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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Thoughts and Prayers

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I was a freshman in high school when I first considered the possibility of a school shooting.

Someone had made an off-handed remark about shooting his classmates. Regardless of his intention–a failed attempt at dark humor, or maybe deeply-rooted cynicism– it was received as it should have been: seriously, and as a threat to our safety. That week, rumors spread throughout the school like wildfire: it would happen on Friday. He had a list. A few people were on his ‘safe list.’ We analyzed his personality and behavior. We asked ourselves if we were surprised.

Our principal composed a letter that we, in turn, gave to our parents. It stated the nature of the threat, the rumors, and how the faculty members were responding. I don’t remember the specifics, but I remember what it boiled down to: we would be safe.

Even so, many of us debated if we would come to school that Friday. That Thursday night, I pored over my Bible and texted my friends about how scared I was. I didn’t know what to do.

I’m not sure how or why I decided to attend school the next day, but I did. I wrote a Bible verse on my hand, because it gave me courage. My friend Lindsey wore a Superman shirt, simultaneously a cheeky response to the rumors and a middle finger to danger. Many of my classmates did not come to school. I didn’t blame them. There was fear and tension in the air that did not disappear until the last bell rang.

And thankfully, we were safe.

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I was twenty-three when I was told one of my cousins had been injured in a shooting. It was the sort of moment where everything stops. Nothing felt real–because we spend years watching the news and hearing these stories over and over again and it’s a distant problem, one defined by distant sadness and stilted sympathy, and then it happens to someone you love.

I stayed home from work. At the time, I was living with my friends Rose and Christina, as well as my older cousin, Chris. Our cousin Alyssa lived nearby. She came over. None of us wanted to be alone. We ordered pizza, because pizza fixes everything. Or at least, it used to.

There were many mass shootings before these horrible days in my life. And there have been many mass shootings after.

Columbine.

Sandy Hook.

Orlando.

Las Vegas.

Parkland.

So many, in fact, that I know this does not even begin to cover it. I cannot name or remember them all, and that horrifies me. Is this what we consider normal? Massacres that we cannot recall? Yet another news story that states that a shooting was the deadliest in our nation’s history?

To put it simply: I’m tired.

We should not have to live like this. High school students especially should not have to live like this. They should be shopping for prom dresses and dreaming about college–not organizing marches and calling our leaders out on their bullshit. And the victims deserve a hell of a lot more than our government’s thoughts and prayers.

You may not agree with me about gun reform. I can accept that. I’ll accept that begrudgingly, but that’s a rant for another day–and quite frankly, you can Google all the data that has led me to my current convictions. At the end of the day, violence is a multi-faceted problem and it requires a multi-faceted solution.

I only have ideas about what gun reform should entail, but I do know that thoughts and prayers are not enough. I don’t think they are meaningless–I pray every single day because I a) I am a Christian, and prayer is an integral part of my faith, and b) I believe it changes my heart, which in turn changes the world around me.

But faith without works is dead. And until we actively respond to this violence, we are worshiping an abstract, absent god instead of the God we claim to serve: the God of divine Love who is made manifest in Her people.  

Jesus prayed. He prayed a lot, actually.

And then he did something.

What are we going to do?

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First and foremost, we need to speak out.

Everytown has started a campaign called Throw Them Out, encouraging constituents to tell Congress that they support common sense gun laws. Remember: our government represents us–not the NRA. My personal hero Glennon Doyle explains more in this video:

 

Consider attending a protest in your area. The Women’s March is organizing a walkout on March 14; another is scheduled for April 20, the nineteenth anniversary of the Columbine shooting. On March 24, there’s March For Our Lives, a protest in Washington DC (and other cities across the US) to demand gun reform legislation.

We also need to respond with an outpouring of love. Support the people who have been affected by this most recent shooting; they have a long road ahead of them. Write a letter to students. Donate to the victims and their families. Give your loved ones an extra hug.

