I’ll admit it; I’ve got a love/hate relationship with Rachel Held Evans. Not that she knows it – we’ve never met. But I read her blog and her stuff on social media.
Some of the questions she has for and about how the church behaves are right on. I’ve wrestled with some of the same issues myself. At the same time, she gets a lot of it wrong, goes too far on some issues, and completely misses it on other issues. She has a tendency to get tunnel vision – she’s got her couple core issues that get played on repeat over, and over, and over, and…well, you get it.
So when I heard she had a new book out about “loving, leaving, and finding the church,” I thought I’d give it a read. Before even reading it I’d seen liberals praising it and conservative lambasting it. So I read it for myself.
Ms. Evans divides her book into a prologue and 7 sections, following the sacraments of the Church: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. Since she wrote in this order, my review will take one section at a time in the same order. Here’s my take on it.
Ms. Evans begins laying the groundwork for the rest of the book, setting the stage for her own journey away from the evangelical church. As I expected, she starts right in by bringing up her pet peeves with evangelical faith: biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality (feminism and LGBTQ issues), racial reconciliation, and social justice. These issues come as no surprise, for they are the resounding gong of all of her work.
The problem for me comes a few pages into the prologue where she writes:
The truth is, I don’t even bother getting out of bed many Sunday mornings, especially on days when I’m not sure I believe in God or when there’s an interesting guest on Meet the Press.
She finishes the prologue with similar words:
It’s about why, even on days when I suspect all this talk of Jesus and resurrection and life everlasting is a bunch of bunk designed to coddle us through an essentially meaningless existence, I should still like to be buried with my feet facing the rising sun. Just in case.
This is the problem. The entire rest of the book isn’t coming from a place of faith. It’s coming from a place of un-faith (yes, I know that’s not a real word). I’m not against asking God questions – even difficult questions. I firmly believe that God is big enough to handle any questions we may have. But we’re not talking about mere questions here. We’re talking about lack of faith.
People like Ms. Evans like to use the example from the Gospels when a Jesus has a conversation with a man (see Mark 9):
Jesus: All things are possible to him who believes.
Man: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”
But this case is different. The man comes from a place of belief and is asking help to get the rest of the way. Ms. Evans admittedly approaches much of her life beginning with unbelief.
If you spend much time doubting the resurrection actually happened can you really consider yourself a Christian? Ms. Evans seems to like the IDEA of church when it works to serve people and the issues she cares about, but she doesn’t seem to like the faith that is the FOUNDATION of that church. While some of her criticisms may have validity, it is difficult for me to receive criticisms from someone who doubts in the resurrection or the existence of God.
I don’t judge her for her lack of faith. I don’t judge anyone who is a non-believer. But I think Ms. Evans is fooling herself to say she doubts the existence of God and the resurrection yet still makes a claim to be Christian. She seems to fit better in the category (I know she hates labels, but they help us make sense of the world) of agnostic.
My other problem with the prologue is that Ms. Evans claims:
My aim in employing these seven sacraments is not theological or ecclesiological, but rather literary.
Yet the book IS theological and ecclesiological. My problem is not that she claims not to but then does write on theology and ecclesiology (theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church) but that I think she gets some of the theology wrong. So here we go…
From the get-go I don’t think Ms. Evans has the right view of baptism. As she tells her own story she lists various baptism traditions that could have been had she not been born to an evangelical family. But among the list of baptismal traditions she mentions the Mormon tradition. It’s mixed right in there with evangelicals, Orthodox, Catholic, and Presbyterian.
But Mormonism is NOT a branch of Christianity. The fact that she includes Mormonism is another indicator that she falls under the agnostic column more than the Christian.
Mormonism notwithstanding, Ms. Evans and I disagree with the nature and significance of baptism. She writes:
In the ritual of baptism, our ancestors acted out the bizarre truth of the Christian identity: We are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare then powerless against love.
While I agree that baptism is about identity, her language about love doesn’t sit right with me. Baptism ISN’T about declaring evil and death powerless against love. Baptism is about sin, repentance, death, and resurrection. John the Baptist was baptizing people before Jesus even came on the scene, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (see Mark 1:4). In our baptism we are putting to death our old identity and emerging from the water with a new identity. Love beating evil and death is too generic, too “new age-y.”
