Thursday, May 17, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Inspired - Slaying Giants, Walking On Water, And Loving The Bible Again

In her June 2018 new release Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking On Water, And Loving The Bible Again, Rachel Held Evans re-discovers the Bible of her childhood, emerging from a season of disillusionment with contemporary American Christianity. Seamlessly incorporating a conversant array of academic and spiritual voices, Evans clears space for her readers to encounter ancient Scripture in new, relevant ways.

I picked up Inspired for three reasons:

1. The Bible has always been a special, sacred book to me, but lately, this holy book has felt distant.

2. Throughout time, the Bible has been weaponized, outside of its historical and literary context, to justify slavery, war, segregation, oppression of women and other minorities, exploitation of indigenous people, socially convenient sins, and political manipulation. This troubles me.

“It’s easy for modern-day readers to forget that the Bible was written by oppressed religious minorities living under the heels of powerful nation-states known for their extravagant wealth and violence… When you belong to the privileged class of the most powerful global military superpower in the world, it can be hard to relate to the oppressed minorities who wrote so much of the Bible… The truth is, the shadow under which most of the world trembles today belongs to America.” - Inspired, p. 129
3. There are passages of scripture that seem to grate against my most core beliefs as a human, namely that every life is sacred and that every person is equal in dignity before God regardless of gender, race, wealth, or any other state of life -- for example, mass genocide by the Israelites (re: VeggieTales’ “Joshua and the Big Wall”) and Moses’ endorsement of eugenics by sex, race, and gender to kill, even, infants.

Until I picked up Rachel Held Evans’ book Inspired, the explanations I’ve repeatedly heard for these passages – one, that it’s more merciful to kill the babies of pagans so they die as innocents in God’s mercy rather than let them grow up as pagans and go to hell; two, that it’s worth killing the innocent young of our enemies out of future self-defense against their vengeance – have not left me satisfied.

I tend to avoid young writers, assuming they lack the seasoning of life necessary to bring perspective to any person outside their own cultural experience. Since Rachel Evans and I had similar childhood faith experiences, I knew her book would have personal relevance -- and hopefully, resolution -- for me. Surprisingly, her inclusion of numerous diverse, authoritative voices culminates in a book that’s as academic as it is relevant, and notably, not limited to the spiritual nourishment of 30-something-year-old women.

Through ancient and contemporary biblical commentary, storytelling, and historical sources, Evans explores Scripture with an honest, concerned, and hopeful approach.

She observes how much of the Bible’s poetry is lament – 40% of all psalms -- yet the top 100 songs used in contemporary worship today includes only four or five on “mourning or frustration.” Evans wonders how this reflects the church’s understanding of suffering. 

For anyone who’s wondered if vengeance is God-ordained from the graphic anger of certain psalms, Evans quotes Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris: “Poetry’s function is not to explain but to offer images and stories that resonate with our lives.” Without this understanding of the psalms, we might come away confused by the hyperbole, violence, and strong emotion of the psalms rather than comforted by our shared human experience of lament with the psalmist.

I once made the mistake of reading a fictionalized story of Queen Esther. It moralized the king’s concubine establishment, justified the banishment of his first wife for her refusal to strip tease before the court (her public disrespect toward her husband being the greater sin), and somehow, the author of this Christian romance/historical fiction mash-up attempted to turn Esther’s desperate, dangerous predicament into a legit love story.

Ever since that culture-washed butchering of Esther’s heroic, tragic, and at times, comedic, ancient story, I have refused to read biblical historical fiction.

Inspired has a story-telling element in every other chapter, and while non-fiction is Evans’ stronger genre, I’m glad I broke my ban against Scripture-based fiction to pick up this book. Through her re-examination of familiar Bible passages using a story format, Evans relies heavily on the Jewish tradition of midrash, rabbinic commentary that relies on early interpretations, additional historical accounts, and tradition as context.

