Thursday, May 10, 2018

Book Review: Inspired by Rachel Held Evans

A book about the Bible by a memoirist may seem like an odd undertaking, but anyone who has loved the Bible as much as I, and who has lost it and found it again, knows how a relationship with the Bible can be as real and as complicated as a relationship with a family member or close friend. For better or worse, my story is inextricably tethered to the stories of Scripture, right down to my first name. Rather than attempting to rend the threads of my life from those of the sacred text, I hope to better understand their interconnectedness, and perhaps, to step back far enough to see a tapestry emerge. - Rachel Held Evans, Inspired

I clearly remember the time--the first time, that is--when my faith began to fall apart. I was in my second semester of college as a Religion major and was enrolled in several Biblical Studies courses that spring, including one that dealt heavily with the concept of the "historical Jesus," a scholarly attempt to get behind the faith claims of the Gospels and see what definite things one could say about the real life person who lived in 1st Century Galilee.

I had a much more conservative-minded approach to scripture in those days, and largely was able to brush off most of what I'd been reading and learning. I believed not only in the truth of the Bible, but that it presented factual accounts not just about Jesus but about other characters as well: Adam and Eve, Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jonah, the Apostles, and so on.

But on one fateful Tuesday evening during Bible study, it all seemed to crumble down at once. The claims of my classroom studies were causing more and more friction with the claims of the night's discussion, until finally near the end of our time together I thought to myself, "I don't know if I believe this any more."

The next few months--and really, the rest of my life so far--would feature a deep and abiding wrestling not just with the Bible's contents, but with what the Bible itself was to me. Is it a closed canon handed down and divinely dictated whole cloth for eternally-relevant application, or does its origins, gradual collection, authorial diversity of experience, and occasional historical, scientific, and literary dubiousness make it something still capable of communicating truth about God, life, and faith, yet in ways more nuanced than before?

This is one of the questions at the heart of Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. Evans' journey has also been one of beginning steeped in a subculture that approached the Bible in a certain way, and when the questions and contradictions that came with her own study became too big to ignore, she began a transition to a different way of nurturing faith and discipleship and of reading the Bible.

Evans recounts this journey more thoroughly in her previous works, particularly Faith Unraveled, and in fact a read through that book may serve as a helpful background to some of what she shares here. But her self-identifying as a memoirist is appropriate, as she shares personal anecdotes in nearly every chapter to help flesh out some of her own experiences that led her to revisit her view of scripture and its meaning for her now.

However, her own story is far from the only element at work here. Evans pulls from a variety of trusted scholars both past and present. She was intentionally diverse in choosing the voices that helped inform her approach, pulling thoughts from thinkers such as Walter Brueggemann, William Barber, Peter Enns, Nyasha Junior, and Amy-Jill Levine, among many others, as she delves into the stories of the Bible and the stories behind the Bible.

Evans' basic approach is to separate the Bible into the unique genres that make up its pages, and her natural inclination toward telling, sharing, and examining stories provide the framework and lens through which she examines them. She looks at stories of origins such as the early chapters of Genesis, stories of liberation such as Exodus and some of the prophets, stories of war such as in Joshua, stories of wisdom such as Job and the Psalms, and stories of Jesus and the early church, among others. She treats each as part of an expression of a larger narrative the people behind its pages are trying to make sense of for themselves, but also connects those stories to modern life through her own experiences and parallels to contemporary events and issues.

As an additional aid to her overall presentation, each chapter is accompanied by a retelling of each scriptural portion, including first-person accounts from Hagar and the Samaritan woman at the well, a short play of Job and his friends, and the story of Peter stepping out of the boat to meet Jesus on the water cast as a Choose Your Own Adventure story. These are often cleverly done and help set the stage for the analysis to come. Evans' writing has always had a certain light touch even when exploring serious issues, and these preludes help present the scholarship to follow in accessible ways that many readers will appreciate.

Evans' awareness of how difficult questions related to the Bible can be serves her very well, and many will benefit from her sensitivity, her attentiveness to scholarship, and her ability to connect it to present-day experience. Whether one is nearing their own Tuesday evening crisis of faith or just wants to make better sense of how this strange collection of stories relates to a modern understanding of faith, Inspired provides an easy on-ramp to that conversation.

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again releases on June 12, 2018.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)