Rachel Held Evans. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. Nelson Books, 2018. See here to buy the book.
Rachel Held Evans is a controversial religious author. She is known for her writings about her struggles with conservative evangelicalism and even Christianity in general, and she currently attends an Episcopalian church.
Inspired contains her reflections about the Bible. She talks about the Bible of her upbringing, as she learned the biblical stories from sanitized versions or from cartoons. As she grew older, she became troubled by aspects of the Bible, such as the Flood, the Akedah, and the Israelite Conquest. She also came to believe that conservative evangelicalism tries to tame the Bible and make it what it is not, by explaining away biblical contradictions and troubling passages. This book affirms the Bible, however, as it highlights where the Bible was progressive for its time and attempts to offer a constructive way to look at the Bible, one that takes into consideration the cultural context of its authors, the positive moral and spiritual trajectory of which they were part, and the complexity of moral and spiritual questions. While the book includes Evans’ reflections, it also has a creative element. There is a story about Jews in Babylonian exile holding on to the Genesis 1 creation story in the face of the Babylonian Enuma Elish, for example, as well as a modernization of the Job story.
I was a little reluctant to read this book, to tell you the truth. There was a time when I was somewhat of a RHE-groupie, in that I diligently read her blog and shared her posts. But I have had a variety of ideological seasons in my life, and right now I am in a season in which I tend to roll my eyes at progressive Christianity. I was expecting this book to be a smug, hyper-dramatic critique of “ignorant” conservatives from an “enlightened” progressive, with a hefty dose of Trump-bashing thrown into the mix. Well, the book had its share of Trump-bashing, and Evans’ view of biblical inspiration probably falls short of what a lot of conservative Christians believe. Still, the book displayed some openness to conservative perspectives. Evans referred to Greg Boyd’s thoughts about the Conquest, but also the thoughts of Paul Copan, who has more of an apologetic approach. She mentions midrashic attempts to defend or at least explain the Akedah. She critiques conservative perspectives she has encountered, but also progressive perspectives, and she speaks reflectively about her past as a “Bible bully” who smiled disparagingly when conservative Christians claimed that Paul wrote Colossians. Evans in the book comes across as one who is self-reflective and is pursuing truth, from a variety of sources, as she shares honestly and humbly what makes sense to her and what does not. The book would have been better, perhaps, had she at least tried to understand the perspective of conservative Christians who feel persecuted: this feeling is not limited to being wished “Happy Holidays” but extends to their livelihood being challenged because they choose to hold to their religious convictions. Still, Evans’ political viewpoint is understandable, in certain respects, especially when it comes to social justice issues.
This book was helpful in terms of my faith journey and my own attempts to come to terms with the Bible, especially when it coincided with other things I have been reading or thinking. Evans speculates that the Conquest story was developed as a way for ancient Israel to affirm its dependence on God amidst challenges, and that reminded me of Derek Leman’s insights on Deuteronomy, as he drew from Stephen Cook’s work. Leman speculates that the Conquest story in the time of Josiah served to give Judah faith as she was surrounded by imperial powers, and he says that the author of Deuteronomy may have had legitimate concerns about paganism but is over-zealous, at times. Such an approach is different from a conservative approach, but it resonates with me, somewhat. I end up sympathizing with the biblical authors as they attempted to articulate, find, and practice their faith. Evans also expresses her hope that God is renewing the world and that justice ultimately will triumph, and she is willing to take a leap of faith that such a hope is valid. I agree with her there.
I have been in seasons of disenchantment with conservative and progressive Christianity; neither one is really my “speech community,” if you will. Still, I respect the practice of wrestling with difficult questions. There are conservatives who do this, and Evans is a progressive Christian who does so.
I received a complimentary copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers. My review is honest.