Baptism says, “I have a new life as a follower of the risen Christ.”
Of course, nothing from Ms. Evans would be complete without vocal support of the LGBTQ community, so she includes a chapter dedicated to the baptism story of a gay young man. She concludes the section with the statement:
…baptism is done at the beginning of your faith journey, not the middle or the end. You don’t have to have everything together to be baptized.
She is absolutely right on this point. You DON’T have to have it together to be baptized. The problem with many who fall in the liberal camp is that they have no expectation of spiritual growth and development post-baptism. God accepts us the way we are. That doesn’t mean God is content we STAY the way we are.
Finally, Ms. Evans uses this section to blast evangelicals on a couple points. She presents her criticisms as though they are universally representative of evangelical churches, but they are not. I was raised in the Assemblies of God my entire life (though I am now non-denominational). Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) was never banned in my church or home. The King James Version was not the only allowed Bible. I was allowed to watch movies and television. I never once heard women’s breasts referred to as “stumbling blocks” (an expression Ms. Evans uses a couple of times). My church tradition ordains women (my own mother is ordained) and recognizes their place in ministry.
Since my evangelical story is vastly different from hers, I suggest Ms. Evans refine her definitions and terminology and stop leveling generic accusations that don’t hold water across the evangelical spectrum.
In the section on confession, Ms. Evans seems to be confessing her own story – why she really started turning away from the Christian Church. Part of her split is due to the role of women in the church. Her background is in a church where she felt relegated to baby showers and ladies’ teas when she wanted to be leading a Bible study or theological discussion. Not to beat a dead horse, but she levels accusations at evangelicalism that aren’t true across the board. My wife has led Bible studies and has NEVER constructed a diaper cake. But these peripheral issues seem to be simply excuses for the real issue – a loss of faith. She writes:
I couldn’t pretend to believe things I didn’t believe anymore.
So she talks about singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” with an unraveled faith (even though the “shadow of turning” line in the song isn’t about OUR faith but about GOD’S faithfulness through it all). Still, she gets it right when she talks about the practice of confession.
The practice of confession gives us the chance to admit to one another that we’re not okay, and then to seek healing and reconciliation together, in community.
The contemporary American evangelical church does NOT do a good job with confession. We’re too busy pretending we’ve got it all together. Heaven forbid we admit to each other that we’re struggling with something. Heave forbid our pastors show flaws or weaknesses! Ms. Evans is right when she notes that our churches feel more like country clubs than Alcoholics Anonymous. Church ought to be the place where we are free to be broken with one another.
But then she devolves from a good conversation about confession into a litany of historical grievances against Christians, beginning with the Crusades and including Western empire building (although that was political behavior behind a veneer of religion, not religious behavior). I don’t agree with the liberal re-interpretation of the history, and I won’t spend time arguing about that here. It just seems out of place in this book and wasn’t tied into the larger story being developed.
She ends the section with the liberal call to stop judging people and to love them instead. Not surprising. I happen to think the Bible calls us to love people AND to judge them. We can point out sin without being unloving. And just because we wrestle with our own sin doesn’t mean we must shut up about talking about other sins.
Ms. Evans uses the sacrament of holy orders to talk about her experience being part of a church plant. Most of the section is personal narrative of her experience with planting a church. It’s tough to be part of a church plant, which she and her husband experienced first-hand. Ministry is difficult in ANY setting.
She is right that all Christians share the same calling. We are kingdom of priests and should be serving and ministering to one another. What amazes me is that she would even attempt to be part of a ministry team and a faith leader when she admittedly lacks faith.
Ms. Evans is big on doing as opposed to believing. The mainstay of evangelical churches is belief. She believes we miss the mark because we prefer to believe rather than do. When it comes to communion writes:
‘Do this,’ he said–not believe this but do this–in remembrance of me.
But what she misses is that the doing was a result OF the believing. Jesus said DO this to remember me. Without the believing communion is simply shared meal time. Even in the early church gatherings, the communal meal wasn’t the totality of the gathering. They gathered for the apostles’ teaching (doctrine and belief) and to prayer (elements of faith and belief). It was BECAUSE of their belief that they continued to meet together. You cannot separate believing and doing. Indeed, believing must precede the doing, or else we’re just Boy Scouts looking to do good deeds for others.
