Series 08: For the Love of Exploring Our Faith | Episode 06
Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church with Rachel Held Evans
This week we’re coming in strong in our For the Love of Exploring our Faith series with New York Times bestselling author, speaker and self-proclaimed “Bible Nerd,” Rachel Held Evans. Rachel’s writings have resonated with many of us who have walked through doubts, questions and concerns about faith and religion. Rachel shows how the Bible can hold up to our fiercest questions, our strongest doubts and the most significant of disagreements. She encourages us that “God is not a God of self-improvement plans and 10 steps. Ours is a God of death and resurrection—and that God can take anything and bring it to life.” NOTE: This interview was conducted while Rachel, 9 months pregnant, was having contractions at a minute a part—and although we were hoping for an on-air podcast baby arrival, we still claim our part in the process (and Jen lobbied hard for namesake rights). Congratulations, Rachel, from all of us at the For the Love Podcast on the arrival of your baby girl!
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people, every week, on this podcast. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey everybody welcome to the For the Love podcast. It is me, Jen Hatmaker, your delighted hostess and I’m glad you’re here today. I think you’re going to love today’s guest and you may know that we’re in the middle of a series called For The Love Of Exploring Our Faith. We have had just phenomenal faith leaders on– Josh DuBois, Austin Channing, Bob Goff. It’s just all been really rich, and meaningful, and we’re wading through a lot of stuff.
Today our guest is one of those leaders that, with this very balanced sense of intelligence and graciousness, helped sort of guide us through the murky waters of faith, and doubt, and questions, and the wilderness, for lack of a better word. So, as you may know, Rachel Held Evans, my guest today, she’s been a friend for a few years. She is so interesting. So, first of all, she’s a New York Times bestselling author–for good reason– because not only is she super smart, she’s a “writer’s writer.” She’s a beautiful writer. Her first book was Evolving In Monkey Town–How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions. She re-released that called Faith Unraveled in 2014. That was a really important book that sort of chronicled her journey from certainty, through big-time doubt, and all the way back to faith. It’s really–it’s resonant. She also wrote A Year of Biblical Womanhood in which she sort of did this experiment where she followed the instructions for women in the Bible as literally as possible for an entire year. It’s funny. It’s eye opening. It’s interesting to read.
So, more recently, her latest book is called Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, so you can tell by her book titles that she’s a deep thinker, and she’s a question asker, and she’s not afraid of any of that. So, her upcoming book is called Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again. I’ve read all of Rachel’s works and this is my favorite. I think it’s her best work to date. Her writing, her essays, her interviews–they’ve been featured everywhere – Washington Post, Guardian, Slate, Huff Post, CNN, NPR—everywhere–Today Show, View. She was actually on President Obama’s Advisory Council on the Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships–the one that was headed up by one of our earlier guests in the series, Josh DuBois. You might remember that we talked about that. Rachel was on that council.
So, anyway, she speaks at churches and conferences colleges all around the country. She lives in Dayton, Tennessee and she and her husband Dan are the proud parents of one little boy. You guys will–you’ll hear us talk about it–but as we were recording this podcast, she was having labor pains for her brand-new, fresh, shiny daughter that she literally just had. So, I think you’re going to love this conversation and I’m so glad that you’re here—so, help me welcome to the show Rachel.
Jen: Okay, my friend, welcome to the show. I could not be more pleased to have you on today. I’m so happy you’re here. Thank you.
Rachel: Oh, I’m thrilled to be here. I love this show, and so I’m excited to be part of it.
Jen: Well, I love you, and let’s get serious right now because I want everybody listening to know something right out of the gate. I kid you not, listener. Rachel is literally having contractions right now. You are great with child, as they say in the Bible.
Rachel: Yes, the days have been accomplished that I should be delivered … any minute now.
Jen: I mean, literally, literally, she’s in early labor, and we’re recording a podcast, and so I want you to feel very honored that she did not call me this morning and say, “Listen, this is just not going to happen today. I think I’ll have a baby.”
Rachel: They’re pretty spread apart. It’s not like I’m having them … If I start having them every seven minutes, you’ll know, but it’s more of just like-
Jen: Oh my gosh, Rachel.
Rachel: Once an hour.
Jen: Oh, my God. I can’t even … You’re going to have this baby today or tomorrow. I cannot believe it. I’m so excited for you. Listen, when I see you in the summer, you’re going to have this real baby with you, and I cannot wait. We’re both speaking at the Evolving Faith Conference, which you and Sarah Bessey curated together. This is one of the events I’m most looking forward to on my calendar this year.
It’s sold out. Well done. I like how you talk about it. This conference is going to hit on everything from the Bible to parenting to politics to justice to art to science. It’s really a big tent, and I love that. Of course, everybody is welcome, like the doubters and the dreamers and the parents and the singles and the pastors and the church dropouts, and our LGBTQ friends, and Bible nerds, and post evangelicals. Everybody, come. Everybody, in.
It’s in North Carolina, so for those of our listeners who do not live in North Carolina or were not able to get tickets, will you tell them just a little bit about what you’ll be talking about and what you kind of hope…what’s your dream for this Evolving Faith space, because I love it?
Rachel: Yeah, and thank you so much for joining us. That was … Oh, we’re so glad to have you. You’re just the perfect fit for this event.
Jen: That was the easiest yes I gave you.
Jen: I mean, it’s all my favorite people.
Rachel: Well, I feel like you travel too much already, so I felt a little bad about asking. I know it’s bad when you take a picture and put it on Instagram, and I recognize the carpet from the airport. I’m like “Oh, it looks like she’s in DFW.”
Jen: Totally. So, so true.
Rachel: I appreciate you taking the time. It means a lot actually. But yeah. We would’ve actually probably chosen a bigger venue if we’d known it would’ve sold out so quickly. I’m sure you had a little something to do with that.
Jen: Sold out fast.
Rachel: Yeah, it really did. I think it’s because what we’re trying to do here is gather together people who, for whatever reason, are maybe feeling out of sync with their faith community, maybe they’re just wrestling with some big questions about their faith and doubts. Maybe they just feel like their faith has changed so much in the last five, six years, they don’t recognize it anymore. Maybe they’re feeling cynical about the state of the world and the political climate and all that sort of thing. We just wanted to gather all these people together and say the main message is you’re not alone.
