In honor of author Rachel Held Evans completion of her latest book on the Church (coming to bookstores and smart tablets this Fall) and the re-release of her best-seller Evolving in Monkey Town (Zondervan, 2010, now titled Faith Unraveled), here is my interview from June 2013 with one of the most important voices on matters of faith, belief, and justice.
The interview was first printed in the 4th and final issue of the ground-breaking independent Christian progressive magazine PLGRM, published by Landon Whitsitt and entitled “Woman of Valor: An Interview with Rachel Held Evans.”
It’s hands down one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done (I used to do quite a bit of them as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama from 1998-2001) and best conversations I’ve had about faith. It was also fun to chat with a favorite author, a heroine in the faith and another Southerner and SEC Football fan (albeit one who cheers for the Crimson Tide. War Eagle Rachel!)
I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I did talking to and learning from Rachel Held Evans:
A self-described “skeptic, creative and follower of Jesus, figuring out this journey of faith one shaky step at a time,” Rachel Held Evans is daily asking big questions, fostering dialogue and engaging people’s hearts and minds on her blog, http://rachelheldevans.com. …PLGRM got an opportunity to talk to Rachel about her two books, Evolving in Monkey Town and A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Thomas Nelson, 2012. Top 20 on NYT Bestseller List).
Let’s start things off by talking about your first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. you write early on:
“Throughout history) Believers found a way to rethink and re-imagine their faith in the context of a new environment, one in which they no longer sat in the center of the universe.” (p. 19)
What are some of the current environmental shifts causing 21st century Christians to rethink and reimagine their faith?
For Christians in the U.S., particularly evangelicals, there is a big shift from faith being centered in the Global West to the Global East and South. The movement is building elsewhere and that’s a big change to contend with. There are changes in what people of faith look like. The image of the White American Protestant at the forefront of faith is waning and evangelicals have to deal with that. We can go down screaming about it or say, ‘This is interesting and what can we learn from it and how can we connect with a servant heart like Christ.’
What are the ways in which believers are rethinking and reimagining faith?
I see this desire of evangelicals in America to move toward monastic communities, more rituals and connecting to the historical church. Evangelicals are asking, “What is my story and my past?” and are looking for ways to be more ecumenical and less self-centered and fractured. Families of faith are not the stereotypical nuclear family model anymore and we as evangelicals can either be freaked out by that or embrace it. We have to stop with the mentality of us v. the world and be more like agents of peace. We have to be less about power. We have to become less entangled in politics and patriarchy and become part of the change that is happening.
Evangelicals can infuse that fire in the belly, that emotion, that Spiritual fervor and passion for the Bible. They can bring an openness and progressiveness married with passion and excitement. They can be passionate about the gospel and social justice.
A couple of pages later in the book, you state:
“I’m an evolutionist because I believe that the best way to reclaim the gospel in times of change is not to cling more tightly to our convictions but to hold them with an open hand. I’m an evolutionist because I believe that sometimes God uses changes in the environment to pry idols from our grip and teach us something new. I’m an evolutionist because my own story is one of unlikely survival. If it hadn’t been for evolution, I might have lost my faith.”(page 21)
What are the convictions that the Church needs to hold with an open hand and heart?
When Jesus was asked what is the most important commandment or law, he said, “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, body and soul.” We start our theology there with love. (The apostle) Paul reiterates this. For evangelical Christians, it’s about letting go of assumptions that our interpretation of scripture is inerrant or that our interpretation equals truth. At the end of the day, we all have to ask ourselves if our theology and interpretation of scripture makes us more loving and helps us to understand a more loving God. We have to be able to have different interpretations of scripture and still respect and love one another. We have to use the Bible or our view less as a weapon. Instead of our interpretations being a conversation ender, they should be a conversation starter.
You have shared in Monkey Town and on your blog that the catalyst which caused you to evolve more than a decade ago, and thus grab a deeper hold on your faith instead of clinging tightly to convictions was the story of Zarmina (a 35-year-old Muslim mother of five who was executed in Fall 2001 by the Taliban for allegedly killing her abusive husband.)
How does Zarmina’s story still impact your faith journey today?
