“… faith isn’t about having everything figured out ahead of time; faith is about following the quiet voice of God without having everything figured out ahead of time.”
Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood
These words are from the first book I picked up by Rachel Held Evans, which I delved into shortly after reading American journalist and best-selling author A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically. Jacobs chronicled his experiment to live for one year according to all the moral codes expressed in the Bible, including stoning adulterers, blowing a shofar at the beginning of every month, and refraining from trimming the corners of his facial hair (which he followed by not trimming his facial hair at all). According to her book description, Rachel was intrigued by the traditionalist resurgence that led many of her friends to abandon their careers to assume traditional gender roles in the home, and like Jacobs, she decided to try it for herself, vowing to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.
At the time I was reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I was in the throes of surviving the early life of our beautiful twin babies, and I was trying to make the most of short weeks and long days. After I opened the first few pages, I didn’t put it down until I was finished laughing, crying, and contemplating my own faith life. As author and public theologian Phyllis Tickle wrote of the book: “A bittersweet cocktail of wisdom and absurdity that will charm you, entertain you, seduce you and, finally, instruct you!” At that point I had been following Rachel’s blog since 2010, and I decided to go back to her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town—later published as Faith Unraveled—which did not disappoint with its compelling and honest storytelling. It simply resonated so much for me. More than that, here was a young woman asking hard questions about church and faith.
It hasn’t even been a month since her death at the age of 37 from a sudden illness and complications. It’s a strange and disorienting experience to think about her in terms of her legacy. She was so young, so smart, so accessible, and so many of us had expected so much more from her—more words, more stories, more accomplishments. Like me, she had young children, and I was eager to talk more about motherhood with her. It is wonderfully fitting and perhaps not surprising that Searching for Sunday, the book she published in 2015 about wrestling with and ultimately embracing the church, landed on The New York Times bestseller list within two weeks of her death. And so, yes, there is no doubt that she leaves behind an influential legacy. As historian of American religion Kristin Kobes Du Mez wrote at Patheos, “Through her blog and her books, Rachel reached hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of Christians—especially Christian women. When the history of early twentieth-first-century American Christianity is written—certainly the history of American evangelicalism—she deserves a prominent place.” One only needs to spend a few minutes on the Twitter hashtag #BecauseOfRHE, and see that her legacy runs much deeper than book reviews and bestseller lists.
As so many have remembered Rachel’s work, there is no shortage of stories about her advocacy for those with marginalized identities and voices—women, women of color, LGBTQ people, and more. At The New Yorker, Eliza Griswold wrote:
Raised in an evangelical household, she spent much of her adult life challenging the harmful role that conservative American culture plays in Christianity. In her four popular books, her talks, and her frequent presence on Twitter, she called for an intersectional approach to Christianity that embraced people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. people, and women in all roles in the church. This wasn’t a question of politics for Held Evans, who’d begun attending an Episcopal church in order to leave the culture wars behind; it was a matter of religious doctrine. She fiercely insisted that God’s love included everyone, and she attempted to offer those who’d been shunned by the church a way to return.
Spend any amount of time on her blog, and you will see how much she used her voice and platform to create a space for the stories of those who challenged her faith, and those who would continue to help her to not only unravel it, but also to expand it so that more people could sit and enjoy fellowship around that table. Although Griswold is right that Rachel was following a theological impetus, I would say that it was a question of politics, too. She recognized that for many of us who did not hold the same privileges she had in this world any elision of politics was unrealistic, and so she made our struggles just as personal to her. Truly, she understood and lived out the ways the personal is political. Her politics were personal, theological, radical, and compassionate.
Before Rachel and I had met in person, we had interacted through social media for a few years and emailed a number of times, and always, she was responsive and gracious, inquisitive and encouraging, and willing to listen. It was during a time when so many were asking hard questions about the institutional American Christian church, and she was voicing them out loud, too. We finally met in the flesh when Rachel and the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber organized a conference for 2015 called “Why Christian,” and gathered a line-up of speakers and preachers—including, to my surprise, myself—who had never been on a main stage for Christian conferences. Rachel described the speakers on her blog in a reflection on the experience afterwards: “We were evangelical and Lutheran, Baptist and Episcopalian, Latina and black and white and Indian and Korean, High Church and Low Church, Catholic and Protestant, Reformed and Methodist, straight and gay and bisexual and transgender, pastors and scholars, writers and activists, single ladies and mothers, introverts and extroverts, crunchy dreadlocked mamas, tattooed and foul-mouthed priests, sweet-talkin’ Southerners, and six-inch-heels-boasting fashionistas.” And together with the thousand or so participants gathered that day, it was a glimpse into the kind of work she was committed to as a person of faith—reformation and hope—and the kind of work present in all her writing, posting, tweeting, speaking, and more. “Why Christian” convened yet again this past April in San Francisco, which was one of the last times so many saw her in person.
It would be an understatement to say that I feel incredibly fortunate to have known her, but more than that, to be seen and known by her, to have received affirmation and support from her. As I wrote in another article, Rachel’s reach was far and wide, and when she talked to anyone in person, she had an easy, light way of being. She was so present with me, like we had known each other for so long already. She saw me and loved me. To watch her chat with people after her talk, and see how she interacted with people on her blog and on social media, there was no doubt to me that she was clearly a pastor, and though I am the one who is an ordained minister, she was a pastor to me, too. An encourager, a fellow sojourner, a questioner, and a guide. She wrote in the foreword for my recent book, Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith: “With this book Mihee offers both an antidote and a balm—an antidote to the poisonous lies that the culture and the church tell us about our bodies and our identities, and a balm to soothe and heal the pain those lies have caused. What a gift this work is to the church and to the world.” Her words made me feel like my work meant something, and even if only in a small way, it could do something for others. That was her work in the world. This was her legacy, this was her ministry, this was her politics, this was her love for the church and people, this was her personal calling.
And so, I continue to hold onto her words in A Year of Biblical Womanhood as something to frame and shape my own understanding of vocation: “A calling, on the other hand, when rooted deep in the soil of one’s soul, transcends roles. And I believe that my calling, as a Christian, is the same as that of any other follower of Jesus. My calling is to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. Jesus himself said that the rest of Scripture can be rendered down into these two commands. If love was Jesus’ definition of ‘biblical,’ then perhaps it should be mine.” May we live and love in the same way.
Mihee Kim-Kort is an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister and doctoral student in religious studies at Indiana University. She is the author of Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith.