Saying Goodbye to Rachel Held Evans and Exploring the Sanctity of Life
Cameron McAllister and Nathan Rittenhouse discuss author and speaker Rachel Held Evans' life and legacy, and then turn to consider the Christian understanding of the sanctity of life, and its bearing on the current abortion debates.
The recent death of Rachel Held Evans at age 37 has left many devastated. A wife and a mother to two young children, Rachel was also a gifted writer and speaker whose work touched countless lives. Given her progressive views and passionate personality, she could be a polarizing figure, but she also demonstrated a continued willingness to speak across cultural dividing lines, as her friendships with several high-profile conservative thinkers clearly shows. In this episode, Nathan and Cameron begin with a discussion of Rachel’s life and legacy, and then turn to consider the Christian understanding of the sanctity of life, and its bearing on the current abortion debates.
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Nathan Rittenhouse: Hello and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your cohost Nathan Rittenhouse.
Cameron McAllister: And I'm your cohost, Cameron McAllister.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Cameron, sad news. You may have seen that grumpy cat, the meme famous cat of the world has passed away now.
Cameron McAllister: No, I didn't see that.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Big news in the world. Also, we now live in a time where somebody just paid $91 million for a metal rabbit.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. It's like an episode of black mirror. It really is.
Nathan Rittenhouse: But this is real life. So you too could own a Jeff Koons artwork, but yeah, it broke a record for price paid for an artwork in the lifetime of the artists and critics hate it. Yeah, so there's that. But that's not the direction we want to go although there would be interesting things to analyze about the state of our world where these things are true. We want to talk a little bit about something that is...it's not old news, but it's had a little bit of time just to saturate itself I think in the Christian world's mind and that's the death of Rachel Held Evans and various responses and thoughts on her life and obviously her tragic death at a very young age, so to speak in her family, but just the kind of the influence and the impact that she had on a lot of, I don't know what's the right word, like the fringes of American evangelicalism, perhaps a name that would be known to a lot of people.
Actually somebody that I didn't follow deeply, I was kind of outside of the circles maybe of some of what she was critiquing and so I didn't connect as well. Obviously she also did a lot of her work in the blogosphere on Twitter, places that I only traipse through from time to time. So maybe you can give us a bit more of a background of who she was and sort of what she highlights about our cultural moment as far as American Christianity goes.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, so Rachel Held Evans was a fascinating person and really very, very gifted writer, very gifted communicator, and grew up in the evangelical world and then as she got older and found herself on the fringes for some of her views, which tended to be a little bit more politically progressive, especially also in the area of sexual ethics. So there's some notable differences there. But she also had just a marvelous ability to often speak across dividing lines and she could be thorny. She was witty, she was clever, she was really funny. If you were on Twitter, Nathan, you would see that a lot of for exchanges were, yeah...again they could be thorny and they could sometimes really push you, but was very clever and her personality was on full display.
Many of us who never actually met her, we really did feel as though we knew her. She felt like a person who was just a person in our lives, somebody we talk to every week and she interacted...One of the features of Rachel Held Evans that I always really admired was the ways...just was the fact that she talked to so many people who disagreed with her. I mean, and she had sharp disagreements. And of course on this podcast we talk a lot about the virtue of engaging in civil disagreement and so she could get really passionate and fired up as most of us can on issues that we care deeply about. But unlike many of us, Rachel Held Evans not only talked to people with whom she had deep disagreements, she was actually friends with them.
So I think that that's a really wonderful example that she set there. And so there is so much worth celebrating. But yeah, I had seen, it was very...all of the events that led up to the loss of Rachel Held Evans were so just terribly sudden as often these kinds of tragedies play out, right? One moment, especially with somebody so young, they are there and the next moment they're gone and you just can't believe it your head is reeling. So I'd seen a number of tweets, she had asked for prayer because she was going into the hospital with a persistent flu, but it was really pretty serious and she even made a little joke about how, "Hey, I can't afford to miss this next episode of Game of Thrones."
