On May 6, Christianity Today published an essay by a fellow named John Stonestreet as a remembrance of Rachel Held Evans. Although it had only been two days since her death, in the essay, Stonestreet could not resist taking several jabs at Evans’ theology. Not surprisingly, the response from several quarters was very negative, so much so that Stonestreet requested that the essay be removed while CT‘s editor, Mark Galli, issued a qualified apology for its original publication. (Though the essay is no longer on CT‘s website, you can read it here.)
While it seems to me that the controversy has been somewhat overdone, it is also worth highlighting why the response to Stonestreet was so visceral, and it isn’t merely because Evans had been gone for but two days before he published his criticism. The fact is that Stonestreet’s essay illustrates the very problems that Evans often targeted within evangelicalism. But ironically, from that perspective, it also becomes something of an unintentional tribute.
Let’s begin by considering one of the critical passages from Stonestreet’s essay:
“I think Rachel was wrong, seriously so, about many things, including things of grave importance. In tribute, many have written how she helped expand the tent of evangelicalism and convinced many skeptics to stay at the faith table. I think, as a friend put it, she often ushered the vulnerable into her doubts and championed wrong ideas.”
Here’s how I’d like to reply: Yeah well, you know what, Mr. Stonestreet? I think you’re wrong about many things, including things of “grave importance”. In fact, we’re all wrong about many things, including things of “grave importance”.
So rather than suggest the “grave” errors of another Christian a mere two days after they’ve passed (was that choice of words intentional?), perhaps you might want to take this time to reflect on where your own “grave” errors may lie. Along the way, you might even learn something from Rachel Held Evans about what it means to be true Israel, that is, an individual who is not afraid to wrestle with God in their dogged pursuit of truth.
And this brings us to the ironic sense in which Mr. Stonestreet’s surprisingly critical essay serves as a sort of ironic tribute. No doubt without meaning to, Stonestreet illustrates why Rachel Held Evans was held in such high esteem by so many. Rachel Held Evans didn’t “usher the vulnerable into her doubts”. Rather, she gave them permission to be honest about the doubts they were already having. In a world where Christians like Mr. Stonestreet are ever ready to censure hard questions and honest doubts with the stentorian warning of “grave error”, Rachel Held Evans invited others to learn from her struggles so that they could work through their own.
To sum up, the fact that Mr. Stonestreet finds himself compelled to frame Rachel Held Evans’ legacy in a negative light mere hours after her death merely testifies to the power of her legacy as reflected in those who are threatened by it.