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Author Jeff Chu on completing the book Rachel Held Evans started before she died


Rachel Held Evans died too soon and with so much left undone. The 37-year-old writer died suddenly 2 1/2 years ago after a series of health complications. She left behind a husband, two very young children and part of a book. It was to be her fifth. And all of her books explored her Christian faith. In her work, Rachel Held Evans asked pointed questions about the evangelical church. She embraced her enduring and doubt-filled faith. Along the way, she earned both criticism and accolades from fellow Christians and opportunities, like joining a presidential council. Jeff Chu took on the challenge of turning Rachel Held Evans' notes into a book. It's called "Wholehearted Faith." And full disclosure - I've known Jeff for several years and consider him a friend. Welcome, Jeff.

JEFF CHU: Hey, Sarah. It's good to hear your voice.

MCCAMMON: You open up this book by talking about how you came to write it. And I just want to start by asking you a little bit more about your relationship with Rachel. How did you and Rachel Held Evans first become friends?

CHU: It was all her doing. She wrote to my publisher a few months before my first book came out in 2013, and she offered to help. She offered to help a total stranger however she could. And without that tremendous act of grace, I don't think we would have been friends. After that, we started meeting up at conferences and writing workshops and having dinner together and finding our way into each other's lives.

MCCAMMON: When Rachel's husband, Daniel, asked you to finish this book for her, what did you think initially?

CHU: Let's just say I wanted to say no because taking on this project meant reckoning with the reality that she was really gone. If I had to finish this book, that meant she couldn't write anymore. It was a very real confrontation of the grief and the sorrow.

MCCAMMON: For people who aren't familiar with Rachel's work, you describe her special focus as almost a ministry to people who found themselves on the margins of white evangelicalism - LGBTQ people, people of color, women. What was it about Rachel that drew her to those folks?

CHU: I think it was her understanding of love and what love demanded. Much of wholehearted faith is about understanding our belovedness, and Rachel really wanted everyone to hear and to believe three simple words - you are loved. She was so convinced that if we really believed we were loved by God, we would also want to love other people. We would want to say to and show others, you are loved - not perfect but loved, not flawless but loved. And that love and that grace should make us want to show up in the world in a way that listens well and soothes the suffering and gives life to people and rebukes violence and honors diversity and, really, offers good news to everyone. Rachel recognized that so often Christians have been addicted to fear, spreading fear, generating fear, feeding on fear. And that's not good news for anyone. One of her core questions in this book is, do you actually believe that you're loved? Because if you do, well, that's so much more powerful in life giving than fear.

MCCAMMON: She writes in this book about the kind of criticism she received on Twitter - for example, being called an embarrassment to the church. And after she died, some of the things that were said about her by people who were allegedly Christians were downright cruel - people saying that she was in hell, for example. What was it about Rachel's work, which, if you read her words, seems to be coming from such a sincere place? What was it that provoked people within her community so much?

CHU: Somehow, much of American evangelicalism has become a place where you're not allowed to ask questions, and Rachel was unafraid about asking questions. She would name publicly some of the doubts, some of the worries that many of us carried in our hearts - doubts and worries about being excluded, doubts and worries about being condemned. She also challenged the way we read the Bible. In the churches of our childhoods, because Rachel and I both grew up Southern Baptist, you couldn't question those interpretations because to question them would somehow be a sign of a lack of faith. But here's the question Rachel had and that I have and that I think many of us have - what kind of scripture and, really, what kind of God can't stand up to the questioning of mere mortals like us? And maybe questions are signs of faith because it actually takes a lot of trust and boldness and hope to ask good questions.

MCCAMMON: When Rachel died, she had finished only about 20% of what would turn out to be her final book. Her writing is so personal. It's so taken from her experience. How did you go about trying to write four-fifths of a book like this for your friend?

CHU: Yeah, I've really wrestled with this concept of a posthumous memoir because it doesn't really make any sense, right? This is Rachel's book. She left just under 12,000 words and a decent outline. Much of it was more like an editing job. I was a magazine editor for many years. And editing this was, in a sense, returning to that work. It was kind of like quilting. The material I had to work with wasn't just that unfinished manuscripts; it was her blog posts and her sermons and her talks and her tweets. I also went back and read a lot of the emails and texts that she sent me because I wanted that intimate voice. Some days I would just open up some of the files that her husband had sent me from her laptop and read a bit. But then I'd have to go do something else 'cause it was just too hard. And then other days I would manage 500 words or a thousand, revising what she had already written, hunting down anecdotes, talking to her sister, emailing her dad and cobbling together paragraphs into something that felt like Rachel.

MCCAMMON: American religion, American Christianity, certainly, is going through, I think you could say, a reshuffling. People are leaving evangelicalism, and others are coming in. And there's a growing movement of so-called exvangelicals (ph), a lot of people Rachel's generation and younger, which I think has really just escalated since Rachel's death even. Do you see her as sort of ahead of her time?

CHU: I think I would say that Rachel articulated things that many people were thinking and feeling and maybe didn't have the words to say. She was willing to tweet in ways that I'm still too scared to tweet. There's something remarkably magnetic about someone who is willing to say those things and who offers an invitation to folks to say, hey, me too. Loneliness is epidemic in American society, and the church is no exception to that. And to be able to come alongside folks as they're making their journey through a very confusing world, that was one of the greatest gifts she offered.

MCCAMMON: I've been talking to Jeff Chu. He finished writing the new book "Wholehearted Faith" for his friend Rachel Held Evans who died in 2019. Jeff, thank you.

CHU: Thank you, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYLER BURKUM'S "HUMMINGBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Justine Kenin