Q&A: Rachel Held Evans on the Ills of American Christianity and Leaving Evangelicalism

Rachel Held Evans. Image via Rachel Held Evans / RNS

Rachel Held Evans. Image via Rachel Held Evans / RNS

Rachel Held Evans has grown into a powerful voice in American Christianity, first as the author of Evolving in Monkey Town and later with the New York Times best-seller A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Those who follow her writings often note that her thinking has become increasingly progressive, especially on hot-button theological issues such as gender and sexuality. That shift culminated in her leaving evangelicalism for the Episcopal Church.

Next month, Evans will release Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, a book that oscillates between stinging critiques of American Christianity and prescriptions for how she believes believers can more faithfully participate in church life. In an interview with Religion News Service, she talked about the key to revitalizing the church and defended her exit from evangelicalism. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You say that the way to stop the exodus of millennials from churches isn’t cosmetic changes like better music, sleeker logos, and more relevant programming. Why are these methods ineffective?

A: These aren’t inherently bad strategies, and some churches would be wise to employ them. But many church leaders make the mistake of thinking millennials are shallow consumers who are leaving church because they aren’t being entertained. I think our reasons for leaving church are more complicated, more related to social changes and deep questions of faith than worship style or image.

If you try to woo us back with skinny jeans and coffee shops, it may actually backfire. Millennials have finely tuned B.S. meters that can detect when someone’s just trying to sell us something. We’re not looking for a hipper Christianity. We’re looking for a truer Christianity.

Q: If these aren’t the answer, what is?


Beauty in Battered Places

Denise Giardina

“THE CHURCH radicalized me,” celebrated author and ordained Episcopal deacon Denise Giardina once said, describing how she sees herself as both social activist and servant minister. “The phrase in the prayer book is ‘Interpret the world to the church and the church to the world.’ It’s a totally different way to advocate, with a spiritual point of view.”

This philosophy has shown up in her bestselling novels, published over her long career, such as Storming Heaven (1987) and The Unquiet Earth (1992), which chronicle the history and social impacts of coal mining in Giardina’s native Appalachia; Saints and Villains (1999), which tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance against Hitler and the Nazis; and, most recently, Emily’s Ghost (2010), a reimagining of Emily Brontë’s story and how her life was changed by her encounter with an ardent member of the clergy.

Shortly before her recent retirement from teaching creative writing at a West Virginia college, Giardina talked with Jason Howard, author of A Few Honest Words and coauthor of Something’s Rising, about her literary career, social justice activism, and her time in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C., as a member of Sojourners community (the intentional Christian community that founded Sojourners magazine and other ministries).

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Lessons Learned by a Young Priest

Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich Via RNS

Tom Ehrich Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich Via RNS

In the perfection of hindsight, I see that I was clueless when I knelt before the Episcopal bishop of Indianapolis on a snowy December night 36 years ago and claimed my prize: ordination as a priest.

I had no clue how to serve a congregation. Other than planning Sunday worship — the easiest of all clergy tasks — I was unprepared.

How to make a hospital visit; how to lead a council whose only instinct was not to spend money; how to grow a church; how to comfort the lost and to humble the found; how to hear what the world needed from us — I knew none of it.

Cuts to Food Stamps Flout Gospel Message

The Rev. David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World and a World Food Prize laureate. Photo courtesy Bread for the World.

In his first Advent address, Pope Francis directed Christians to be guided by the “Magnificat,” Mary’s song of praise for the coming Christ child. She proclaims that God has “lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52-53). This past Tuesday, Pope Francis heeded his own exhortation by releasing a video message calling for an end to hunger as part of a worldwide “wave of prayer.”

Hundreds of Christian organizations across the globe participated in the “wave of prayer,” which was organized by Caritas International, a confederation of Catholic charities in the Vatican.

