Saturday, November 10, 2012

Book Recommendation: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

I remember the excitement I felt when, as a brand-new Christian, I began to explore what kind of life Jesus wanted me to live.  The type of Christianity which I initially encountered was the gentle, fireside faith of the 1970s:  we didn't call ourselves "biblical Christians" or "Bible believing Christians" but "born again Christians" -- not because we didn't believe the Bible, but because we tended to think of our faith more in terms of our encounter with Christ.  I read the Bible more to find out what it said about Jesus, than what it said I was supposed to do.  The main things I did figure out I was supposed to do involved believing that Jesus died for me, trusting God, and being kind to people.

But something changed along the way.  Before long I found myself in a Christian group that told me there was something more to Christianity for me than I had thought.  I was a woman, and I needed to learn to live the way God had designed me as a woman to live.  It wasn't enough to just follow Jesus as a Christian-- I needed to learn to follow Jesus as a woman, which apparently was quite different from following Him as a man.

I learned "biblical womanhood."

I learned that I needed to be taught how to cook and sew and keep house, because that was how women glorified God.  I learned that my prime example in the Bible was the Proverbs 31 woman-- except that I shouldn't forget that the Mary and Martha story showed the importance of also spending time in prayer and Bible study, which was what "sitting at the feet of Jesus" meant.  I learned that as a wife I would need to submit to my husband's authority, and that I should get in practice early, by being submissive to my brothers in the church.  I learned that a Christian woman was ladylike and sat with her legs crossed at the ankles and never at the knee; that she dressed with class and style but always with modesty; that she spoke in a quiet voice; that she never gave her Christian brothers hugs from the front, which might cause them to stumble-- but only side-by-side hugs.

And because I was already naturally soft-spoken and a little quiet, and because I had a naturally yielding disposition, I found that all of this came fairly easily for me.  I was a model Christian woman-- and proud of it.

Except that I hated to sew, I had neither inclination nor desire to can vegetables or make jelly, and I disliked the "feminine" topics of conversation among the younger women at my church, which seemed to be centered around husbands, homemaking and hairstyles.

Somehow, I was still falling short.

Later, when Maranatha Campus Ministries and my religious certainty fell apart-- when I re-examined everything I'd been taught, took it apart and put it back together (missing some pieces but gaining some others) as a freer kind of faith-- this model of womanhood was one of the things I discarded.

So this October when my best friend ordered me a copy of Rachel Held Evans' A Year of Biblical Womanhood as a birthday present, I was gratified to read these words in the introduction:

"Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman?  And do all the women of Scripture fit into this same mold?  Must I?"

Rachel Held Evans was taking my journey, but in a much more dramatic and intriguing way.  She set out to answer a three-part question: What does it mean to be "biblical"?  What does it mean to be a woman?  And what does it mean to be a "biblical woman"?

Ms. Held Evans decided to spend a year living out the passages in the Bible -- Old and New Testaments-- which addressed or described women.  "There would be no picking and choosing," she stated.  Setting aside standard evangelical principles of Bible interpretation and standard ways evangelicals apply those interpretations to their own daily living, she would consult all kinds of women who attempt to live by and practice the Bible-- "even when those practices didn't particularly suit my own interpretation of the text."

Rachel studied and practiced orthodox Jewish women's practice of Torah and observance of holy days.  She studied and practiced contemplative prayer as done by Catholic saints and nuns.  She took part in simplicity of living and modesty of dress with the Amish.  She interviewed a Quiverfull daughter, a woman living in Christian polygamy with other "sister wives," and a female preacher/pastor.  She went to Bolivia with World Vision to learn about justice to the poor, and to a Benedictine monastery and a Quaker meeting to learn about silence.  Jewish, Catholic and Protestant; mainstream and extreme alike-- Rachel tried as much of it as was practicable.  (She couldn't, apparently, bring herself to ask her husband Dan to try polygamy; and her attempt at being a patriarchy-style "help meet" resulted in his ordering her to stop submitting to him!)