Jen: That’s good.
Rachel: There are other people in the same boat who are having the same questions and experiences. We want it to just really be a time mostly of folks being able to connect with one another. And then to connect with … we have a really pretty great lineup of speakers who are going to facilitate a lot of these conversations.
I’m really happy that Austin Channing Brown got on board. We have Pete Enns to talk about the Bible, and Dr. Wilda Gafney, who wrote this fantastic book called Womanist Midrash, to talk about the Bible. So we’ve got people who are really smart and activists, and artists, and scientists, people from all these different fields who we think will help facilitate conversations around “Hey, what do you do when your faith changes?”
Jen: It’s good.
Rachel: Yeah. We’re pretty pumped about it. I think it will be a good time. We’re offering childcare too, which actually-
Jen: I know, it’s amazing.
Rachel: … that was one of the reasons it went so fast. People were like “Childcare? Sign me up.”
Rachel: But I think it’s actually pretty important, because there’s so many moms and dads who would love to be at events like these, and they never can make it work because what do you do with the kiddos?
Rachel: My kid, my toddler will be there, I can guarantee you. I’ll have the other one like hanging off my boob, so-
Jen: Totally. I love that, because these are really important questions, and so many of us are having them, that they rarely find a home in an event setting. They’re more around our podcasts and on our social media feeds, and kind of in our articles and essays.
So I like this face-to-face option for these difficult spaces and questions, and these complications of faith where these are very, very, very rarely represented in mainstream Christian conferences. And so I’m not surprised at all it sold out in a hot minute. I will look forward to seeing you guys put this … take it on the road.
I already told Sarah that. I’m like “Listen, you’ve got something here. You are meeting a need, a felt need that I don’t see a lot of other people meeting, and so I can’t wait for the Evolving Faith tour.” That’s my prophecy over this space and just receive it.
Rachel: Oh good. Getting prophesied over by Jen Hatmaker.
Jen: That counts.
Rachel: Yeah, I think we’re already thinking maybe we need to take it to the west coast next time, so-
Rachel:… Yeah, I think that’d be great.
Jen: Love that.
So listen, I have followed you and I have read your work literally for years. I mean, you were one of the early voices kind of breaking through the cacophony for me. Listening to what you said, you’re super, super smart, you’re real heady, you’re intellectual, you’re an academic … and watching you sort of pick your way through big ideas and theology was very instructive for me. You gave me a lot of permission years ago to even ask hard questions. I didn’t know we were allowed to do that.
So, your story has meant a lot to me, and I know all about you and I know your whole life, but some of our listeners might not. So I wonder, ’cause you have referred to yourself as a Bible nerd in high school, and that you were very immersed in scripture from a really young age. I completely identify with your upbringing. So can you tell everybody just a little bit about your background, specifically your background in faith, and how that got started, how it developed, and even how it is evolving now?
Rachel: Yeah, so I grew up in a really loving and grace-filled home, actually, but in a very conservative Christian subculture, deep in the Bible belt. And so I grew up memorizing large portions of the book of Romans. Before I was 11, I had Romans 9 down, man. And sword drills, and … I won the best Christian attitude award three years in a row at school-
Rachel: And I was pretty good at kind of collecting my best Christian attitude awards, however they manifested themselves through my life. I ended up in a public high school, where I was witnessing to the Methodists basically, ’cause everybody was already Christian-
Jen: Right, bless ’em.
Rachel:… Right. But I took it upon myself to witness to people. I psyched myself up with DC Talk in the morning and all that stuff. I was a president of the Bible Club in high school, and that meant, because we were kind of like a, “Everybody gets a trophy,” about homecoming, so that meant I got to be on the homecoming court representing the Bible Club.
Jen: Wow, that’s fancy.
Rachel: So obviously I was super popular.
Jen: That’s amazing.
Rachel: Total Bible nerd, but it was also, you know, my faith was an important part of my life, and sustenance, and gave me a sense of direction and purpose. I’m grateful for it. I’m actually really grateful for that pretty intense Bible background. It prepared me for a lot of things, and I’m glad my know my way around a Bible, and I’m glad that I was introduced to Jesus at a young age. I feel fortunate about all of those things.
But, once I was in college and shortly after graduating from college, I just started wrestling with some pretty big questions about my faith, ’cause I always thought that I would go to this Christian college and they would answer all my questions for me, ’cause I still had some lingering questions about … Is it true that most people who have ever lived on the planet will go to hell when they die because they’re not evangelical Christians in America? Is it really true that … what do I do with these passages of scripture that seem to condone genocide and misogyny and the oppression of women?
What do I do with the fact that I always felt called to ministry, but I was told that as a woman I had no place in that world? What do I do with all of these sort of disparate, all these questions? And I kind of thought that my conservative Christian college would just give me the answers and I would feel satisfied, but that didn’t happen. I felt even less satisfied, and so I graduated from my Christian college with my best Christian attitude awards in tow, and kind of just stopped believing.
It was a shock to me, as somebody who had grown up thinking she would always stay in the faith, to just not believe anymore or just to have days where I didn’t believe. And it’s so lonely. It is the loneliest feeling to be standing in your church, and the people next to you, everybody has their arms raised, they’re singing in worship, and you’re standing there and you’re like, “I’m not sure I believe a word of this.”
Rachel: And so I started writing about that experience, and really I kind of started blogging right when blogs were all the rage. I miss them. They’re not as significant to the dialogue anymore, but started blogging through all these questions and thoughts, and sort of writing about them, and managed to connect with a bunch of other people who were also standing in their churches thinking they were the only people. And that just gave me so much life. It’s that you’re not alone thing, to find other people in the same situation.
I’d always wanted to be a writer. Since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to write, but that experience of doubt, just wrestling with faith, that really informed what I decided to write about.
Jen: And so you’re in your early to mid-20s, you’re sort of in this lonely space of doubt, you start writing about it, and then what happens to your faith as you sort of press into this instead of run away from it?
Rachel: Yeah, well I think there’s so much freedom in that, ’cause I felt like I reached a point where I could have gone two ways. I could just fake it and pretend like everything’s fine, and I’m totally on board with everything about being a Christian, or I could get real with God and with people, and say, “I don’t know about this. I don’t know if I believe this, or this doesn’t ring true, or this seems like an oppressive teaching.”