Side note, apparently, I mean a lot of people have not been too happy about that episode, but she's making this joke. And then the next thing we know we hear updates from her husband that are being posted to her blog that she's in a medically induced coma. And so I was en route to Hong Kong actually and we landed in Asia and one of the first items of news that I got when I turned my phone back on was that Rachel Held Evans was gone. And all of us, I mean several of our team members, it was just so very sad. She was only 37 years old, has a husband and two young children, so I mean she was a mom so I think, and it's just been... the response by and large has been just tremendous sorrow. And by the way, it's worth noting also that when she was in the hospital, when she had initially asked for prayer and then when the updates followed, everybody pretty much banded together in prayer for her.
There was a tremendous prayer campaign across social media and people across various cultural dividing lines, political dividing lines were all praying for her and for... and so that actually was, to my eyes, very encouraging. So I think I'm still at a point where it's just very, very sad and it's hard to hear these kinds of cases. But I know she meant so much to so many people, particularly there was an outpouring of people saying, "I was on the verge of leaving the church, walking away. I was done and Rachel Held Evans was one of the only voices that kind of persuaded me to give the church another chance." So just a lot of interesting responses.
Nathan Rittenhouse: It's also interesting as far as who covered the story of the end of her life. I mean, I saw it as an NPR headline. When was the last time the NPR had a headline about the death of a Christian blogger? So I think stuff like that shows maybe some of the political leanings and connections that she had, but also the size of the impact for secular media to pick up on that as a notable thing that had happened in our country was a unique thing. And I guess, I mean her life says a lot too about the power of social media and what the internet has done for us in our ability to connect with like-minded people really across the world.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, it was fascinating to see that she was, in fact, on that day on Twitter, she was the number one trending item and like you said, many mainstream news outlets well outside the Christian orbit we're covering her life and we're talking about the book she had written. So she was reaching a lot of people. And again as a yeah...
Nathan Rittenhouse: Oh sorry, go ahead.
Cameron McAllister: Well I mean, you and I of course would have our differences with her, but in some ways to look at that, it's kind of emblematic of the need for voices who are willing to speak across those dividing lines. And I do think Rachel Held Evans was one of them. Again, we would have our disagreements, but I think some of her discourse modeled that well.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Do you know the phrase, "Don't let someone get your goat"? have you heard that?
Cameron McAllister: Oh yeah.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yes. I think it's fairly common. My grandpa one time said, "If you don't want someone to get your goat, don't let them know where it's tied." And I think people like Rachel Held Evans who are coming from within the evangelical world know where all the goats are so to speak. And so there's something that I think on one hand she ruffled a lot of feathers, but part of that was because she knew where all of the touch points were and problems. And so she could even as a younger writer go deeper just because she grew up knowing the vocabulary and the culture that she was critiquing probably more intimately than people could have from the outside. And that's an important dynamic that I think is part of who she was that maybe made her so poignant and also so irritating to so many people, she really knew where the sore spot was to poke.
Cameron McAllister: Well, I mean, yeah. Who can push your buttons better than a family member or somebody who knows the intimate details of your household. It's a really good point, Nathan, and she certainly pushed my buttons a lot, but it's interesting. There's a number of us who would often...we would find a lot to admire and then we would find moments where we were just very aggravated or we were rolling our eyes, but overwhelmingly now it's interesting, I just miss her. I miss having my buttons pushed. I miss those posts from her, I miss seeing her show up.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Life and death does that though, right?
Cameron McAllister: It does.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, life and death does that where it clarifies what are the important things here. Sobering is actually the proper word there, I think.
Cameron McAllister: It is. And it's worth noting, of course, the difference between, no matter what you do, your persona online remains a persona. It's not the full blooded person, of course. And I don't know a single person who after they met Rachel didn't just describe her as delightful and witty and fun to be around and hilarious. And so I think it's worth noting as well. I remember saying several times, I really would love to have met her if we showed up at a conference or something where she was speaking, I would love to have met Rachel Held Evans and talk to her. So I mean, I think the overwhelming response, the healthy response here has just been tremendous grief and I think, yeah, we'll continue to wrestle with that.
