Bereavement in an Age of Rage: Comments on the Commentary

Rachel Held Evans,
image from her Twitter page

Even internet snarks gasped on May 4th: Rachel Held Evans, the ex-evangelical prophet and friend to the religiously marginalized, had died at 37, possibly of encephalitis. Tweeters dropped their smart phones and genuinely grieved over such a malevolently random death. It was as if a previous era’s medical fickleness reached into ours and snatched one of our own.

Alas, the pause didn’t last. Twitter soon re-bristled. The near-eloquent anguish over Rachel Held Evans the person was smothered beneath RHE the issue. I’m left wondering: Will our digital age find space for mourning and genuine humanity?

Evans, who was reared in Alabama until she was 14 and then moved to Tennessee, had emerged as one of progressive Christianity’s most popular proponents and evolved into a curiously 21st-century religious celebrity in the process. She challenged what she saw as the evangelical party line, writing and thumbing her way through books and blog posts and tweets. Over 168,000 followed her feed, where she blessed doubters and welcomed the church’s “refugees:” women and gay Christians and transgender Christians and faithful intellectuals – many of whom felt suppressed by what they saw as a patriarchal, anti-intellectual, and politically partisan church.  As Elizabeth Dias and Sam Roberts put it: “Her congregation was online, and her Twitter feed became her church, a gathering place for thousands to question, find safety in their doubts and learn to believe in new ways.” They said her presence “became the hub for a diaspora.”

Multi-layered grief struck many near and far from her. I felt it even though I never knew her and didn’t quite sync with her.

An obvious layer is plain sorrow. Her husband suddenly lost his wife; her two toddlers will barely remember her. My heart sinks as I imagine the kids years from now: “Dad, tell us what Mommy was like.”

Then there are personal dynamics. Perhaps some feel regret over things said and left unsaid (her challenges sparked clashes). As for me, I feel survivor’s guilt: Doctors wonder if my supposedly incurable cancer has vanished (to emphasize: they’re by no means sure, but I’ve shifted from dark certainty to delightful uncertainty). I’m 62 – still relatively young to die, but past middle age and old enough to be Rachel’s father.

I feel guilty for being alive. That makes no sense, of course, but such is survivor’s guilt.

Then there’s incongruity: she had been thriving. There was no lingering battle involving chemotherapy and wigs and bandannas and emaciation. It’s as if we’ve zig-zagged from the 21st century to the 19th century and back again. Everything began so millennial. She tweeted news of her hospital admission for flu-like symptoms and an infection. No big deal in present-day America: the IV drips’ll overpower the disease and she’ll be good to go. Her flock rallied for prayer under the hashtag, #PrayforRHE. Russell Moore, with whom she often debated, chimed his support: He and she were “theological opposites,” and they’d sparred “on all kinds of stuff over the years.” But this was solidarity’s moment: “She needs our prayers right now. Conservatives, progressives, centrists, everybody: let’s pray for RHE.”

Cue in twenty-first century banality: Moore’s supposed disclaimer (“… theological opposites …”) sparked outrage on feeds and blogs: He was insensitive. Maybe he was hedging his bets and playing to his audience and distancing himself from RHE …

Tweets. Hashtag prayers. Offense over a benign comment and second-guessing inner motives. It’s the hackneyed online script: An illness stirs drama while the patient lies in a hospital bed. Maybe we’d even see selfies with friendly nurses and a homecoming and appreciative tweets: “Thanks for the prayers, y’all. They got me through …” Maybe she’d graciously thank Doctor Moore.

But then the 19th century escaped its time-bound confines and lumbered into our era. There was a medically-induced coma after inexplicable brain seizures; there were baffled doctors; there was her swelling brain. And, finally, there was her shocking death.  

This called for a somber pause and long hugs and whispered words of consolation. And that happened — for a moment. But then a few obnoxious militants assured all of her eternal destiny; an apologist wrote a critical “appreciation” (the article was pulled before I could read it); others fired back, with tweeted salvos aimed especially at evangelical males (they’re all haters – every last one). Ed Stetzer said it well: “I’m struck by the cruelty of some Christians (in) social media this week, all being cruel because they think someone else said something cruel, so they can be cruel, then people respond to that, etc. It is not right. It does not honor the Lord. End the cycle. Jesus shows a better way.”

Of course, Twitter’s noise swallowed Stetzer’s wisdom. Meanwhile, her real-world family and friends grieve. The 19th-century, for all its flaws, would have given them room for mourning and lament. Our century, for all its advances, has no time for that.

That’s a pity, to say the least.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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