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Recently, while scrolling through social media, I learned there are readers out there who purposely turn to the ending of a novel. They can’t wait until the end of a story to learn its resolution, so they go ahead and read what happens, and then turn back and read the book through.
I was shocked, horrified, and amazed. Could people like this actually exist?
The next day while teaching, I asked my honors English 8th graders, “Did you know there are people who skip right to the endings of books?” And then a few hands raised and a few students spoke up, admitting, yes, they also do this; they need to know the ending before they can journey through the middle.
I would never think to skip right to a novel’s ending, but sometimes I do allow myself the pleasure of flipping to the back of the book to get an early read of the author’s notes or acknowledgments. I eat up those final pages that peek into the author’s personal life because in the span of a book’s pages,
I often come to admire the person behind the words. Like a peek backstage after a performance, that final postscript adds awareness that these words in the book were hard won, that writing is a messy process. Those last few tender pages of gratitude are a reminder of our shared humanity.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why the recent and sudden death of Rachel Held Evans, 37-year-old author, blogger, speaker and Twitter prophet, hit me so hard. Because in the process of reading her books, of listening to her speak in person and on podcasts, of whispering “Amens” to her Tweets that felt more like power-packed mini-sermons, I came to know her.
I deeply admired her fire, her fearlessness, her humor. I appreciated her intellectual curiosity and ruthless efforts to make space for hard questions; I sighed with relief at her refusal to minimize or give easy answers.
As a reader, fan, and fellow writer also raising kids and trying to find words to sort and give meaning and tell stories, I identified with her as more than a brand or a spokesperson for progressive Christianity; she became a companion, a friend. And without downplaying in any way the intimate ways her “real” friends and family know and love her, I believe she made room for so many others through the words and ideas she gifted us.
This, of course, is the magic of books, the magic of reading: that distance and time and boundaries disappear. So though we never spoke face-to-face, I am mourning the loss of a friend, a fellow writer — one I learned from and maybe even felt a little jealous of, once in a while, because she made it happen so beautifully.
In an interview on the podcast “For the Love” Jen Hatmaker joked that Evans was such a good writer that it made her (Hatmaker) a little angry. Evans was quick with her reply: “That’s such a compliment. Every writer wants to hear that from another writer…I got a little mad at you.”
After learning of Evans’s death, I immediately went home and dug through my piles of old journals, in search of the notes I took at two talks she gave at the Writing for Your Life conference at Hope College almost exactly two years ago. I’ve been moved by the many wise, stunning tributes to Evans that have been written since her death — especially this one by her friends and co-curators of the Emerging Faith Conference — but it was also good to look through my own hand-written notes and remember sitting across the room from Evans, to relive my excitement as I hurriedly tried to capture and hold onto her words.
In the first talk I attended, Evans spoke on Authority and Voice, rooted in the question, “Who do you think you are?” She discussed the imposter syndrome that can cause us to doubt our right to speak, our ability to add to the global conversation, but reminded us that “liturgy is the work of the people.” She preached that our calling as writers is to “put flesh on” the hard stuff, to be averse to Christian-ese and to take a cue from the Bible and to find our write our way to the truth through stories.
In a second, more informal talk, she spoke more about the everyday drudgery of writing. She shared the signs hanging in her writing space, the most prominent reminding her to “tell the truth,” but also that “the next sentence is not in the refrigerator.” She encouraged us to remember that we are called to “faithfulness, not success,” and that “faithfulness usually looks a lot like showing up.”
She also said something that became my laptop’s screen saver: “Write your way to it. Do not wait until you’re ready…you’re never going to be that amazing writer who just needs to start writing.”
Nothing is fair, reasonable or sensible about the unexpected death of a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend whose voice the world desperately needed. I feel like someone has flipped the book to its end way too soon. Yet Evans herself would remind us that the truest stories don’t end, that the best stories continue even after everything around us seems to suggest they’re over.
In her most recent (and wonderful) book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, she writes: “What I love about the Bible is that the story isn’t over. There are still prophets in our midst. There are still dragons and beasts. It might not look like it, but the Resistance is winning. The light is breaking through. So listen to the weirdos. Listen to the voices crying from the wilderness. They are pointing us to a new King and a better kingdom.