Last week, after a hurried, 700-word article of mine generated exactly 2.5 gazillion responses on the internet, I found myself lying face-down on top of the covers on our bed in the middle of the day.
Like, for an hour.
Dan finally walked in to make sure I wasn’t dead…or worse, watching a Netflix series without him.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I’m just so sick of RHE,” I said, my voice muffled by our comforter. “I really need a break from her.”
It’s funny how, as bizarre as that sounded, Dan knew exactly what I meant. There’s the Rachel whose strengths, weaknesses, dreams, quirks, passions, failings, and pet peeves he knows so intimately, the one still in her pajamas at 4 in the afternoon and pouting on his side of the bed, and then there’s the Rachel Held Evans who smiles from the corner of a Web site, cheerfully drumming up blog posts, pageviews, books, lectures, and the occasional controversy to be digested by the public each day.
They aren’t complete opposites of one another, of course, but they aren’t exactly the same either.
One uses a lot more profanity.
In the publishing industry, we talk a lot about a writer’s “brand”—the general impression an author leaves with readers based on her personality, writing style, favorite topics, marketing, packaging, and audience. But these days, you don’t have to have a book deal or a literary agent to cultivate a “brand.” You just need a little online real estate on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or some sort of blogging platform.
Over time, as your life gets distilled into these little pixels, it’s easy for the people who see them—be they friends, acquaintances, or perfect strangers—to assume they represent you in your totality. Even more frightening, as you gather feedback and gain friends/followers/subscribers, you can start to believe it too.
But we are not our messages, no matter how much we believe in them. We are not our filtered photos, or our tweets, or our political and religious ideologies. We are not even the stories we tell, no matter how carefully and truthfully we tell them.
We are not our brands.
We are human beings—little bundles of cells and relationships and hopes and fears that can never be crammed into images or words.
I have to remind myself of this now and then, when I see people discussing me on the internet in terms that dehumanize and reduce. They are caricatures, really, the sort of portraits you can pay a street artist in New Orleans to draw for you. The features are exaggerated, but they are based on just enough reality to look familiar, to make me a little more mindful of those warts and moles and wrinkles. Other artists accentuate the positives, of course, but those are glamor shots and no matter how many I hang in my locker, we all know they’re not entirely true; it’s all about the lighting.
It would be easier to ask for grace if I’d done a better job of extending it. But I too objectify other people. I’ve assumed that Mark Driscoll is his bullying, macho-man brand, John Piper the sum of his views on women. While these brands certainly don’t spontaneously generate, and while these ideas should be discussed, debated, and sometimes denounced, I find myself reluctant to retweet the fake twitter accounts or join in any online jeering. Because it’s a heck of a lot easier to dish it out than it is to eat it up, let me tell you, and I think sometimes we inadvertently perpetuate celebrity culture by railing so loudly against it, by feeding into the caricatures with our derision.
As much as I find Mark Driscoll’s “brand” highly distasteful and seriously problematic, I don’t know the man, so I have no business hating him. And as much as you may love or hate the RHE brand, most of you don’t really know the girl behind it, no matter how candid I am with you, no matter how hard I try to be real.
The truth is, that dude whose blog posts totally rub you the wrong way may be the best person in the world with which to watch a football game or talk theology over beer. That acquaintance on Facebook whose pictures make her life seem perfect may struggle with self-doubt, depression, and fear. That stuffy Calvinist you love to hate may melt into a goofy, delightful playmate when he’s tickling his kids on the living room floor. The feminist you always imagine shouting other people down may have an unbelievably tender heart. The pastor you think is always wrong probably gets a few things right. And the pastor you think is always right definitely gets some stuff wrong.
Perhaps the most radical thing we followers of Jesus can do in the information age is treat each other like humans—not heroes, not villains, not avatars, not statuses, not Republicans, not Democrats, not Calvinists, not Emergents—just humans. This wouldn't mean we would stop disagreeing, but I think it would mean we would disagree well.
It’s hard acknowledging the limits of a medium through which my own writing career has flourished, but I want you to know: The conversations we have here—as encouraging, informative, and life-changing as they can often be—are meant to be brought to dinner tables, coffee shops, AA meetings, parks, church fellowship halls, long car rides, dorm rooms, and diners, among people who (whether they agree or disagree) can look you in the eye and take you in, not as a brand but as a human being. It’s riskier, I know, but it’s truer. It’s better. And I think it’s what good writing is intended to accomplish—to connect us to the truth in one another, our world, and the divine...in real life, not just our heads.
As if this post wasn’t self-indulgent enough, I should confess I’ve been experiencing some growing pains. I love that the blog is growing and that more people are reading my articles and books, but I’m in that awkward teenage stage when your arms and legs are suddenly longer so you’re knocking stuff over and running into doors. I’m upsetting apple carts I didn’t even mean to upset, apparently making theological statements about views I didn’t even know existed. I feel a little in over my head, to be honest.
[Let’s get real. When all you’ve got is an English Literature degree and they’re asking you to comment on substitutionary atonement at Christian colleges and church trends on CNN, something’s gone amiss.]
So I’m recalibrating a bit, figuring out what it means to steward whatever influence I have in ways that are both creative and sustainable, and that perhaps give some other folks the chance to step up to the mic. I’m also pouring the best of myself into a new book, which means posts may be a bit spottier… and weirder, as they will likely have been written after 1 a.m.
Thanks for your patience, wisdom, support, and willingness to call me on my crap. You’ve helped me grow my brand, yes, but you’ve also made me a better person. I hope we get the chance to really know one another someday.
So, have you ever felt you’ve been treated like a brand— a simplified rendering of your actual hopes, dreams, and ideas? Where does this happen – on the internet, in church, at your work? Who in your life actually knows you? And what can we do to avoid making caricatures of one another?