Mari HowardMay 9, 2019


by Rachel Held Evans

This is a long overdue review of a fantastic book by an inspirational author. Rachel Held Evans, born into Southern U.S. evangelicalism, began questioning the ‘givens’ of Biblical faith and lifestyle as she grew into a young adult. Rather than giving in to those in her community who sidelined or justified her concerns about faith and Biblical teachings, using ‘proof texts’, disapproval of her ‘heresy’, or horror at the very thought that she could ask these questions, she set about an intelligent and thoughtful search amongst all the Biblical scholarship she could find.

At first, she says, this turned her into ‘something of a Bible bully’, (xviii, introduction). But that evolved into what she calls, writing in Inspired, a kind pilgrimage in which, via reading and studying, she found herself following ‘undoubtedly, those who have gone before(her),… whose lives of faithful questioning taught (her) not to fear (her) doubts but to embrace and learn from them’.

Rachel’s earlier books recount this journey, in, for example, her ‘Searching for Sunday’ and ‘Faith Unravelled’, but the one which introduced Rachel to me is her ‘A year of Biblical Womanhood’.  There she describes how she set about researching, and living out, all the Bible’s apparent ‘instructions’ on female roles and ritual behaviour – including those found in the Old Testament which are kept by practising Orthodox Jewish women today. She even camped out in a tent during her periods in order to experience keeping these rules to the letter. She also talked with and listened to Orthodox Jewish women, and women from very fundamentalist Christian groups, about how they kept Biblical laws in today's society. The result is a fascinating and sensible assessment  of an extensive range of laws and traditions from a different time and different culture which could be applied to the lives of contemporary women by fundamentalist pastors, as living ‘Biblically’, but in general are not.

Now, in Inspired, she has put together another intelligent and more wide ranging look at what the Bible is, and what it is not. It is a volume, containing a library of different types of book: stories, laws, letters, poems. All ancient, all of different ages, and by different authors coming from different viewpoints as the religion of Judaism evolved, and the teachings of Christianity were added.

On Amazon U.K., considering the popularity of Rachel Held Evans among readers from the Christian section of our population, I was amazed to find only three reviews of Inspired.  Added to these three were two examples from Over on there are far more reviews, from the U.S. population, including long tirades from fundamentalists disturbed by Rachel’s approach, keen to put readers right about theology and belief. Especially these reviewers were concerned by her use of the phrase ‘play with’ the possible meanings and teachings of the many, many, stories in the text – for example, the creation story in Genesis, the sacrifice of Isaac, and many others. For them, a story may be a historical incident, and it must have one meaning, even if later investigation of the translation and cultural habits of the time reveal that whoever made this a proof text could have got it wrong.

Inspired is a book to be read thoughtfully. The scholarly background rings true and sound to me (and I studied the subject at university). And the attitude, (never mind ‘play with’ as a phrase meaning to think around, to consider other options,) is not one of disrespect. Rather, it is referring, with a light touch, to including in our search for the true meaning and application of Biblical writings using wisdom from Jewish sources (such as their practice of ‘Midrash’). Including this ancient practice in Biblical study gives much credibility to understanding that the Bible is not and is not intended to be a handbook for keeping a set of laws but a graceful picture of God’s dealing with the planet and the people and creatures on it,  evolving through time, a book of writings giving knowledge and understanding to apply as we debate its content.

I will end with some quotations which give a feel of the book. Rachel writes in the introduction of how she has learnt from ‘the rich history of Jewish interpretation… (that) the mysteries and contradictions of Scripture weren't meant to be fought against but courageously engaged, and that the Bible by its very nature invites us to wrestle, doubt, imagine, and debate. Liberation theology… and feminist Biblical interpretations showed me how the stories of Scripture could be wisely appropriated for social good by pointing us to justice. The spiritual practices of Lectio Divina and Ignatian meditation… helped me recover a devotional element to Scripture reading that had long ago gone missing." (pp. xxi-ii)

Now almost unbelievably this gentle and intelligent author is no longer with us. Shortly before Easter, Rachel was taken severely ill and she has not survive this. She was only 37 and much loved by her many readers and followers, and leaves a husband, Dan, and two small children. It falls to those of us who believed in her work to carry it on.

Inspired remains a thoroughly good and useful read, whether you believe or whether you don't.