Sects, sexuality and the sacredness of storytelling

An interview with Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans, acclaimed blogger and New York Times bestselling author of two nonfiction books, Faith Unraveled and A Year of Biblical Womanhood, enjoyed the venerable post as the Saturday night plenary speaker for the 2014 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, held on campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Recently named one of “50 women to watch” by Christianity Today, Evans’s work has been featured on CBC, NPR and the BBC, as well in Huffington Post, the Washington Post, Oprah.com and The View.

Evans’s apparent paradoxes –most notably her alliance with the LGBTQ community and forthright feminism alongside a seemingly contradictory love for evangelical theology – are perhaps what best define her brand. As a relatively young author with a readership anchored mainly in the blogosphere, Calvin’s decision to award Evans a plenary position can be understood as one both future-forward and social media-savvy. I spoke with Evans in Calvin’s newly refurbished Covenant Fine Arts Center shortly after her closing remarks.

You just announced on your blog that you are considering “leaving evangelicalism.” What would you like to say about that?

You know, I truly don’t know. I really still need to process all of this. The World Vision thing [its recent support and subsequent retraction of support for its gay and lesbian employees] – I think that was a sort of “come to Jesus moment” for a lot of evangelicals, in the sense that it shone a pretty harsh spotlight on what’s wrong with evangelicalism. For a lot of us it was a realization of how divided we are as evangelicals right now. I feel like it’s important that I speak not too much from a place pain, which is difficult, because you grieve a lot when you look at your faith community – the only one you’ve ever known – and you see how out of line you are with everyone else.

As far as the future, I don’t know what this means for me. The word “evangelical” doesn’t really mean what it once meant and it requires a pretty lengthy explanation. It’s more – how can I be so out of sync with my community? Evangelicalism has some gatekeepers and they are very loud and very certain, and the people who seem most invested in defining evangelicalism and keeping that label are also the ones giving it the most narrow definition, and that’s the problem.

You blog about the World Vision decision to retract support for its gay and lesbian employees as the moment in which you realized how much “disdain” the evangelical Christianity has for the LGBTQ community. Can you talk about your choice of the word “disdain?”

I worried a lot about that word, because I wrote the post in haste, but I don’t know what else to call it. It’s a singling out. “Stigma,” maybe, is even a better word that has been placed on these folks. There is an unhealthy preoccupation with this issue.

So what can likeminded Christians do, in concrete terms, to bring healing?

Stories. I think we have to create spaces where LGBTQ people are free and safe to tell their stories, and when they tell us their stories we have to treat those as sacred and worthy of respect. But we also have to get those stories out there. It seems like people whose hearts are most tender about this are typically people who have a gay or lesbian person in their life who changed things for them. A lot of times those of us who consider ourselves “allies” really just need to step aside and let other people speak. Whatever platform I have I want to make sure I’m speaking from it, yes, but more importantly that I’m sharing it with other people who have a story to tell, and that I’m helping those stories get told.

At the end of the day, it’s stories that break down our absolutes; stories are what change people. That’s what I feel called to do right now: to make that space [for storytelling], and to let others lead. Folks like those at the Gay Christian Network and Jeff [Chu – another Festival writer and speaker] – I look to those folks for leadership on this. A lot of them handled the whole World Vision thing with a lot more grace and poise than I did.

A few years back pastor Rob Bell began his NOOMA film series, and in one of the first episodes viewers watch as Bell tromps through the woods with his child in a carrier. By wearing his baby, Bell did something very subtle and smart – he crafted his public image as one of a man who is at once hip, progressive and unafraid to flout typical gender roles. I’m wondering how this difference in perceived gender roles for male and female – specifically Christian – authors plays into your work as a female, feminist Christian writer, and how that resonates with you as someone who has spoken openly about her fears regarding motherhood.

Good point! If a woman did that, I don’t think it would be received as well, or she’d be cornered into the “Mommy Blog” market. In fact, I sell ads on my blog, and the agency that sells the ads keeps filing me under “Mommy Blogger,” though I’m not a mom. They have “Bloggers” and “Mommy Bloggers,” and that’s it. But there is the assumption that if you’re a woman and you’re a blogger then you’re automatically a “Mommy Blogger.” These are things that I wonder about when I do have kids. If I write about my children, will that put me into the category of “Mommy Blogger,” which unfortunately is something that people don’t take as seriously. Nobody said: “Look – Rob Bell: Daddy Pastor!”

How do you see the future of the public arena as it relates to female Christian writers? How do you see this landscape changing, how are you a part of that, and what are the potentialities?

I think things have gotten a lot better for women writers. In the beginning I felt this pressure to write “like a woman.” Then I was told that I don’t write like the “typical” woman. I used to feel like that was a liability of sorts, but [at the same time] I felt freed to write with my own voice. Blogging has given a lot of women the chance to write with their own voice, and if it’s good and it resonates with people and it gets popular, then we can get published, whereas before there was a mold you had to cram yourself into if you were a Christian woman writer. Blogging has broken that down, and I think that’s really good – though not really great for the white men – some of them are shifting uncomfortably in their seats!

I feel encouraged when I see people like Sarah Bessey and Christena Cleveland and Marlena Graves doing really good things. For those of us who didn’t fit the mold, and who felt like there wasn’t going to be a place for us, blogging has helped us find our voice and use it to generate a following and a readership. Blogging has been a very good thing for Christian women writers; I think it’s the best thing that could’ve happened for us.


  • Katie is a writer, educator and mom and works in communications and sustainability. She attended nine different public schools K-12 and both private Christian and public universities.

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