Focus on the Family recently published a book titled How God Used “the Other Women”: Saving Your Marriage after Infidelity. I’ll readily admit I’ve not read the book (nor do I plan to). But I’ve read enough reviews, blogs, and feature articles to know its content.
Tina Konkin, the writer, learns of her husband’s infidelity. “God*” immediately asks Tina, “what role did you play in this?” Because apparently, Tina is to blame for her husband’s inability to keep it in his pants. The ENTIRE premise of the book is her fault in his unfaithfulness.
*Emphasis on the quotation marks, because I’m agnostic about the claim that God said this.
This book is the very paragon of victim blaming. It takes two people to cheat, yes: the two people OUTSIDE the bounds of the relationship. In no way is it the fault of the faithful partner. In many ways, this is subtle misogyny (most of the time, it’s about blaming the wife for her husband’s infidelity).
But nobody tells it quite like Rachel Held Evans. She will know exactly what to say to the misguided people at Focus on the Family, like she did those times with John Piper and other like-minded misogynists…
If only she’s still alive.
Three months ago on May 4, 2019, Rachel Held Evans passed away following an infection that eventually led to brain seizures and a medically induced comma.
She was 37 years old.
If Rachel survived the illness; if she never landed in the hospital; if she didn’t succumb to the dark tentacles of death, she’ll now have the words to convince the public why victim blaming is so so so wrong.
So many times, we women, liberals and queers have hid behind her as she valiantly brandished her sword at the onslaught of misogyny, oppression, and xenophobia.
She helped people like me know we’re not crazy to believe the things we do, that we’re not weird for feeling out of place in church, that it’s okay to disagree with the myriad of questionable church teachings.
And now that Focus on the Family is up to their folly antics again, I keep looking around, my ponytail swishing the air- where’s Rachel? Where’s Rachel? When’s Rachel going to systematically unpack the fallacy of their latest drivel?
That’s when I remember- Rachel’s dead.
And it sucks.
But. I remember. That we can take comfort in the knowledge that although she is no longer with us, her writings will long survive her; survive us. Writings that have blessed the lives of so many, been so radically inclusive.
I know her writings will always brandish that sword we so desperately need to hole up behind.
So although she is no longer with us, her writings are ever timely present. In memory of Rachel, here are some excerpts from three of her books: Faith Unraveled, Searching for Sunday, and Inspired.
Originally titled Evolving in Monkey Town, this book gives us a glimpse of Rachel’s fundamentalist evangelical upbringing in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. In 1925, a school teacher was prosecuted and eventually punished for teaching evolution in a government-funded school.
“I have a feeling that if Darwin turns out to be right, the Christian faith won’t fall apart after all.”
“If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that faith can survive just about anything, so long as it’s able to evolve.”
“Adele describes fundamentalism as holding so tightly to your beliefs that your fingernails leave imprints on the palm of your hand. Adele is gay, so she knows better than most people how sharp those fingernails can be.”
“The problem with fundamentalism is that it can’t adapt to change. When you count each one of your beliefs as absolutely essential, change is never an option. When change is never an option, you have to hope the the world stays exactly as it is so as not to mess with your view of it.”
“Christianity never could have survived the ebb and flow of time, much less its own worldwide expansion, had God not created it with the innate ability to adapt to changing environments.”
“I’m an evolutionist because I believe that sometimes God uses changes in the environment to pry idols from our grip and teach us something new.”
“Evolution means letting go of our false fundamentals so that God can get into those shadowy places we’re not sure we want Him to be. It means being okay with being wrong, okay with not having all the answers, okay with never being finished.”
“Maybe salvation isn’t just about eternity,” I said. “Maybe God wants to save us from something in the present, something in the here and now.”
“Christians who claim to take the Bible literally or who say they obey all of his teachings without ‘picking and choosing’ are either liars or homeless. Jesus asked a lot of his disciples. ‘None of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions’ (Luke 14:33)”
“The teachings of Jesus fly in the face of all we are told by our culture and even by the church about setting boundaries, getting even, achieving financial success, and ‘calling sin a sin’.”