And I felt that God wanted Rachel, not some sort of shadow fake Rachel, not someone who was pretending that she believed, but somebody who was in it, who would take the risk of faith-
Jen: That’s good.
Rachel:… ’cause I think recognizing that faith is actually a risk, like any significant relationship in your life, your relationship with God is a risk that you take. Faith isn’t about having it all lined up and believing everything 100%. It’s about following Jesus even when it’s not entirely clear, even when you don’t have it all figured out.
And so what it came down to me was just the story of Jesus is so compelling. The story of Jesus is just the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about, and that just … I just can’t get rid of Jesus…
Jen: He’s the one.
Rachel: That’s the thing I so appreciate about you and how you’ve shared your faith, ’cause I think this is where you and I have a lot in common, is just we cannot shake it off.
Rachel: With all the questions, with all the flack we might get, with all the uncertainties and the risk taking, there’s still just something about Jesus that is so compelling and so true, that resonates as so true, that we can’t let it go.
Jen: That’s it.
Rachel: So, we stick with it.
Jen: We do, and you know what? You provided some pretty good pavement for a lot of us too, because first of all, it was courageous to talk about doubt inside faith. That is not something we are typically granted permission to do. That is not often met well, and so the fact that first of all, you just started there, and started reading and writing and learning from that space was really important.
And then, what you’ve done for me and just countless other people is that you just refused to check your brain at the door, and sometimes that is where there’s a fork in the road in a faith journey, because the narrative I think that a lot of us get is that doubt in any kind of way is first of all, some sort of indictment on who you are and your character and your faithfulness, and then there’s just this sort of, “Well, I don’t know, shruggy-shrug … that’s just what it says and that’s just what we do.”
And you have pushed really hard on ideas and doctrines that have come out of scripture that have been used to harm people, that have been used erroneously, that have been understood poorly, and you sort of took an academic approach to a lot of really hard questions that for me are just so relieving.
So this is a perfect segue, because I want to talk about Inspired, your new book.
You’ve sent me an early copy, and I was halfway through when I messaged you. I don’t know if you remember this. And I was like, “This is so good.” I mean, it is so, so, so good. So for everybody that’s listening, first of all, we’ll have it all linked, but it’s called Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.
And first of all, I don’t even know where to start. I mean, I want all my kids to read it. I want all my friends to read it. You are not just smart, you’re a writer’s writer. I mean, you are such a good writer that I am angry at you-
Rachel: That’s such a compliment. Every writer wants to hear that from another writer. Like, I got a little mad at you. I feel that way about your ability to write humorously without it ever feeling cliché or silly or badda-boom. It is hard to write humor, and you write it like … You’re like Mark Twain, and that is a high compliment from me, so I appreciate-
Jen: Okay, that is so nice.
Rachel:… It always means a lot when we writers make each other a tad angry.
Jen: Thank you. It is so true. That is the highest compliment we can give, and this book is so, so good, Rachel. You wrote it with honesty and integrity and a little bit of whimsy. It’s so accessible and it’s so smart, and every page I’m like nodding my head going, “That makes sense. This makes sense.” This is checking your heart and your brain at the door at the same time, and it is so relieving.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the book, why you wrote it, what readers can come to expect from it, maybe a favorite part, or something that you loved in the process of writing it.
Rachel: It was definitely one of my favorites to write, because I spend a lot of time, like I’m kind of still that Bible nerd who likes to spend her free time reading Bible commentaries-
Jen: You are.
Rachel:… You know, it’s not exactly the kind of thing that gets you invited to lots of dinner parties-
Jen: That’s true. That’s true.
Rachel:… but it’s been useful in the sense that I really wanted to try to communicate to people some of what I was encountering as I was reading these commentaries and as I was studying more about how to interpret the Bible, and just reading a lot more scholarship that was really helping me seriously address some of those questions that I was struggling with.
And I was encountering responses to those questions that took the questions seriously, and that also kind of provided some ways to think about the Bible that I had just not thought about before. And so a lot of it was frankly Jewish interpretations of scripture, and then just really quality scholars like Walter Brueggemann and Peter Enns, and then like womanist and liberation interpretations of particularly Hebrew scripture was super informative to me.
And so I wanted to take all that stuff that was in my brain and try and make it accessible to regular people who get invited to dinner parties, and don’t stay at home reading their Bible commentaries-
Jen: Yes, exactly. Their Hebrew commentaries, right.
Rachel: So that’s kind of how Inspired was born. So, what I wanted to do was; I felt like probably the biggest mistake we make when reading the Bible is we misappropriate, we misunderstand the genre of a given text. We don’t understand that the epistles are in fact letters, and that should change how we read the epistles. And that the Bible is full of poetry and proverbs and laws and letters and traditions and mostly stories, and when we understand the background and the genre of those texts, we better understand what they’re intended to communicate to the first people who encountered them and then also to us today.
So, I had a little fun with this book, ’cause this is the first time I’ve ever done something like this. Every other chapter is like a creative chapter where I do … I write some poetry and I write some soliloquies and monologues, and did a little choose your own adventure story and a short screenplay, to kind of bring out this idea of genre and how it affects how we read the Bible.
And then kind of tried to walk folks through from Genesis to Revelation, different ways of looking at the Bible and how they’ve been helpful for me for reconciling some of the questions I had about the Bible. It doesn’t solve everything. I try not to … particularly when it comes to the war stories of scripture, I try not to tie a neat and tidy bow on that because that’s never what I wanted to hear from people, like, “Oh, this is easy. Genocide in the Bible? No problem.”
Jen: Yeah, good point.
Rachel: That’s not the kind of approach I’ve ever appreciated, so I try to introduce people to different ways of looking at it, but then to not solve it for people, ’cause my readers are smart and they don’t like it when people tell them exactly what to think. They like it when people tell them how to think, and here’s some options and some ways of looking at things.
So yeah, it really is a love letter to the Bible and it’s about struggling with the Bible for so many years, and then kind of coming back to it and seeing it with fresh eyes.
Yeah, I’m very thankful for the scholarship that brought me to write this, and I’m grateful too for all the scholars who looked it over, the manuscript, looked the manuscript over before I published it, ’cause, you know, you gotta know what you don’t know.