Along the way she added fun with some playful extremes.  She called her husband "Master" for a week, softening his discomfort by pretending to be Jeannie from the old TV show I Dream of Jeannie.  She spent one of her menstrual cycles camping out in her yard.  She sat on the roof of her house to teach herself not to be contentious, since the Book of Proverbs states that living on the roof, though unpleasant, is not as unpleasant as a contentious woman.

With charming honesty and self-deprecating humor, Rachel does give her own interpretations and conclusions regarding Scripture in her book-- as well as detailing the things of beauty she learns and absorbs in her year-long journey.  One thing that seemed clear to me as a reader was that the true teachings of the Bible which Ms. Held Evans said would permanently influence her-- towards care for the poor, towards avoidance of contention, towards the holiness to be found in silence-- are not exclusively for women, or for men either.  The story is enhanced by wise insights from her husband Dan's journal, which provide a quiet counterpoint to his wife's flamboyance.  It is Dan who points out that though Rachel is the one ostensibly submitting to him, the whole project involved his support of her. 

Rachel's conclusion?

"So after twelve months of 'biblical womanhood,' I'd arrived at the rather unconventional conclusion that there is no such thing.  The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth.  . . As much as we may long for the simplicity of a single definition of 'biblical womanhood,' there is no one right way to be a woman, no mold into which we must each cram ourselves. . . 

[I]n the deeper recesses of my heart and mind, I think I was looking for permission-- permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself; permission to be a woman.  What a surprise to reach the end of the year with the quiet and liberating certainty that I never had to ask for it.  It had already been given."

Living as a Christian woman, just like living as a Christian man, boils down to two things, which are really almost one:  grace and faith.  Grace doesn't put constraints on our personhood in Christ's New Creation.  We enter as little children.  We are led by the Spirit.  And one day we will see Him as He truly is.  Rachel and I, in our different journeys through "biblical womanhood," ended up in the same place.  It makes me feel like we are sisters-- as indeed we are.

But I can't finish this book recommendation without saying something about the number of Christian voices on the blogosphere which are doing anything but recommending this book!  I don't feel that I need necessarily defend Ms. Held Evans, because she's done an admirable job of defending herself.  But it makes me sad that she needs to.  Many of the critiques go far beyond "I disagree with the premises and the conclusions of this book" or "I don't like the way this was written."  Some accuse her of only wanting a place in the spotlight-- they even question her Christianity and claim she is siding with atheists in mockery of the Bible.

Why do Christians attack one another like this?

I will briefly address the two main forms that the negative critiques seem to take.

1)  She's using shoddy hermeneutics (principles of Bible interpretation) to distort what evangelical complementarians mean by "biblical womanhood."

According to this critique, there are certain universally agreed-upon principles of Bible interpretation that all Christians adhere to, such as that the Old Testament cleanliness laws are fulfilled in Christ and no longer have to be followed-- and Rachel Held Evans either is ignorant of these or deliberately flouting them.

I suppose that since the term "biblical womanhood" was more or less coined by evangelical complementarians to refer to their particular beliefs and practices about practicing the Bible's teachings for Christian women today, evangelical complementarians might be led to believe Rachel's intent was to distort "biblical womanhood" as they understand it.

But the fact remains that there are many different kinds of people who read, interpret, and try to practice the Bible, and when it comes to what we call the Old Testament, Christians (and evangelicals) simply don't corner the interpretation market.  Judaism was here first.   Since Rachel Held Evans made a goal to research and explore as many interpretations and forms of practice as she could manage in the time allotted, I think she makes a very good case that complementarians really can't claim the term "biblical womanhood" all for themselves.  This wasn't all about evangelicalism, nor is Rachel's book about what complementarians in particular mean by "biblical womanhood." And the idea that the book should be centered around a universally agreed-upon, basic Christian hermeneutic which Rachel deliberately flouted (in addition to being inaccurate) seems to impose upon the book the critics' idea of what it should be about, and then to condemn it for not meeting that expectation-- rather than allowing the book to speak for itself and be what it is.