Nathan Rittenhouse: There's an important distinction here though. So let me use that statement there to segue us into another conversation as far as looking at when you're talking about in kind of a massive campaign for support and prayers that she received even by people who, is enemies the right word? I'm not sure.
Cameron McAllister: Well, theological opponents.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Theological opponents, yeah. So there was a point there where it switches and hopefully, I'm hopeful of this and you can tell me if you think I'm wrong, points to a, "I disagree with you, but I don't think you deserve to be dead and permanently silenced." That maybe or definitely should be modeled within Christianity and within the church that I don't necessarily see happening on other cultural issues. And so if you look at some of the vehemence with which maybe some of the more recent abortion pro-life conversation is going on in our country, do you think there's a categorical difference within the church in our disagreements and the value of the other person's life and is that being reflected in our culture or not on another contentious issues?
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, this is, and of course, this is such a volatile issue and it's of course being discussed a lot. But let's take a moment to acknowledge right now that if you're listening right now and you're a little nervous or you feel the tension, that just goes to show how really how charged the issue of abortion is these days. So I find it helpful sometimes when we discuss something that's this, for lack of a better term, radioactive, to frame it carefully and maybe to break it down a little bit, to give us some categories as we think about it. And of course, just to be clear, and I think I, in a spirit of intellectual honesty, Nathan and I are very committed to, I don't even like the language sometimes because it's so politicized, we'll talk about that, but-
Nathan Rittenhouse: The sanctity of life?
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, we're very committed to the sanctity of life. As Christians, we believe that every human being is made in the image of God. And so human value is really tied to the fact that we were made by God for God. It's not tied to any kind of capability, it's not tied to the ways in which we express ourselves. Our primal expression of human value is that we are made in the image of God. And so then that means that everybody, the most marginalized, the most defenseless, the most in...the elderly, the infirm, a lot of categories that we in our sort of functional utilitarian and society have a hard time helping or a hard time carving out space for, all of us categories that are included. So everybody including the most vulnerable and the most disenfranchised is made in the image of God.
So if we're committed completely and foremost to the sanctity of life, that means that we are wholeheartedly opposed to abortion. Now, let me break this down a little bit and then I'd love to hear your responses here, Nathan. So one reason this is so volatile is because the issue is very, very politicized in the United States. Now on the one hand, that's understandable, it has to do with our common life. And so it is a political issue in that sense, but by politicized, I think a lot of people, there's a lot of work that has been done in this area, a lot of scholarship that's been done on the way that the issue of abortion, as it's framed often in elections, has been utilized to basically to sort of get the votes from certain segments and almost guarantee a vote.
So it's really been used in a sort of manipulative sense often by politicians who don’t one way or the other.
Nathan Rittenhouse: It's the Trump card for lack of a better word.
Cameron McAllister: Say it again.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I said it's the Trump card, minor pun intended.
Cameron McAllister: Yes, there you go. So there's the politicization, that's a great word, say that five times fast. There's that issue that makes it tough. But then there's also the exceedingly traumatic circumstances that surround some abortion cases, not all. So those would include, for instance, there's an article that's gotten quite a lot of track traction from Shannon Dingell and USA Today and she has her horrifying story where she was being abused repeatedly and she ended up becoming pregnant when she was 11 years old and then she gave birth when she was 12 years old. So just to give you an indication that there's real traumatic circumstances often surrounding this issue and very, very painful.
But alongside that, the third aspect I'll highlight and then I'll kick it over to Nathan here is that I think there's often a tendency, particularly, in late modernism, late modernism is the cool way to say it now, you don't say postmodern anymore, Nathan, you know that, right? So-
Nathan Rittenhouse: post is talking about postmodernism is that you're saying? Got it, okay.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, gosh, no more post, post, post, postmodern talk, but we're-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, we don't have to make a fence there.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, we got too many of those. But there is a tendency in late modernism really and postmodernism I think to take, and here's especially where I'll need some of your help, Nathan, to set me straight if I'm not being fair here, but to take exceptional cases and blow them up often as though they're the norm and then let them control the discussion. Does that make sense?
