Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu
HarperOne, 224 pages
“How can I help?”
With these words, Rachel Held Evans introduced herself to Jeff Chu. A well-loved blogger and writer, RHE (as she was known to her many followers) used her platform to lift up long-silenced voices such as Chu’s, who experienced pain and rejection as a gay person in the church.
How bittersweet that Chu is now the helper. When Evans died unexpectedly in 2019, in addition to leaving behind a young family and stunned friends, she left the unfinished works that Chu has woven into “Wholehearted Faith.”
Evans draws a line from her childhood – portraying herself as a painfully earnest spiritual perfectionist, determined to win the “Best Christian Attitude” award – to her adult self, where she realizes that vulnerability, authenticity and a tender heart eclipse a desire for prizes. She attributes her belief not only the Held women who came before her but also biblical women like Mary, who says an emphatic “yes!” to God.
Ex-evangelicals who resonate with Evans’ willingness to break down the religious fundamentalism of her youth will enjoy re-tracing her path toward a faith that invites questions, embraces doubt and believes deeply in the “God-given worthiness” of all humans. And they may be comforted by Evans’ recollections of her parents support, tempering their conservative Christianity with the fact that they were “stubbornly, unapologetically, and unrelentingly committed to grace.”
Evans was “all in,” and she encourages us to be too, even as she articulates the risks. When she was mocked or trolled online by evangelical Christians who disagreed, her beloved husband Dan would say, “thick skin, tender heart.” One Lent, she painstakingly folded nasty letters and e-mail printouts into origami swans, flowers and foxes. It was, she realized, an act of prayer, healing and forgiveness to reshape hateful words — but that was how she lived, and how we might too.
It seems churlish to complain that the theme is not as clearly articulated as I might wish, (this is, after all, not a fully realized book by Evans), but, after setting that aside, I was able to enjoy this as a blend of standalone essays that invite wholehearted living. Devotees will simply feel grateful for more RHE and for the book’s confiding tone, filled with humorous glimpses of childhood and family. But “Wholehearted Faith” speaks equally well to all; book groups will find rich fodder for discussions, parents will find support for raising tender-hearted Christian children and pastors will find that perfect illustration for Sunday’s sermon.
In the days following her death, many shared stories of Evans’s influence on their lives with #BecauseOfRHE. On some level, this is her lasting gift — to her collaborators, her followers and the world. Evans invites us to “live and love fully, to embrace human vulnerability rather than exploit it, to try to make sense of our place in this fragile yet beautiful world, to seek to understand our role in proclaiming God’s love and justice” Because of RHE, we are more equipped to join in this life-giving work. May we respond to God with a wholehearted “yes!”
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Outlook Book Editor Amy Pagliarella and her family live in Chicago. She enjoys exploring the city, always with a book in hand.