(In fact, I wish Ms. Held Evans had had more time to explore other major hermeneutics that seek to practice the teachings of the Bible, such as conservative Judaism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  In a sense the book is incomplete without these.)

2.  She's making a mockery of the Bible and/or making Christianity look bad.

This critique seems to be centered on Ms. Held Evans' more out-there practices during the year, and especially the one where she sat on her roof.  Nowhere does the Bible tell anyone to sit on their roofs, and the passage (Proverbs 21:9) about contentious women is written in terms of husbands finding the roof more desirable as a place to be than with their wives.  Therefore, by doing something as silly and unbiblical as sitting on her roof, Rachel makes the Bible and all of Christianity look silly.

The issue I have with this is that the idea of interpretation (figuring out what the text might mean) is being conflated with the idea of practice (figuring out what we then should do).  Rachel made it clear in the book that she wasn't sitting out on her roof because the Bible told her to.  She was sitting on her roof as a penance, to bring home to herself the unpleasantness of what she describes as "complaining, snarkiness, nagging, swearing."  That's what a penance is-- an action a person takes to show repentance and as a self-deterrent against further wrong-doing.  As such, it falls squarely within the realm of practice, not interpretation.

And there's where the inconsistency of a critique like this becomes plain.

If Rachel Held Evans says, "I'm going to take this proverb about contentious women, and apply it to my life by finding out how unpleasant it is to sit on the corner of the rooftop, in order to remind myself not to be contentious," how is that different in substance from when a woman says, "I'm going to take this psalm about children being a blessing, and apply it to my life by never using birth control again"?

Both ideas are about application of a text to one's own life.  Sure, the Bible never says a contentious woman should sit on the roof.  But neither does it say that women should not use birth control.  There is a passage about a man named Onan getting punished by God for spilling his seed on the ground, but no one else in the Bible is punished for using birth control-- and history tells us that the Ancient Near-East cultures in the Bible did know of and use various methods.  So maybe something else (such as the fraud and covenant-breaking which are plainly described in that text in Genesis 38) was the real reason why Onan was judged.  Try as we might, it is impossible to find any place in the Bible that directly tells women not to use birth control.

So why is one application of a passage in the poetry texts (Psalm 127:3 resulting in not using birth control) being "biblical" -- while the other application (Proverbs 21:9 resulting in sitting on a roof) is "making a mockery of the Bible"?

I think that many Christians (including those making these critiques) are often unaware of how much Christian practice is rooted in tradition, and how much seems normative and unremarkable simply because Christians have done it in the past.  It's possible to believe that we are being radically sold-out for God and counter-cultural when we fly in the face of modern Western culture-- but most of the time this supposed radicalism is actually a return to earlier traditional practices which were more restrictive to women, and not new practices at all.  So when someone like Rachel Held Evans tries a practice that really is new, all we can see is how silly it looks-- not noticing, perhaps, how silly our own practice might look if no one had ever done it before.

So I'd like to request more charity and grace from my fellow-Christians who have taken it upon themselves to denounce A Year of Biblical Womanhood as a dangerous book that attacks the Bible and Christianity and might lead gullible Christian women astray.  Really, folks-- what this book is really about is that there are a great many different ways, historically and throughout various cultures today, that "biblical womanhood" has been and is being understood-- and in light of that, perhaps we should all cling a little less tightly to our assurance that we have a full and correct understanding of what biblical womanhood is supposed to mean.

And maybe we women could give ourselves, and our sisters, a little more permission to just be.


perfectnumber628 said...

Hmm, I really like your comparison between Rachel "applying" that verse by sitting on her roof, and the idea that the bible forbids birth control. And how the roof thing only seems completely bizarre because we've never heard of it before, but some of the other "biblical womanhood" rules have about the same about of biblical basis.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, Kristen. It's also quite possible that these folks have not read the book, barely skimmed over parts of it, or went by that silly mention in MSN without bothering to check it out for themselves. Mostly, though, I think they haven't read the book. -- your Sis

Donald Johnson said...


Anonymous said...

Good writing, KR!

Kristen said...