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In new book, Rachel Held Evans gets ‘Inspired’ by the Bible

Author Rachel Held Evans speaks at a church in early 2015. Video screenshot

(RNS) — Rachel Held Evans was raised reading the Bible in a conservative evangelical environment, winning awards for “Best Christian Attitude” and “sword drills” that tested her ability to find passages in the Bible.

Tens of thousands of readers have journeyed with Evans since on social media, her blog and her best-selling books as her faith has evolved. Many are post-evangelical themselves, as she is, and those are the readers she always has in mind, said Evans, who now attends an Episcopal church. But with her new book, “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again,” she also had in mind readers from progressive Protestant traditions interested in the intensive Bible study found in evangelical churches.

“I hope my having grown up a complete Bible nerd will help them out,” she said.

In “Inspired,” Evans explores what the Bible is and how it’s read. She describes its origin stories and resistance stories, investigates their contexts and interpretations and even retells a few along the way in poetry, soliloquy and choose-your-own-adventure genres.

She talked to Religion News Service about those stories this week. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why write about understanding the Bible and how it’s meant to be read, and why now?

I’ve done a lot of deconstructing over the past few years, kind of like taking everything apart and re-examining it when it comes to my faith. Just in the last few years, I’ve wanted to build things back. I want to reclaim church and the Bible and prayer and all those things that are part of faith. I want to find what is good in that and left in that for my faith.

The Bible was so important to me growing up and it was such an important part of my faith, it was just something I had to wrestle with and had to make sense of and had to confront in order to make my faith make any sense as it stands.

“Inspired” is unlike your other books in that it weaves together different genres. You include the genres of memoir, poetry, screenplay and choose-your-own-adventure story. Why approach the topic through these different genres?

Image courtesy of Thomas Nelson

I wanted to challenge myself and not get in a creative rut. I wanted to make it an enjoyable read because I pack a lot of scholarship into this book, and I thought, “I’ve got to make this fun and interesting and creative.”

If you understand the genres of a text, we can make so much better sense of them. I think this is one of the biggest mistakes Bible readers make, or people of faith make when they come to Scripture, just mischaracterizing the genre of a text. Putting in my own poetry and short stories and fiction and screenplays — that’s reinforced the concept of understanding that the genre of a text is important to understanding what the author of a text is trying to communicate. 

How were you taught to understand the Bible growing up as an evangelical Christian, and how has your understanding changed?

I had this impression the Bible needed me to defend it constantly, to defend the veracity of a giant fish swallowing a man whole and a talking snake and a magic tree. I was raised to interpret everything as literally, scientifically and historically accurate. It wasn’t until after college that I began to deconstruct that idea, mostly because it seemed so obvious to me as a person who is a lover of literature that these texts were not actually meant to be science and history texts — that they read like stories or poetry or letters or ancient creation narratives.

Some certainly are rooted in history, but figuring that out is the work of hermeneutics. It’s the work of the interpreter. A lot of people have wrestled with that through the years.

How should Christians approach the Bible, and what role should it play in their lives?

The key for Christians is that we interpret Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ. That said, we also have to let these stories stand on their own. We have to consider who they were originally intended for and the message that those people were trying to communicate. Taking it on its own terms also means respecting that God chose to speak to ancient people in ancient ways that we don’t always understand.

The Bible is meant to be a conversation starter, not a conversation ender. So many of us were raised to want it to speak with a single voice, and it doesn’t. We can either freak out about that and try to make things harmonize or make things OK that we’re not OK with, like genocide and violence and misogyny. Or we can accept the Bible on its own terms, and that includes the parts that make us uncomfortable and we disagree about, and use those tensions as a point of conversation and getting to know God and one another better.

Despite the trolls, you have some kind words for social media and the role it played in introducing you to people who come to the Bible with different experiences from yourself. Why is this important?

Author Rachel Held Evans. Photo courtesy of Harper Collins

I cannot be one of those people who just disses social media when I basically built a career from it. It was blogging that got people interested in my books and social media that keeps my readers engaged.

I live in a very small town in East Tennessee. My exposure to people with viewpoints different from my own is limited here, so the ability to access that just like that — Wil Gafney is a womanist biblical scholar who I follow on Twitter. I can ask her a question about Hagar and get an answer. It’s amazing.

Social media is a tool. You can use it for good or for ill, but for the research for this book and my understanding of the Bible, it’s been invaluable. 

That’s a theme that seems consistent in your books — that Christianity isn’t about having the answers but about discussing the questions in community. How does this inform how Christians read Scripture?