Rachel: So, I had a lot of help, a lot of help with this book. I hope it takes good scholarship and makes it kind of fun and exciting and whimsical and interesting.
Jen: It is that, and I’m laughing ’cause I’m thinking about how this sounds to somebody listening, ’cause it’s so heady and it’s so academic, and all I can promise you, everybody listening, is that I mean, it just skips along. It brings a normal reader so deeply and easily into the conversation. It’s so well-explained, Rachel, like so … I remember thinking as I was reading Inspired that so few of us, so few of us have been exposed to different types of scholarship, to different types of theologians and interpretations. It’s such a narrow, narrow space that a lot of us have been brought up in the church.
Even just all the … I mean, your bibliography is so long, and all these different thinkers and leaders that you’re citing, I’m thinking, “I haven’t heard of so many of these people.” And it was so useful-
Rachel: Oh, I’m so glad.
Jen:… it was just so useful. Why wouldn’t we learn from our Jewish interpreters? Why aren’t we all reaching for that as our first teacher? It just makes sense. And in it-
Rachel: Well, and Jews too-
Rachel:… I have to jump off on this ’cause I get so excited about this.
Jen: Do. Jump off.
Rachel: The posture that the Jewish community takes towards the Bible is so much healthier, I think, than a lot of sort of conservative Christians take, because the posture towards the Bible is, when there’s a conflict or an apparent contradiction or a troubling story–like the binding of Isaac– you know, when Abraham doesn’t seem like “father of the year” to obey God to that extent where you’re willing to sacrifice your kid. You know, that has troubled Jewish scholars for centuries. But instead of running away from it, they see that as an invitation to really wrestle with the text and ask each other questions and to debate.
And so it’s sort of like the Jewish posture towards scripture is–that it’s a conversation starter, not a conversation ender. So many Christians kind of come to the Bible like we’re looking for ammunition to win a debate, you know? We think there’s just one meaning from this story. We have to figure out that meaning and then defend it at all costs. It’s kind of this zero sum game.
Whereas the Jewish posture towards the Bible is; where there’s a contradiction or a question or an unanswered question–where there’s even kind of a hole in the story–you get to imaginatively fill in that hole. There’s an invitation to sort of play and to accept the Bible as … to accept scripture as an invitation to conversation and that that’s…
I have a Jewish friend named Ahava and I think she put it perfectly. She helped me with my Year of Biblical Womanhood Project, and we were Skyping and she said, “Oh my goodness.” Her husband’s a Rabbi. She lives in Israel actually. Her husband’s a Rabbi and she said, “We invited a bunch of other Rabbis over to the house one night, and everybody was eating and debating Torah, and they were going back and forth and nobody could agree. We started to run out of food and they woke the baby up twice,” and she said, “Rachel, it was wonderful.”
Jen: I love it.
Rachel: Yeah, ’cause it was-
Rachel:… She knew that that scripture, that text brought them together into community and gave them something to talk about. If the Bible were easy to understand, if it were simplistic, if it were plain, we’d have nothing to talk about with God or with one another.
And I think God gave us the Bible to be a conversation starter like that, to invite us into community, because being people of faith isn’t just about being right. It’s about being a part of a community, and the Bible gives us so much to talk about.
Jen: It sure does.
Rachel: Infinite things to talk about. And to me, yeah, I appreciate that the Jewish posture seems to welcome that. And you see that reflected in how Jesus engaged scripture, and how Paul, the apostle Paul, solidly Jewish, engaged scripture.
So, it’s really in keeping with both the Jewish and Christian tradition to engage the Bible that way. So yeah, that’s a big soapbox of mine-
Jen: It’s a good one.
Jen: I think we’ve forfeited a sense of curiosity in our generation-
Rachel: Yeah, exactly.
Jen:... that I think used to keep a lot of spaces open and interesting and connected. I can only reach for what I think is fear. I think it’s a fear-based response for a number of reasons, which just shuts down so much curiosity. So I’m not surprised at all that we have to look to a different tradition to teach us how once again, to come back into dialogue around ideas in the Bible that are important, and they matter, and they’re not always plain and clear.
So, in Inspired, you talk about sort of your shift and move towards being a progressive Christian, and some of the events that got you to that space. And so, a couple of years ago, you were in the spotlight. You and I are no strangers to the spotlight.
Rachel: What? Jen? You know nothing about this.
Jen: No. No. You’re just gonna have to tell me what it felt like to push against some evangelical boundaries. You question things like where do women and people from the LGBTQ community fit within the church. And you know I deeply care about both of these as well, and you and I share so much in it.
So, I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about … what are you fighting for when you’re asking these hard questions on behalf of people, and when you’re wrestling publicly with the theology of a traditional sort of evangelical faith community that may exclude and limit the role that certain people can play.
Rachel: Yeah, and I bet you you can totally relate to this response, Jen, ’cause I always think about the people I meet when I’m traveling and like in a book signing line, and they tell me their stories. I always think about them when I’m kind of pushing and fighting. I always, always think about the mom who hugged my neck and cried so hard, I had tear stains all over my shoulder.
She said, “Thank you for teaching us how to better love the gay community. I only wish it had been in time for my son.”
Jen: Oh my gosh.
Rachel: And in those few words, we knew exactly the story.
Rachel: And I just, I can’t get her out of my head. It’s story after story after story like that, of folks who, for whatever reason, they or somebody they loved were excluded, treated differently, marginalized by their faith communities, and they love Jesus, but they were told they didn’t belong.
I think my mom always had a tender heart for people like that, and I think I maybe got that from her, just that tender-heartedness. I think you have it too, where-
Jen: I do too.
Rachel:… yeah, you know, you just can’t get it out of your head. And I think it’s a good thing. Sometimes faith communities try to knock that out of you, and I don’t think that that’s healthy or good. I think that tenderness, as hard as it can be to have that tenderness at times, I’m trying to see it as a gift.
So, yeah, really it was the stories of people like that that changed my mind, and I think you can relate to that as well, and then that made me feel like I needed to, as much as I could, use the platform that I have to try and listen to and advocate for and share the stories of people who, for whatever reason, have been kind of marginalized or left out or pushed to the sidelines, so that I don’t have to hear stories like that anymore from moms like that. No mom should have to go through that.
