Like many people, I was shocked and saddened at the recent death of Rachel Held Evans, the author and blogger who helped so many people see that Christianity is a faith of love and acceptance, even when so many of its adherents fail to be loving and accepting. I read her blog off and on for years and very much appreciated her book Searching for Sunday. My own faith journey was not unlike hers in that we were both raised in conservative evangelical churches and eventually made our way to the Episcopal church, while retaining a lot of concern for and interest in our more evangelical brethren.
I’ve had her most recent book, Inspired, on my shelf for a few months, and my sadness over her death got me to pull it off my shelf and read it. It’s similar to Searching for Sunday, except that instead of examining beliefs about the church, Inspired looks at how Christians have understood the Bible. In her view (and mine), the Bible is a collection of books of different genres and styles, and it’s important to consider the culture and worldview from which each book came when determining what it means. The Bible is ultimately not a literal history text (although it contains true stories), nor is it an instruction manual on how to live life (although it contains a great deal of good wisdom and advice).
Much of what Evans discusses here was not new to me. I studied the Bible at a fairly progressive seminary, and my church’s Education for Ministry program explored many of the same questions she tackles, but with greater depth. However, as with Searching for Sunday, I would have found this book immensely helpful, even life-changing, had I encountered it during the years when I was struggling with how my own attempts to understand the Bible in a literal way led me down paths that made no sense. Evans sums up my own feelings during that period:
The truth is, you can bend Scripture to say just about anything you want it to say. You can bend it until it breaks. For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We’re all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it. So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: are we reading with the prejudice of love, with Christ as our model, or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? Are we seeking to enslave or liberate, burden or set free?
In each chapter, Evans tackles a different sort of Bible story — origin stories, deliverance stories, war stories, wisdom stories, resistance stories, gospel stories, fish stories, church stories. She introduces each of these chapters with her own riffs on the biblical stories, often bringing them into a modern context. (These were clever, but not particularly my favorite parts of the book. I imagine they are the sort of thing that will totally work for you, or really won’t work much at all.) Each chapter then goes on to talk about some of the controversies surrounding the different narratives, how Evans herself has grappled with them, and what various scholars and preachers have had to say about them.
My favorite chapter was the one on war stories, in which Evans writes about how difficult it is to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the triumphant stories of violent conquest in much of the Bible. And it’s not just the stories that are troubling, there’s also the tendency of so many Christians to avoid asking hard questions about them at all. It’s in the Bible, so it must be ok. But that’s not good enough:
When you can’t trust your own God-given conscience to tell you what’s right, or your own God-given mind to tell you what’s true, you lose the capacity to engage the world in any meaningful authentic way, and you become an easy target for authoritarian movements eager to exploit that vacuity for their gain. I tried reading Scripture with my conscience and curiosity suspended, and I felt, quite literally, disintegrated. I felt fractured and fake.
Instead, Evans encourages readers to wrestle with the text, as Jacob wrestled with God in the desert. She doesn’t come to any conclusion about how to read these texts, other than to keep wrestling, looking to the stories in the margins, particularly of women. And don’t settle for unsatisfactory answers:
I’m in no rush to patch up these questions. God save me from the day when stories of violence, rape, and ethnic cleansing inspire within me anything other than revulsion. I don’t want to become a person who is unbothered by these texts, and if Jesus is who he says he is, then I don’t think he wants me to be either. There are parts of the Bible that inspire, parts that perplex, and parts that leave you with an open would, I’m still wrestling, and like Jacob, I will wrestle until I am blessed. God hasn’t let go of me yet.