There’s this notion that the white and Western interpretation of Scripture is the default. That when black women interpret the Bible, they’re doing it contextually. We’re all actually interpreting the Bible in a context. We’re all bringing our backgrounds, our gender, our socioeconomic status or race. We bring all of that to the Bible, so we’re limited in how much we can really learn from it because of that, unless we deliberately and willingly and joyfully hear what other people have to say. Somebody coming from a minority community is going to read the Bible differently than I am.

The more we surround ourselves with people who are unlike us, the richer the text becomes. You see these shades and contours you wouldn’t have picked up on. It’s such a gift. It is a little unnerving when somebody tells you their take on a Bible passage that’s familiar to you is completely different from yours. But almost every single time, I’ve found it to be enriching and to help me understand it better and bring me into closer community with other people. The best literature always does and sacred literature should especially.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

47 Comments

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  • Good first question: “Why write about understanding the Bible and how it’s meant to be read, and why now?” Indeed, why does an omnipotent being need yet another interpreter for his message? Why can’t he deliver it himself?

  • “The key”, she says, “is that we interpret Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ … let [its] stories stand on their own … [and become] a conversation starter, not a conversation ender.”

    RIGHT ON, my “post-evangelical [sister] Rachel Held Evans”, for saying that. Way to go!

  • “Omnipotent being”? That’s the Latinized spin from the Early Church Wolves I mean Fathers to shut people like you up. And now you end up talking like them. Gotcha good, they have! An atheist, no less.

  • Rachel Evans said, “I was raised to interpret everything as literally, scientifically and historically accurate.”

    Yep, I was too (well, sorta). And unless the biblical text or context indicates otherwise — the parables of Jesus, for example — that’s exactly how the Bible should be taken. No joke. Bad things invariably happen otherwise.

    The F-5 tornado disaster that is now shredding the Methodist Church, did NOT start with gay marriages, practicing gay clergy, lesbian bishops, media stunts, and rainbow mess. Oh no, nothing nearly so dramatic.

    It all started on the day the Methodist seminaries began teaching future pastors and bishops, that the supernatural and amazing Genesis creation account as written, was historically false and inaccurate. Everybody bought into it. They taught their own kids that the major claims of materialistic Evolution, (despite clear incompatibilty with Christianity), gave the true & accurate historical account of origins, even the origin and nature of humans. Everybody bought it again.
    The rest, as they say, is history.

  • Is “hermeneutics” the four-dollar word intended to fly over the head of Biblical literalists, explaining that OF COURSE not every story in the Bible is to be taken literally, but the literalists don’t know you’re telling them that (so they may buy your books anyway)?

  • Rachel (means Ewe) was one of the two wives of Jacob, the ancestor of Israel.. She gave birth to Joseph and then she died in child birth to her second child Benjamin. “So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb.” (Genesis 35). The pillar of the place was called Migdal Eder (the tower of the flock) . Later for intermittent 1000 years, the shepherds nearby raised the lambs for the purpose of temple sacrifices for their sin offering. Nearby there was this natural rock formed trough used to feed the animals called a manger, where the babe Jesus was with His creation.

    Gertrude Bell stopped by and took a picture of the tomb of Rachel early last century .Now this is within the earshot of the Banksy walled off hotel divided by the tall walls yonder there where animosity, emotion, condemnation, hatred is as thick as the incense smoke and sad shadow of walls. There only the tomb and the manger are silent monoliths speaking quietly and powerfully for 3900 years the Scripture is the record of grace and truth about Jesus Christ while all those ancient religions disappeared onto walls of museums.

  • In the original flood story, the gods decided to do away with humans because of their constant chattering. That has the ring of truth.

  • Re: “They taught their own kids that materialistic & atheistic Evolution, (despite clear incompatibilty with Christianity), gave the true & accurate historical account of biological origins, even the origin and nature of humans.” 

    Yes, they do … because to say anything else to kids would require one to lie to them. Somehow, I don’t think your Almighty needs his followers to lie to people on his behalf. 

    Or … maybe s/he/it does, but I just don’t see why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being would need his followers to lie for him/her/it. Maybe there’s something important and sacred about lying for a deity, that a cynical, cold-hearted, godless agnostic heathen like myself simply isn’t allowed to understand about it. Yeah, that must be it! 

  • Ah yes. A clever statement there, (although one’s participation in an Internet forum would make one an automatic accomplice to such chattering). But there’s a flip side to it.