“...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. ...In addition to once again prioritizing modern, Western (and often uniquely American) concerns, this notion overlooks one of the most central themes of Scripture itself: God stoops… From slipping into flesh and eating, laughing, suffering, healing, weeping, and dying among us as part of humanity, the God of Scripture stoops and stoops and stoops. It is no more beneath God to speak to us using poetry, proverb, letters, and legend than it is for a mother to read storybooks to her daughter at bedtime.” - Inspired, p. 11
Growing up in a Christian tradition that adhered to strictly literal biblical interpretation – for fear that any looser approach would lead to the complete unraveling of consistency, and ultimately, Truth – I found the use of midrash in pondering sacred Scripture both comforting and revealing.

My own spiritual journey has led me to the history-and-tradition-laden Catholic Church, I believe as a rebound from the isolation I experienced while attempting a Sola Scriptura faith without the buttress of historical tradition or ecclesial authority.

Evans’ spiritual journey brought her to an Episcopal community. An interview with “Religion News” discusses Evans’ search for meaning as she transitioned away from Evangelicalism, addressing the common question of our decade: why are millennials leaving the church?

“If you try to woo us back with skinny jeans and coffee shops, it may actually backfire. Millennials have finely-tuned B.S. meters that can detect when someone’s just trying to sell us something. We’re not looking for a hipper Christianity. We’re looking for a truer Christianity. Like every generation before and after, we’re looking for Jesus—the same Jesus who can be found in the places he’s always been: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these. No fog machines required.” – Rachel Held Evans, Interview with “Religion News,” March 9, 2015
Evans references growing up in “Monkey-Town,” the theme of one of her earlier books, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial that determined whether creationism or evolution would be taught in public schools.

On Genesis, she writes, “Israel’s origins stories weren’t designed to answer scientific, twenty-first-century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing, ancient questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation.”

On seemingly God-ordained genocide, Evans considers, “By the time many of the Bible’s war stories were written down, many generations had passed. ...The writers of Joshua and Judges... rely more on drama and bravado than the straightforward recitation of fact” (p. 74).

Furthermore, archaeologists working in the Middle East are doubtful the epic battles recorded in the Bible actually resulted in the violent obliteration claimed by their early writers. “It was common for warring tribes in ancient Mesopotamia to refer to decisive victories as ‘complete annihilation’ or ‘total destruction,’ even when their enemies lived to find another day” (p. 74). Referencing the famous Battle of Jericho -- the source of many vaguely violent children’s reenactments -- historic research indicates Jericho was only a 6-acre military outpost, most likely without civilians, save the prostitute who betrayed them. (Perhaps they should have treated her more kindly…)

Discussing her Scriptural renewal process in Inspired, Evans shares how reading diverse biblical scholarship led her to a greater embrace of the Bible as sacred, relevant, and inspirational:

“... I encountered writers, activists, pastors, and biblical scholars who masterfully appealed to Scripture to advocate for social justice and reconciliation, and who prioritized in their work and imaginations biblical characters I’d never really noticed before -- characters like the daughters of Zelophehad, who successfully lobbied the leaders of Israel for the right for women to inherit property, and the Ethiopian eunuch from the book of Acts, whose status as an ethnic and sexual minority makes his dramatic baptism especially meaningful to those who have been treated as outsiders. I had never before considered that Joseph, the despised brother with the coat of many colors, was a victim of human trafficking, or that Jesus himself was once, as a child, a refugee.” - Inspired, p. 44
The activism awakened in Evans’ new embrace of Scripture has made her a leading Christian feminist voice for advocacy and intersectionality today. Her op-ed response to John Piper on why patriarchy cannot solve the #metoo crisis unabashedly reveals the inequality and abuse women have suffered, even (and particularly) in Evangelical households, under systems of patriarchy:
“[Piper’s assertion] assumes sexual assault, harassment, and abuse are recent phenomena, products of egalitarian views on gender that grant women equality in the home, church, and culture. But abuses like these have been around for centuries. In fact, Piper can read about some of them in his Bible in the stories of women like Hagar, Tamar, Lot’s daughters, and Bathsheba, all of whom lived in highly patriarchal cultures. The #MeToo movement does not reflect some sudden increase in the abuse of women; rather, it reflects a growing awareness of those abuses, and a mounting, collective fervor to confront them. It’s a movement led by and for women, women who aren’t asking for some sort of paternalistic “protection” because they are fragile females, but rather to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve simply because they are human beings.” – Rachel Held Evans
On household codes, Evans writes, “Many modern readers assume teachings about wives submitting to their husbands appear exclusively in the pages of Scripture and thus reflect uniquely ‘biblical’ views about women’s roles in the home.” As Evans goes on to describe, this male-dominated household structure is more a reflection of historical norms than new religious ideals.

