By David Crary
Christian author Rachel Held Evans left a legion of loyal readers behind when she died in May 2019, aged 37. Last June, a children’s book she had been working on was published posthumously and it quickly topped the picture book bestseller lists.
Her latest book for adults is published, entitled ‘Totally Faith’. It is addressed to Christians like those who sometimes struggle with doubts about their faith but do not want to give up.
“Being wholehearted means we can ask bold questions, knowing that God loves us not only in spite of them but also because of them,” she writes in the new book.
The book opens with a poignant preview from her husband, Daniel Evans, and an introduction by Jeff Chu, an author, editor, and close friend of the couple recruited by Daniel to complete her unfinished manuscript.
That manuscript was about 11,000 words long. Chu expanded it fivefold, flipping through Held Evans’ blog posts and speeches, and excerpts cut from her previous books. Among them was a New York Times bestseller, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.”
“So many of us are fixated on what’s wrong with Christianity or the church,” Chu said in an interview. “She didn’t shy away from naming those things, but she always emphasized what is right about our faith and what was right about what Jesus had to say.”
The book’s prologue pays tribute to women—those in the Bible, and more recent figures from Held Evans’ own family tree.
Recounting her childhood and youth, she grew up in a deeply religious family, won the Best Christian Attitude award at her Alabama elementary school, and was president of her high school’s Bible Club.
Doubts about her faith arose during her studies. She recalls wondering how many of her fellow evangelicals could view those who were outside of their own faith as condemned to hell.
“I’m not afraid to say that many in the church have been the cause of death for many women, for homosexuals and transgender people, for people of color, for immigrants and refugees, for the disabled, for all kinds of minorities,” she writes. . “Many in the Church have not preached good news. They have not declared hope and possibility, justice and welcome.”
Eventually Held Evans became an Episcopalian – a main Protestant denomination with women, people of color and LGBTQ people among its leaders.
Her concept of God also evolved.
“The God I’ve come to believe in isn’t some stern grandpa in the air, waiting for me to make a mistake,” she writes. “Instead, I have come to see God through the things God has done… That God is the architect of creation, the engineer of love, and the master craftsman who came up with the idea of the heart.”
Among the many works left unfinished when Held Evans died was an article expressing remorse for having once held anti-LGBTQ views and lamenting that many evangelicals still do. Danial Evans posted it on her blog in October 2019.
“I affirm LGBTQ people because they are human beings, created in the image of God,” Held Evans wrote. “I affirm their sexual orientation and gender identity because they reflect the diversity of God’s good creation.”
Chu, who lives with his husband in Grand Rapids, Michigan, addressed similar themes in his 2013 book, “Does Jesus Really Love Me? The Pilgrimage of a Gay Christian in Search of God in America.”
He first heard of Held Evans after learning that Chu’s book was in the works; she asked his publisher, “How can I help?” and soon invited Chu to guest post on her popular blog.
Although the two writers shared a common view of LGBTQ issues, Chu was grateful that this was not the basis of their eight-year friendship.
“We just talked about life,” he said. “She was one of the few people who fully embraced every aspect of me, and didn’t make the gay part outrageous.”
Held Evans’ death was the result of brain swelling during a medically induced coma; she had suffered brain attacks while being treated for multiple ailments. The night she died, Chu was in the hospital with Daniel Evans – a testament to the close friendship that had developed over the years.
“The reason I chose him (to finish the book) is because of who he is as a friend and his incredible talent,” Evans said. “Jeff understands very well where Rachel was.”
Evans, 41, said he is now multitasking at the family home in Dayton, Tennessee. He strives to be a good father to his 5-year-old son, Henry, and 3-year-old daughter, Harper; working hard to get Held Evans’ posthumous books completed and published.
“What I learn the most is that I’m okay with multiple emotions — experiencing deep sadness and deep joy at the same time,” he said. “I am very happy that this book has come into the world.”
One of his favorite chapters takes a closer look at a phrase Held Evans has adopted as a personal motto: Thick skin, soft heart.
He said the phrase included her approach to the many social media users who attacked her criticism of conservative evangelicalism.
“A lot of people used her as a symbol for everything they say is wrong,” Evans said. “It was often difficult.”
Evans said Held Evans was working on four children’s books when she died; he hopes they will all be published eventually.
The book that appeared in June: “How is God?” — has a special status for Evans. It is the first book by Held Evans that he read to their children.
“Henry knows Mama wrote this,” Evans said.
In the book co-written with Matthew Paul Turner, Held Evans encourages children to “think about what makes you feel safe, what makes you feel loved, and what makes you feel brave. Such is God.”
After the book was published, Daniel Evans tweeted about it.
“I am agnostic. I think God is unlikely. I don’t believe that prayer heals. If so, sick people who were prayed for would be healed more often than those who weren’t,” he wrote. “But if I ever believe again, it will be in the God that Rachel understood. I hope in the God of “How is God?”
Associated Press religious reporting receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.