Nathan Rittenhouse: Sure.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. So those three issues, that abortion is deeply politicized and there's often deep trauma behind the scenes, but then also that third part is that often we take what are exceptional cases and then blow them up and let them control the conversation. So I think those three elements are big contributing factors to adding a lot of anger and confusion to the issue. All right, I'm done talking, Nathan, please correct me.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So I wonder if on the third point there, when you're talking about exceptional cases, if the exceptional cases aren't smuggling in some presuppositions that, so for example, when you talk about somebody being abused and impregnated when they're 11, we would use the word evil for that because we believe that that person is made in the image of God and shouldn't be treated that way. And so if we're talking about a horrific circumstance we're not saying, "Well it is just, it is what it is." We're saying, "No, that is categorically wrong."
The foundation for declaring that to be wrong is predicated on the sanctity of life, the value of the human and the fact that they're made in the image of God. And so the foundation for the oddness that should be there being broken gives us the definition of evil. So that case assumes that a human life is inherently valuable and ought not to be treated in a certain way and so for us to be consistent we need to apply that to both ends of the argument, so to speak of saying, "The child on the way also is." So when we're talking about these exceptional cases, I'm just wondering if we aren't borrowing from a Christian way of viewing the world in order to critique a Christian way of viewing the world, which I think is what Francis Shaffer called “stealing cookies from the Christian cookie jar.’
Cameron McAllister: Right? So borrowing and then applying inconsistently.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Right, yep. So maybe, I don't know, I just came up with that while you're talking, but it seems like that's a categorical possibility that we need to be mindful of when we stepped back from sort of the visceral emotional rhetoric and say, "Okay." Yeah, but the argument really here is that these exceptional cases and our abhorrence at them reaffirms our commitment to the value of life. And then as Christians to say, "Not only do we believe in the sanctity, the value, the Imago Dei, but we also believe in redemption that God works in," I mean, this is a God's step one, speaks order into chaos, right? I mean that's what God does from the beginning.
And so the scripture doesn't act like there isn't chaos, it doesn't act like there isn't brokenness, it doesn't act like there is not real heartache, but it speaks into that rather than avoiding it. And so I think the capacity for the Christian to have hope in the midst of brokenness, those are types of extraordinary circumstances that don't get amplified to have a voice in the narrative culturally speaking, that probably should. And so if we're going to pick anecdotes to form the narrative, let's make sure we're playing fairly and picking them from all categories of possibility rather than the one that fits our agenda.
Cameron McAllister: Right. And again, to hearken back to what we were saying sort of toward the beginning of the podcast, since the issue is so charged and since behind the scenes there are often so many painful factors and often those exceedingly painful factors are not going to necessarily be named because let's face it, many people and many women who have experienced these kinds of circumstances aren't able or ready to talk about it. But to know that in our minds, I think that could help leaven our responses a little bit. Obviously this is one of those issues where most people are deeply invested if they care about the conversation, they're deeply invested and passions run high, but I think it's a good reminder for us to proceed with... we can proceed with firmness but also with compassion because there's a lot more than meets the eye here. But I think-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, there's an actual political, I mean it is a fascinating concept to have the government tell you what you can and can't do in any category. And that's something that we need to think carefully about. Everybody does. I haven't seen anything, have you seen anything...has anybody made any kind of connective idea between vaccination and abortion and the government's role in telling you what you can or can't do to your child? Have you seen anything like that?
Cameron McAllister: Not that I've seen, but, yeah, not that I've seen.
Nathan Rittenhouse: That would be a fascinating kind of a comparative way to maybe think through some of these issues.
Cameron McAllister: So I'm hearing Nathan volunteering to write an article about this.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, here's the lion's mouth, stick your head in there. So yeah, anyway, that's a rabbit trail we'll let the listeners and we can pontificate on that in our own minds.
