| Photo by: Maki Evans |
Although it may get talked about in the local grocery store, not many of us make the national news when we switch churches. However, most of us are not Rachel Held Evans, "the most polarizing woman in evangelical Christianity," according to the Washington Post. Rachel, a New York Times bestselling author who has chronicled her search for a thoughtful and authentic faith in books, blog posts, and through social media, has just published a new bestseller, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.
The book has become a sensation, largely because of the primary storyline being condensed from the book's subtitle: that Rachel, one of America's best-known evangelicals, has left that tradition for the Episcopal Church. However, as she notes in this exclusive interview for Patheos with another evangelical turned Episcopalian, Greg Garrett, you can leave home, but home doesn't leave you, and the story everyone is telling doesn't do justice to the truth.
Greg Garrett: Rachel, thanks for Searching for Sunday, which has already been a gift for me and many others. A friend on Facebook the other day chided me for spoiling your story, which I really kind of did by mentioning where you wind up (although, admittedly, that has also been the lead of almost every feature or review of the book). You've written a beautiful book about going on a quest in search of a more authentic faith, which is something that lots of Americans do at some point in their lives. Why do most of the headlines (and people like me, in less conscious moments!) insist on reducing your story to "Episcopalians 1, Evangelicals 0"?
Rachel Held Evans: I just had this flashback to Princess Jasmine in Aladdin flouncing back her hair and declaring, "I am not a prize to be won!" Clearly all this denominational scorekeeping is because everyone wants a piece of Rachel...(just kidding!)
Or, more likely, it's because we humans have an affinity for labels. They help us determine who's "in" and who's "out," what we support and what we oppose, who we love and who we fear. But the thing is, each person's faith represents a complex amalgam of culture, experience, compromise, and conviction, so very few of our church stories fit tidily into the categories they've been assigned. I attend an Episcopal church, sure, but I still carry with me attitudes and convictions from my evangelical upbringing. Evangelicalism is like my religious mother tongue. I could no more "walk away" from evangelicalism than I could "walk away" from my parents.
Madeleine L'Engle said, "The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been." I think the same is true for our faith traditions. Each church stays with us, even after we've left, adding layer after layer to the palimpsest of our faith. The problem is, the headline "Author Explores the Beauty of a Variety of Christian Traditions Through the Imagery of Seven Sacraments" isn't as snappy or interesting a headline as "RHE Ditches Evangelicals for the Mainline," so we end up talking a lot about our respective denominational teams.
Greg: What do you think people from your original tradition misunderstand about your journey? What about the parishioners at St. Luke's, Cleveland, TN, rightly pleased you've come to worship with them? What do they misunderstand about where you came from and what that's made you? Are there ways that people like you and me and Scot McKnight and others who have a foot in two traditions can be somehow a gift to both?
Rachel: I think we all have the tendency to misunderstand one another by assuming people make decisions about faith and worship lightly. I spent a lot of time talking to readers in researching this book, and very few made the decision to leave a church, or stay in a church, out of shallow, consumerist impulses on the one hand or unthinking, uncritical allegiance on the other. So I think it's important to respect the complexity of people's journeys. I'm fortunate to worship with an Episcopal community that, because of its location in the Bible Belt, draws quite a lot of folks from the evangelical tradition. The rector, for example, grew up Southern Baptist. So there's a lot of respect for (and even some integration of) evangelical culture at St. Luke's, and I love that.
The fun thing about having, as you put it, "a foot in two traditions," is that you can sometimes help others see their own tradition with new eyes. I have a ton to learn about more liturgical worship, of course, but my excitement about it and the evangelical spin I like to put on it seems to energize folks for whom a weekly Eucharist and The Book of Common Prayer is old hat. So that's been a lot of fun. I also find myself defending evangelicals when they are cast in a monolithic light. Nothing irks me more than a reporter or fellow progressive Christian describing evangelicals as "ignorant" or "bigoted" or "hateful." I get super-defensive and rather curtly remind them that, "Hey, that's my mom and dad you're talking about!"
Greg: Right. Mine too!
Jesus Went Back to Heaven and All He Left Me Was This Lousy Church was your favorite suggested title for the book. Brilliant. I have a magnet on my refrigerator, this illustration from some 1950s Sunday School quarterly where a guy in a suit is doing a walk and talk with Jesus. Only the caption on my magnet is: "Jesus, protect me from your followers!" What have you learned in your journey about the Church and what it's supposed to be for us? How have you observed that the Church can get in the way of our walk and talk with Jesus?
Rachel: In the book I write that "the good news is you are a beloved child of God; the bad news is you don't get to choose your siblings." This goes both ways, of course. There are plenty of Christians who look at me, roll their eyes and mutter, "who let her in?" Something I've always known, but which has been reinforced in recent years, is that you never find a perfect church full of perfect people. This isn't a kingdom for the worthy; it's a kingdom for the hungry. We're all sinners, invited to the Table by the grace of God. Essentially, the church is God's way of saying, "I'm throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine."
That said, I want to acknowledge here, as I do in Searching for Sunday, that the church has both an incredible capacity to heal and an incredible capacity to wound. And some people's wounds are so deep or so fresh, they understandably don't want anything to do with church. I want to honor and respect that, even as I pray for healing and reconciliation.
Greg: One group that has been badly wounded by some Christian traditions is LGBT Christians. Your account of attending the Gay Christian Network's annual meeting was one of the most powerful and hopeful chapters in the book.
The treatment of gay Christians by and inclusion in the Church seems to have been a presenting issue for you, as it is for many Millennials. (And older people. I chose to be confirmed because of the Episcopal Church's inclusive stance on LGBT Christians.) What advice would you offer to any church or denomination still wrestling with this question? Why would you argue that Jesus want gays and lesbians in the pews and in the pulpits?
Rachel: The most important piece of advice I can offer to denominations still struggling with this question is to stop talking about LGBT people and start talking with LGBT people - and not with the agenda of proving a point, but with intent of simply listening to their stories. There are so many misconceptions, stereotypes, and harmful, fear-based assumptions about what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (and asexual and intersex and so on) that could be dispelled with better information and better relationships. I recommend seeking out for dialog LGBT Christians like Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network, Matthew Vines of the Reformation Project, Allyson Robinson of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, writers Jeff Chu, Eliel Cruz, Dianna Anderson, and Ben Moberg, and activist/artists Vicky Beeching, Jennifer Knapp, and Neo Sandja. (I'm already thinking of more I could include. This is just a start.)
It may also be helpful to talk with parents of LGBT kids who are open about their stories, like Rob and Linda Robertson or Pastor Danny Cortez of New Heart Community Church in LaMirada, as well as theologians and ethicists like Dr. James Brownson and Dr. David Gushee who advocate for full inclusion of LGBT people in the family of God.
Why does Jesus want gays and lesbians in the pews and in the pulpits? Well, because for whatever reason, Jesus uses regular ole' sinners, saved by grace, to preach and proclaim the gospel and LGBT Christians are regular ole' sinners, saved by grace, called to preach and proclaim the gospel, just like you and me. And I think they may also have a special word for the more privileged among us about what it means to do kingdom work from the margins, with both a commitment to justice and a posture of grace.
Greg: The chapter "What We Have Done" is a beautiful piece of liturgy, confessing and claiming the good and bad of the Christian tradition. Is it, in some ways, a microcosm of your larger story - that we acknowledge what has been done in our names but aspire to the extraordinary faithfulness of the saints? And in a side question, in my original tradition we talked a lot about sin, but we never confessed it. Have you discovered public confession to be a powerful act (as I have come to find it since becoming Episcopalian)?
Rachel: Yes, I think it is crucial, when talking about the Church, to avoid blind sentimentality on the one hand and cynicism on the other. So that means confronting, head on, the injustices perpetuated by the Church (both past and present) and our own complicity in them. Only then can we marvel, with humility, at God's extraordinary faithfulness in using the Church to heal and reconcile and restore. I am constantly amazed at how Christians seem to think we have to choose between loving the Church and criticizing the Church, when the witness of Scripture suggests we are to do both.
Public confession is indeed a powerful thing. I love that on Sundays, I kneel beside a fellow Christian (who I may know well or may not know at all) and together we confess that we have sinned against God "in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone." However, I think the healthiest churches extend this practice into the rest of the week so that our sins are not just confessed in abstraction, but in specifics, in the context of a safe and loving community that will hold us accountable in our personal struggles and work to address our shared transgressions - systemic racism, oppression of the poor, disregard for creation, materialism, etc. - together.
Greg: What, in Barbara Taylor's words, is saving your life now?
Rachel: Kindness is saving my life right now - the persistent kindness of my closest friends and family, the disarming kindness of strangers, the practice of nurturing kindness in my own heart in hopes that it will overflow into my words and actions. I love Frederick Buechner's point that "if you want to be holy, be kind." I spent so much of my life thinking it was more important to be right than to be kind...or at least that my supposed rightness excused me from being kind. (My parents didn't teach me that. I just picked it up from other Christians and used it to excuse my own sharp tongue.) Lately I've been thinking that kindness, like the rest of the fruit of the spirit, is an underrated virtue in a culture that is so quick to reward a biting wit. Long term, kindness is more powerful than cruelty. I am so thankful for the people who have taught me this by example. May I become more like them.
Greg: Thanks, Rachel. It's always a joy to read your work, and I'm grateful for your willingness to live out your faith on a very public stage. Blessings on your path. I'll see you at the altar!
Rachel: Thanks, Greg! See you there, brother.