Ms. Evans seems to relegate communion to the act of feeding one another and table fellowship. She writes:
Certainly nonbelievers can care for one another and make one another food. But it is Christians who recognize this act as sacrament, as holy.
NO! Communion isn’t about caring for one another and making food for each other. It’s about the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, giving up his body and blood to pay a price we couldn’t afford to pay. She de-theologizes communion when she makes it about food rather than the work of Christ on the cross. Because she makes it about table fellowship rather than Christ’s substitutionary work, she can talk about welcoming all to the table.
“Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.” This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.
While we will never be worthy (which is why we couldn’t pay the price for our sins ourselves), communion is about Jesus paying the price for us. When we come to faith we begin a shift, though, and cannot remain the same. The Church that should be welcoming to all still needs to be the Church that quotes God, “Be holy as I am holy.”
Now addressing the issue of denominations within Protestantism, Ms. Evans notes:
…our various traditions seem a sweet and necessary grace.
Well…not ALL of them. Not the denominations that go against what she holds near and dear to her heart, namely women’s ordination and exclusion of the LGBTQ community from communion. But other than those groups, a sweet and necessary grace.
And so Ms. Evans clings to the Apostles’ Creed as the end-all of Christianity. To an extent, I agree. I think that there are more things that unite Christians than divide us. We like to get bogged down in the differences, but the basic elements of faith are identical from group to group.
But there is more to faith than the ancient creeds – things like sin lists and virtue lists (both in the Bible in multiple places). Christianity is more than reciting a creed. It’s about a faith that leads us to be more Christ-like. But what happens when you don’t have that faith? As she puts it, when you’re
swallowing down the bread and wine, not believing a word of it.
Not a word.
Then all you have is a creed. Dead words that mean nothing in the grand scheme of eternity.
Anointing of the Sick:
This is another point where I think Ms. Evans gets it completely wrong. She makes a distinction between healing and curing. We’re called to heal, not to cure. She says:
The thing about healing, as opposed to curing, is that it is relationship. It takes time.
I don’t know where she’s coming up with this stuff, but it isn’t biblical. When Jesus sends his disciples out with his authority to preach and heal, the disciples HEALED THE SICK and cast out demons. It wasn’t relationship. It was about the power of God breaking through to our reality. It was a sign that the kingdom of God is HERE! In the New Testament we see other examples of the church laying on hands and praying for healing – for people to be cured of what ailed them. It is dishonest to the Bible to pretend that there is a difference between healing and curing.
While God doesn’t always answer prayer the way we’d like, we cannot pretend that biblical healing is anything other than God changing and repairing physical bodies. Can healing take place emotionally and relationally? Yes. But don’t downplay the power of God and what the Bible says about healing. Otherwise you turn God’s healing power into one big Kumbaya sing-along where we end up crying and hugging each other.
Here again I find myself agreeing with Ms. Evans. Following Jesus is a group activity and wasn’t ever intended to be a solo event. But it goes beyond that. The Church is called the Bride of Christ. Turning from Jesus is infidelity. There is no other way to the Father. The Church is His, and those who believe are called to be a part of it.
She gets it right when she says:
And the church universal is sacramental when it knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture, and when it advances not through power and might, but through acts of love, joy, and peace and missions of mercy, kindness, humility.
THIS is what the church is supposed to look like in the world.
All said and done, the book can give you a good insight into what a lot of young people go through when they realize that the faith of their parents is not their own. The book will help you see Christianity from a liberal vantage point. In the end, I think the vantage point is hollow, substituting social action for genuine faith.
The local church will always be flawed because humans are flawed. That doesn’t mean the institution is flawed or that faith is lost. The Church belongs to Jesus, and we should do our best to be faithful to him and His Church.
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It has not been my intention to misrepresent the views or writings of Rachel Held Evans in any way. This has simply been my interpretation and response to what I read.
I welcome all discussion, just keep it civil and polite. If this post resonates with you in any way, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or email!