Letting God’s word speak

I’ve been impressed by various bits and pieces and podcast appearances by Rachel Held Evans, but the only full-length book of hers I’d read prior to this week was the outstanding “Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church.” It’s the story of how Evans and her husband grew to realize that they no longer believed the same things as the other couples at their fundamentalist church. They loved their friends, they felt completely at home socially, they weren’t mistreated and had no horror stories, they just … realized they were on a different page, a different frequency.

They drifted out of the faith for a while before finding a way back in, but to a different kind of faith than the one they left. It’s a funny, frank and moving account, and it cemented my appreciation for Evans as a writer and a voice of the faith for a new generation.

I followed her on social media, and so I saw that she had a new book coming out. She had some special pre-order deals a few months back — you could get the first chapter e-mailed to you while you were waiting, and so on. But I didn’t jump — I just figured I’d get around to reading the book eventually.

Then, on Tuesday, I found myself looking for something new to put on my Kindle, and happened across a post by Rachel noting that it was release day for “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.” I jumped in with both feet.

This is a completely different kind of book, but just as — no, more — wonderful.

“Searching For Sunday” was spiritual memoir, while “Inspired” uses its personal elements in service of a larger message about the Bible and how we interact with it.

For several years, I followed a daily Bible-reading podcast called the Daily Audio Bible. A man out of Spring Hill named Brian Hardin, in a warm and easy-to-listen-to voice, reads through the Bible in a year’s time. Each day there’s an Old Testament passage, a New Testament passage, and passages from Psalms and Proverbs. It’s all very well-done, and I may jump back on one of these days.

But there would come a point in the year when Hardin would get to the conquest stories of Joshua and Judges, complete with what seemed to be God-sanctioned invasions of Canaanite cities in which the sons of Israel were directed to kill, not only their opposing military combatants, but women and children. I would always cringe. Brian’s podcast isn’t meant to provide a deep-dive Bible study, but he does usually offer a few remarks about one of the day’s passages after he reads all four of them. He would sometimes make a little effort to address them, saying that they were more descriptive than prescriptive, but I was never completely satisfied with his responses.

Rachel Held Evans had a problem with some of those same passages, and it caused her to look more closely at the Bible, what its purpose is, and how God intends us to use it.

I once fantasized about producing a great documentary series about the Christian faith, and one scene that I had visualized in my mind had the host with a big stack of books — a scholarly biography, a dishy autobiography, a user’s manual for some complex device, a telephone directory, a book of deeply-personal poetry, a science textbook, a volume from an encyclopedia, and so on.

“Each of these books,” the host would explain, “purports to tell the truth. But we don’t use them or read them the same way.”

Similarly, the Bible is a collection of books. They all, we believe, represent God’s truth, but they aren’t meant to be read or used the same way.

And many of them were written in cultures and circumstances quite different from our own, and when we read them in ignorance of the original setting and audience we are apt to misread them. Paul is sometimes accused, on the basis of a few verses, of being a misogynist — but a fuller understanding reveals just how closely Paul worked with female church leaders in multiple cities, and how the basic theme of Paul’s ministry was greater and greater inclusion. In order to see that more completely, you have to actually try to understand the context and culture in which Paul wrote and ministered. Such an understanding can help give a better idea which of Paul’s statements were intended for his specific, immediate audience, and which are meant as timeless principles of the faith.

Jericho — site of those famous walls brought down by Joshua’s trumpets — has been studied by archaeologists, and they say it appears to have been a relatively small military outpost. The Bible account, which includes slaughter of women and children, gives us the impression that Jericho was a big city packed with civilians, but that doesn’t seem to fit the archaeological record, which perhaps gives us a little cause for relief. Some of the military stories of conquest seem to involve the hyperbole common to some Middle Eastern cultures even today.

None of this is new information, to you, or me, or to Rachel Held Evans. But what she attempts to do in “Inspired” is not deep hermeneutics but an effort to remind us anew of the beauty and power of the Bible and to encourage us to read with open hearts rather than trying to use individual verses as weapons for sloganeering. You may or may not agree with her about some specific passage, but I think you will truly appreciate her fresh approach and her effort to help you rediscover what the Bible should mean to us as Christians.

The book is divided up into sections which roughly correspond to various sections of the Bible — the Penteteuch, the historical books, prophecy, wisdom literature, the Gospels, the letters — and each section has both an essay and a little creative retelling of some Bible story — one in the form of a screenplay, one in the form of a choose-your-own-adventure book, and so on.

I was really blessed by this book, even more than “Searching For Sunday,” and give it my highest recommendation.