“We are in front of a global scandal of around 1 billion people who still suffer from hunger today,” Pope Francis said in his message. “We cannot look the other way.” The wave began at noon on the Pacific island of Samoa and proceeded west with people of faith from each subsequent time zone participating at noon their time.

Unravelling Grace

robodread / Shutterstock

"I am entangled and grace comes and unravels all of that — whatever 'that' is — and sets me free." robodread / Shutterstock

Autumn in Berkeley is not what lovers of changing seasons might recognize as autumn, but it is upon us no less. Days are are shorter. Television programming has changed. The air is a little crisper. The currents in the Pacific have shifted and that great body of water tinkers with our meteorological hopes somewhat differently every day. The leaves don't change so much as drop. And, as usual, there are flowers in bloom. 

As someone who loves the northeast coast change of seasons, I find it challenging to unravel my expectations from reality. I find the two so intertwined that I may be tempted to try to change my environment to suit my expectations rather than paying attention to what is actually going on in the world around me.

I am reminded of my neighbors who will be spraying fauxsnow on their windows to celebrate the winter holidays. "It's just not Christmas without snow," some will proclaim. This is an obvious example of what it may look like to insist on our expectations being met all the while our world around us is trying to show us something different. We literally paint the windows to the world around us so we see what we want to see. 

We push our environment around and in the process run the risk of missing the grace being offered up in new and rich ways.

Five Questions for Transgender Chaplain Cameron Partridge

Photo courtesy RNS.

The Rev. Cameron Partridge, religion scholar. Photo courtesy RNS.

She graduated from all-female Bryn Mawr College in 1995, where she came out as gay and also as a woman called to the priesthood. After college, she graduated from Harvard Divinity School, married her girlfriend, became an Episcopal priest, changed her name — and changed her gender.

Today the Rev. Cameron Partridge, a religion scholar at Harvard Divinity School and Episcopal chaplain at Boston University, is living outside Boston with his wife and two young children in what looks, to those who don’t know them, like a typical heterosexual marriage.

We talk to Partridge about his transgender and spiritual journeys, his discomfort with simplistic views of male and female, and feeling at home in Anglicanism. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Episcopal Leader Says S.C. Diocese Can’t Secede

Religion News Service file photo by David Jolkovski

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Religion News Service file photo by David Jolkovski

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said on Nov. 15 that the Diocese of South Carolina can't unilaterally secede from the national church, as she urged conservatives to stay despite sharp disagreements over theology and homosexuality.

“The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina continues to be a constituent part of The Episcopal Church, even if a number of its leaders have departed,”  said Jefferts Schori, who heads the 1.9 million-member denomination. 

Leaders in the Diocese of South Carolina announced Oct. 17 that disciplinary actions taken against their bishop, Mark Lawrence, triggered their disaffiliation from the Episcopal Church. On Sept. 18, the denomination's Disciplinary Board for Bishops found Lawrence guilty of abandoning the Episcopal Church and renouncing its rules.

Episcopal Priest Under Scrutiny for Nude Photos

RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia/Public Domain

Michelangelo's painting titled 'Last Judgment.' RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia/Public Domain

In the middle of the 16th century, Catholic bishops and theologians met sporadically in the city of Trento in northern Italy to discuss the church's response to the Reformation. Over the course of 18 years, the Council of Trent produced documents correcting abuses like indulgences and other corruption.

In 1564, the council ordered that some naked figures in Michelangelo's massive "Last Judgment" fresco in the Sistine Chapel be covered up as a result of the council's dictate that "all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust."

It will be difficult for critics to compare Michelangelo's nudes with the ones photographed by the Rev. John Blair. Just after the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri launched an investigation of the St. Louis priest, many of his photos of nude models were removed from the Internet.

And yet the diocese's disciplinary board, whose members will decide if Blair's photography constitutes sexual misconduct, will try to answer the same question as Trent's participants 450 years ago: How does the church recognize the beauty of art that depicts God's creation — the human form — without seeming to condone "a beauty exciting to lust"?