And so really, on the hard days, I remember this is about people’s lives. So I try to be as good an advocate as I can be, but that’s not always easy.
Jen: No, it’s not.
Rachel: But you know, the pushback never really bothers me that much. It doesn’t bother me as much anymore. It used to. At first, it bothered me. I think, and you probably can also relate to this, the hardest thing is when you feel the rejection from close family and friends.
Rachel: That’s so different. People say, “How do you deal with all the trolls on the internet?” Well, I block them. That’s actually not a big deal. It’s not the trolls on the internet that keep me up at night, it’s the friends that just stopped calling. It’s so hard. It’s so, so hard. That’s where you feel the loss I think the most, and where it feels like the biggest sacrifice … not taking a public stand on something you really believe in. That’s just not that hard for me, and you know, dealing with the negative feedback from strangers.
But it’s those quiet “moving-aways” from people who were once really close to you that … that’s what really stinks. That’s what’s really hard.
But you know, the other day, I got a handwritten letter from somebody I went to college with, and she was a close friend then. She said, “I’m one of those people who moved away from you and was afraid to be associated with you.” She said, “But you know what? The last year has not been a great year, and I find myself asking a lot of the same questions that you were asking.” And she said, “I wasn’t a friend to you then, but I’m ready to be a friend to you now.”
Rachel: So even … as a message of hope, even the friends that you lose, sometimes you all end up finding each other again, because of life circumstances. And most people, at some point in their life, go through a crisis of faith. It might be when they’re in their 20s, it might be when they’re in their 80s, but most people have that experience at some point. And if you have been the kind of person who’s open about your own experience, you’ll be surprised how many people kind of come back and want to talk about it.
Jen: So, kind of pressing into this idea that you were just talking about, I read a quote from you, and you said, “I believe that the sacraments are most powerful when they’re extended not simply to the religious and the privileged, but to the poor, the marginalized, the lonely, and the left out.”
So I’m wondering, who would you consider the lonely, the left out, the marginalized right now? And I wonder, how do you think we can unwind ourselves from this narrative that makes the Bible our shield, essentially, against groups that we are afraid of or we can’t relate to, or we don’t live exactly the same? Can you talk about that a little bit?
Rachel: Yeah, yeah. I use the language of sacrament because I’m Episcopalian and we always go there.
Rachel: Everything’s about communion.
Rachel: But even that, like extending sacraments too, even then I think I’ve shifted in the last few years to realize that it’s not just about me, a pretty privileged white, Christian girl opening up the table, opening up the table to the marginalized. It’s actually, you know what needs to happen, is I need to be in the margins having them serve me communion.
Rachel: And I think that just in the course of the last year, just seeing that the Spirit is so active in those margins, active among LGBTQ Christians, active among women who maybe can’t find a place in leadership in the more conservative world, active certainly among ethnic minorities, people of color. That’s actually where the Spirit’s doing a lot of great work. Maybe I need to be on my knees getting communion from them, as opposed to like, “Oh, look at me graciously opening the table.”
Rachel: So, I’ve had kind of this whole shift in orientation I guess you could say, in how I even see that, as I see God’s presence in these communities that are often sidelined, and for whom the Bible has been used against.
So you look at how the Bible’s been used to hurt LGBTQ people, how it’s been used to hurt people of color. I mean, there are some pretty significant stories there of a literalist interpretation of “slaves obey your masters” has wreaked havoc on the story of our country, on the story of the world.
And yet to see folks coming from that background and folks who have been hurt by the Bible, seeing them reclaim the Bible in some powerful ways, it’s one more testimony to why the Bible’s so great and so amazing, and so, just life-giving.
So, you have those same folks who were told, “The Bible says, clear and plan, ‘Slaves obey your masters,'” taking it back to say also, “Yeah, you know what else the Bible says? Let my people go.”
Jen: That’s right.
Rachel: And to see the way that those folks have kind of traced that thread of justice through scripture, and how they’ve used scripture for their own liberation. Yeah, again, it’s … lately I’ve been trying to reorient myself around that and say, “It’s not necessarily about me opening the doors, which I hope I do, to everyone, it’s also about me going and receiving communion and receiving the sacraments from these people who seem to know a thing or two about the Bible and a thing or two about Jesus.”
Jen: It’s no joke what you’re saying. This was just a real key piece of my story in the last maybe four years, was discovering … which isn’t hard to discover, it just matters where you’re looking, but discovering so much fruit within the communities that were being held back or held out, and it was the fruit that I could not get away from because … Well, specifically, and this has to do with all the communities you just named, women in leadership, people of color, the LGBTQ community, but specifically with the gay community, watching the fruit in their communities, like when you’re just an affirmed human being and you’re flourishing in your gifts and in your church, it was undeniable.
Jen: It would not be denied. You would have to be a liar or just willfully obtuse to not be able to say, “But this looks like flourishing. Wait, wait-”
Rachel: Yeah, these people really love Jesus too.
Jen: Yeah, and there’s so much good fruit out of it, and I would say the same for women in spiritual leadership. I mean, the amount of fruit underneath the teaching of women, the leadership of women, the inclusion of their voices, the inclusion of their interpretations and their scholarship, it’s just undeniably good.
And so you’re right, it’s not our table. We’re not the ones who get to say, “Come to the table.” We’re not the hosts-
Rachel: Right. Jesus sets the table, yup.
Jen: True. And so I want people listening to know that if it feels like you’re in a faith community where the table is being manned and staffed and enforced by a group of watchers who are human, you might just need a new table. You might just need to go somewhere else and see where there is actually deep, flourishing fruit under sort of a different type of leadership.
So, back to something you said. You did a talk at Gordon College a few years ago … I’ll have a link, everybody, on my website if you want to listen to that.
And you were specifically talking about your sort of journey down the rabbit hole of a Year of Biblical Womanhood, which was my first book of yours that I’d read.
But you did a talk on the idea of how to ask better questions, and I like this. You made a really good point, and I have since read a lot of your work around this, that the word “Biblical,” it’s often used as an adjective to apply to really complicated, complex, nuanced subjects. And so we end up hearing terms like, “Biblical marriage,” “Biblical politics,” “Biblical stewardship,” “Biblical womanhood.”