“Being a Christian, it seemed, isn’t about agreeing to a certain way; it is about embodying a certain way. It is about living as an incarnation of Jesus, as Jesus lived as an incarnation of God.”
“To be wrong about God is the condition of humanity, for better or for worse.”
“It seems to me that to ignore my conscience is to ignore the same voice that sings when I read the words of Jesus, that clears its throat when I’m about to do something wrong, that speaks against cruelty and oppression, and that shouts with every sunrise and every snowfall and every act of love, ‘Hey, God exists!'”
“We are not saved by information. We are saved by restored relationship with God, which might look a little different from person to person, culture to culture, time to time.”
“When we require that all people must say the same words or subscribe to the same creeds in order to experience God, we underestimate the scope and power of God’s activity in the world.”
“I’m afraid that just as wealth and privilege can be a stumbling block on the path to the gospel, theological expertise and piety can also get in the way of the kingdom.”
“The more committed we are to certain theological absolutes, the more likely we are to discount the work of the Spirit when it doesn’t conform to our presuppositions.”
“When it comes to Scripture, we tend to pick and choose in ways that are favourable to our own interests.”
“… to grow up as a strong-willed woman in the conservative evangelical community is to never quite understand your place in the world.”
“… the idea of a single, comprehensive biblical worldview to which all Christians can agree is a myth… it’s okay to ask questions about people’s interpretations.”
“Perhaps our love for the Bible should be measured not by how valiantly we fight to convince others of our interpretations but by how diligently we work to preserve a diversity of opinion.”
“I am convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals. False fundamentals make it impossible for faith to adapt to change.”
“I’m frustrated and sad to think of all the good people who have abandoned Christianity because they felt they had to choose between their faith and their intellectual integrity or between their religion and their compassion.”
“So convinced we had God right, it never occurred to us that we might be wrong.”
“Doubt is a difficult animal to master because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God. The former has the potential to destroy faith; the latter has the power to enrich and refine it. The former is a vice; the latter a virtue.”
“… doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves.”
Rachel wants to quit church. She actually does leave. In this book, Rachel sets off on a journey of discovery. It’s messy. It’s raw. But in the midst of all that chaos, she finds church. Again.
“We want to talk about the tough stuff- biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice- but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers.”
“We’re good at making mountains out of our ideologies, obstructions out of our theologies, and hills out of our screwed-up notions of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy.”
“That recurring choice- between faith and science, Christianity and feminism, the Bible and historical criticism, doctrine and compassion- kept tripping me up like roots on a forest trail.”
“I’ve known many Christians say they have to leave the church to discover Sabbath. Indeed, unplugging from a church can have the same effect as unplugging from the Internet or a demanding job.”
“It seems those most likely to miss God’s work in the world are those most convinced they know exactly what to look for, the ones who expect God to pay by the rules.”
“They were the people the religious loved to hate, for they provided a convenient sorting mechanism for externalising sin as something that exists out there, among other people with other problems making other mistakes.”
“Committed to purifying the church of every errant thought, difference of opinion, or variation in practice, these self-appointed gatekeepers tie up heavy loads of legalistic rules and place them on weary people’s shoulders. They strain out the gnats in everyone else’s theology while swallowing their own camel-sized inconsistencies.”
“… the notion that a single tradition owns the lockbox on truth is laughable, especially when the truth we’re talking is God.”
“But you won’t know how to explain that there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud on the car ride home: ‘What if we made this up because we’re afraid of death.'”
“Cynicism may help us create simpler storylines with good guys and bad guys, but it doesn’t make us any better at telling the truth, which is that most of us are a frightening mix of good and evil, sinner and saint.”
In this tome, Rachel rediscovers the Bible. Stories of her childhood (and mine) are reexamined and revisited. As always, Rachel’s can do with words what Warhol does with ten paintings. Old stories are thrust under the microscope, reemerging- truer, livelier, and a heck lot more captivating.
