at her Bible study. Being a part of that is so rewarding. I really feel like I’ve found a voice in this conversation and I’m helping other women find their voice so that’s what keeps me writing.”
Frustrated with teaching that tells women they can't be pastors but should stay at home and pursue motherhood, Rachel questions the phrase ‘Biblical Womanhood’.
“Anytime we try to pin down biblical womanhood a woman from scripture comes along and is praised for doing the complete opposite. So Jael did not exactly exhibit a quiet and gentle spirit when she drove a tent peg through Sisera’s skull, yet she is praised for doing so!”
Is Rachel arguing that the Bible is never prescriptive on this topic? “We have to filter scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ,” she replies.
“What I don’t see is prescription on how to uniquely follow Christ as a woman. That’s where we disagree with a lot of folks in the States, this idea that being a woman somehow changes what you can and can’t do as a follower of Christ. We have to read the letters of Paul in context. He wasn’t writing the epistles to make new laws he was just talking about how to apply Christ’s teaching in those unique contexts.”
Rachel says she wants to “challenge” people’s notions of Biblical womanhood.
"By taking things hyper-literally I was trying to show none of us are practicing biblical womanhood and none of us want to practice biblical womanhood because there are some very troubling stories in scripture about what womanhood meant in a highly patriarchal society. I’m hoping this [book] will take out of the conversation this bludgeon of ‘I don’t allow women to teach in my church because of biblical womanhood.’ Well, no you don’t! Because the women aren’t covering their heads!”
“I’m also hoping it will be entertaining, funny and interesting to people,” she adds.
It’s difficult to find anything Rachel has written that doesn’t fall into at least one of those categories. Her blog regularly nails all three adjectives. Whether or not you agree with her theology, her style has won the author support from across the denominational spectrum, and rightly so. Utilizing humour in the best possible way, Rachel continues to use her writing gift to impress, challenge and reassure her reader.
October 8th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes