A review of Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans
(Harper One, 2021)
I grieved when I finished reading “Wholehearted Faith”. Not just that a good book had come to an end, but that the source of its words had passed from this world too soon. Rachel Held Evans died in 2019 at the age of 37, leaving behind her husband, two young children, and a devoted and growing readership of recovering evangelical Christians. This book was assembled by her friend Jeff Chu from fragments of her unpublished writings.
It ends with this sentence: “Even on the days when I’m not sure I can believe it wholeheartedly, this is the story I’m willing to be wrong about.”
And that humility suffuses the whole book. There was nothing strident nor flashy about Rachel Held Evans. She turned away from the dogma and politics of her southern Baptist upbringing, but never against the people who raised her in it. She adored her fundamentalist parents before, during, and after her break with evangelical Christianity. She wrote that they held their beliefs “carefully and tenderly, with compassion and humility.” And so in turn she did the same, as her faith evolved away from the dominant paradigm in her hometown of Dayton, Tennessee, where William Jennings Bryan defended six-day creationism in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Rachel Held Evans became a careful and tender progressive Christian, loving the way of Jesus while leaving behind the toxic religion that hijacked his name.
The lack of drama is the charm in her story of exodus from evangelicalism. Her wholehearted faith as a fundamentalist child and teenager led her to take Christianity seriously enough to question, one by one, the doctrines she had been taught. The overwhelming kindness of her parents brought her cognitive dissonance in the face of the unkindness inherent in evangelical beliefs and culture. Step by step, her faithfulness itself led her out of one version of Christianity and into another. One good book at a time, she studied her way out of a spiritual backwater. “Wholehearted Faith” reveals the erudition she gained along the way: lyrically, she wove profundities from philosophers and theologians into her homespun insights from her everyday life. The reader can’t help wishing that she or he had been her next-door neighbor.
So it is no wonder that she appealed so strongly to evangelicals, especially women, who grew frustrated with the misogyny, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism pervading that Christian subculture. Like her, they loved Jesus, but were disgusted with what was said and done in his name. Like her, they yearned to cling to what was good in their evangelical upbringing, not wanting to throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater of bad religion. They appreciated that she was not a radical, not a rebel, but a lovely, kind person like themselves, seeking a better way to walk the way of Jesus. “That’s the alluring and mystical beauty of grace: people are drawn to it, even when they aren’t supposed to be and even when they don’t know why.”
I could not help wondering, as I read the book, how her theology would have evolved further had her life not been cut so short. She was well on her way to being a formidable intellectual. In the book, she admitted that as far as she’d gone in her embrace of progressive theology and practice, she was far from having all the answers to her still-burning questions about the faith. What to make of the creeds? Just who or what are we talking about when we talk about God? For someone who came so far so fast, it is alluring to consider just how much farther she could have gone – and we with her.
So it is up to us, Rachel’s readers and admirers, to take those next steps. To extrapolate from her life and her witness – just as her friend Jeff Chu has done so well in assembling this book. To be so willing to follow Jesus that we’re always willing to be wrong about how we do it… as she was.
Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California. An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of seven published books on progressive Christianity, his latest book is Tenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus (St Johann Press, 2021). His weekly blog, “Musings”, has a global readership. He serves on the board of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org and is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.org.