“The Bible of my twenties served only as a stumbling block, a massive obstacle between me and the God I thought I knew.”
“When you stop trying to force the Bible to be something it’s not- static, perspicacious, certain, absolute- then you’re free to revel in what it is: living, breathing, confounding, surprising, and yes, perhaps even magic.”
“While Christians believe the Bible to be uniquely revelatory and authoritative to the faith, we have no reason to think its many authors were exempt from the mistakes, edits, rewrites, and dry spells of everyday creative work.”
“Our Bible was forged from a crisis of faith.”
“Contrary to what many of us are told, Israel’s origin stories weren’t designed to answer scientific, twenty-first-century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing, ancient questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation.
“To demand the the Bible meet our demands is to put ourselves and our own interests at the centre of the story, which is one of the first traps we must learn to avoid if we are to engage the Bible with integrity or care.”
“…over time we’ve been conditioned to deny our instincts about what kinds of stories we’re reading when those stories are found in the Bible.”
“It’s especially important for those of us who come to the Bible from positions of relative social, economic, and racial privilege to read its stories alongside people from marginalised communities, past and present, who are often more practiced at tracing that crimson thread of justice through its pages.”
“When you can’t trust your own God-given conscience to tell you what’s right, or your own God-given mind to tell you what’s true, you lose the capacity to engage the world in any meaningful, authentic way, and you become an easy target for authoritarian movements eager to exploit that vacuity for their gain.”
“If the slaughter of Canaanite children elicits only a shrug, then why not the slaughter of Pequots? Of Syrians? Of Jews? If we train ourselves not to ask hard questions about the Bible, and to emotionally distance ourselves from any potential conflicts or doubts, then where will we find the courage to challenge interpretations that justify injustice? How will we know when we’ve got it wrong?”
“If the Bible teaches that God is love, and love can look like genocide and violence and rape, then love can look like… anything. It’s as much an invitation to moral relativism as you’ll find anywhere.”
“Accepting the Bible’s war stories without objection threatened to erase my humanity.”
“It’s not always clear what we are meant to learn from the Bible’s most troubling stories, but if we simply look away, we learn nothing.”
“A lot of people think the hardest part about religious doubt is feeling isolated from God. It’s not… the hardest part about doubt is feeling isolated from your community.”
“There are parts of the Bible that inspire, parts that perplex, and parts that leave you with an open wound.”
“We should be wary, then, of grand pronouncements that begin, ‘the Bible says’.”
“A book of poetry, stories, letters, and prophecies cannot be easily rendered down into bullet points, so treating Scripture as an owner’s manual, based on a few verses here and a few verses there, will leave you more lost than found.”
“It might not look like it now, but the Resistance is winning.”
“Ever the quick-fix culture, we want oppressed people to ‘just get over it,’ to move on and let the injustice go.”
“In Scripture, no two people encounter Jesus in exactly the same way.”
“We get into trouble when we mistake instructions intended for a specific group of people at a specific moment in history as universally binding for all.”
“It’s important to understand that in the first century, same-sex relationships were not thought to be expressions of sexual orientations but rather products of excessive sexual desire wherein people engaging in same-sex behaviour did so out of an excess of lust that could not be satisfied.”
“In Paul’s world, if a man took the active role in a sexual encounter, his behaviour was deemed “natural,” but if he took the passive role, his behaviour was considered “unnatural”.
“The came Christians who condemn all same-sex behaviour as ‘unnatural’ according to the Bible, don’t apply the same standards to head coverings or hair lengths among the men and women in their own congregations.”
“When we unmoor the Epistles from their larger story, we tend to think of Paul as a disembodied voice affirming or unsettling our own points of view, rather than a religious, first-century Jew whose life was upended by an encounter with Jesus Christ.”
USA Today was right. Rachel Held Evans was a prophet with a pen. And who needs a sword when you’ve got a pen? For the pen is mightier than the sword; more so with Rachel at the hilt- wielding, swinging, and brandishing.
Here’s an old blog post about another of Rachel’s book: A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master”.