Who was the last public figure you can identify being inspired by?
I saw a tweet earlier this week from Lin-Manuel Miranda. Someone had asked him what he was reading lately, and Mr. Hamilton rattled off five books he was reading: four that I didn’t really recognize but then... Inspired by Rachel Held Evans. I got chills - arguably the most famous person writing theatre at the present moment is reading the same book I am about learning to love the Bible again by looking at the stories from a new angle. I’m sure Rachel is having a pleasant laugh about that in heaven, if she knows.
I never interacted with Rachel — certainly never met her, or even so much as replied to one of her tweets. I’ve heard her on a lot of podcasts, like Queerology and Good Christian Fun and The Bible for Normal People. I probably made a passive like or retweet here and there on something she’s written (I don’t have the time or energy to scroll down through my feed to prove myself on that right now), but for me, she existed in this sort of same bubble I have for people like Lin-Manuel Miranda: they’ll never notice one fan’s comments. They’re too big for that. From what I’ve gathered, being “too big” for anything was patently untrue of Rachel Held Evans.
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I wrote a blog post back in April about learning to recognize privilege and the Standpoint Theory of communication. I would posit there is no public figure who comes to my mind of a better illustration of someone being able to recognize their own privilege and worked to get a fuller understanding of the world around them than Rachel Held Evans. There have been better depths explored of her life and legacy than what I would be able to offer here — but if you don’t have time to google search “Rachel Held Evans legacy”, I’ll give you the very quick no-justice-fully-done version right now.
RHE was born to a fundamentalist preacher in Alabama and spent her teenage years in Dayton, Tennessee, which was a little town of Scopes “Monkey Trial” fame (which was the basis for the courtroom drama play Inherit the Wind). The case in question was of whether it would be legal for evolution to be taught in schools ahead of creation/intelligent design (which in hindsight, was a very silly trial). Anyway! Rachel came from this environment being raised by a fundamentalist preacher. As she entered adulthood, her faith unraveled and she pieced it back together, finding a faith in God and reclaiming Christianity that existed outside the list of restrictions the American evangelical church at-large has placed on women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.
By no means did she identify herself as a prophet or a saint, but she became a critical voice that resonated with a lot of Christians who saw value in the life and teachings of Jesus but were disillusioned with the way the church has operated. The analogy that I’ve seen tossed around for RHE was that she found a position right at the gate, where she would meet people who wanted to get into the church but had no previous point of entry and she would meet people who wanted to leave the church where they were and gave them new things to think about. In her relatively short career, RHE published 4 books: Faith Unraveled, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (in which she spent a year taking every single one of the Bible’s directions for women literally), Searching for Sunday (in which she chronicles her story with formal organized religion), and Inspired.
Rachel Held Evans passed away due to complications from the flu this past May. She was 37 years old, leaving behind a husband and two young kids. The progressive Christian echo chamber of Twitter I find myself in was devastated - for excellent reason. As a straight white person, Rachel Held Evans put in effort to amplify the voices of the marginalized: queer people (retweeting blog posts from Liberty University students navigating faith and sexuality on such a conservative campus, for example), people of color and fellow women (writing the foreword for Cindy Wang Brandt’s book on parenting, for example) — she used her platform to point to others and say, “hey - these are world changers right in front of our eyes. These are voices you should listen to in this moment of history.” She was generous with people who disagreed with her. She would refer to herself a doubt-filled believer. There was so much life packed into her time on earth.
There’s a lot of Rachel’s story that resonates with me and I consider her a deeply inspiring writer for two core reasons: First, she recognized the privilege she had and worked to listen to people with less than she did. As a white man from the upper-middle class, there is a lot privilege I hold and a lot of assumptions about how fair the world really is that may or may not be true, but it’s up to listening and amplifying the voices of women, the poor, the people of color. I’ve had unthinkable success as a writer so far in my life — but is it because I’m talented? Or is it because I’m white? It’s probably a bit of both. As someone who is systematically privileged in several ways — I want to use my platform for good. I want to make the world a better place in a similar way that Rachel Held Evans did.
And secondly — Rachel’s story inspires me that if there is something I want to say, I should write it down now. Back in January, I had thought about starting to write a memoir or something like that - but I decided against it. I still don’t plan to write a memoir anytime soon, but what I had resolved to myself that I would write “serious things” starting the day I turned 39, which would make my life be easily split into two halves at February 2015 — which really would be poignant, but I realized: not everyone is given that long of a life. If I have a perspective that I think is worth sharing, I should get it down as soon as possible. RHE never let that hold her back. Her first book on spiritual matters was published when she was in her upper 20’s and helped to shape the faith of a generation of Christians.
Look, I don’t expect to have the same degree of platform as Rachel Held Evans ever did, but what she did with the audience she had was something incredible. She’s the writer I’m most inspired by, no question. I hope to elevate others’ voices and get my perspective out on the page the way she did in order to make the world a better place.