Have open conversations. Destigmatize therapy and mental illness. Hold our government accountable.

This issue is not a gun issue OR a mental health issue. It is AND/ BOTH. Which is why I am a mental health advocate AND a gun reform advocate. It’s also about toxic masculinity. It’s also about media glorification of killers. It’s ALSO about guns. Instead of arguing- Pick one and get to work. It’s gonna take all of us.

Glennon Doyle 

It will not be easy.

But we can do this.

Let’s make history.

Land of the Free

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My first real introduction to politics was the year 2000.

I was eight years old. Our teacher had just given a lesson about the two presidential candidates: George W. Bush and Al Gore. He then handed us a worksheet with a short, kid-friendly version of each candidate’s platform.

I didn’t know anything about those two men, but I was thrilled to learn. As I weighed my options, I decided that George W. Bush didn’t say anything bad…but I liked Al Gore much better. The reason was simple: he said he wanted to take care of animals and the environment. George W. Bush hadn’t said anything of the sort.

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Clearly, not much has changed, because I was super pumped to wear this ‘Vote Cats’ tee.

A few minutes later, I cast my “vote” for Al Gore and felt patriotic as hell (for an eight-year-old, anyway.).

I made my choice the way most children make decisions: quickly, passionately, and so confidently.

Needless to say, I was shocked to discover my parents weren’t all that fond of Mr. Gore.

“But he cares about animals!” I protested. My tiny treehugger heart was breaking. How could they not care?

My parents tried to explain that George W. Bush probably cared about animals, too. That they had personal, well-thought out reasons for voting the way they did, and you can’t always vote based on one issue alone.

It did not help. I was desperate to make someone understand. I kept telling my parents that animals were important. When relatives came to visit, I pestered them mercilessly about their vote. I was distraught: someone had to be wrong, and I didn’t want it to be me.

That was sixteen years ago–and yet, that passionate, confident version of myself is alive and well. I am a vegetarian. A feminist. A Christian. I voted for Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, while my parents almost always voted Republican.

I have been disagreeing with people about politics for a long, long time. And in that way, this election feels incredibly familiar.

The fear and anger does not.

I am not angry because my candidate lost, or because people voted differently (however vehemently I disagree).

I am not afraid because I believe that Donald Trump holds infinite power.

I am angry because of the bigotry, ignorance, and hatred that is so clearly rampant in the country I call home.

I am afraid because people I love are afraid.

I know what it is like to be a woman in this world; I do not know what it is like to be LGBTQ, an immigrant, a refugee, a person of color, or a Muslim. The government may be against many aspects of my life, but I am living with a great deal of privilege.

My intent is not to shame anyone for voting for Trump. I do, however, want to bring attention to the systems of oppression that exist in the twenty-first century.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

-Desmond Tutu

Long before I cast my pretend vote for Al Gore, I admired people–especially women– who spoke their mind. I was shy, but I wanted to be like Disney’s Esmeralda. And then I wanted to be like Hermione, and Elphaba, and countless other women (fictional or otherwise).

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I want to be like those women, and I want to be like Jesus. He was sinless, yes, but he ruffled some feathers in his day, too.

I will not be silent. Not now. Not when so many fear their rights will be stripped away.

I am not perfect. I may be doing this justice thing totally wrong. I may have an especially bad day and say something I don’t mean. I am sure I already have, and for that, I am sorry.

If you feel marginalized, angry, or afraid, I am with you. I am here to listen to your stories and offer support. We cannot simply claim to be the land of the free; we have to live it. I am here to fight back, because there are no outcasts in God’s Kingdom. 

This week has been horrific in many ways–but in spite of it all, I have seen so much kindness. Pain is an odd thing: where there is hurt, there is also healing. And there is hope, and love, and all the things I was sure would vanish when I woke up Wednesday morning.

The truth is not that we are more divided than ever; it is that we are all in this together.

United.

worthy

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.