    When the skeptics & atheists try to attack the historicity of the Genesis Flood by claiming the Hebrews borrowed or stole the account from the pagan folks, I begin by asking them to state the specific reason why “the gods decided to do away with humans” in whatever they claim to be “the original story.”

    Invariably, it will differ from the reason given in the Bible, and often it’s for something really petty, like “constant chattering”, rather than a planet-level crisis like the Bible says. Other differences will appear as well. That’s when I reply, “See? The Genesis Flood account wasn’t borrowed or stolen after all.”

  • If someone teaches materialistic evolution to their children as science, they are lying to them.

  • Hermeneutics— the exquisitely fine art of getting your holy book to say exactly what you need it to.

  • Floyd and I just had a little dust up. Pastor Come. Says he has been delivered from homosexuality, is married, and is happy. Pastor domen also admits he still has his gay thoughts. I say pastor is bisexual and always has been. Floyd says he isn’t because the pastor isn’t acting gay any more. He’s just thinking gay and admits it.

    Floyd is very intellectually dishonest. Lying for Jesus isn’t lying at all.

  • So the age of a particular religion gives it supremacy of all others? Gives it special protection under the law? It subjects all others to a tyranny of a majority?

    Zoroastrianism:
    *Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.
    *There is only one path and that is the path of Truth.
    *Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, and then all beneficial rewards will come to you also.

  • Actually, by his own words, Pastor Domen ain’t even *thinking* that he is gay. He has even rejected the gay self-identity that he used to accept.

    (And that’s pretty important, folks. God’ll get you outta that mess, but first you DO need to actually want to get out. You got a choice to make.)

    One thing all ex-gays have in common: they do NOT have time to worry about convincing gay activists or skeptics of anything. Don’t need their approval, permission, official certification, or anything else.

    Anybody who really want out, go hook up with Jesus (or if you’re back-slidden, just go meet with Him again) and He will bring you out. Live the new life, choose the new life.

  • Herr Nut, using your argument, since lack of belief is much older than your kooky Christian tales, lack of belief must be correct.

    The obvious truth is that the main stories of Christianity, including the claimed divinity of Jesus, are fiction, just with a few historical markers thrown in so wingnut Christian believers can try to lay some claim to history.

  • No, Bob. Ben obviously has a stronger claim to honesty (and humility) than you do.

  • That’s utterly false, Bob. You are lying as usual, you disgusting cretin.

    The National Academy of Science backs up my statement. What do you have to support yours, other than the usual references to your Christian fairy tale book and your sick, bigoted religion

  • Floyd, your bible stories are just silly and are obviously not an accurate representation of reality, past or present. They are an embarrassment to humanity. Just get over them already. It’s time.

  • “Omnipotent being”? That’s the Latinized spin from the Early Church Wolves I mean Fathers to shut people like you ALSO up. And now you TOO end up talking like them. Gotcha2 good, they have! A SECOND atheist, no less.

  • He has admitted that his gay feelings haven’t gone away. Reality is very difficult for you to accept.

  • Do good get good do bad get bad all religion do that. By the way where are their followers? In the history book? In the museum? Yes in the movie like the queen of desert? Do they still let the vultures eat their deads?

  • Why do you still practice 7 days week? It is from Genesis.

    What year is this? 2018. It is the year of our LORD 2018.

    What is the age of a man under the wrath of God?
    “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Hope you are not there yet while He is near.

  • You argue in vain, Ben. Domen is forever lost to The Gay Plantation. A very real example, a matter of Christ’s overwhelming (and very effective) power, not just endless pingpong by you and me.

    And as a pastor, he’s taking a buncha newly freed slaves with him. Your side is losing members, Ben. Why is that happening?

  • For example, when I pray in Jesus name, something will happen.

    LORD Jesus, by thy blood open her eyes and save her and her house from destruction this week. Amen.

  • Re: “Lying for Jesus isn’t lying at all.” 

    Well, yes. Of course! Doing anything wrong in Jesus’ name, magically makes whatever it is “not-wrong” any more. That’s a generalized principle all Christianists live by. 

    Martin Luther once summed up the Christian philosophy toward lying: “What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them.”

