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Inventing Rachel Held Evans

A reader points out this passage from a hugely laudatory appreciation of the late Rachel Held Evans by the progressive Evangelical writer Laura Turner. Emphasis mine:

In the beginning of her career, Rachel had a popular blog, but it wasn’t about motherhood or travel or interior design, so no one knew quite what to do with her. Instead, Rachel tackled heavy theological questions and featured regular guest posts about faith from lesser-known writers. Rachel was a breath of fresh air in a world — Christian women on the internet — that is mostly known for a sense of “curated imperfection,” a polished messiness that is more interested in domestic achievement or kitchen renovations or faux female empowerment than in actual systemic change or in the person of Jesus Christ. Rachel never posted a picture of her dishes piling up in the sink as shorthand for vulnerability, never posed in a floral print dress while bemoaning the state of her house or her kids. The idea of her doing so was laughable, even though she was a Christian woman on the internet, because Rachel wasn’t trying to draw attention to herself. She was not a brand. She was a warrior in a cardigan.

That’s interesting, says the reader, because this is RHE’s first-ever Instagram post:

It’s fascinating to see people needing RHE to be this or that kind of Christian. Why?

UPDATE: Look. Look. If you really think that this blog post is about Rachel Held Evans, you need to re-read it carefully. It’s about what she symbolized for her followers. I’m not blaming her for that. I don’t even know if “blame” is the right word at all. This is a fascinating phenomenon of our time: how a charismatic young Christian woman with a gift for communicating on the Internet became so iconic to millions of Christians. A reader writes:

I don’t know, but it’s weirdly similar to the way Trump fans need him to be all sorts of things he’s not: a devout Christian, a good businessman, a clever negotiator, etc. Rather than do the more difficult work of looking for the real heroes, warts and all, people are glomming onto the nearest charismatic figure, projecting their hopes onto that person, and choosing to be blind to their flaws.

Exactly. It’s all too human to do this, but there is something about the era of social media that makes this different. I can’t put my finger on it. People treat Jordan Peterson this way too. I think JP is great, but there really is a deeply felt need many of his fans have for a savior. Me, I’m sensitive to this because I felt that way about John Paul II. It wasn’t until many years later that I came to understand that I projected onto him the deep psychological need I had for a father figure who approved of me. That wasn’t JP2’s fault. I made an idol of him, without realizing what I was doing. I couldn’t see him as a good man, even a saintly man, who was flawed like the rest of us. I needed him to be something he wasn’t, and couldn’t have been.

UPDATE.2: Let me try this a different way. It is perfectly normal to be in shock and grief over the death of someone you admire. But there is something about the way many of RHE’s fans related to her that seems to be unusual, even in the artificial terms of  celebrity-fan relationships. If you count yourself as an RHE fan, help me understand what it was about her, and what she stood for, that accounts for this. I’m asking seriously.

UPDATE.3: A reader who, as an academic, has been a close observer of RHE’s writing and career writes:

There is the power of knowing, in your bones, that you have been WRONGED. Being wronged removes a reason for guilt. Being wronged erases shame.

RHE said your parents were wrong. Your church was wrong. Your Christian college was wrong. They were all wrong and Jesus loves you just the way you are. In fact, you are gifted because of who you are.

Powerful stuff. None of that, “The church and the faith will change you” stuff.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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