The tragic, early death of Rachel Held Evans gives us a rare look at journalistic grief

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Death at the age of 37 is horribly short for this day and age, especially if one is a major voice for the disenchanted evangelical left.

That plus leaving behind two very young children –- the nightmare of any mother -– created an unprecedented outpouring of Twitter mourning for the simple blogger and author of religious-themed books who died on Saturday. She was Rachel Held Evans, whose family turned off her life support system after two weeks of being in a medically induced coma because of brain seizures.

When her death was imminent, some friends flew to Nashville to say goodbye. Among them was Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor and the queen of liberal Christians who tweeted that she was among those friends at Evans’ bedside and that she anointed the dying woman.

What I didn’t realize about Evans is how much she connected with reporters –- especially some with degrees from Wheaton and evangelical backgrounds -– who began pouring out tributes by mid-day Saturday. This was the darkest of days on the evangelical left, which is a rising force in evangelical life — in part because of its media clout.

One of the first up was Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate:

Rachel Held Evans, an influential progressive Christian writer and speaker who cheerfully challenged American evangelical culture, died on Saturday at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Evans, 37, entered the hospital in mid-April with the flu, and then had a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics, as she wrote on Twitter several weeks ago. According to her husband, Dan Evans, she then developed sustained seizures. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma, but some seizures returned when her medical team attempted to wean her from the medications that were maintaining her coma. Her condition worsened on Thursday morning, and her medical team discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died early on Saturday morning.

Judging from the speed at which the story was posted, I’m guessing the writer knew that Evans wasn’t going to recover and had an obit ready to go (which is common practice with beat reporters).

Many other stories and commentaries quickly sprang up, including from Religion News Service, the Washington Post , in NPR, the New York Times and more. This was a wave of journalistic grief.

So, who was this woman and why did so many reporters, all of whom appeared to be friends with her, weep after her death?

Evans started a blog in 2008 while in her late 20s and had the good fortune to dateline it in the same spot where the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial took place. She began questioning her nondenominational evangelical upbringing and wrote some engaging books along that theme. The key: She was for LGBTQ rights. She also mentioned that she voted for Hillary Clinton, wondered whether the Bible could be taken literally and opposed Donald Trump. In short, an evangelical who fit with what’s been in fashion in theologically liberal circles.

Was she, as one video suggested, “one of the most powerful voices of our generation?”

She amassed solid followings on Twitter (64,000) and 50,000 on Facebook. I’ll jump to a 2015 Washington Post profile on her that explains her celebrity:

From her self-made pulpit, Evans has openly wrestled with faith and evolution, where women fit in church leadership and who will end up in hell. With no formal seminary training or institutional backing, she has challenged traditional evangelical biblical interpretation on the place of LGBT people in the church, advocating for allowing them to join and even become leaders, especially contentious topics in evangelical circles…

She isn’t a pastor or a theologian, and doesn’t lead an organization or a specific cause. In fact, she is not connected to any institution other than her evangelical publishers. She usually writes from her home in Dayton, Tenn., where her husband, Dan, runs her Web site.

She emerged over the past decade as part of a wave of evangelical bloggers who gained independent followings.

“I just know I’m not the only one who sits in the pew sometimes and asks, ‘Am I the only one who’s doubting all of this?’” she said. “I want people to know there’s somebody else out there who feels the same way.”

Sounds to me like she happened to be at the right place at the right time during the Barack Obama years. Being named as a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships didn’t hurt. She wasn’t bad at marketing herself, either.

Back to the new Slate piece:

High-profile female writers and speakers in American evangelicalism have traditionally focused on spiritual questions and shied away from controversy and confrontation. But Evans often used her platform to challenge male pastors and leaders. Over the years, she sparred about theology, culture, and politics with prominent Christian men including Russell Moore, John Piper, Rod Dreher and Mark Driscoll. (Many of them have expressed their prayers for her in recent weeks, after Evans shared the news of her illness.)

Evans reacted righteously to injustice wherever she saw it: She published a series on her blog about abuse in the church in 2013, years before many evangelical institutions began to seriously confront the problem. But her writing was also warm and funny. For her second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she spent a year following the Bible’s instructions for women literally, gamely camping out in her yard in obedience to Levitical instructions for menstruating women. “She put so much of herself into her books,” her husband said. “I tell people: If you want to know Rachel, read her work.” She was the author of four books, and the co-founder of two major conferences aimed at progressive Christians, Why Christian and Evolving Faith.

I think a lot of journalists saw themselves in Evans. As intelligent millennial women not sure how to grapple with the faith they grew up with and without the benefit of a popular Jesus movement like their parents enjoyed in the 1970s, Evans personified their doubts and questions.

Yes, there were women who disagreed with Evans but we seemed to hear more about the men who clashed with her. NPR explained more why Evans was a living symbol of liberal angst.

In 2012 she published a second book, "A Year of Biblical Womanhood," about her experience trying to follow the Bible's standards for a woman, which included submitting to her husband's authority.

"That was a challenge because my husband and I have a very egalitarian relationship," Evans told NPR's Guy Raz ahead of the book's release, "so it was kind of weird trying to impose a hierarchy onto that relationship."

In 2016 she gave birth to the first of her two children and wrote about becoming a new parent. "We plan to raise him Christian, despite of our own persistent doubts about God and struggles with the Church," she wrote.

Later that year she wrote an article for Vox justifying her decision to vote for Hillary Clinton as a pro-life Christian.

Judging from the tributes to her on Twitter, Evans was a crucial figure to this cadre of millennial women. Compared this with other notable deaths: How many personalities out there get a tribute from RNS? Or more than one? Apparently RNS wanted her to start writing a column for them. And then there was a tweet mourning her death from the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (which Evans joined several years ago)?

(These horrible events seem to take the best and brightest and youngest among us. Last December, Bre Payton, 26, a writer for The Federalist and occasional commentator for Fox News, suddenly died of swine flu and meningitis. Eleven years ago, a 30-year-old friend of mine named Susan Shaughnessy, who was active in Catholic circles, died suddenly of a brain virus.)

As if Saturday’s piece weren’t enough, on Sunday, the Washington Post came out with another piece that was mostly a collection of Twitter tributes about Evans’ influence on female pastors, more “diverse” (read LGBTQ) writers and “more Christians embracing their faith.” Evans’ ability to put words to her doubts gained her many adherents.

Would a more traditionally theological woman, maybe a younger version of Anne Graham Lotz, get such a send-off? I doubt it, mainly because very few religion reporters seem of the same cultural and theological cloth as Lotz. They’re a lot more like Evans. And so, when someone like Rachel Held Evans dies an untimely, sad and tragic death it is, for many journalists, as if one of their own has passed. They lost a member of their team.

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