NEW YORK (AP) — Christian author Rachel Held Evans left behind a legion of loyal readers when she died in May 2019, at the age of 37. Last June, a children’s book she’d been working on was published posthumously and soon topped the picture-book bestseller lists. Next week, her final book for adults is being published, titled Wholehearted Faith. It’s addressed to Christians like herself who sometimes wrestle with doubts about their faith yet do not want to abandon it.
“Wholeheartedness means that we can ask bold questions, knowing that God loves us not just in spite of them but also because of them,” she wrote in the new book.
The book opens with a poignant forward by her husband, Daniel Evans, and an introduction by Jeff Chu, an author, editor, and close friend of the couple who was recruited by Daniel to flesh out her unfinished manuscript. That manuscript was roughly 11,000 words in length. Chu expanded it fivefold, scouring through Held Evans’s blog posts and speeches, and through passages that were cut from her previous books. Among them was a New York Times bestseller, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.
“So many of us are fixated on what’s wrong with Christianity or the church,” Chu said in an interview. “She didn’t shy away from naming those things, but she always emphasized what is right about our faith and what was good about what Jesus had to say.”
The book’s prologue is a tribute to women — those in the Bible, and more recent figures from Held Evans’s own family tree. She recounts her childhood and youth, growing up in a deeply religious family, winning the Best Christian Attitude award at her elementary school in Alabama and serving as president of her high school’s Bible Club.
Doubts about her faith surfaced while attending college. She recalls wondering how many of her fellow evangelicals could consider those outside their own faith to be condemned to hell.
“I am not afraid to say that many in the church have been agents of death for many women, for queer and trans people, for people of color, for immigrants and refugees, for disabled people, for all manner of minority,” she writes. “Many in the church have not proclaimed good news. They have not declared hope and possibility, justice and welcome.”
Eventually, Held Evans became an Episcopalian — a mainline Protestant denomination with women, people of color and LGBTQ people among its leaders. Her concept of God also evolved.
“The God I have come to believe in is not some stern grandpa in the sky, waiting for me to slip up,” she writes. “Instead, I’ve come to see God through the things that God has done… That God is the architect of creation, the engineer of love, and the master craftsman who came up with the idea of the heart.”
Among the numerous works left unfinished when Held Evans died was an article voicing remorse for having once held anti-LGBTQ views and bemoaning the fact that many evangelicals still do. Danial Evans posted it on her blog in October 2019.
“I affirm LGBTQ people because they are human beings, created in the image of God,” Held Evans wrote. “I affirm their sexual orientations and gender identities because they reflect the diversity of God’s good creation.”
Chu, who lives with his husband in Grand Rapids, Michigan, evoked similar themes in his 2013 book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. He first heard from Held Evans after she learned that Chu’s book was in the works; she asked his publisher, “How can I help?” and soon invited Chu to guest-post on her popular blog.
Though the two writers shared a common outlook about LGBTQ issues, Chu was grateful this wasn’t the foundation of their eight-year friendship.
“We just talked about life,” he said. “She was one of the rare people who fully embraced every aspect of me, and didn’t make the gay part outsized.”
Held Evans’s death resulted from brain swelling during a medically induced coma; she had experienced brain seizures while being treated for multiple ailments. The night she died, Chu was at the hospital with Daniel Evans — evidence of the close friendship that had evolved over the years.
“The reason I picked him (to finish the book) is because of who he is as a friend, and his incredible talent,” Evans said. “Jeff has a really good understanding of where Rachel was.”
Evans, 41, said he’s multitasking these days at the family home in Dayton, Tennessee — striving to be a good father to his 5-year-old son, Henry, and 3-year-old daughter, Harper; working hard to get Held Evans’s posthumous books completed and published.
“What I’m learning the most is being OK with multiple emotions — experiencing deep grief and deep joy at the same time,” he said. “I’m extremely happy for this book to come into the world.”
One of his favorite chapters elaborates on a phrase that Held Evans adopted as a personal motto: Thick skin, tender heart. He said the phrase encapsulated her approach to the many social media users who assailed her critiques of conservative evangelicalism.
“A lot of people used her as a symbol for everything they say is wrong,” Evans said. “It was often difficult.”
Evans said Held Evans was working on four children’s books when she died; he hopes all of them eventually will be published. The book that did appear in June — What is God Like? — has a special status for Evans. It’s the first book by Held Evans that he read to their children.
“Henry knows that Mommy wrote this,” Evans said.
In the book co-authored with Matthew Paul Turner, Held Evans encourages children to “think about what makes you feel safe, what makes you feel loved, and what makes you feel brave. That’s what God is like.” After the book was published, Daniel Evans posted a tweet about it.
“I’m agnostic. I think God is unlikely. I don’t believe prayer heals. If it did, sick people prayed for would be healed more often than those who aren’t,” he wrote. “But if I ever believe again, it will be in the God Rachel understood. I hope for the God of What Is God Like?”