The Book That Brought Me Back to the Bible
God and I have always been on good terms.
The church and I made up recently. The Bible and I just reunited, reconciled by Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. I knew New York Times bestselling author Rachel Held Evans’s work well enough to trust this book, releasing June 12, to be solid. I didn’t know the subtitle’s bit about loving the Bible again would be prophetic for me.
As a disclaimer, I’m friends with Rachel. We aren’t text-every-day besties, but we’re more than acquaintances. We hug and swap parenting stories whenever we see each other. I’ve learned a lot from her, and I’d like to think she’s learned from me, too.
That said, I take books seriously. If this book sucked, I’d write that. (As a friend, I’d give her a heads-up before publication that my review was less than a rave, but I’d still submit it.)
“I don’t agree with everything Rachel writes, but…”
I’ve never understood caveats like that. I’ve been writing online since my Xanga weblog in 2006. I don’t know if it even exists anymore, but if it does, I’m certain I’d disagree with at least 60 percent of the content I wrote then. When I post a link to this article on social media, though, I won’t start with, “I don’t agree with everything Shannon Dingle writes, but…”
One of the main themes of Inspired is that we can wrestle with God and debate scripture’s meaning, with others or with ourselves, in messy ways. We can disagree. Evans argues that we’re meant to do that. The tidy “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” is oversimplified at best. We’re not meant to walk away from the Bible certain in our own answers, because where does that leave room for faith?
In a Christian environment in which we tend to group every opinion or person into camps for battle, Evans writes in the introduction,
I hope to show how the Bible can be captivating and true when taken on its own terms, avoiding both strict literalism on the one hand and safe, disinteresting liberalism on the other… I tackle this subject not as a scholar, but as a storyteller and literature lover who believes understanding the genre of a given text is the first step to engaging it in a meaningful way.
I expect Evans’ story-playing with some biblical texts at the start of each section will draw criticism, ironically enough from the same camps that consider Francine Rivers’ creativity with the Old Testament book of Hosea in Redeeming Love or the so-called satire from the Babylon Bee to be excellent or at least acceptable. We all play with the Bible, Evans points out.
A complete reading of the Bible should lead us to include rather than exclude, Evans argues, not only through her assertions but also by modeling inclusion in her language.
“While Christians tend to turn to scripture to end a conversation, Jews turn to Scripture to start a conversation,” Evans explains, as she suggests that “Christians can learn a lot about Scripture from those who have had it the longest.” Part of Jewish tradition is playful interpretation of what’s in the sacred stories. Evans isn’t the first to do this, but her presentation is unique: of creation as a bedtime story told from a father to daughter, Hagar’s encounter with God and the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus as first-person narratives, the walls coming down in Jericho as a historical debate, the wisdom in Job as a one-act play, the Bible’s tales of beasts and prophets as a poem, Peter’s experience of walking on water as a choose-your-own-adventure story, and an imagined reading of one of Paul’s letters by women as contextualization for the content. Each playful interpretation leads into one of her chapters: origin stories, deliverance stories, war stories, wisdom stories, resistance stories, gospel stories, fish stories, and church stories.
One of her remakes of an old tale made me think, “Hmm, this is an interesting approach, but I wouldn’t tell it quite this way.” But that’s exactly the point Evans is making. Each lead-in is what came from her reading of the scripture from her personal context, understanding, and background. One of the paragraphs I highlighted in my copy reads:
In other words, Bible stories don’t have to mean just one thing. Despite what you may have heard from a pastor or Sunday school teacher along the way, faithful engagement with Scripture isn’t about uncovering a singular, moralistic point to every text and then sticking to it. Rather, the very nature of the biblical text invites us to consider the possibilities.
As she acknowledges, Evans is still wrestling with God. I am, too. I think we all are, whether we admit it or not.
As we do, we won’t agree with everything we said last year or maybe even last week. That’s okay. When you settle on a certain genre or passage in the Bible, you’re choosing your own adventure. Maybe that’s the whole point.
Two spots in Inspired surprised me with wet eyes. The tears sprung from unlikely pages, at least for many readers.
When Evans writes about her childhood faith not taking into account the stories of oppression and liberation for marginalized groups, she confesses,
I remained complicit in systems of injustice that hurt my neighbors of color, and those with disabilities, and those living in the developing world because I hadn’t learned to center their stories, to see things from their point of view.
Later, as she writes about living out her belief in the gospel, Evans asks, in a series of questions,
Am I working to break down religious and political barriers that marginalize ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities and people with disabilities?
I’m a reader. I take books seriously. I have a freakishly good memory.
I’m disabled. I notice when justice movements and discussions of marginalization (efforts that I not only support but also wholeheartedly participate in) exclude people with disabilities. I don’t mean we aren’t welcome at the table, though sometimes we’re physically or socially exiled without intent, like when I’ve shown up in my wheelchair to a space with no ramp or elevator for access. I mean the discussion doesn’t include the injustices unique to our experiences. (Churches fought successfully against the Americans with Disabilities Act when it was passed, arguing accessibility was too burdensome for them and government rules shouldn’t dictate church buildings, so places of worship don’t have to have ramps or other accessibility features required by the ADA for other spaces.)
Inspired was life-changing for me. It’s been like a marriage counselor saving me from divorcing myself from scripture.
My freakishly good memory means I can tell you the last time I read a Christian book citing disability as an area of marginalization within the church from an author whose work isn’t centered in a related field or family doesn’t include a diagnosis. It was seven years ago. I’m not saying no book included a mention like these, but I read 150 to 200 books a year and none of the more than 1000 books I’ve read since April 2011 have included people with disabilities with Evans’ specificity even once, much less twice like she does in Inspired.
I don’t believe people with disabilities are more deserving of justice than any other marginalized group. Just like saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean Black Lives Matter More, I’m simply saying that justice movements that exclude disabled people are yet another system of injustice for us. These systems are so often unacknowledged that I’m rarely surprised and often act like it doesn’t hurt.
But it does. Reading Evans’s words including people with disabilities, people like me and several of my children, whispered to me, “You matter.” I felt seen. A complete reading of the Bible should lead us to include rather than exclude, Evans argues in Inspired, not only through her assertions but also by modeling inclusion in her language.
I have friends who call everything life-changing.
“This latte will change your life.”
“OMG, petting that super soft chinchilla was life-changing.”
“My life will never be the same after using these bath salts.”
I love lattes (miel all the way), chinchillas (we have four as pets), and bath salts (a bath, a book, a candle, and lavender Epsom salts are my favorite way to end a day). I just don’t consider them life-changing.
For me, "life-changing" means the knee surgeries I had in 2017 that stopped the life-long problem of my kneecaps dislocating once a month or so. "Life-changing" is sitting under the leadership of a black, single, woman pastor in our new church, when every previous pastor of mine was white and, with a few exceptions, male. "Life-changing" was being diagnosed with severe PTSD that started so young I didn’t know it wasn’t normal to re-experience agonizing moments from my past like I was back in that moment and time. (Hello, flashbacks.)
Inspired was life-changing for me. It’s been like a marriage counselor saving me from divorcing myself from scripture. I can’t promise it will do the same for you, but you won’t regret the time you spend reading it once it comes out June 12. After all, in Evans’s words:
If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm. With Scripture, we’ve been entrusted with some of the most powerful stories ever told. How we harness that power, whether for good or evil, oppression or liberation, changes everything.
Rachel Held Evans's new book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, is available for pre-order on Amazon.