  • It’s dead because YOU don’t, or can’t see it?
    “Do they still let the vultures eat their deads?” If they do, what business is that of yours?
    What are you doing about your tyrannical Christian patriarchs in this country? Are you aware of a radicalized group of Christians who have turned a section of the country into the global ground zero for the rare condition of fumarase deficiency?
    In the same region of the country, Christians are protected from criminal prosecution for letting their babies and children to die from neglect because of religious freedom laws. Look no further than Idaho where radicalized Christians are free to allow their infants and children to die from curable medical conditions. An infant who develops bacterial pneumonia is allowed to drown in its own fluid because the fucktwit parents are allowed to withhold life saving antibiotics. Teens are allowed to vomit profusely until death is brought on via painful dehydration due to food poisoning by church members. Why are they allowed to pray the innocent to their own tortuous deaths? Square that circle, if you can.

  • “The Bible is meant to be a conversation starter, not a conversation ender. So many of us were raised to want it to speak with a single voice, and it doesn’t. We can either freak out about that and try to make things harmonize or make things OK that we’re not OK with, like genocide and violence and misogyny.

    I fully concur with this statement opening the paragraph. I’m no Bible scholar, but I believe the Bible speaks differently to people of different times, levels of education and cultural experiences.Women brought up in cultures where beating one’s wife is permitted or even prescribed, need to see those stories in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) as being a historical account of what was believed and taught at that time, and not prescriptive of how men should continue to behave toward women.

    The challenge for both the Jewish and Christian Bible reader is to understand the era, audience and context for which a particular set of scriptures were written. The Hebrew Scriptures were written for a very primitive time and people, whose level of knowledge and understanding were not very fully developed. How the behavior of men toward women has changed, is further explained by the learned Rabbis in Jewish temples and synagogues. Today’s Christians realize that the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were written later for a more enlightened time and people. The status of women had been raised considerably at that time, through the example and teachings of Jesus Christ.

    I believe this is what Rachel Held Williams is trying to tell us, and the discussion has the chance of clarifying this when people of varying levels of education and knowledge of the scriptures, are willing to enter into conversations and discussions with each other.

  • The first time Jesus came, the devil killed all the new borns in the Matthew chapter 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” And it was sad for their mothers but Jesus came, the children were saved and the world has the Savior.

    And now again the second time He is coming, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” The devil is doing this again trying to kill Christ’s children. And Ramah and Ephrathah are in bad shape. He is coming nigh

  • No, he is not. If god really wanted us to follow his rules, why did he make them so hard to interpret? You would think he would have better communication skills.

  • Re: “When the skeptics & atheists try to attack the historicity of the Genesis Flood by claiming the Hebrews borrowed or stole the account from the pagan folks …”  

    It’s not merely a “claim.” It is fact. It did happen. We have direct evidence of it, in fact. The Epic of Gilgamesh, which originated c. the end of the 3rd millennium BCE and whose best-known form dates to the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, contains a flood narrative surprisingly close to what the Hebrews authored — including a single, special man and his family who’re chosen to survive it in a watercraft. 

    You don’t need to just take my word for it, either. Go ahead and read it for yourself: http://king-of-heroes.co.uk/the-epic-of-gilgamesh/reginald-campbell-thompson-translation/ It was written centuries prior to any Hebrew texts of any kind (because their language didn’t even come into existence until the early part of the last millennium BCE). 

    Other aspects of Jewish scripture, e.g the opening of Exodus, in which the infant Moses is set to float on the river Nile, mirrors a much-older tale that had been told of Sargon, the ruler of Akkad — and he lived in the latter half of the 3rd millennium BCE. 

    Look, I get that history is inconvenient for you. However, unlike you, I’ve actually studied it. I earned a sheepskin in the subject. I didn’t just sit down one day and declare myself a credentialed historian merely by virtue of my beliefs about the Bible. That would have been asinine. 

    But it’s precisely what YOU and your ilk do. 

  • How sad that a non-biblical scholar is afforded this platform. RHE showed her ability to understand biblical hermeneutics with her “literalistic” view of women in scripture.

  • when I read the 10 commandments, I don’t think they’re hard to interpret…pretty straight forward……”thou shall NOT…”

  • You’re the one who’s dodging the meaning of “omnipotent”, actually. FYI: According to the Oxford University Dictionary:

    “Omnipotent” means “(Of a deity) having unlimited power.”

    Ergo: Omnipotence has 0 to do with “god really want[ing] us to follow his rules … [yet] mak[ing] them so hard [for one tatoo] to interpret”. Nada. Obviously, though, that makes you the opposite at 180 degrees of what ReaRson Over Religion meant by “an omnipotent being”.

  • thumbs up

    you’ve got my vote (sorry i don’t do upvoting around here)

    the thoughts that count

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