Just a heads up if you’re usually here for ethical fashion content, today I’m sharing a book review for progressive Christian author Rachel Held Evans’ newest book, Inspired, which will be available for purchase next week. As I continue to work through the discernment process to become a priest in the Episcopal Church, I am consciously trying to bring faith topics into my writing on this blog. I promise to never attempt to convert you. I received an advance reader copy of Inspired from the publisher.
Rachel Held Evans and I go way back. I mean, we don’t exactly know each other, at least not in real life, but reading her blog during my months and years of spiritual crisis was such a balm to my spirit. As I read her stories of doubt, pain, and exclusion within the context of her conservative, Evangelical church upbringing, I continuously whispered, “me too,” sometimes – ok, often – through tears. Her words emboldened me to claim my own experiences of spiritual trauma as legitimate, and to seriously work through my doubt and pain in a way that was productive, and ultimately restored my relationship with God and with the church (though a very different one than the one I grew up in).
I’ve read all but her very first book: A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Searching for Sunday, and now, Inspired. And I can trace the ebb and flow of Rachel’s own religious life and her orientation toward God and people of faith in her writing. In Inspired, I sense Rachel’s newfound comfort in an inclusive and affirming religious community. Whereas before the pain was raw and the path dimly lit, in Inspired you can see that she knows who she is, and that quiet confidence allows grace to flow through her writing in a way I haven’t perceived before.
Inspired is a book about the Bible.
It is written for both current and recovering biblical literalists – or those who believe that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are the inerrant and factual words of God – and for progressive Christians and spiritual questioners who struggle to understand why they should even read the Bible. That’s a hard audience to unify within a single book, but I appreciate Evans’ quest to do so because it is in many ways the gap I’m trying to close in my own social circles, between family members who have remained in my former religious tradition and my current church community, who often laugh nervously because they’ve never even attempted to read the Bible.
What I Love
What I love about Inspired is its balance of research and memoir-style storytelling, authentic appreciation and valid critique. Evans clearly spent a lot of time seeking out voices that both cherish and find room for questioning within the scriptures. She is careful to remind the reader that the Bible is important and worth taking another look at in spite of its inconsistencies, historical inaccuracies, and problematic narratives.
She wants the reader – and the wider church – to appreciate the grand narrative of God’s love and to truly understand why each story is told the way it is. And importantly, she doesn’t shy away from the glaring ethical issues certain narratives and teachings illuminate. She allows for discomfort, which to my mind is the best if not only way to authentically engage with the scriptures.
I also think Inspired is effective. Despite some of my misgivings about the format or particular arguments, Evans’ careful consideration and conversational tone make Inspired the type of book you want to share with your religious community, your mom, your roommate, or your coworker. It is the right tone for study groups and coffee dates, and beyond what it offers immediately, it allows for new, less encumbered conversations about the Bible.
What I Don’t Love
For one, I don’t think this book is really for me. As a Religious Studies grad who focused on the Hebrew Bible, I had to learn to deconstruct then truly love the Bible without the aid of Evans’ book, and frankly, my personal experience helped me reconcile it with my own life – and the way it was used as a weapon against me – more than a book ever could.
That’s obviously not Evans’ fault, but it is what it is. For me, learning to love the Bible had a lot more to do with learning to love the flawed, eccentric humans who lived, narrated, and wrote about it, and to see something of myself in them. So while historical and cultural context and genre studies contributed to my overall understanding of how to read the texts, it was ultimately the grace of shared humanity with ancient Hebrews and first century Christians that led me back.
I also had to work on developing patience when it came to the “creative writing” chapters, where Evans creatively retells Bible stories in the vein of Jewish Midrash in an attempt to help the reader see ancient stories with fresh eyes. I appreciate why she did it, but I don’t know if this is really her forte (Sorry, Rachel!).
Who Should Read It
Get this book if you’re skeptical about the Bible, if you’re trying to loosen the pull of biblical literalism without losing your faith, or if you’re curious about what the Bible may offer beyond what you get at church. Evans has a knack for bringing people in and keeping them in conversation, and I hope that Inspired will give people the freedom and good theology to learn to love the Bible in all its messy, weird, holy chaos.
Inspired will be available at all major book stores in early June.
If you have any questions or would like other book suggestions, feel free to leave a comment!