Cameron McAllister: Well, certainly, well we have...I mean, I guess maybe one note here and maybe one segue point and maybe we can kind of let this be our sort of final exploration here, but having the government tell us what to do obviously rubs up against many of our notions in a pretty powerful way. And it is a subject that demands a lot of careful thought, but also that brings us to the point though, maybe the other factor I failed to mention is that this issue is so often framed now in terms of freedom, particularly from those who are in the pro-choice sort of category, right? That you'll see the word, in fact, mayor of South Bend, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, hey, I should get a candy. I did not mispronounce his last name by the way. I'm very proud of myself for that.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Decent points for you.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I practice in front of the mirror five times. But anyway, Pete Buttigieg recently, I mean the way he framed it, he had a tweet and I can't remember the precise verbiage, but what he did say was something to the effect of women who are going through all of the stress and all of the trauma that come with this territory don't need to be having their freedom revoked and their autonomy undermined. And I don't remember the precise verbiage, he's a very eloquent guy, he did use the word autonomy though and I thought that was actually a very revealing word.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yep. And I think this is the crucial, and I didn't see that tweet, but I had been thinking of those terms and I think we have to be careful not to conflate those two, and that's where this hinges is because the gospel of Jesus Christ is very anti-autonomy. It's extremely pro-freedom.
Cameron McAllister: Break that down for us.
Nathan Rittenhouse: But it's talking...So it's talking about a freedom within the confines of the fullness of what it means to be one of what it is that you are. So being made in the image of God does have restrictions to it, but we find those boundaries to be things that give definition and clarity and beauty and meaning rather than things that denigrate human life, while autonomy is not just am I autonomous, automatic, I can function on my own without any restriction that that's an unhinging from a form of reality that doesn't get us very far.
And so I think that's the difference is that we're looking at categories of, do I want autonomy or do I want freedom? And to have freedom is to say, "I'm free to participate in this game, but that means I'm going to acknowledge like everybody else, these are the boundaries," and there's freedom that's found in that. I have the freedom to drive my car in the US on the right hand side of the road. I don't have full autonomy. And so there's more to be said there, but I think as a Christian thinking into this conversation and that tweet reflects that we're poking at both of those issues. And again, to be free to think of ourselves as a land of the free is still predicated on the idea of people being created with inalienable rights and created to be equal. So again, we're taking the parameters of a Christian assumption about reality and then weaponizing them against that same way of thinking about the world in an odd way but I think we just want to be careful in how we think through that.
Cameron McAllister: And to think about autonomy a little bit more, the freedom in a purely... unless you are, let me just state this in somewhat philosophical terms and then tease it out practically, but autonomy total and complete freedom, positive autonomy is only possible if you are yourself a self-sufficient being.
So you can't be free in that full sense. So as Christians, the passage in scripture I could point to show that kind of majestic self-sufficient freedom would be the Lord's response to Moses from the burning bush about his name being I Am that I Am the necessary self-sufficient being triune, perfect in fellowship, doesn't need creation or any of us in his mercy and grace and love. We get to have life, but he's not in any way dependent on us. That's the only positive vision of autonomy you can get. But in our sense as human beings, autonomy, the only way you could dice it would be a purely negative conception of freedom. It's just freedom from all restraint.
But of course that's actually an incoherent view when you bring it onto the ground and that's why the issue, ironically, that's why this issue of abortion is such a thorny one now because we are all inescapably relational creatures and so what we do with our bodies, what we do in our free time, in our private spaces, has everything to do with everybody else that affects everybody else. I mean this is why the Christian of course language for when we depart from the will of God is sin, but it's interesting when you look at scripture, scriptural anthropology is so relentlessly realistic. I think this is one of the most persuasive components of scripture from a skeptical standpoint, but it always shows that sin is communal. There are always communal repercussions and interestingly enough, this is maybe a broader discussion but as a society, we in the United States right now are really wrestling with communal sins, aren't we?
