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The Kentucky Derby and Rachel Held Evans: A Faith that Changes Everything

Country House won the Kentucky Derby last Saturday. At sixty-five-to-one odds, he was the second-biggest long shot ever to win America’s most famous horserace. The way he won was even more unprecedented.

Maximum Security finished first but was later disqualified for veering out of his path on the final turn. Country House, after finishing in second place, was then declared the winner. This was the first time in Derby history that a foul voided an apparent winner. 

Whether we know much about horse racing or not, Americans care about the Kentucky Derby. We are fascinated by the race itself, often billed as “the most exciting two minutes in sport,” but we are also captivated by the Derby’s heritage. 

The race has been run every consecutive year since 1875. Churchill Downs, the location of the Derby, was organized by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark Expedition). Mint julips, lavish hats and clothing, and the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” are part of the annual tradition. 

Mother’s Day and Memorial Day 

Other traditions are making news as well. 

Ramadan began last night. I have been in the Middle East many times during this sacred month on the Islamic calendar. It is fascinating to watch Muslims flock to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and to observe their passion for their faith. 

By contrast, Jews in Israel observed Holocaust Remembrance Day last Thursday. (Click here for my thoughts on this somber tradition.) In two days, Israelis hold their Memorial Day, remembering the country’s fallen soldiers and police as well as victims of terrorist acts. The following day, the nation celebrates its independence. 

In the US, next Sunday is Mother’s Day. Monday, May 27, is our Memorial Day, remembering those who died in the service of our country. 

Why are such traditions so important to us? The answer is significant not just for our culture but also for our faith. 

Notre Dame and “heritage emotions” 

Books & Ideas recently published an insightful interview with French sociologist Nathalie Heinich. The question was: Why did the world mourn so deeply the burning of the Notre Dame cathedral? 

Heinich described our reaction as a “heritage emotion,” a term made popular by the late anthropologist Daniel Fabre. Certain objects or traditions in the world have been granted “heritage” status by value judgments (“magnificent,” “monumental,” “sublime,” and so on) and by emotional attachments (silence, contemplation, and appreciative observation expressed with exclamations, tears, etc.). 

When the object or tradition in question is embraced by large numbers of people, it becomes even more powerful. Attacks on our “heritage,” whether from people or from natural disasters, evoke anger, indignation, and even more visceral reactions. 

According to Heinich, this phenomenon is present even—and especially—in our secular age. 

Logically, we would have expected a nation as secular as France to treat Notre Dame with indifference apart from the cathedral’s historic architecture and tourism value. However, Heinich notes that “this is not what happened. To the contrary, it attracts crowds, not of the faithful, but of tourists, because the sacredness initially attached to it has shifted to its status as a heritage object, with its conditions of irreplaceability and inalienability and its values of universality and permanence.” 

Experiencing authentic Christianity 

“Heritage emotions” explain the ongoing significance of places like the Notre Dame Cathedral and observances such as the Kentucky Derby and Memorial Day. Unfortunately, many skeptics dismiss Christianity as such an “emotion” with little practical relevance for our secular age. 

Christians can make the same mistake. 

If we are not experiencing Jesus personally, our faith quickly becomes a “heritage emotion” confined to a day and a building. And we miss the “abundant life” our Lord came to give (John 10:10). 

When last did God speak to you through Scripture, prayer, and worship? When last did his Spirit control your day (Ephesians 5:18) and make you more like Jesus (Romans 8:29)?  

Anything less than life-changing encounters with Christ is not authentic Christianity. Anything less will not show our skeptical culture why our faith is more than a “heritage emotion.” Anything less will not prepare us for eternity. 

And we have only today to be ready. 

The death and life of Rachel Held Evans 

Rachel Held Evans was one of the most prominent voices in contemporary Christian culture.A former evangelical, she described eloquently her frustration with conservative Christianity and her affirmation of LGBT persons. While I disagreed with her on many theological issues, I admired her brilliance and passion. 

Evans had recently been treated for an infection and began experiencing brain seizures. She was placed in a medically induced coma but died last Saturday at the age of thirty-seven. She leaves a husband and two children—a three-year-old boy and a girl who will soon turn one. 

Her last blog post was on March 6, Ash Wednesday. In it she wrote, “Death is a part of life. My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.” 

Because Jesus is risen, you are never alone (Matthew 28:20). You have all of God there is. 

Does he have all of you there is?

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Publication Date: May 6, 2019

Photo Courtesy: Rachel Held Evans Facebook Page

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