You’re Using It Wrong: Rachel Held Evans Returns to the Bible

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You’re Using It Wrong: Rachel Held Evans Returns to the Bible

Eric C. Miller

One critic was like, “Rachel Held Evans bases her Biblical interpretation on all the feels”... 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"...

It’s been over 3 years since “the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism” became an ex-vangelical and joined the Episcopal Church. Rachel Held Evans earned that title through her very public questioning of the treatment of women and LGBTQ people in the church, along with the issues she’d come to have with evangelical bible interpretation more broadly through her books, blog, and tweets.

As a result, she, like millions of evangelical adolescents who have matured into an exvangelical adults, took a step back from the Bible that had been so omnipresent in her life. Now, in her fourth book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Evans finds her way back to the Bible, even if her relationship to it has changed significantly.

RD‘s Eric Miller spoke with Rachel Held Evans about the book, the Bible, the political climate, and how the scriptures might inspire resistance to the president.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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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?

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.

Are you still an evangelical?

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.

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

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.

You advocate a midrash approach to Biblical interpretation. What is that, and why is it preferable to literalist or inerrancy approaches?

Midrash is a Jewish rabbinical interpretation of scripture. In the Jewish community, there is this appreciation for differences and contradictions and questions that are left in the text. If you encounter a difficult passage, it’s like, “oh, let’s talk about this!” The Bible is treated like a conversation starter, not a conversation ender.

This is very different from how Christians tend to approach the Bible. We treat it like a zero-sum game. This text has one correct meaning, so we take sides on what that meaning is and then we fight to the death over who’s right. There’s a lot of insecurity in that. It clings to a single, narrow, vulnerable view that has to be defended at all costs.

You are very sensitive to certain concepts from the progressive vocabulary—like privilege and marginalization—and to the influence they have on Biblical interpretation. So how do you react when someone like Franklin Graham says that progressive is another word for godless?

I don’t even know how to react to that because it’s so off base. It’s just not true. I think there are some people who think that white, male interpretations of the Bible are the default, and that if women are doing interpretation, if black people are doing interpretation, if people from South America or Asia are doing interpretation, then that’s contextual biblical interpretation. They think this while remaining unaware that all of us are interpreting the Bible in a context. A white man at an evangelical seminary is also in a context.

I mean, at this moment I’m watching friends get arrested for protesting the fact that the Trump administration is taking children away from their parents and putting them in concentration camps, essentially. Is that protest godless? It seems like the righteous thing to be doing.

So given your approach to scripture, how do you react when Jeff Sessions quotes Romans 13 to justify that policy?

Well, he’s wrong. And I think it’s a classic example of lifting one phrase or one line from scripture and saying, “this is biblical,” instead of doing the harder work of examining the broader, over-arching themes of scripture and then placing the particular text within the broader theme or story. Sessions seems to have forgotten that Jesus was executed by the state for subversion, as was the Apostle Paul, who wrote Romans 13. At minimum, it was a misuse of scripture. It was a blasphemous use of scripture, as far as I’m concerned.

As I note in the book, if you go the Bible looking for a weapon, you can find or make one. People have looked to scripture to justify slavery, genocide, atrocities against indigenous people. You can twist the Bible to say just about anything you want. Shakespeare said it well—even the Devil can quote scripture to his own purposes. And I think that’s what Sessions has done here.

When Jesus was asked to distill all of scripture down to its essence, he said, “Love the Lord your God with all of heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” All of the law, all the prophets, and all of the Bible hangs on those two demands. The point of scripture is to teach us to love God and to love our neighbors. So if you are using the Bible to harm your neighbor, you are using it wrong.

Most white evangelicals now use the Bible to justify their marriage to Donald Trump. How should the Bible be used by the Resistance?

I didn’t want to write too much about Trump because I knew it would date the book. But I think his election is significant to the story of American religion. One thing I’ve done is to compare his presidency to the reign of Xerxes in the story of Esther. Xerxes was a misogynistic, fragile, pathetic racist who had been entrusted with this huge empire and relied on his advisors to tell him what to do, who took the smallest personal slight and blew it up into a huge crisis—there are so many parallels between his reign and the Trump administration. And ultimately, Xerxes was bested by a Jewish orphan and a few eunuchs.

There are stories in the Bible that can inform how we think about what’s happening now. This one reminds me that beneath all the bluster, the emperor has no clothes. They’re a bunch of bumbling, incompetent, frail people, and the Bible gives us permission to laugh at that.