Rachel Held Evans
Thomas Nelson, 240 pages
Reviewed by T.J. Remaley
If there’s one thing that Rachel Held Evans sets out to accomplish in her newest book, “Inspired,” it’s to demonstrate just how seriously she takes the Bible.
One could consider this an ambitious goal for Evans to undertake, considering her previous works led many in the evangelical community to accuse her of diminishing the Bible, and several Christian bookstore chains have banned her books from appearing on their shelves. Yet, the eagerness with which she dives into a deeper exploration of scriptural texts testifies to how seriously she views the task, as does the depth of the citations she includes as bibliographic endnotes. In her characteristically accessible way, the author strives – and mostly succeeds – to incorporate sound biblical scholarship and imaginative creative writing into the style of memoir for which she has become known. The result is an invitation to accompany her on a journey that engages Scripture both critically and creatively.
“Inspired” begins by recounting Evans’ move away from the evangelical tradition (and the literalism with which she was raised) to the mainline Protestant tradition of the Episcopal faith she now calls home. This provides important context for anyone discovering her writing for the first time, although readers who are acquainted with her blog or previous books will be familiar with the details of that journey.
What follows in the rest of the book, however, is altogether unlike Evans’ previous volumes. She still offers the customary narrative prose, of course, but also ventures far beyond it to include exploration in the form of poetry, soliloquy, screenplay and even a choose-your-own-adventure story. This experimentation of genres lends itself well to providing a framework for the book’s structure, as her creative writing pursuits are positioned alongside chapters focusing on various types of biblical stories, such as origin stories, deliverance stories and wisdom stories. As a result, Evans rejects the prevalent notion of the Bible as a divine instruction manual, instead portraying Scripture as a living, breathing, inspiring story that continues to unfold even today.
While Evans allows ample space for readers to discover – or rediscover – the creative beauty of our biblical canon, that is not to say she shies away from difficulty. In fact, she explores several such passages – the sorts of stories Phyllis Trible coined “texts of terror” – head-on. The chapters on war and resistance stories may be particularly problematic to digest for readers in our country’s current political climate. Evans attempts to strike a fine balance between condemning the content described in those difficult passages while not simply discounting them as worthless for present-day consumption and discernment. While scholars and ethicists may rightly conclude that Evans could have ventured even more deeply here, the very inclusion of these terror-filled texts will likely be sufficient conversation-starters for the majority of her readers, particularly those who reside in contexts usually apt to sidestep such topics altogether.
Seasoned biblical scholars and other seminary-trained readers may not discover many particularly groundbreaking points in Evans’ scholarship. Her primary objective, however, is to make such scholarship come alive for a broader audience for whom a historical/literary hermeneutic is a newer undertaking. Along the way, readers may just encounter the inspiration needed to become fully immersed in a playful, wrestling, imaginative dialogue with God by exploring Scripture anew — and as “Inspired” demonstrates, that’s serious business.
T.J. Remaley serves alongside the congregation of St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, as associate pastor for family ministry and discipleship.