When I read Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday a couple of years ago (technically listened to Evans herself read it to me via Audible as I ran many miles along the Lake Murray Dam outside Columbia, SC), I was blown away. Here was someone who was roughly my age, who had grown up in roughly my part of the country (within a couple hundred miles as the bird flies), and who was speaking to one of the things I have been doing for seemingly twenty years already – searching for a way back into the church that she cherished as a child, but that she had grown disillusioned with as an adult. I didn’t agree with her ultimate conclusions then (read the book to find them for yourself), but at least the fact that she did find answers gave me hope that one day I too might find what I’ve sought for so long.
When I recently saw a Facebook ad to sign up for the launch team for her new book, INSPIRED: Slaying Giants, Walking On Water, and Loving the Bible Again, I was extremely excited. I’ve been doing ARC work for various authors for a few years now, some public and some private, and this was a chance to give back to someone who had so inspired me just a couple of years ago. So I applied and, along with around a thousand others, was accepted. This would not be the small, intimate ARC groups I am much more familiar with. And following posts from 1000 people, all excited about this new venture and at various stages of reading the book in question as well as introducing themselves to each other and everything else that goes into a large new group of people joining together for even a limited purpose, well, let’s just say that I probably missed more than a few. And that there is no probably to it.
As a storybook from Evans’ perspective, INSPIRED is an interesting work, told in the familiar cadences of Searching for Sunday. If you like the writing style of that book, you will like the read of this book from that perspective at a bare minimum. And INSPIRED raises some good points, at least a few of them likely not intended by Evans in the way I took them. For example, she speaks of prophets saying “”In other words, the prophets are weirdos. More than anyone else in Scripture, they remind us that those odd ducks shouting from the margins of society may see things more clearly than the political and religious leaders with the inside track. We ignore them at our own peril.”. You see, Evans is a hard core, Obama and Clinton loving Democrat. She hasn’t met an instance of Big Government she doesn’t like (other than maybe war), and insists on disarming peaceful people in spite of the fact that police have murdered more children than school shootings have killed people, and have done so in less time. Evans believes in systemic oppression and praises people who destroy property they disagree with. I myself, as most anyone who knows me knows, am an ardent anarchist. While Evans is so much in the mainstream that she has worked with the White House at times, I stand at the margins of society, both religiously and politically, and declare that in each case the Emperor has no clothes.
Unfortunately INSPIRED also has some severe problems beyond political disagreements between myself and the author. (Indeed, if those were the only issues with this book, it would merit a five star rating, as I refuse to mark a book down simply because I disagree with its author politically.)
Evans claims that Hagar, concubine of Abram and mother of Ishmael, is the only person in the Bible to name God, which even a cursory Google of the topic (much less having much of the same type of church upbringing as Evans herself) will show is patently false. Hagar’s El Roi, cited by Evans, is one of about a half dozen versions of the El name of God, and there are at least that many versions of the Jehovah version of the name of God. Indeed, I’ve listened to thousands of sermons from some of the most respected preachers and theologians of the modern American age, from Billy Graham to Adrian Rogers to James Merritt to more obscure people like my former pastor and former President of the Georgia Baptist Convention Wayne Hamrick. I’ve read at least some of the works of respected theologians of any era of Christendom, from Saint Augustine to Saint Francis of Assisi to Charles Spurgeon to CS Lewis and many, many others. And as best I can tell at this time – I’ve got an outstanding question to even more learned friends on Facebook that I posted over night – this “Hagar is the only person to name God” myth began with a book by feminist “scholar” and storyteller Charlotte Gordon that was published nearly a decade ago and has apparently risen to prominence in progressive/ feminist Christian circles in the time since.
Evans also claims Biblical authority for the Jewish tradition of midrash, which is effectively ancient Jewish fan fiction regarding the people and events of the Torah (effectively the first few books of the Christian Old Testament). She makes the collectivist claim that it is impossible to be a Christian on your own, despite literally millions of Christians who refuse to attend church for any number of reasons proving her wrong on a daily basis. And she apparently has never heard of Marvin Snurdley, and thus insists that letters written to particular groups and individuals 2000 years ago are authoritative for us now, despite having lost any sense of true context millenia ago.
Finally, throughout the book Evans insists that storytelling is paramount, rather than accuracy or getting to a point. Indeed, at one point she point blank says that when someone asks you what the gospel is, you should respond with a story. In her case, involving maybe her grandmother or her parents’ expensive kitchen chairs. NO! When someone asks you what the gospel is, you respond with: The gospel is Jesus Christ, and the fact that he was God made flesh who lived the life we cannot then died the death that we no longer have to. THEN we can launch into any number of stories about Jesus, all revolving around that central theme.
It is for these reasons that INSPIRED ultimately became disappointing for me. It is still a great example of storytelling, and for that reason alone it is a worthy addition to any bookshelf. It doesn’t really try to make any particular point, and its citations are few and far between, so there really isn’t anything to argue from that perspective. It achieves at least one goal Evans seems to have – to start a conversation – admirably and is to be commended for that at minimum. So yes, absolutely buy this book. Despite the critiques above, it really is a great read. Just be prepared to take it with a fair amount of salt. 3 stars.