Rachel Held Evans is a popular Christian blogger (http://rachelheldevans.com) whose new book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” was released today. I was given a pre-release copy by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
One thing I will never be accused of is being a feminist.
I read a news story today about a major university removing the word “freshman” from all documents to adopt more “gender inclusive language.” My eyes can’t roll far enough back into my head when I hear something like that.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve never felt victimized by my gender. I can honestly say I’ve never felt any disadvantage in being a woman, and I’ve never gone to a church where gender roles were prominently discussed.
When I received Rachel Held Evans’ new book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” however, my eyes were opened to just how much Christian gender controversy I’ve been oblivious to. In the book, Evans explores what the widespread concept of “biblical womanhood” really is through a one-year experiment to live as literally as possible according to the passages about women in the Bible.
About the Book
At its heart, the book questions 1) if it is possible to define a “biblical woman” based on what the Bible says and 2) which passages about women are prescriptive for all time and which passages are descriptive of a culture far removed from our own.
Each month, Evans focuses on a different aspect of “biblical womanhood”: Gentleness, Domesticity, Obedience, Valor, Beauty, Modesty, Purity, Fertility, Submission, Justice, Silence and Grace. For each of those topics, she tackles a handful of related “to do” items. For example, for Gentleness she remains quiet during football games, takes an etiquette lesson, makes a “swearing jar” and does penance on her rooftop for acts of contention.
The book has generated a lot of controversy even before its release – mostly from people who haven’t read it. From the description alone, people assume Evans is making a mockery of the Bible. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In reality, Evans treats the Bible very seriously but uses (mostly) light-hearted methods and highly entertaining narrative to present her overall point – that a prescriptive picture of a biblical woman doesn’t actually exist in the Bible:
“Now we evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like it’s Martin Luther’s middle name…Despite insistent claims that we don’t pick and choose what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity. After all, technically speaking, it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father (Exodus 21:7), biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), biblical for her to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), biblical for her to cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:6) and biblical for her to be one of multiple wives (Exodus 21:10).”
The humorous narrative doesn’t mock the Bible in any way and reads almost as an aside to Evans’ more serious points. For example, I really don’t need to read several pages about the mishaps of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner to understand more about the biblical concept of domesticity, but because Evans is such a talented and engaging writer, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it.
While I gained a lot from reading this book, I would say I had two major take-aways.
Big Take-Away 1: Gender-Based Bible Controversy is Real and Important to Discuss
Much of my introduction to gender-based Bible controversy came in the form of quotes from people heading various organizations designed to champion a specified model of biblical womanhood. Debi Pearl, who wrote “Created to Be His Help Meet,” was quoted several times. For example:
“A young mother’s place is in the home, keeping it, guarding it, watching over those entrusted to her. To do otherwise will surely cause the Word of God to be blasphemed…judgment will assuredly come.”
Truth be told, I had never heard of this best-selling author and initially blazed past her quotes, considering them “extremist” (judgment will surely come to those who work outside the home?).
That was before I learned that renowned pastor and theologian John Piper – who has written many books that sit on my own shelves – believes that women, amongst other things, should “avoid pursuing careers that place them in a position of authority over men.”
Can I be excused from this semi-professional book review to say oh…my…gosh? I’m just floored by this. Consider me officially out of the oblivion on biblical gender issues. I had no idea anyone extended the Bible to the workplace in this area.
If such reputable and outstanding theologians such as John Piper have views this extreme (in my humble opinion), I now suddenly get why this topic is really, really important for Christians to discuss.
Big Take-Away 2: The Proverbs 31 Woman Doesn’t Dictate Who I Need to Be
I have a secret to confess: I didn’t know what the famed “Proverbs 31 Woman” was until I read this book. I had seen references to her in ministries and books but had never taken the time to dig into what all that was about. Sorry, I’m just not big on Proverbs. Shhhhh.
In case you are in my little boat of Proverbs 31 ignorance, it’s a 22-line poem in Proverbs that describes a “wife of noble character.” As Evans points out, whole ministries and literary empires have risen up around this concept. Many Christians interpret the passage prescriptively as the ideal model of a woman.
Evans presents a different view.
Apparently, the structure and diction of Proverbs 31 closely resemble that of a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a warrior. Its purpose was to draw attention to the “often overlooked glory of the everyday.” In other words, it was an ode, not a command. Notably, the only instructive language it contains is directed to men, with the admonition that a thankful husband honor his wife “for all that her hands have done”.
“Old Testament scholar Ellen F. Davis notes that the poem was intended ‘not to honor one particular praise-worthy woman, but rather to underscore the central significance of women’s skilled work in a household-based economy.’ She concludes that ‘it will not do to make facile comparisons between the biblical figure and the suburban housewife, or alternately between her and the modern career woman.’”
While I’m sure there are widely varying views on the Proverbs 31 woman, I found this particular discussion very compelling.
Toward the end of the book, Evans starts to draw her bigger picture conclusions and in doing so makes a couple of statements that I felt didn’t match the point she was trying to make and that I personally disagree strongly with.
“For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose…there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does it say? but, what am I looking for?”
I emphatically disagree with this. If we should best come to the Bible asking what WE are looking for, any conclusion could be valid. Most Christians would challenge that notion. Indeed, that would be contrary to her own point that there ARE invalid ways of reading the Bible, as they relate to women. Having read her blog for several months, and knowing she has a deep appreciation for appropriate biblical interpretation, this left me scratching my head.
Unfortunately, this is going to be quoted everywhere by skeptics and it truly isn’t a logical conclusion from the rest of her 300+ page book.
I genuinely enjoyed this book from start to finish. It made me laugh out loud multiple times. At the same time, it introduced me to biblical gender issues and inspired me to dive more deeply into scholarly treatments of them. Even if you don’t share Evans’ conclusions, the book is a highly worthwhile read that presents her view respectfully and thoughtfully.
My favorite quote from the book, which applies to so many things, was this:
We cling to the letter (of the law) because the spirit (of what the Bible tells us) is so much harder to master.”
So what do you think? Are the passages about women’s roles in the Bible prescriptive for all time or descriptive of the culture in which they were written?