We are really wrestling with the legacy of communal sins in our nation, we are wrestling with systemic injustice, and it's just interesting that all of this points to the fact that we are inherently relational creatures. And so I think we need to bear that in mind whenever we talk about freedom. So all that to say, I think Nathan's distinction between freedom and autonomy is incredibly important and crucial for this discussion. But I think we also, yeah-
Nathan Rittenhouse: But if I can interject one other thing here that occurred to me while you're speaking is that one of the differences between freedom and autonomy is that freedom is also a responsibility laid in category to live in. And so if we're talking about a freedom that's a gift from God and there's a framework to live in there, then I think one of the things, and we've mentioned this before that as Christians we need to be careful about protesting against something that we're not modeling a better alternative to. So if you're a Christian and you're listening to this, it's not enough for you to vote pro-life.
There's a prescriptive mandate if you're going to value the sanctity of life that, I mean Jesus pokes us in the eye we're here to live that out consistently, what does that mean for you to be creative in this issue and about the care of women and children and I mean, you know what I'm saying? It's way deeper than just the surface level, I mean, it's not about voting once a year in a certain way, it's I think I would just want to challenge myself here and those of us listening that if you're going to really be fired up about this, then it needs to hit you at a far deeper level in your posture toward humanity than just in this moment.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, no, I think I'm a person I know framed it in similar terms, Nathan, when he said, "Laws against abortion," and he's a Christian, "Laws against abortion are good. Those laws against it are good, but not enough." It's a start, but that's not the full story, if that's where your response ends, you need to think much more holistically about how you can actually, yeah, get involved and how your whole manner of life basically paints a vision of your commitment to the sanctity of life. And I like your language there, Nathan, I prefer, "I'm for the sanctity of life," I prefer that to just saying, "I'm pro-life," rather than pro-choice.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. And I think the reason you like that, and there's been stuff that's been written on this is it's fascinating how the quote unquote sides have chosen their language. But because by using pro-life, you're implying the people who disagree with you are anti-life and by using pro-choice, you're implying that the people who disagree with you are anti-choice. And so it's not just a statement about who you are that's positive, it's a simultaneous derogatory statement to the other person. And so-
Cameron McAllister: You're taking us out of that false binary, Nathan.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, yeah. Okay, whatever, yeah. So it's just, I think maybe if you have a little bit of a sense in your, as you say those words that it doesn't quite represent where you are perhaps that's the reason.
Cameron McAllister: Right. I think one, and I can...I think this'll sort of bring me to...I think my steam is officially running out on this note, but to go back to one point that was made earlier, and just to underscore it here, we talked about as we were talking about the Christian conception of value being predicated on people being made in the image of God and we talked about how that includes people in all categories. And just to end on this note, that means that that would include, by the way, unwanted babies born into impoverished circumstances or born into circumstances where they are disadvantaged or born with disabilities. And I think increasingly as we talk more about some of the breakthroughs in the medical industry and some of the new developments when it comes to screening for disabilities and all that, this conversation is going to become more prevalent.
But my conviction, the Christian conviction that every human being is made in the image of God, it cannot be stated strongly enough that that includes those who are disabled, it includes those who are born into disadvantage or who are disenfranchised, marginalized, all of that. So in that sense, the argument that well if this child is born into this, it's a mercy to spare them that kind of a life, that kind of a suffering. I would say that yeah, to my mind you do not have a full enough conception of human value. And I think that that plays a very crucial role here too because I'm hearing those arguments surface in these recent conversations.
And again, especially for those who are outside the church, those who are non-Christians, I can sympathize because from a certain standpoint that makes a lot of sense. But from given my assumptions and my presuppositions concerning human value, I would hope that if that's you, listener, you would be able to see that it makes lot of sense that if Father, Son, Holy Spirit, the Christian God is in fact real and human beings are made in His image, every human being, then our position, our commitment to the sanctity of every human life also makes sense. I would hope that that makes sense to you and that you would grant me that courtesy.
But I think you've hung with us on a fairly sobering and tough episode, so thank you very much for tuning in. We deeply appreciate you listening and we understand that sometimes listening to these kinds of discussions and these kinds of issues can be a little bit trying. So we do appreciate your patience and we do appreciate your willingness to think along with us. But yeah, you have been listening to Thinking Out Loud, a podcast where we're think out loud about current events and Christian hope.