This book review was originally published on katiegilgour.com.
Note: As a member of the Launch Team, I received an advance reader copy from the publisher.
One Woman’s Journey Back to Loving the Bible
If the Bible isn’t a science book or an instruction manual, then what is it? What do people mean when they say the Bible is inspired? When Rachel Held Evans found herself asking these questions, she began a quest to better understand what the Bible is and how it is meant to be read. What she discovered changed her—and it will change you too.
Drawing on the best in recent scholarship and using her well-honed literary expertise, Evans examines some of our favorite Bible stories and possible interpretations, retelling them through memoir, original poetry, short stories, soliloquies, and even a short screenplay. Undaunted by the Bible’s most difficult passages, Evans wrestles through the process of doubting, imagining, and debating Scripture’s mysteries. The Bible, she discovers, is not a static work but is a living, breathing, captivating, and confounding book that is able to equip us to join God’s loving and redemptive work in the world.
The first Bible story I ever doubted can be found in the Book of Jonah.
I was a wide-eyed seven-year-old, fiercely in love with Jesus and not yet jaded by religion. I devoured the tales in my children’s Bible as though they would disappear: from Eden to Moses to Esther, I read and was fascinated and accepted each account as truth.
And then, I turned the page. Like every other page, this one had a brightly-colored picture. But this picture made me frown. A man was swimming in the depths of the ocean, cowering from a gigantic fish.
Not a whale or a manatee, which I knew were huge aquatic mammals. A huge, scaly, fish.
This fish, I read, swallowed Jonah. The reluctant prophet stayed in the fish’s belly for three days.
Perhaps it was because I had never heard this story before, but everything about Jonah sounded like nonsense. A fish couldn’t swallow a man whole. He couldn’t live there for three days. What kind of fool did these Bible people take me for?! I wasn’t an IDIOT. I was SEVEN.
I’ve been wrestling with the Bible ever since. I started going to church, and believed my Sunday school teachers when they said that everything in it was historically true. There was a time in my life when I doubted God and everything to do with religion, but I still wasn’t sure what to do with the Bible. Then, I fell in love with Jesus again. The Bible became real once more.
Now, I feel caught in the in-between: I think the Bible is not always literal, but that doesn’t make it untrue. I still struggle with certain stories, especially those that involve miracles or floods or plagues.
But I know I’m not alone in this. Rachel Held Evans has had similar struggles with faith, and I’m a huge fan of her work. When she announced she was writing a book about the Bible, I could hardly contain my excitement–and then jumped at the chance to join the launch team.
In many ways, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again is classic Rachel Held Evans. The book is divided by literary genre; it reminded me of her book Searching for Sunday, which is divided into chapters based on church sacraments. In each chapter of Inspired, she uses elements of memoir and draws on scholarship to explore these genres within the Bible, never abandoning the vulnerability I so admire.
“We’ve been instructed to reject any trace of poetry, myth, hyperbole, or symbolism even when those literary forms are virtually shouting at us from the page via talking snakes and enchanted trees. That’s because 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, it is said, for only our modern categories of science and history can convey the truth in any meaningful way.”
–Inspired by Rachel Held Evans
What’s different about Inspired, though, is that Rachel explores different genres and writing styles. Some chapters open with a short story (my favorites were the stories told from Hagar’s perspective, and the story about the woman that met Jesus at the well). One opens with a poem; another, a screenplay. While these works of fiction and poetry aren’t exactly necessary—I think the chapters stand well on their own, and I can see how this structure would feel a little confusing–they’re so much fun to read. They offer you a different perspective about the stories we think we know. Even if a story wasn’t my favorite, I always felt like I was implementing Ignatian prayer or midrash (Rachel also explains midrash in more detail) into my reading.
“The good news is as epic as it gets, with universal theological implications, and yet the Bible tells it from the perspective of fishermen and farmers, pregnant ladies and squirmy kids. This story about the nature of God and God’s relationship to humanity smells like mud and manger hay, and tastes like salt and wine. It is concerned, not simply with questions of eternity, but with paying taxes and filling bellies and addressing a woman’s chronic menstrual complications. It is the biggest story and the smallest story all at once—the great quest for the One Ring and the quiet friendship of Frodo and Sam.”
–Inspired by Rachel Held Evans
Throughout the book, there is an emphasis on the importance of story. As a writer, this idea resonated with me powerfully. Christians often say that God is a great storyteller; yet, we act as though it is heresy to imply the Bible is made of stories we struggle to believe. Rachel also points out that we will get much more out of the Bible if we accept it for what it is, instead of making it into something it isn’t. Her insights on war stories, miracle stories, and the epistles were especially comforting to me.
While I sometimes found myself wanting to read more history about the Bible, or wondering what genre her fictional retellings were leading into, I couldn’t put the book down. I often read paragraphs out loud to my husband and finished by exclaiming, “JESUS IS SO COOL! I LOVE THIS BOOK! I LOVE RACHEL HELD EVANS!” before melting in a puddle of my emotions.
Overall, I gave Inspired 4/5 stars on Goodreads. My sincerest hope and prayer is that, like Rachel, we all learn to wrestle with this ancient book. At the very least, we’ll hear a great story.
Pre-order Inspired here, or buy it from your favorite bookseller on June 12, 2018.