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Friday, April 12, 2019

"Inspired" (Rachel Held Evans)

TITLE: Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again
AUTHOR: Rachel Held Evans
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2018, (240 pages).

One of the most debated issues in the Christian world is about the infallibility of the Bible. How we we understand the way Christians are convicted about the Bible being inerrant and inspired? How do we know when to read things literally and when not to? For theologians and scholars, one word that has become quite notorious for many conservatives is the word "myth." How could anyone who call themselves Christians dare label the stories in the Bible as "myths?" After all, there are many who struggle to understand things like:

  • How could a serpent deceive Adam and Eve? (Gen 3:2)
  • How could so many animals fit into an ark? (Gen 7:1-3)
  • Is it possible for a donkey to speak? (Numbers 22:28)
  • Did Lot's wife literally turn into a pillar of salt? (Gen 19:26)
  • How could Jonah survive in a big fish for three days and three nights? (Jon 1:17)
  • How do we make of God saying that man could only live up to 120-years age? (Gen 6:3)
  • Is it really true that the sun stood still for a whole 24 hours? (Joshua 10:13)
  • How about contradictions in the Bible?
  • Can a Christian believe in evolution?
  • ...
The way forward: Nuances. Just like the packed meaning in the gospel of John, there are multiple ways to understand the Word of God in its original settings. Author and popular blogger, Rachel Held Evans adds in additional words such as: "controversial, sacred, irrelevant, timeless, oppressive, embattled, divine," to describe the different viewpoints with regard to the Holy Bible. The single thread that keeps us engaged is this: We are still influenced by the Bible regardless of what and how we think of it. Whether one is against or for the Word of God, we cannot help but reference it from time to time. Rachel skillfully helps us manuever through these questions of faith and doubt, making room for all parties to dialogue and to engage in one's quest for truth. The introduction to the book sounds like her own biography of faith as she describes her own struggles back and forth, from conservative circles to liberal engagement. Her moment of freedom comes forth in her own words: 
"When you stop trying to force the Bible to be something it’s not—static, perspicacious, certain, absolute—then you’re free to revel in what it is: living, breathing, confounding, surprising, and yes, perhaps even magic."
This book is filled with gems. One of my favourites is how Evans uses Neil Gaiman's words to describe fairy tales as a way to understand truth. While one can debate whether dragons exist or not, the more important truth is that dragons can be defeated. While she does not directly tell you that the Bible is not magic, she approaches it from the angle of "Inspiration is better than magic." While we can keep on arguing about the copying mistakes or inaccuracy of the re-writes, we could make space to wait upon the Bible to stir up in us a thought or an inspiration. She is convicted that one "will never leave the things without learning something new" and if one is persistent, one "just might leave inspired."