And so in essence, using the word “Biblical,” it was sort of prescriptively instead of descriptively, is inherently selective.
Jen: So, I wonder if you could talk about your ideas there and your leadership on that idea that it’s a little bit weaponized.
Rachel: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t love using the term “Biblical” like that at all. It just is one of those things that I start to get sweaty about.
Rachel: Yeah, because any time we throw around the word “Biblical,” first of all, it’s very reductive, because we are taking an ancient collection of letters and laws and prophecies and traditions and stories, and spanning thousands of years, written by multiple authors, to multiple different audiences in varying different contexts, subjected to many, many interpretations through the centuries, and we’re boiling it all down to an adjective.
To me, it’s actually frankly a little disrespectful to the Bible to say, “Well, I have a Biblical view of economics.”
Jen: Oh, right.
Rachel: Okay, well, what? You know, which Biblical view?
Jen: Where? Yeah.
Rachel: Which one? Which passages of scripture are you citing here? And then you take something, especially things that are so culturally nuanced, like womanhood or manhood or marriage. You know, when we talk about Biblical marriage, I mean, technically speaking, it’s Biblical for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt.
Jen: That’s right.
Rachel: Technically, it’s Biblical for her to be one of many wives.
Jen: That’s right.
Rachel: Even in the New Testament, it’s Biblical for her to cover her head when she prays. So we … trying to take all of these very cultural informed ideas and boil them down into the prescription for all women at all times or all marriages at all times, it’s just unhelpful. I just don’t think that it’s a good way to approach the Bible.
That said, I do think most of us who are Christians want to have sort of a Biblically informed view on things like marriage and womanhood and gender and sexuality and politics and economics and all of those things, and I think that’s good. I want to have a Biblically informed view of those things. I want to know what has been the tradition for thousands of years for the people of God. How do they think about this and how have they thought about it and how has it changed through the years?
And so I think it’s one thing to be Biblically informed, it’s quite another to try and boil what you have learned down into a few bullet points, or into an adjective. It’s just not helpful. And again, especially when you’re talking about marriage. Something like marriage is just … Our marriages today look nothing like they looked at the time that most of scripture was written, even in the New Testament.
People think that, well, wives submit to your husbands, that sounds like wives and husbands. Well, wives and husbands did not interact in the Greco-Roman culture the way that they do today. I am not the property of my husband. And so it’s gonna change how we interpret and imply that particular passage. That’s why it’s so important to understand the original context and the original audience for these texts, because otherwise we tend to impose our own selves and our own culture onto a text for which that would be completely foreign.
So, we do this with all sorts of different parts of the Bible. We try to impose our cosmology onto Genesis 1 and 2. We try to impose our particular cultural views on marriage and family onto the whole scripture. And frankly, that’s actually centering ourselves. I think it’s actually a more liberal way of reading the Bible, in the sense of it’s more conservative I think to try and understand what was happening in the original moment and context.
It’s a stretch to try and impose ourselves and our own pet interests and our own culture onto the Bible when God saw fit to communicate to people in their own language and in their own culture with their own assumptions. That makes me uncomfortable. I don’t always like that God saw fit to do that, but that’s just the case.
So yeah, that’s why I try to avoid using the term “Biblical,” just because I find it pretty reductive and not particularly helpful for understanding-
Jen: No, it’s meant to sort of shut down conversation, typically, as in, “Well, I have a Biblical view.”
Rachel: “I have a Biblical view.”
Jen: Yeah, so-
Rachel: Well okay, which parts of the Bible? I hear that at least once a day-
Jen: That’s true I bet.
Rachel:… “Well, I believe the Bible.” Well, okay, I believe the Bible too, so we just seem to have some different approaches.
Jen: This conversation is really important, and I wonder … I don’t even quite know how to phrase this question, but as you are so aptly explaining, we’re taking a glimpse into genres in an ancient culture, and in a scenario in which so many of our interpersonal relationships now are different, the family dynamic is different, culture is different, our understanding of science is different. There’s been so much change, and so I wonder how you … I don’t know how quite to ask this.
How do you sort of decide, as you spend so much time in the Word, and studying it, and learning from it and about it, how do you decide that this is a very culturally bound idea, and this one is more prescriptive? This is gonna stand the test of time. How do you know when to hang onto women don’t pray in church, or when to let go of that?
Rachel: Yeah, yeah. Like why do so many people take the “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man,” well that’s for forever and all time, but when the apostle Paul says, “There’s not a church in the world where women don’t cover their heads,” for some reason that gets dispensed of.
Well, the thing is, there’s no easy answer to that. That is the task of hermeneutics. The hermeneutics is what is your sort of general posture towards the Bible, how do you interpret it, and how do you choose what and how the Bible applies to us today. That is the work of the people of God, and we are going to disagree fiercely about it, because it’s important.
And so the long answer is, well, there’s a lot of different ways to look at that, and we have to consider the original audience, what language gets used, where is that language used elsewhere, how can we compare it to other texts that were written at the time? It’s hard work, frankly. You have to kind of put your mind to it.
Jen: It sure is.
Rachel: So, the long answer is, well that’s the work of hermeneutics and good luck, everybody.
Jen: Right. Go with God. Yes.
Rachel: What I appreciate is that when Jesus was asked by an expert on the Bible, an expert on the law, “What’s the most important part of the Bible?” as it existed that day, Jesus, who usually didn’t answer questions like that directly … Jesus kind of preferred to tell a story or to ask another question in response. He was that kind of a teacher that was trying to invite further dialogue.
But when it came to that question, He answers it very directly. Jesus says, “The most important element of the law is, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and all the prophets,” which was His way of saying the entirety of scripture, “Hangs on those two commands,” which is a very Jewish response to appeal to that particular text.
What I love about that is that that is the grid through which Christians should be reading the Bible. That’s how Jesus taught us to read the Bible. That was Jesus’ definition of Biblical. Does it make you love God and love your neighbor better?
So, when we get to the difficult texts, we leave room for disagreement, we leave room for fierce disagreement, we talk about it, we hash it out. But at the end of the day, what moves the needle for me is; am I interpreting this in a way that helps me and helps my neighbor love God with all our hearts, soul, minds, and strengths, and love our neighbors as ourselves? That has been pretty clarifying for me in the difficult times, reading through that grid of love. That was the posture Jesus asked us to take, and I think it’s the posture we should take to the most difficult passages.
