Paul Prather

What an old religion writer learned from a young one about her ‘journey from certainty to faith’

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When I read in May about the passing of Christian writer Rachel Held Evans, my initial response was — puzzlement.

I’d never heard of her.

Yet her death at 37 from a sudden, mysterious inflammation was covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN, which don’t usually give much notice to authors who write about their faith.

Weeks later, I bought Evans’ first book, published in 2010 when she was in her 20s: “Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions.”

Because I was already deep into a couple of other books, my wife Liz read “Faith Unraveled” before I did. She kept raving about how wonderful it was. Eventually, I got to it, too, and was blown away from the first chapter. What a gift Evans possessed.

She was raised in the Bible Belt, with a theologian for a father. When she was 13, her family moved to Dayton, Tenn., because her dad had taken a job there at Bryan College.

Dayton, you might recall, was the site of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. In Evans’ account it remains a fortress for ultra-conservative Christianity.

As a kid, Evans bought wholeheartedly into her duty to proselytize her classmates, defend the six-day creation of Earth and remain a virgin until marriage.

Here she talks drolly about her participation in the True Love Waits abstinence program:

“I may have been the only teenager on the planet who enjoyed guilt-based purity lessons more than the adults giving them, and yet I managed to attract a few boys who thought that an excessively friendly, large-breasted girl with a purity ring and a savior complex sounded intriguing, especially the year ‘Cruel Intentions’ was released.”

After high school, she attended Bryan College, named for William Jennings Bryan, the politician who helped prosecute John T. Scopes for teaching evolution to local schoolchildren.

At Bryan, she absorbed what her professors called a Christian worldview and memorized lists of snappy answers to employ against the lost — that is, anybody who questioned her beliefs.

But by the time she finished college, she’d begun questioning those beliefs.

That’s what the book is about — the evolution of her soul in a subculture that didn’t embrace evolution in science or religion.

She calls this “my journey from certainty to faith.”

It’s irresistibly told. Liz and I have tried to figure out why her writing is so appealing. It’s a combination of things, we’ve agreed.

Her tone is deceptively breezy, both accessible and funny. Her humor isn’t the treacly pap you encounter among many Christian writers, though. It’s spot-on and witty.

Yet she also deals seriously with faith’s thorniest issues — suffering, injustice, hell, mercy, judgment — without becoming preachy.

She’s able to recognize her own foibles as clearly as she sees others’.

She finds good in everyone, from fundamentalists to atheists. That’s what leads to her break with the stern, judgmental form of Christianity.

She can’t imagine, for instance, that a loving God will consign to hell otherwise decent people who’ve never even heard of Jesus Christ.

Which calls up a question of its own. How could that loving God allow a voice as prophetic and humane as Evans’ to be snuffed out so young?

Where’s the mercy in that?

In one passage, Evans tells of her sleepless despair after hundreds of thousands of people were swept away by the Boxing Day tsunami.

Why did God allow this catastrophe she wondered. Did he condemn its victims to eternal flames if they weren’t Christians?

To keep from waking her husband, she retreated that night to the bathroom with her Bible.

She turned to Revelation, where John describes his vision of the final heavenly kingdom as “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.”

In John’s vision, God wipes away all their tears.

She tried to picture this.

“(John) must have seen voluminous African headdresses of every shape and color,” she writes. “He must have seen the turquoise jewelry of the Navajo, the rich wool of the Peruvians, the prayer shawls of the Jews. … He must have heard shouts of praise to Elohim, Allah, and Papa God, shouts in Farsi and Hindi, Tagalog and Cantonese, Gaelic and Swahili, and in tongues long forgotten by history.

“And he must have seen the tears of every sadness — hunger and loneliness, sickness and loss, injustice and fear, tsunami and drought, rape and war — acknowledged and cherished and wiped away.”

Afterward, she found herself repeatedly buoyed by this picture:

“Even on days when I wasn’t sure that God exists, when I wasn’t sure I loved him or even liked him much, I knew that I cherished this image of him. I don’t know anyone, believer or skeptic, who doesn’t long for the day when God wipes away every tear from every eye, when ‘there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain.’ … Even the faintest inkling that this might be true can keep you going for one more day.”

I trust this young sister has now entered that tearless land. I know her words will keep me going down here for one more day.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com
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