Back to the Bible – A Conversation with Rachel Held Evans

EvansRachel Held Evans is a New York Times best-selling author of four books, each covering changes and developments in her Christian faith. Her most recent, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Finding the Bible Again, approaches the Bible as a collection of narrative types. Rejecting a literalism that would treat these accounts as history and science, Evans connects ancient biblical stories to those we routinely craft to make sense of our lives.

ECM: This is a book about coming back to the Bible after being alienated from it. Can you describe how your faith has developed throughout your adulthood?

RHE: I grew up a conservative evangelical, so I was pretty into the Bible. I had memorized large portions of the book of Romans before I was eleven. As I became a young adult, I started to question some of the things that I had learned within that conservative evangelical culture, including some things about how I was supposed to read the Bible.

I encountered stories in scripture that troubled me, like the ones where God commands the people of Israel to commit genocide against their enemies, stories about women that were squarely rooted in a patriarchal culture, and these weighed on my mind to the point that I started to question everything about my faith. I’ve written a lot about that—it’s been the main story that I have shared throughout different iterations in my writing career.

For this book, I wanted to focus on the Bible because I feel like it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to get back to the Bible and really to love it again—not just tolerate it or deal with a faith crisis every time I open it up. And that’s thanks to the work of some scholars that have really resonated with me and introduced me to some different perspectives. I wanted to share that with people in a way that they might find entertaining and intriguing and fun. Biblical scholarship is not everyone’s cup of tea, so I wanted to show people why it brings me so much joy.

That’s not to say that I don’t still have hang-ups, because I do. There are still stories that I haven’t made sense of and that still bother me. But I hope that this book helps people navigate that experience and be honest about it and recognize that they don’t have to check their brains or their hearts at the door when they read the Bible.

ECM: Are you still an evangelical?

RHE: No. I think that ship has sailed! There are a lot of people who want to stick around and reclaim the evangelical label, and I support them in that. But I think the election of Donald Trump was a final nail in the coffin for me. Plus, now that I attend an Episcopal church, it feels a little disingenuous for me to say that I identify as an evangelical. My views are now so far afield from the typical political—and sometimes theological—views of most evangelicals that I guess I would say I am squarely Episcopalian now.

ECM: Do you give much thought to the—invariably male—pastors and seminarians who will be on Twitter criticizing your hermeneutics or your exegesis?

RHE: What?! Do you think that will happen?

Actually they don’t criticize my hermeneutics or my exegesis. They just say, “This woman has no authority to write about the Bible.” They don’t even attempt to engage the arguments that I make, and that’s what irritates me. The other day one guy was like, “Rachel Held Evans bases her Biblical interpretation on all the feels,” which is like the most gendered criticism, it’s so obvious. So I took a picture of my endnotes, which are lengthy, and sent them to him with the note, “All the feels, page 1,” “All the feels, page 2.”

Because here’s the thing—I know I’m not a biblical scholar. I’m aware of that. I think it’s important that writers know what they don’t know. But I am a voracious reader and I cited my sources. I also had two biblical scholars look over it and give me feedback. I’ve never had a book reviewed as thoroughly as this one was before it went to press. I sent it to everybody to make sure that I was on the right track.

My thinking is that reading and engaging the Bible is not left to the scholars. As a writer, I’m going to approach the text with a different set of questions than a scholar would ask, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m asking, for instance, in an early house church, what would they be eating? What would the floor be made of? What would they be sitting on? Who would be there? What would it smell like? These are the questions that I’m asking that scholars might not think to ask.

But every page of this book was significantly informed by the work of biblical scholars. People like Walter Brueggemann and N.T. Wright, of course, and significant portions were informed by womanist scholars. When I wrote about Hagar, I was influenced by Delores Williams and Wil Gafney, black women who read the story of Hagar in a way that I would never think to read it. Also some feminist theology, some liberation theology—I did my research for this book and I stand by it.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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