Inspired by Stories, Struggling with Scripture
An ex-Christian book reviewer wrestles with the last book Rachel Held Evans wrote before her death.
I am an ex-Evangelical and openly atheist writer and book reviewer. But after bestselling Christian author Rachel Held Evans died earlier this year, I found myself unexpectedly crying while reading her last book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (2018). Sitting down to read an author’s last book just after they’ve passed away is a strange feeling. Rachel’s voice shines through her writing. She is clever and kind and thoughtful. It was painful to think about the prospect of nothing coming after this, no new books or blog posts to look forward to reading. I knew I wanted to review Inspired — I also knew it would be incredibly difficult to do so.
On Medium, I often write about the ways I perceive both science and equality to be antithetical to religion. Freeing myself from my fundamentalist Christian upbringing in order to pursue a career in science (and write about feminism) has been a painful process. I found solidarity in the online “Exvangelical” community, where damaged people work through difficult upbringings, share stories, and offer support. After NY Times reporter Dan Levin went viral on Twitter for writing about “exposing Christian schools”, I shared my own experiences with Christian fundamentalism, private homeschooling, and my religious community’s hostility toward science. I even went on the radio in Australia to talk about what that experience was like.
Which brings me to where I am now: an undergraduate biology student and a writer interested in understanding how Evangelical Christianity impacts science and equality in America today. Coming of age under a president who panders to conservative Evangelicals, I’ve witnessed the ways the Christian Right undermines those things. My family doesn’t understand how I could give up something so inherent to our lives — I don’t know how they continue to practice a faith that has caused us so much pain. This disagreement has hurt relationships deeply important to me.
Perhaps that’s why I picked up Ms. Evan’s book in the first place: I wanted to understand how people could keep their faith even as they called out the corruption of American Evangelicalism. I thought that perhaps I could better understand their perspective if I approached it from the understanding of a believer. Instead, I found myself grieving the loss of my faith, remembering fond childhood memories of church days, and mourning a woman whose doubts reflected my own. Ms. Evans compares her doubts to a Biblical story in which Jacob wrestles with an angel all night. The comparison burned vividly in my mind as I wrestled with her book.
Is it possible for me to love the Bible again? I was relieved Ms. Evans doesn’t ask her reader to , because I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready for that. She simply shares her own wandering path back to scripture. Her story of returning to the Bible forced me to confront my reluctance to and my lack of belief. Atheism often feels like a new word in my mouth, a language I am still learning to speak; it’s so foreign to the fervent faith in which I was raised.
Bible stories — their themes and histories and purpose — are the focus of Ms. Evans’ book. I spent the first few years of college as an English literature major before switching to science, and I can understand and appreciate her English-major approach to the stories. Although I found freedom in atheism and in breaking away from the anti-feminist themes of many Biblical stories, Ms. Evans found her own freedom through creatively interpreting the tales of women through retellings in her book. She gives special attention to those whose voices have been stripped, and despite my lack of belief, I enjoyed reading her stories.
I think that’s because, for even us ex-Christians, Bible stories can evoke a sense of nostalgia. They were our fairy tales and bedtime stories. As I read Inspired, I sometimes unconsciously recalled familiar stories and tunes of Sunday School nursery rhymes. Stories shape us and influence our decisions, teach us lessons about right and wrong — that’s why we read them to children. The problem, Ms. Evans acknowledges, is when we rely on those stories to solve today’s problems, because “the Bible was never intended to deliver…an internally consistent and self-evident worldview that provides clear, universal answers to all life’s questions, from whether climate change is real, to why God allows suffering in the world.”
“If the Bible isn’t a science book or an instruction manual, what is it?”
But Inspired is not an apology for the Bible. “If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons,” Ms. Evans writes. “With Scripture, we’ve been entrusted with some of the most powerful stories ever told. How we harness that power, whether for good or for evil, oppression or liberation, changes everything.” Reading that last line, it felt as though Ms. Evans was indirectly commenting on some of the acts of evil happening in our country today. Children in cages, women losing hard-won reproductive rights, science denialism in the face of catastrophic climate change — all of it ignored or perpetuated by an Evangelical-endorsed president and a politically powerful Christian Right.
Problematic stories and their justification of sexism, genocide, and other awful things are exactly what caused Ms. Evans to question her beliefs. At first, she was held back from openly doubting when she realized how her life would fall apart without her church community. Many believers have found themselves in a similar situation, choking down their doubts in fear of being rejected by their friends and family. She understood that the “threat of exile has a way of making those justifications for biblical genocide a lot easier to swallow.” Ms. Evans eventually left the Evangelical church for a faith more accepting of skepticism.
As a woman writing about the Christian Right and their oppressive patriarchal regime, I’ve come to see how urgently we need female voices writing about these controversial topics. Losing Ms. Evan’s intelligent skepticism and courageous faith was an immense loss. I can only hope more women like her step up to voice their doubt, to ask the challenging questions, and to encourage us all to practice love and redemption, just as Ms. Evans did.
This piece sat in my drafts for over a month after I finished it. It would have been easy to simply have written about why I disagreed with some of Ms. Evans conclusions — but that would be dismissive of everything Inspired has to offer. The point of writing this is to acknowledge a woman who was an important writer deserving of respect, and whose words are deeply relevant to our country today. Ms. Evans stood for a faith that values doubt and discussion. Skepticism, when applied appropriately, such as it is in the process of science, is a healthy trait. Whatever our religion or lack thereof, we should never relinquish ourselves to blind faith.
Dedicated in memory of Rachel Held Evans (1981 — 2019)