A Review of Rachel Held Evans and Jeff Chu’s “Wholehearted Faith”
There’s a story at the front of Rachel Held Evans’ posthumous book (written with assistance from her friend Jeff Chu) told by her widower, Daniel Jonce Evans. Daniel relays how the pair nearly lost 11,000 words of Rachel’s working manuscript of Wholehearted Faith (this book) as computer backups failed to do their job … almost. It’s a poignant story related to this book because, about a month later in 2019, Evans died in a hospital bed from complications from medicine that she was given at the tender young age of 37. (How she died is a bit of a long story.) It’s a tragedy as to what happened to Evans — I still can’t believe God would take someone away from us who had important things to say. However, the good news is that those 11,000 words were salvageable and publishable for the book she was intending to write for HarperOne — which constituted a bit of a jump up in prestige from her usual publisher of Thomas Nelson. Held Evans was en route not just to New York Times bestseller lists, which she has shown up on since her death, but a mainstream Christian audience. And then she was gone. I still have trouble parsing it, and, to be honest, Wholehearted Faith, at least at its outset, was not an easy read for me. I’m still processing grief, and this is an emotional book.
But it is a celebratory book as many of Held Evans’ friends and family are involved. Her husband writes the introduction, Chu — who is co-curator of the Evolving Faith conference that Rachel had a hand in forming — weaves together Rachel’s unfinished and incomplete text with blog posts and speeches. And my beloved Nadia Bolz-Weber, known for her f-bombs, pens the afterword. In a sense, Wholehearted Faith turns into a celebration of Rachel Held Evan’s too-short life and is not the Viking funeral you might expect it to be. That said, it can be a tough read at times knowing that this is it: after you close the cover of Wholehearted Faith for the last time, there is probably no more remaining work of Held Evans’ that is publishable in book form (unless someone wants to collect the “best of” her blogging work, perhaps). To that end, this, again, was an emotional and difficult read for me. It turns out that this is both a short and a long book. It’s short in that it clocks in at about 200 pages. However, there is enough thought and intelligence on display here for a book double its length. It’s presented in two distinct halves — Chu admits that this is probably not the book that RHE (as she was affectionally known as) would write. The first half seems to be the entire text of the book that Rachel was writing in draft form when she died. The second half is essays about living the Christian life with loose threads connecting this section back to the first.
Without being disrespectful to the memory of Held Evans or her friends and family, I will say that Wholehearted Faith is not her best book. (How can it be when it is not, in a sense, “complete?”) It can be said, though, that this book is the most mature piece of writing that she committed to. There are parts of the “Wholehearted Faith” section of the book that you may feel that you must attack with a highlighter and a pen just to make notes in the margins. It’s rather strange that a book that is about approaching God with the same love that He or She has for us all is so intellectual. If I had any criticism about this book, it might be that a lot of it aims for the head instead of the heart. Therefore, I think the odds and sods collection of essays at the back worked better for me. This was the Rachel Held Evans I knew and loved. I felt that the “Wholehearted Faith” part of the text was Rachel trying to prove that she could play in the big leagues of the publishing world, when, if she was just being herself, she didn’t have to prove anything at all.
Anyone who has also followed Held Evan’s career might recognize some repetition from past books or articles she’s written, which is probably a given that some of the material comes from other sources than the incomplete manuscript. That might be a knock against this book for some. However, I must admit that, even though “Wholehearted Faith” stops dead cold without a conclusion, the end product wound up holding up together remarkably well. I did enjoy the essays on loving your enemy and keeping the Sabbath, and there is much here to recommend. Even though Held Evans felt she had something to prove with this book, and that it needed to be bigger and brainer than anything she had done before, enough of her personality and humour still is evident in these pages.
I did indicate, though, that this is not her best work. What is? Well, I’d either direct you to A Year of Biblical Womanhood (which Bolz-Weber also recommends in her afterword — it’s a slyly funny book as much as it is heartbreaking) or Searching for Sunday, which is a touching read and was my introduction not only to Held Evans but Christian theology as a whole. In the end, Wholehearted Faith is not a bad send-off for Held Evans and is probably on par with her debut essay collection Faith Unravelled. If you take all her books together, you can see quite the progression and life-journey that Held Evans embarked upon. She burned the candle at both ends and lived a full and robust life. But, as Rachel even points out in Wholehearted Faith, “the crucial thing to remember is that with God, death is never the end of the story.” Wholehearted Faith is a reminder of that. May Rachel Held Evans rest in peace knowing that she got a chance to tell a remarkable story, even if, here, it’s in a form that she probably never envisioned. Amen to that. Amen, indeed.
Rachel Held Evans and Jeff Chu’s Wholehearted Faith will be published by HarperOne on November 2, 2021.
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You may also be interested in the following review: Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired.
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