Dear Reader, please let me begin with a confession: Rachel Held Evans’s “Wholehearted Faith” was written for me. Or, that’s what I thought to myself while reading it.
I was raised in church — Sunday school, bell choir, church choir, vacation Bible school, youth group, work camp, the whole nine yards. But when I was 14, I left and did not go back. Perhaps the best explanation is “irreconcilable differences.” I could not reconcile some of the ideas I encountered there with what I felt to be true in my gut: that all people have equal dignity, and that people should not be labeled “sinners” because of whom they love.
Three decades later, I call myself an agnostic, but reading “Wholehearted Faith,” I wondered: If I had encountered this book at 14, is there a chance I would have stayed in the church?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it’s a question no other book has made me ask myself. I felt not only welcome in these pages but invited, called to come closer — which is why I say this book was written for me.
It was also, I suspect, written for you.
“Wholehearted Faith,” to me, feels nothing short of radical. And radical is certainly a word some would use to describe Evans. Evans, who died in 2019 at age 37, was known, admired, and, yes, even attacked (the Internet is not a space known for nuance) for her willingness to ask difficult questions about the Bible, God, and the evangelical Christian tradition in which she was raised.
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In these pages, we meet a woman who was feminist and intersectional in her thinking. She believed that we have more in common than we have standing between us — and not in some Pollyanna way, either. She also believed that questions are sacred, and that her faith was strong enough to stand up to questioning. Evans was as curious as she was wise. She was comfortable asking difficult questions — even questions that seemed, to some, heretical.
She writes, “I asked one of my theology professors how we could consider to be just and fair any faith that gave the Nazis a better shot at salvation than the Jews they murdered. I was told that my worldview had been corrupted by secular humanism, that I’d allowed my hypersensitivity and emotionalism — my feelings — to creep into my faith. I was ‘soft’ and ‘weak.’ ”
Something that touched me deeply, and something that I believe will touch many readers, is the way Evans explores inner conflict. What if what you are being taught in church is different from what you are being taught at home? What if what is presented to you as unassailably “right” feels deeply wrong?
Evans writes, “At home, we talked about a world that was broken and beautiful, just waiting for us to make our mark on it. At my Pentecostal elementary school, I learned that demons hid around every corner, Bill Clinton was the Antichrist …, and the rest of the world lived in “darkness.” My church told me a woman’s place was in the home; in my home, Dad told me I could be anything I wanted to be. My Christian books said following my heart would only lead me astray; Mom taught me to listen to my gut.”
“Wholehearted Faith” was a communal effort — with a foreword by Evans’s husband, Dan Evans; an afterword by theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber, and an introduction by the writer and pastor Jeff Chu, who worked on the unfinished book — but the book feels cohesive and true to Evans’s voice.
Let’s talk about the writing. Let’s talk about this book as a literary work, not just as a book with emotional or spiritual significance. As Evans points out, “much of the New Testament was written not to individuals but to congregations,” and while “Wholehearted Faith” feels intimate, spoken person to person, I could not help but notice the poetry in Evans’s prose.
Sermons, hymns and verses of scripture share many techniques with poetry: anaphora, repetition, metaphor, imagery, music. Like poetry, the language of religion lives best in the air, destined to be spoken aloud in community. Anaphora — the repetition of initial words or phrases, like “I am not afraid to say,” “I am Christian because,” or “I am my own worst enemy when” — builds momentum and emphasizes these moments in the text.
Throughout the book, Evans uses anaphora in conjunction with evocative imagery. Describing the Jordan, she writes, “These waters fuel the tamarisk and the rhododendron blossoming on the riverbanks. . . . These waters host catfish and carp and bream, tiny mollusks and soft-shelled turtles.”
Evans’s background as an English major and her love of literature are revealed not only in her prose but also in the sources from which she draws: biblical scholars, yes, but also Madeleine L’Engle, Simone Weil, Tennyson, Rilke.
What readers will find in these pages — what I found — was someone deeply human: funny, irreverent, curious, wise, forgiving, nonjudgmental. Evans is not speaking to us from on high in this book, and that seems to me to be a hallmark of her faith and her work: She is speaking to us, among us, right there with us. She admits to us that a person of faith has doubts, carries anger and sometimes cannot reconcile, or carte blanche accept, certain aspects of Christianity. She shows us ourselves.
In the introduction, Chu describes a note that Evans had pinned to the corkboard above her desk: “Tell the truth.”
The truth is something, as a writer, of which I am deeply suspicious. How do we tell the truth when one person’s experience is not another’s? When some of us were raised to believe one thing, and others of us were raised to believe the opposite? Perhaps we can only write a truth, our truth. And to do it, we need to interrogate not only our religious institutions, our families, our culture, and our history, but also ourselves. We don’t get to let ourselves off the hook.
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The questions that Rachel Held Evans posed in her lifetime were an attempt to do that — to get at the truth, or at least a truth. In “Wholehearted Faith” she writes, “My desire is that you face all your questions, all your conundrums, all your contradictions, boldly. I cannot guarantee you will retain the faith you inherited — I know that mine is not exactly the faith that my parents helped to instill in me — and honestly, a static faith or an unchanging one isn’t and shouldn’t be my prayer for you, because as we learn and as we grow, faith should evolve.”
As we change, so should our faith. As we learn more, our faith should be strong enough to withstand those questions, elastic enough to accommodate new information and new understanding.
Rachel Held Evans left the world too soon. It may feel like cold comfort, a generic consolation, to say that a person lives on in her books, in her words, and in the people those words touched. But in these pages, Evans reminds us that “the crucial thing to remember is that with God, death is never the end of the story.” Death is not the end of her story, either.
Maggie Smith is the best-selling author of several books, including “Goldenrod,” “Good Bones,” “Keep Moving” and “Keep Moving: The Journal.”
By Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu
HarperOne. 224 pp. $26.99
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