Book Review: Inspired by Rachel Held Evans

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Note: As a member of the Launch Team, I received an advance reader copy from the publisher. 

Inspired: Slaying Giants Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again

One Woman’s Journey Back to Loving the Bible

If the Bible isn’t a science book or an instruction manual, then what is it? What do people mean when they say the Bible is inspired? When Rachel Held Evans found herself asking these questions, she began a quest to better understand what the Bible is and how it is meant to be read. What she discovered changed her—and it will change you too.

Drawing on the best in recent scholarship and using her well-honed literary expertise, Evans examines some of our favorite Bible stories and possible interpretations, retelling them through memoir, original poetry, short stories, soliloquies, and even a short screenplay. Undaunted by the Bible’s most difficult passages, Evans wrestles through the process of doubting, imagining, and debating Scripture’s mysteries. The Bible, she discovers, is not a static work but is a living, breathing, captivating, and confounding book that is able to equip us to join God’s loving and redemptive work in the world.

The first Bible story I ever doubted can be found in the Book of Jonah.

I was a wide-eyed seven-year-old, fiercely in love with Jesus and not yet jaded by religion. I devoured the tales in my children’s Bible as though they would disappear: from Eden to Moses to Esther, I read and was fascinated and accepted each account as truth.

And then, I turned the page. Like every other page, this one had a brightly-colored picture. But this picture made me frown. A man was swimming in the depths of the ocean, cowering from a gigantic fish.

Not a whale or a manatee, which I knew were huge aquatic mammals. A huge, scaly, fish.

This fish, I read, swallowed Jonah. The reluctant prophet stayed in the fish’s belly for three days.

Perhaps it was because I had never heard this story before, but everything about Jonah sounded like nonsense. A fish couldn’t swallow a man whole. He couldn’t live there for three days. What kind of fool did these Bible people take me for?! I wasn’t an IDIOT. I was SEVEN.

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I’ve been wrestling with the Bible ever since. I started going to church, and believed my Sunday school teachers when they said that everything in it was historically true. There was a time in my life when I doubted God and everything to do with religion, but I still wasn’t sure what to do with the Bible. Then, I fell in love with Jesus again. The Bible became real once more.

Now, I feel caught in the in-between: I think the Bible is not always literal, but that doesn’t make it untrue. I still struggle with certain stories, especially those that involve miracles or floods or plagues.

But I know I’m not alone in this. Rachel Held Evans has had similar struggles with faith, and I’m a huge fan of her work. When she announced she was writing a book about the Bible, I could hardly contain my excitement–and then jumped at the chance to join the launch team.

In many ways, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again is classic Rachel Held Evans. The book is divided by literary genre; it reminded me of her book Searching for Sunday, which is divided into chapters based on church sacraments. In each chapter of Inspired, she uses elements of memoir and draws on scholarship to explore these genres within the Bible, never abandoning the vulnerability I so admire.

“We’ve been instructed to reject any trace of poetry, myth, hyperbole, or symbolism even when those literary forms are virtually shouting at us from the page via talking snakes and enchanted trees. That’s because there’s a curious but popular notion circulating around the church these days that says God would never stoop to using ancient genre categories to communicate. Speaking to ancient people using their own language, literary structures, and cosmological assumptions would be beneath God, it is said, for only our modern categories of science and history can convey the truth in any meaningful way.”

Inspired by Rachel Held Evans

What’s different about Inspired, though, is that Rachel explores different genres and writing styles. Some chapters open with a short story (my favorites were the stories told from Hagar’s perspective, and the story about the woman that met Jesus at the well). One opens with a poem; another, a screenplay. While these works of fiction and poetry aren’t exactly necessaryI think the chapters stand well on their own, and I can see how this structure would feel a little confusing–they’re so much fun to read. They offer you a different perspective about the stories we think we know. Even if a story wasn’t my favorite, I always felt like I was implementing Ignatian prayer or midrash (Rachel also explains midrash in more detail) into my reading.

“The good news is as epic as it gets, with universal theological implications, and yet the Bible tells it from the perspective of fishermen and farmers, pregnant ladies and squirmy kids. This story about the nature of God and God’s relationship to humanity smells like mud and manger hay, and tastes like salt and wine. It is concerned, not simply with questions of eternity, but with paying taxes and filling bellies and addressing a woman’s chronic menstrual complications. It is the biggest story and the smallest story all at once—the great quest for the One Ring and the quiet friendship of Frodo and Sam.”