As historical texts confirm, it was nothing new to Greco-Roman society that women, children, and slaves were property, all in submission under a male ruler. The novelty of St. Paul’s words, and the new truth introduced through Christ, is in what follows: husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church. St. Paul further instructed everyone, men included, to submit to one another. This was a new standard to believers hearing his letters for the first time.

Evans introduces a new perspective on homosexuality that gives me pause, referencing sins of lust recorded in the New Testament to be sins of excess in the highly-sexualized culture of that time, different from faithful, gay relationships today. In the midrash tradition she describes throughout the book, Evans leaves this polarized, contemporary issue open to discussion for conscientious Christians to discuss and disagree.

I recognize genuine love relationships among my gay friends, in truly desiring the good of another. There is true virtue – not a shadow or imitation – in their love and in their lives. There is generosity, compassion, and commitment that even many sacramental marriages lack.

Notwithstanding, I also believe Catholic Church teaching on marriage (which, for what it’s worth, would exclude many modern-day secular and religious heterosexual marriages that are nonetheless worthy of legal protection, medical advocacy and inheritance rights, and consideration as adoptive parents).

I hesitate to open this can of worms in a book review, especially since I can’t offer anything more than admission that I’m on a journey in seeking solidarity with my LGBTQ friends, desiring their full legal rights to be respected in our country, while also respecting the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage. I’m not sure what that looks like, but I want to keep the conversation open.

My favorite chapter in Evans’ new book deals with the Gospel itself. In flash moments, she tells story after story after story of a unique person’s unique experience of God’s unique intervention in the New Testament. She warns against modern-day attempts to codify God or de-humanize Jesus:

“Jesus didn’t just ‘come to die.’ Jesus came to live- to teach, to heal, to tell stories, to protest, to turn over tables, to touch people who weren’t supposed to be touched and eat with people who weren’t supposed to be eaten with, to break bread, to pour wine, to wash feet, to face temptation, to tick off authorities, to fulfill Scripture, to forgive, to announce the start of a brand new kingdom, to show us what that kingdom is like, to show us what God is like, to love his enemies to the point of death at their hands, and to beat death by rising from the grave. Jesus did not simply die to save us from our sins. Jesus lived to save us from our sins. His life and teachings show us the way to liberation.” - Inspired, p. 162
Every single Christian has their own story, their own encounter with God, grappling with Jesus as both true God and true man, their own unrepeatable experiences sifting and pondering through Scripture, as Christians and Jews have done for centuries with our shared holy texts.

The main takeaway I received from Inspired is the goodness of searching and the freedom to question. I was hoping for a more stark resolution, an answer book to my Bible difficulties. Instead, Evans sets the stage for her reader to wrestle with God, just as Jacob in the wilderness – to wrestle the Almighty until we are blessed.

“So I brought my whole self into the wilderness with God -- no faking, no halfway. And there hwe wrestled.” (Inspired, p. 70)

Rachel Held Evans' book, Inspired, will be released on June 12, 2018. You can pre-order on Amazon.


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