So yeah, it’s not easy work, but I do think that Jesus gave us … It’s like what we said about the fruit. You can see the fruit of certain interpretations of scripture, and if the fruit is bad, you know, “Can anything bad come from a good tree,” Jesus asked. If the fruit is good, can good things like this come from a bad tree?
Rachel: So, if it’s producing love for God and love for neighbor, I’m inclined to take that approach. And if it impedes that in any way, and I think that’s a very Jesus-y way to approach it.
Jen: It sure is.
Rachel: Easier said than done, though, easier said than done.
Rachel: There’s plenty of passages that I’m like, “Well, I don’t know what to do with this.” So, you know-
Jen: I appreciate the honesty, because you know I only have my own experience to draw upon, so I could not possibly speak for everybody, but I just was not raised in a faith community where questions were welcomed, really. Or if somebody asked a really off the board question about the Bible, I mean, everybody’s alarm bells would go off, like, “Oh no. Slippery slope. I mean, here she goes.”
And so I appreciate this sort of open-handed posture toward being a learner and learning new ideas and loving the Bible in its genre and context, and allowing it to continue to change our lives without white knuckling it to death and using it as a bludgeon. It’s just a different type of approach to scripture to me that is so welcomed and it’s so needed. I wish that our church culture could approach scripture like this through the grid of God and people, and just be set free-
Rachel: Yeah, well and it doesn’t treat the Bible like it’s so fragile, and God like God is so fragile and breakable that if we have any questions or unresolved tensions that it just all falls apart.
Jen: Good point.
Rachel: I think there’s so much fear around it, like, well if we’re not all on the same page, if we don’t all take the exact same thing from this, if there’s anything that remains troubling or unresolved, well then you just chuck the whole thing.
To me, that’s like, what kind of fragile holy text is that?
Jen: That’s good.
Rachel: I just think the Bible can hold up. I really think it can hold up to our fiercest questions and our hardest questions, and our most significant disagreements. I think it’s strong enough, and I think God’s a big enough God to handle my doubts … to handle it when I say … I mean, it was Job, Job who finally is blessed by God, and it was Job who said, “I desire to have an argument with God.” I love that line-
Jen: Bless him.
Rachel:… which I mean, that dude had every right, so-
Jen: He sure did.
Rachel: And it’s Jacob who wrestled with God, and wrestled with God until Jacob demands a blessing from God. How many times do we approach the Bible and say, “All right, I’m gonna wrestle with this text, and I’m gonna wrestle until I get a blessing, God.” And it all points to a God and to a scripture that can handle it, that isn’t fragile and breakable and always in need of constant defense.
Jen: That’s good.
Rachel: So, that’s why … yeah, I think God and I think the Bible can handle it.
Jen: Oh, I do too. So your book title, it ends with the phrase, “Loving the Bible Again,” which is so … just those words communicate a lot, actually. So I wonder what you might tell some of our listeners who may have scars from those who have used the Bible to command submission or to just simply point out fatal flaws and essentially confirm that God is chronically disappointed in you at all times, and probably still will be when you barely make it into heaven, or as a tool to really scare them … scare them into belief or to condemn their neighbors.
I wonder what you would say to that person about why it’s really okay to love the Bible again.
Rachel: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I would say to them first that not everybody’s ready to come back to the Bible, and I totally get that. Some people, it has been used so violently and so oppressively, that even just hearing a few sentences from scripture can really bring them back to some of the worst moments of their lives, and so not everybody’s ready. And so I see, and take your time in coming back. Start in a place … you don’t have to start with those hard passages. Start in a place in scripture where you maybe perhaps felt most welcome.
Maybe it was just in the stories that you remember as a child or maybe in the Psalms … not that all the Psalms are easy-
Rachel:… but start in a place that you’re comfortable actually. It’s okay to do that if you’ve been deeply wounded by the Bible. But I would also say, when you pay attention as you’re engaging scripture, you see this thread where God is reaching out to and working through the people who have been hurt, the most marginalized, the most oppressed … that that’s kind of who God picks to be present with.
One of the stories that came to life to me the most as I was writing this book, and this was thanks to the good work of Womanist scholarship, which is black women engaging scripture and engaging the scholarship, was Hagar. Hagar was the slave, the Egyptian slave of Sara and Abraham, and she was forced into surrogacy when Abraham and Sara couldn’t have a child, and they were doubting God’s promises. She was forced to have a child with Abraham, and that became Ishmael.
And what’s fascinating about Hagar to me … There’s a lot that’s interesting about her, and she has resonated very much with Womanist scholars, because she’s a slave from Africa who was forced into surrogacy, so there’s a dovetail there between the stories of her story and the story of many black women-
Jen: Obviously, yeah-
Rachel:… but she’s the only person in all of scripture to name God. God names lots of people in the Bible. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob … but only Hagar, an African slave, at her worst moment, when she’d been cast out of her home, left to die, dares to name God. She names Him, “The God who sees,” ’cause she says, “Not only have you heard me in my distress, you have seen me in my distress.”
And so, all throughout scripture we encounter these people who in one way or another are naming God as the God who sees. The woman who suffered from the bleeding from the hemorrhage, who just reached out and touched Jesus’ garment had put her faith in the God who saw her in her suffering.
And so when you’re attuned to that, I think that you can find in scripture profound, significant hope that this is the God who sees you in your distress, and this is the God who not only sees you, but welcomes you and wants you in on this story of death and resurrection and redemption.
So it’s hard to get people to that point and I understand that, and particularly if there’s been a lot of suffering, but when we’re ready, and if you pay attention, there’s the God who sees you just waiting there.
Jen: That’s so good, Rachel. That is so wonderful just to hear you explain it like that, and I hope that that is encouraging to so many people who haven’t been told that the Bible is wonderful and that God loves them, and that He is a God who sees.
So let me wrap up with this question we’re asking all of our guests in the Exploring Our Faith series, which by the way, is incredibly over-represented with Episcopalians. I didn’t even do that on purpose. I don’t know what happened.