There are eight biblical genres selected. These are:
  1. Origin stories
  2. Deliverance stories
  3. War stories
  4. Wisdom stories
  5. Resistance stories
  6. Gospel stories
  7. Fish stories
  8. Church stories
Rachel is a master storyteller. She begins each biblical genre section like a story, weaving together her vast knowledge of contexts in the ancient near east and biblical characters. On the origin stories, she argues that the Bible was "forged from a crisis of faith" which essentially places many of us and the Bible on the same page. We all have our individual crises from time to time that nudge us toward the supernatural to look for divine hope. Many writers in the Bible did exactly that as they were inspired to write from deep within their struggles of faith. It reminds them that even in a state of disorder and confusion, originally that was not meant to be. Genesis begins with a declaration of God who ordered the universe together from nothing to something. Such origin genres are most relevant because they tell us about our identities, our origins, and our destinies. They inspire us to keep searching. Deliverance stories encourage us to keep hoping. Like the way the Israelites were delivered from Egypt and how the blacks were liberated from slavery, we are inspired to trust that God will make a way even when it seems there is no way. War genres are about victories in hope. Rachel even reminds us that we are not as different from the vicious war characters in the Old Testament. Perhaps, our resistance to accept such war horrors is simply a personal fear of letting ourselves repeat the same atrocities in our world. Wisdom genres are about our quest for living a good life, or a better life. While some might question why a book of Job that talks about suffering should be included in "wisdom literature," Rachel argues that the themes in Job go way beyond pain and suffering. Truth is, the literary brilliance is a way to illuminate truth. While wisdom genres inspire us to live a good life, resistance stories inspire us to keep persevering in spite of odds. From the prophets to the gospel writers, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, we are reminded that the Bible is not simply talking about escaping to a heavenly world in the future but to remain in the earthly world in the present. She inspires us to resist our modern temptations to more power, more status, more wealth, and so on. For even if we are able to attain these things, they never last. Resist such worldliness and we will have made room for true fulfillment. She helps us engage the gospel stories as a way to understand the mission of Jesus by calling the gospel as "a mosaic of stories." The part about fish stories is interesting. Connecting the story of Jonah, the fish miracles of Jesus, and the modern fishing sport, she engages the skeptics who had given in to spiritualizing everything. For if everything that we couldn't understand are spiritualized, we have two problems. First, we have to determine whether our subjective understanding is indicative of the truth. What happens if there are two opposing opinions? Could both be true or false? Second, if everything is spiritualized, even hope could be spiritualized to the point that our physical conditions have no hope for real change. What if it is true that both physical and spiritual things in the Bible are one and the same thing? We wait for inspiration as we adopt this mode of openness. Finally, church stories offer us correctives to cultural norms. She offers a counter to our modern understanding of same-sex relationships, showing us the ancient cultural contexts of what is "natural" and what is "unnatural" before arguing that many of our disagreements arise from a wrongful interpretation of Paul's message and contexts. Her key point: Don't use particularity to generalize. Don't use the Bible to stereotype any group. Instead, note that Paul's main motif is essentially to preach the gospel and to welcome all who receive Christ into the fold, that they may be one. 

My Thoughts

Firstly, the one word that pops up most when I read this book is "story-telling." The author is not just a masterful storyteller, she is also a skillful weaver of stories. Well-versed in the Bible stories and the many stories of everyday life, she takes the questions of faith and doubt and resists answering them directly. She often begins each chapter with a story or a poem before engaging readers with biblical reflection of selected biblical passages from each genre. While at it, she adds in a couple of her own observations about modern evangelical culture while adding a couple of wise snippets here and there. The literature and references she uses are wide and varied. There are scholars, theologians, motivational speakers, Bible teachers, and many popular writers she uses to paint the different shades of understanding with regard to the Bible.

Secondly, She is not afraid about doubts that would pull her away from faith. Having experienced personal attacks by well-meaning individuals, she tries to create a fresh space for us to ask legitimate and honest questions with regard to our beliefs. What she is more concerned about is the type of faith that pushes people away from authentic questions and thoughtful skeptics. If we are able to overcome our own fears about honest doubts and probing questions, we could be free to pursue the truth as what God has meant to be instead of being locked up in some human structures that force us to toe the line when God had not drawn the line in the first place. If God has given us the freedom to choose why should we limit one another on choosing to pursue truth?

Finally, Rachel nuances Bible concepts very well. She may not be as direct like a scientist or mathematician in answering an equation or providing a final solution. What she has done is to help us understand that our present understanding of the Bible can be enhanced with a greater appreciation of the nuances that our traveling pilgrims can see from time to time. We need to be open to reading the Bible as a community because the Bible was written to a community of faith. That is why we need to learn to nuance our understanding of the Bible as best as possible. Rachel helps us do just that.

Rachel Held Evans is one of the most popular (and controversial) author and blogger in the Christian world today. Growing up in a staunchly conservative Bible Belt backyard, she knows what it means to take things literally and to adopt fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. As she tries to engage thoughtfully the skeptics claim about the Bible, she has managed to create a space for people to meaningfully question their faith and to answer their doubts in creative ways that do not compromise on the legitimacy and truth of the Bible. On her blog, she calls herself as one who "writes about faith, doubt, and life in the Bible Belt." She has written books such as "A Year of Biblical Womanhood (2012)" and "Searching for Sunday (2015)."

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of NetGalley, and Thomas-Nelson, a division of Harper-Collins Publishing without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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