(Learning about Zarmina) really was a moment when the worldview I constructed as a tower of cards fell apart. Zarmina was the card that got pulled ‘cause it stirred up these questions I long had about our circumstances in life and whether there was a hell. I asked myself, ‘Is it all about a cosmic lottery or luck of the draw?’ That’s when I started wrestling with faith.
Today, I see the questions that permeated around Zarmina’s story surface with recent events like the tornadoes in Oklahoma. I have a hard time saying God made that happen (and caused tragedy and death). I can’t imagine saying to a parent that there child died because God made the tornado. It makes sense on paper but if theology doesn’t work on the ground, it doesn’t work.
Zarmina’s story, particularly the image of her tennis shoes peeking out from underneath her burqa after she is executed, leads you to a reflection on the incarnation of Jesus in which you say:
“Being a Christian is about embodying a certain way…about living as an incarnation of Jesus, as Jesus lived as an incarnation of God. It is about being Jesus…in tennis shoes.”
What does “being Jesus in tennis shoes” look like in the world? Where have you seen Jesus in tennis shoes?
I don’t write about her often but it would be my sister Amanda. Doesn’t matter where she’s planted, she loves the people around her like crazy. She lives in North Carolina and has a neighbor, a 98-year-old woman, whom she looks after. She washes her clothes for her and brings her meals. Amanda went to India once and she is still invested in families she met and the relationships she made there. She gets invitations to weddings of family members she stays in touch with. Amanda went to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and still stays in contact with the people she served. Amanda loves her neighbor no matter what. She’s my little sister but I took up to her.
My husband Dan and I were visiting Amanda and her husband in North Carolina recently and we weren’t the only ones there. There was this perpetual cycle of people in and out of their home, visiting and eating. There’s this idea out there that you have to go to a poor place to find Jesus or a suffering area to see how much Jesus is loved or to love others like Jesus. But that’s not true. You can love Jesus in the suburbs. (Being Jesus in tennis shoes) is about loving your neighbor wherever you are.
In our culture where it’s about being busy, it’s hard to stop what you are doing and love your neighbor. I struggle with that all the time.
At the end of Chapter 19 on “Adaptation” you write that “I’m convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals. False fundamentals make it impossible for faith to adapt to change.” (page 207)
It would probably be fair to say that you challenge those false fundamentals in prophetic, though-provoking and heart-felt ways through your blog posts, i.e. women’s rights, sexual abuse in the church, gay rights, mixed gender and mixed faith marriages, etc.
Which of the false fundamentals do you think suffocates faith the most?
Inerrancy of scripture and holding tightly to the idea that you have to choose between faith and science. We as evangelical Christians set up a false dichotomy and it’s a shame, this idea that (the science of) evolution is contrary to faith. But I do see us moving past it and I do see some serious progress.
What is the best way for the Church to deal with false fundamentals so that it can be about “loving God and loving other people” instead of “being right or getting the facts straight.” (p. 209)
Be appreciative of diverse perspectives. I get angry sometimes when people perpetuate beliefs that are hurting others. Now, there is a place for (righteous anger) for people who are suffering. Jesus was angry about people’s suffering and we should be angry too. But what I struggle with and have to remind myself is that the purpose of my writing or speaking out is not to change the minds of the “gatekeepers”. I have to say ‘Rachel, you are writing to help people through the day, those who are doubting and have been laid with burdens,’ and that helps me do my work with grace.
It’s about seeking out the suffering and marginalized. The motivation for me is to help out folks who are hurt by things that are said and equip them with ways to respond.
Let’s move onto A Year of Living Biblical Womanhood…You confess right away that “I’m the sort of person who likes to identify the things that most terrify and intrigue me in this world and plunge headlong into them like Alice down the rabbit hole.”
Alice in Wonderland is a terrific metaphor for your journey of biblical womanhood because, like Alice, you learn that things are not always what they seem and often the opposite of what you believed was true.
What did you discover about yourself as a woman and about the relationship between the Bible and women? What were the most strange, whimsical, wondrous or astonishing parts?
I think when we put limits on ourselves or give ourselves boundaries or rules, it’s amazing how much creativity can come about. I was continually surprised by the practice of taking the Bible literally. Covering my head when praying added an extra layer of reverence. It was mystical even as I stopped to do something physical.
What do you hope the Church will discover from your journey and experience? In your travels talking about the book, have you seen the impact your year of biblical womanhood has had on religious communities, Christian and otherwise?