Rachel: Well, you know-
Rachel: And this series has been great so far. Your interview with Lisa Sharon Harper. Fire.
Jen: I know. Almighty.
Jen: It was really … I’ve gone back and listened to it like three times, ’cause it’s so hard to pick… She’s so smart. She’s like you. It’s just … I’m like, I need to go back now and listen with a pen in hand and take notes. She’s-
Rachel: Well, I appreciate it. You ask good questions too. You’re like Oprah-
Jen: Well, but then I can’t remember. It’s too much information. I’m like, “Wait a minute, I need to sit here and think about what you’re saying.” And so anyway, thank you. She is a really important leader, and really, really special.
Anyway, I asked her this and I’m gonna ask you this too. I wonder if you would just kind of leave us with either a quote from a leader that you love or a scripture that epitomizes your life’s work, anything that you have found that you kind of hang onto that helps you to sort of keep your foot on the gas and keep going and keep pressing and keep studying and keep leading.
Rachel: Oh gosh. I saw that you were gonna ask that. I’m like, I don’t know, I don’t really … it’s so hard to pick.
Jen: I know.
Rachel: But if you’re having Barbara Brown Taylor on, I’ll pick a Barbara Brown Taylor quote, ’cause she’s kind of … I love her. But she has one, and it’s resonating with me for obvious reasons right now. She says, “New life starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” And I just have always resonated with that because it’s like this reminder that ours is not a God of self-improvement plans and 10 steps. Ours is a God of death and resurrection, and that God can take anything and bring it to life.
And some of the tough moments and the dark moments, that’s one that I go back to is like, well, if I’m gonna be in on God’s business, I gotta be ready to be in the business of death and resurrection, that’s what God does.
Jen: That’s right.
Rachel: Yeah, so, Babs, for the win.
Jen: Oh. She is the actual best-
Rachel: I love her so much. She is great.
Jen: I mean, I was so nervous before interviewing her because she’s been so important to me, and I just wanted to honor her so much, and I cried twice, at least twice, during my interview with her. There’s nobody like her.
Jen: Okay, now listen, you’re gonna have a baby, and I just want to say that nobody is naming babies Jennifer anymore, and the name is yours if you would like it.
Rachel: It’s true, it’s true.
Jen: That’s only a name of my generation, so like in 30 years, the only Jennifer’s on earth are gonna be a bunch of grandmas, great-grandmas.
Rachel: And then it will come back, ’cause like-
Jen: It’s true.
Rachel:… For real. My kid is in … my first kid, my toddler, Henry is in preschool, and he’s with … it’s Henry, Spencer, Stella, August, all those old school names are back, so-
Jen: Totally. Oliver, they’re all back.
Rachel: Yes. And in a few years, it’s gonna be Jennifer’s all over the place.
Jen: I know. I’m just saying, it’s yours.
Rachel: Okay, noted.
Jen: Thank you for coming on this podcast while you’re in literal labor. Nobody will ever take that away from you. That will never happen again, and I just honestly can’t believe that we’re marking it here, doing a podcast together in labor.
Thank you for being who you are. I want to commend you for your intelligent courage and your thoughtful leadership. You are not a leader that just throws emotional words all against the wall just to see if anything sticks, but you bring your heart and your brain to bear on all the work that you do, and it really matters.
I think for everybody listening today who’s new to you, I’m so thrilled that they’ll be introduced to your work and to your writing, and that you hold a lot of space for hard questions, and you push into ideas where other people run. I promise you that I followed behind you. You’ve been a really important leader to me, and I drew a lot of courage from watching you just sort of stand steady, even in really windy rooms, really stormy conversations. You just held. You held with kindness, but with firmness and integrity, and I’ve read so much of your research. You’ve just done so much work for the rest of us because you’re so smart and intelligent.
And so I just thank you for being who you are, and the kind of leader that you are, and I thank you for standing so strong next to our brothers and sisters who have been so harmed and so left out. You’re a fierce voice for justice and inclusion and scripture, and you didn’t sacrifice any of it for any of it. It all got to stay in the story, and it’s a good story. I just love you and I am so proud to be your friend and your sister, and we’re gonna have a good time at the Evolving Faith Conference. I want to hold your baby-
Rachel: I can’t wait.
Jen:… I want to say that right now, that I’m first in line. I’m really good at babies … really, really good.
Rachel: Oh, you’re so kind, Jen, and I hope you know that the feelings really are mutual. I have the same deep respect and appreciation for you and how you conduct yourself when it gets really hard, when push comes to shove, when the rubber meets … what’s … I mixed up my metaphors.
Jen: No, no you got it. The rubber meets the road. That’s it, you had it.
Rachel: Yeah. There’s something about people who can speak with courage and conviction when it’s hard and when it costs them. I deeply, deeply respect that. So the feelings are mutual. You can hold my baby. No promises about the Jen name, although that’s lovely, that’s lovely-
Jen: Okay, you’ll have time. You still have time-
Rachel:… Had I actually delivered in the midst of this interview, that would be a different story, but-
Jen: That’s a great point. That’s a great point.
Rachel:… but I’m grateful for you too, sister.
Jen: I’m so excited that you’re gonna have a baby this week. That’s very thrilling. And I’m so, so happy for you. So thank you for coming on today, thank you for taking the time, and I’ll see you in a few months.
Rachel: Alright. Sounds great.
Jen: Okay, bye.
Jen: Alright. That is it for today’s show. I hope that was interesting. I hope that you heard something that made you think or made you question or made you laugh. That’s sort of the point of this series is pushing on some of our spiritual buttons and opening them up for dialogue. I just can’t thank my guests enough for leading us into such interesting and challenging spaces with integrity, and with kindness, and with intelligence. I sure love Rachel and her leadership has been so important to me.
So listen you guys. Thank you for being with me week in and week out here at the podcast. Me and my team Amanda and Laura. We work so hard on this podcast because we love it and we love you. And we think these conversations are important. So thank you for subscribing, and thank you for reviewing, and thank you for sharing all your favorite episodes with your friends–all that just matters. It’s just a real joy to serve you like that.
So, guys, we’re not done with this series. So, you’re going to want to come back for sure next week. Trust me. Trust me. Trust me. Until then, have a fabulous week and I’ll see you next time.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!