"Once upon a time, there lived a girl with a magic book."
The opening line of Rachel Held Evans' new book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again—resonates. Like Evans, I grew up in the Evangelical subculture of the eighties and nineties, replete with sword drills, purity rings, and scare films about the rapture. We were well aware of the dangers of playing Dungeons and Dragons, listening to secular music, and backward masking. Like all good Christian kids of this era, we sang "Friends Are Friends Forever" at the end of summer camp every single year.
Evans describes her childhood affection for the Bible which told tales of "kings and queens, farmers and warriors, giants and sea monsters, and dangerous voyages." (She forgot unicorns, but we'll let that one slide.) She walks the reader through her stages of disillusionment, as she began to notice things like Abraham being rewarded for agreeing to commit child sacrifice. She notes the horror of the Canaanite conquest and the dark side of the Noah's ark story. She wrote, "If God was supposed to be the hero of the story, then why did God behave like a villain?" (p. xii)
Blending elegant sophistication with whimsy and warmth, Evans is a breathtaking writer. And as she's demonstrated in previous works, she has a firm grasp on hermeneutics, theology, and apologetics, which for the most part keeps her from fighting straw men. As one of the most prominent voices in the progressive Christian movement, she's thoughtful about her positions. She understands what she's progressing beyond.
There are several points Evans makes that I agree with. She's careful to note the importance of recognizing the historical context, genre, and cultural surroundings of each passage of Scripture. She rightly points out that the Bible is not just a book—it’s a collection of books written by various people in various cultures at various times. She highlights the importance of observing figures of speech like metaphor and hyperbole.
On the other hand, there's a lot to disagree with. Here are three ways I believe Evans' approach has tamed the Bible in Inspired.
1. Taming the theology: Newer is better
Right from the get-go in the Introduction, Evans identifies three theological approaches she discovered that inform the way she now thinks about this once magic book.
Historical Criticism deals with the legitimacy of the writings of Scripture. The earliest threads can be traced to the 16th century, and they started gaining ground in the 18th. Generally speaking, historical critics don't believe the Bible is divinely inspired, and they typically believe the Old Testament was not written until the Jews went into Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC. The conclusions of these critics usually fall in line with a secular, naturalist view that denies things like miracles and the supernatural.
First developed in the 1950s and 1960s, Liberation theology is a way of interpreting the Bible through the lens of oppression and liberation. With a strong focus on the plight of the poor, liberation theologians believe the number one job Christians have is to align themselves with the marginalized and work to create a more just society through political and social means. In this view, the heart of the gospel is social justice, not sin and redemption.
An offshoot of liberation theology, feminist theologians began re-interpreting the Bible through the lens of female oppression by patriarchal structures in the 1960s and 1970s. Female empowerment becomes the ideal the biblical writings point to. Feminist theologians typically resist the use of male pronouns for God and the idea of female submission in marriage. They advocate for women in clergy positions and for reproductive rights.
Reading the Bible through modern glasses
Though they are all fairly modern innovations, these three ideas touch almost every word Evans writes about the Bible.
She admits her struggle to believe the miraculous events of the New Testament and the historical narratives of the Old. But rather than fret about it, she suggests we focus on the theological points these stories seem to be making, rather than on their historical validity.
She blames her white, middle class, suburban American upbringing for her previously "static" and "certain" way of reading the Bible. She writes that her failure to see important patterns of oppression and liberation was due to her "Western" theological influence.
Interestingly, in his upcoming book on Progressive Christianity, New Testament scholar Dr. David Young argues that there is nothing as elite and white as progressivism.(1) My friend, Pastor Darren Tyler, who does extensive ministry in Togo, Ghana, Uganda, and North Africa, agrees.(2) In a sermon on the gospel, Pastor Tim Keller describes how many churches in Manhattan—the center of the privileged classes—have adopted progressive theology. He finds a much different Christianity in inner city churches, where the oppressed and marginalized actually are. Keller said, “It’s a frankly supernatural Christianity. They talk about the blood. They talk about miracles. They talk about the resurrection.”(3)
2. Taming the gospel: What’s true for you is true for you
Evans devotes an entire chapter to the gospel...and I still can't quite figure out what she thinks it is. When answering the question, "What is this good news?" she concludes, "It depends on who you ask." She goes on to quote various New Testament authors, but she doesn't seem to see their thoughts as parts of a singular message. Taking this as permission to interpret the gospel in a largely subjective way, she essentially encourages the reader to write their own version. Chiding D.L. Moody for saying he could fit the gospel on a coin, she writes,
The problem with this is that the earliest Christian creed, circulating within 2-5 years of the resurrection, is a statement you could fit on a coin. What Evans seems to be missing here is that the good news—the gospel—is a message. The impact that message has on individual lives will look different from person to person, but the message itself is what we are commanded to proclaim. When describing the modern Christian view of the gospel, she writes:
As I mentioned, Evans does a better job than some of her progressive cohorts at avoiding straw men, but she couldn't help herself here. Look... if there are Christians out there who think that the atoning death of Jesus can be reduced to a mere transaction—that it won't touch every aspect of their being and transform them into the image of Christ—I'll stand in solidarity with her and say, "Amen, sister!" But that isn't the gospel the Bible teaches.
3. Taming the interpretation: It’s all relative
Evans doesn't shield the fact that she disagrees with a lot of what she reads in the Bible. She strongly urges Christians to go with their gut when figuring out which parts of the Bible are fact, fiction, or just plain wrong. I'll let her speak for herself on this point:
In regard to our own origin stories, and later applying these thoughts to the origin stories in the Bible, she writes:
Making the Bible behave
Evans has made her own God-given mind, not the Bible, the final authority for spiritual truth. And she’s allowed the underlying assumptions of historical criticism, liberation theology, and feminism to form the lens through which she reads it.
The goal of Scripture is to reveal God to us...not to give us a collection of stories to evaluate based on our particular moral perspectives. She interprets the Canaanite conquest as genocide, rather than what the text describes it as: divine judgment for evils so abhorrent they would send most modern people running to press the red button. She fails to mention that God held his own people to the same standard, and judged them just as harshly at points throughout their history.
These stories should upset us. They should shake us to our core—because they reveal how seriously God takes sin. And they also reveal the beauty of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. In Evans’ Bible, God would never do such things.
Despite all of this, Evans makes it very clear that she loves the Bible and that it has a hold on her she can't shake. I'm truly glad for that. I too know what it's like to struggle with this confounding book and be left unable to cast it aside as mere ancient folklore. She speaks of a Bible that has "frustrated even the best systematic theologians for centuries because it's a Bible that so rarely behaves."
She's right. The Bible does not behave.
It will contradict you.
It will challenge you.
It will change you.
Sadly, in seeking a way to love the Bible again, Evans has found a way to make it behave—to tame it—by fitting it within her preconceived paradigms.
Evans started with a magic book, and it seems she's ended up with a magic book—one that magically bends its knee to 21st century post-modern sensibilities.
(1) David Young, Pure Religion Over Progressive Christianity, coming soon tothe renew network.
(2) I mention him in this post with his permission. In conversation he told me that the vast majority of people he and his teams minister to have no idea what liberation theology is, nor would they subscribe to it. If anything, their theology is more conservative than most western Christians. They are far more likely than we are to take biblical gender roles for granted and to read the stories of the Bible and the accounts of miracles literally.
(3) As someone who grew up doing ministry in the inner cities of Los Angeles and New York, my experience lines up with Keller’s words.