It’s been encouraging to hear from women who, because of the book or a conversation on the blog, decided that maybe going to seminary wasn’t a waste of time after all, that maybe this passion they have for teaching and leading is a gift, not a curse. It’s also been rewarding to see how respond so positively to Proverbs 31 as a blessing rather than a to-do list or prescription. My hope is that readers will see that the Bible does not prescribe just one right way to be a woman of faith, that this notion of “biblical womanhood” as a list of rules and roles is a myth. A woman who loves the Lord with all her heart, soul, mind and strength and loves her neighbor as herself is practicing “biblical womanhood.” Really, at the end of the day, it’s more about biblical personhood than anything else.
Early on in the book, you paint this beautiful picture of how cultivating a gentle and quite spirit through prayer and contemplation is like becoming a great tree. And the roots you planted helped you confront your uglier tendencies, i.e. reacting less, listening more, holding back, choosing words carefully, avoiding gossip. A year later, do you find that you’re still able to root yourself more firmly in gentleness and a quiet spirit when “storms of nasty comments and critiques” come through?
Nothing beats praying the hours, which I’ve been able to practice with more consistency now that I’m not travelling as much. There’s something about working through the Psalms and praying the same prayers that have been prayed by Christians for many centuries and continue to be prayed around world today that reminds me that this faith thing isn’t really about me or about being right; it’s about being in relationship, part of a very big, very old community.
In the chapter on Domesticity which clearly had a lot of challenges and offered valuable learning experiences, you focus on your mother’s philosophy “It has to get messy before it gets clean” and you say further that “sometimes you’ve just got to tear everything out, expose all the innards and start over again.”
What does the Church have to get messy, what does it need to tear out? What innards need to be exposed to start over or become relevant or survive in the 21st century and beyond?
Sexuality. There are a lot of presuppositions and prejudices. The most radical thing we can do is become better listeners. As we deconstruct, we can start treating women and homosexuals as people and not an issue. We can have a conversation that is constructive and helpful. It’s why I do guest posts on my blog and a series called “Ask A…”
It’s easy to keep everything in place you encounter somebody whose story challenges what you believe. A lot has changed about how we think about sexuality and we need to toss out everything we thought we knew and start over from scratch to understand all the concepts. Those of us who are straight really don’t know anything about being gay. We need to step aside and let others share their story.
During your exploration of the Proverbs 31 woman, you learn about “eshet chayil!” –women of valor and immediately your eyes are opened to the “acts of raw bravery” that occur daily in the lives of women.
It’s a poetic and prophetic reality that is lived out in small and large ways, which is particularly noteworthy when considering that human trafficking and the sex trade and violence toward women around the world is highly prevalent … and the back-sliding of women’s rights in this country i.e. over women’s health choices, right to have a voice, and the crude stereotypical portrayals of women in advertising/media
Can you speak more about the importance and power of “eshet chayil” in today’s divisive religious and socio-political climate?
I like reclaiming Proverbs 31 from the fundamental way its been treated as a job description, making women feel bad how domestic they were or weren’t in life. It’s actually a poem celebrating what women accomplish in the everyday.
Proverbs 31 is also encouraging us as women to celebrate one another more. We don’t do that often because our culture says only a few are allowed to succeed. Competition (among women) is fostered. Once at a speaking engagement for women, I asked them to celebrate other important women in their lives. Their reaction was amazing. They immediately stood up and started sharing and crying and leaning on one another. We as women don’t do that enough. I’m glad women are connecting to Proverbs 31 and that it’s being used to celebrate women instead of condemning them.
How can the Church be a better advocate for “women of valor?” How can the Church see and revere women as the solution instead of the problem? (page 242-246)
I think we have to start by dropping all these notions of “ideal womanhood” or “real women.” We get it from the culture; we shouldn’t get it from the Church. Then it’s a matter of cultivating and celebrating the many gifts women bring to the world. In developing countries, it means partnering with women to ensure they receive the sort of education, job opportunities, and resources that enable them to live and work with dignity, provide for their families, and serve their communities. Everywhere it means treating women as human beings, not as some sort of sub-category. I love this quote from Dorothy Sayers:
“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or “The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.
“But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe, though One rose from the dead.”