Inspired by Rachel Held Evans

Throughout the book, there is an emphasis on the importance of story. As a writer, this idea resonated with me powerfully. Christians often say that God is a great storyteller; yet, we act as though it is heresy to imply the Bible is made of stories we struggle to believe. Rachel also points out that we will get much more out of the Bible if we accept it for what it is, instead of making it into something it isn’t. Her insights on war stories, miracle stories, and the epistles were especially comforting to me.

While I sometimes found myself wanting to read more history about the Bible, or wondering what genre her fictional retellings were leading into, I couldn’t put the book down. I often read paragraphs out loud to my husband and finished by exclaiming, “JESUS IS SO COOL! I LOVE THIS BOOK! I LOVE RACHEL HELD EVANS!” before melting in a puddle of my emotions.

Overall, I gave Inspired 4/5 stars on Goodreads. My sincerest hope and prayer is that, like Rachel, we all learn to wrestle with this ancient book. At the very least, we’ll hear a great story.

 

Pre-order Inspired here, or buy it from your favorite bookseller on June 12, 2018. 

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I spent Easter morning bawling.

Not because I was sad, or because anything particularly bad happened. I wasn’t even that tired.  I was just sitting in church, listening to the all-too familiar story that gets told every Easter Sunday.

But I couldn’t stop crying.

I don’t remember when I was told about Jesus, but I know I was, because I believed that He loved me. I wasn’t aware of any other alternative–it was just a fact of life, and I accepted it the same way I accepted that my parents loved me and that we’d go to my grandparents’ house for Christmas.

Even during my freshman year of college, when I struggled deeply with the very idea of religion, I never stopped believing in God. I believed that there was Someone out there; I just wasn’t sure what that Someone was like. Was he really as loving as I had always thought? Or was he the angry, vengeful force of nature I had read about on picket signs?

A few Bible studies and sermons later, I found myself getting to know the Jesus from my childhood. The Jesus who loved. The Jesus who still does.

That fact was once again drilled into my brain: you are loved. 

Still, knowing something is different than truly believing it. I know I am loved, but some days, I wonder why. I’m not that special. I definitely spend more time turning away from God than I do turning to Him. I am too messy, too broken, and too stubborn for such perfect God to love me.

So why does He bother?

Love has to be more than a feeling. It is a choice; it is something you must act upon, or else it is not true love. I’ve had fights with my boyfriend, my friends, and my parents–none of which made me feel like I loved them very much. That sounds harsh, but it’s pretty difficult to feel love when you are angry or sad. I’ve always liked how Beverly Clearly writes about this in Beezus and Ramona, when Beezus (for those of you who haven’t read it, Beezus’s real name is Beatrice; Ramona just couldn’t pronounce her sister’s name correctly) is pretty pissed off at Ramona for ruining her birthday:

“Sometimes I just don’t love Ramona!” she blurted out, to get it over with. There! She had said it right out loud. And on her birthday, too. Now everyone would know what a terrible girl she was.

“My goodness, is that all that bothers you?” Mother sounded surprised.

Beezus nodded miserably.

“Why, there’s no reason why you should love Ramona all the time,” mother went on. “After all, there are probably lots of times when she doesn’t love you.”

A relationship with God is not unlike any other relationship here on earth. When I am hurt or confused, there are times I feel like I don’t love God. I used to feel guilty about that–I mean, it’s GOD– but I have come to realize that it is something we all struggle with. Even the greatest heroes of the Bible got kind of mad at God.

I think that’s why it can be so hard to believe that God’s love is unwavering. We expect it to come and go, just like our own human emotions. We expect Him to say, “Well, you messed up today, and I’m pretty pissed–so let me put away my thunderbolts, and we’ll talk tomorrow when I’ve cooled down a little bit.”

(God doesn’t have thunderbolts. That’s a joke. It may or may not be funny and it might be completely inappropriate. Sorry.) 

We talk about God’s love year-round, but it never feels as relevant as it does on Christmas or Easter. Walking into church that day, I expected to hear the story of the cross and the empty tomb. I did, but I also heard something that I felt like I hadn’t heard in a very long time:

You are worthy of love. 

That sounds ridiculous, right? I certainly don’t feel unloved. Drew and I say that we love each other. My best friends say ‘I love you’ to one another like, ten times a day. My family members do the same.

But as soon as I heard the word ‘worthy,’ the tears wouldn’t stop.

You are worthy of love.

 

Somewhere down the line, I had convinced myself that I was unlovable. Maybe, I thought, God only says he loves me because he has to. And so, I always demanded to know why he loved me.

But the word ‘worthy’ was the answer to my ‘why.’

When we feel most undeserving of love is when we need it the most. We are not loved despite our deepest hurts; we are loved because of them. We are loved because we are worthy of love–on our very best days, and on our very worst.

You are worthy of love.  

 

And that, my friends, will never change.