This past weekend, Rachel Held Evans died. She went into the hospital a few weeks earlier to be treated for the flu and an UTI. She developed a strange reaction to a medication they were administering to treat her infections that caused constant seizures. They placed her in a medically-induced coma to stop the seizures and seek to determine a cause.
Last week they began the process of weaning her off the coma meds. Unfortunately, this was not successful. Her brain began to swell, and the damage done was irreversible. She died early Saturday morning. An incomprehensible tragedy for family and friends. My prayers are with them.
Ever since I learned who Rachel Held Evans is I have struggled with her. She was a compelling writer and passionate advocate. She fought for her faith and faced her questions and doubts head-on. I did not always agree with her conclusions, and as someone who clings to the need for certainty, her ability to be comfortable with her doubting were both maddening and challenging to me at the same time. Sometimes I met that challenge with steely resistance, unfollowing her and others like her or swinging wildly to the opposite end of the theological spectrum to prove that I was a good, doctrinally pure Christian.
Of late, I have begun to question this clinging tendency of mine. The quest for pure, pristine doctrine has left me a crabby, dry woman who sees heresy at every turn. Instead of engaging others’ views with an open heart, I interrogate them to determine where they have strayed from what I have decided is orthodox Christianity. And many times, the things on which I judge are merely personal preference.
The historic creeds of the faith – the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Creed, Athanasian Creed – are the benchmark for orthodoxy (small o) in my book. We have added layer upon layer to these core doctrines over the centuries, and find ourselves twisted up so tightly it is difficult to breathe – or let others breathe. Hear me when I say this: I am in no way saying that doctrine is not important. But doctrine and life have a way of becoming complicated. When we get to secondary and even tertiary doctrines and viewpoints, the grey areas become much harder to nail down.
Paul determined to preach nothing but Christ and Him crucified. But that did not mean he didn’t wade into the murky waters of what that implied to everyday life in the churches to which he wrote. Much of our debates about doctrine stem from how we understand his admonitions to churches with reference to things like women in the church and home, or marriage. Were his responses culturally conditioned or hard and fast rules for all time? How do we tell the difference?
Women in ministry, human sexuality, the church’s response to social injustices, just to name a few are important issues that press in on us every day. What is the Bible’s message in these sensitive areas and how do we determine that? These are the questions we wrestle with in this generation – and I don’t think we are unique in our struggle.
On a personal level, the question for me is: where is the line to be drawn? There are beliefs that I consider “non-negotiables” of the Christian faith, meaning, things that must be believed and embraced to be called a Christian. That list is informed directly by the creeds I referenced above, and do not go beyond them. However, there are other, secondary doctrines, that are derived directly from these core beliefs that carry a fairly hefty weight – I am thinking of the doctrine of the Trinity – that are implied but not specifically named within the creeds, but logically follow from them. But even beyond that, there are tertiary issues that are directly impacted by those core doctrines, like the women in ministry issue, that are largely based on how you read the Bible and how you define the term “literal interpretation”, among other things.
The further you move out from the core, the greyer things become. And this is where I live right now.
I like the core. It’s certain, safe, and secure. I can fill on all the blanks in the core. The core is what holds me together. But I cannot escape these grey areas of faith, even though I try very hard to do so. This is not doubting for doubting’s sake, or being “authentic” and all those buzzwords. This is real life for me. I am a 46-year-old single Black female with no children. I am a bookworm and theology nerd. I am stubborn, highly opinionated, and given to melodrama from time to time. My idea of relaxing is reading a book on the five perspectives of the end-times.
I am also barren – meaning, I don’t just not have kids, I physically can’t have kids. I question God about why He has kept me single for so long, even though my passionate heart’s desire is to be married. I am fair-complexioned and at times can look racially ambiguous. Blacks and Whites alike question my “Blackness”, and I don’t feel comfortable in homogeneous settings of any race. I am not “Woke” in the current theological or social sense, but I also am very aware of real issues of racism, sexism, and oppression that still exist in our society. I believe the Bible means it when it says marriage is between one man and one woman, that God created us male and female by design, and this His design is best. But I don’t know how to reconcile that with friends and family I dearly love who are LGBTQA, and how to love them well and show them the beauty and grace of our Lord Jesus.
I bring all of this into my relationship with Jesus and ask Him to heal the broken places. But what does that mean?
I don’t want pat answers. I am an investigator; that is how I am wired. I pick things apart and put them back together again in order to understand how they work. I dig into the why of things just as much as the what. I am a hardcore Gen Xer, whose opinions are rarely sought after, and who do not live in the petri dish of sociologists like Millennials do. But my generation paved the way for our Millennial friends, mastering the art of skepticism and cynicism, and refining the language of snark. Mine was the generation of the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell’s Christian Right. TBN become a mainstay, and televangelists, faith healers, and prosperity gospel gurus began to rule the Christian airwaves. Authority became a curse word.
None of these things are excuses for non-belief. But they are stumbling blocks that should be seriously considered. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit regenerates the heart and brings repentance. But loving my neighbor dictates that I take these things seriously and not brush them off or immediately label people who struggle with them. I have to walk through the grey areas to get to the core, and be okay with the fact that the grey will always be there until our faith becomes sight.
It is sad to me that it has taken the death of this courageous woman of valor to find enough courage within myself to even give voice to these things. But here I stand – I will take on my mantle and become a woman of valor as I was meant to be.
Thank you Rachel. You have run your race well; it is time to take your rest.