a twitter conversation

Yesterday morning I had a twitter conversation with a girl I don't know.  I'm still thinking about it because the question we ended with is an important one.  Here's how it went: 

(spoiler, yes, we're all still talking about the Year of Biblical Womanhood, but c'mon, stay with me, this is important - if you're a woman or a Christian, you have a stake in how this plays out)

I've put Hannah in plain text, and my replies in italics.

Hannah: How would your view of YBW and the ongoing conversation change if what says is true?  

Me: I think she makes some strong points (I noted the straw woman complaint in my review, too). But today I've been thinking: Doesn't Mary do the same thing to feminists that Rachel does to complementarians? In this video, she says "When Betty Friedan started the feminist movement in America in the 1960s..." selectively defining feminism as 2nd wave feminism to make it easier to condemn?  

Here's to reductionism all round! So how do we elevate the conversation? How do we move past simplistic egal and comp answers? Looking for a way forward. 

Amen to that. reading w/ hermeneutic of love is a good start, & cultivating humility...But we need more to find the way forward, I think. 

Biggest concern: YBW is just as easy, just as provincial as the problem. We need better, more robust answers.Need expression of Xian womanhood that transcends 1950s AND the post-feminist West. 

So you and I had better start writing :-) 

Absolutely. I'm on it. 

 I actually think that most of the time, the True Woman ladies do a lovely job at keeping Christ the center. 

Agreed. Disconnect is often in what is taught and what is practiced. Great perspective here:  

And this is the other major flaw in argument- what critiques may not be party line comp.-  but it is real and it is widespread and it is usually called complementarianism. 

Agree. And comps need to speak against it as strongly as they speak against any other abuses.

Today @ShaneyIrene made a similar point to Mary Kassian:
...There seems to be a disconnect between the "leaders" of complementarianism and what actually gets taught in churches. For example, you can call yourself "core" and Ms Pearl "fringe," but that doesn't take into account how much her teachings get recommended at a lay level. 

What do you think?  Do we need a whole new vocabulary? (I know neither the egalitarian nor the complementarian expression seems exactly right to me.) Why is it so important to us to be right?  Why is this conversation so emotional and tense and fiercely fought? Is there a way to talk about important theological points without just denying each other?

what I'm reading this week

We didn't trick or treat.  It was so wet and cold here, and Rosie was mostly oblivious to the holiday, and we figured it was the last year that she would be, thus the last year we could get out of it.

But here she is in her costume back in September (and here's how I feel about princesses, just fyi).

The sun goes down early now, the house feels drafty, and the blog post I'd been writing in my head seems silly. As Rosie says, it's almost snow time.  What I want is to take a scalding hot bath with a book, and then sleep.
Last week, when it was warmer

Here's what I've been reading this week, along with a stack of research papers to grade:

  • Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear.  The latest installment in the adventures of Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and private investigator in London circa 1930. These historical mysteries are well written, quick reads set just after the time of Downton Abbey.
  • If you're interested in following the whole RHE "Biblical Womanhood" debate, the two best pieces this week were by Rachel Stone and Matt Lee Anderson.

    • Rachel Stone writes about reading with a hermeneutic of love rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion within the Christian community.  I've become increasingly aware of my own tendency to approach people I view as outsiders with suspicion, and people I view as insiders, with grace. Unfortunately, there's a lot of this in the Christian online world, too.  I remember realizing it most vividly when I read Challies's review of One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp.  The critical tone of the review shocked me, and it shocked me because he was writing about her as if she were an outsider, when she is clearly not an outsider to the reformed evangelical camp.

      We all do that.  We read and respond to ideas differently if they are coming from people we perceive as "outsiders" or "insiders," as trustworthy or not, and we give so much more grace to people we view as "in our camp".
    • Matt Lee Anderson writes perhaps the best critical, fair-handed review of RHE's book so far.
  • Booked: literature in the soul of me by Karen Swallow Prior.  Last week I tweeted cheekily to Karen that her book had not succeeded in putting me to sleep (she counted it as a review she would always treasure). That was after one chapter.  Now that I'm halfway in, I'm truly finding the book to be moving. Perhaps I'll write a full review when I finish the book, but here's a passage that spoke to me:

    I admit that my relationship with God has been more intellectual than emotional. I used to think this lack of emotional fervor was a mark of sin or, at the very least, some great flaw in my spiritual life.  I thought that it must be a great lack in my faith that I am more emotionally moved in reading literary works like Great Expectations than in reading dramatic passages in the bible or in hearing a moving testimony from the pulpit.  But I've come to realize that my emotional responses to moving works of literature, like the passage above, are the only way I can bear to respond emotionally to God and his love: indirectly.

    It's like when Moses asked God to see his glory, and God answered, "You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live." So God took Moses to the cleft of a rock and covered him with his hand while his glory passed by...Literature is like the cleft of a rock that God has taken me to, a place from which I can experience as much of the glory of God as I can endure.

Have you been reading anything good?

In which I take on Trillia Newbell's review of "A Year of Biblical Womanhood"

Trillia Newbell, a freelance writer in Tennessee, wrote an early review of Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood for last week.  She and I have both written for her.meneutics, and I’ve found her pieces there to be interesting.  I was surprised, then, to find that this book review seemed to be more hastily (as a teacher of writing, I found a number of sentences that I wanted to re-write) and perhaps carelessly written than what I had seen in the past from her.

Newbell discovers a number of problems with Evans’s book, and reviews it, she says, with a heavy heart.  In reading her review, it seems to me that she has in several places misunderstood or misrepresented Evans’s ideas.  I’ll re-post key sections from her article below in bold, with my comments following.

As I read the book, it became increasingly clear to me of one theme: God’s word was on trial. It was the court of Rachel Held Evans. She was the prosecution, judge, and jury. The verdict was out. And with authority and confidence, she would have the final word on womanhood. 

This was not a theme that emerged in my reading of the book.  If Evans is putting anything on trial, it’s the notion that any human, herself included, can have the final word on what defines “womanhood”.

Evans makes it clear that although she holds the Bible in high esteem as a historical document, she would warn us to be careful in attempting to use it as a guide for living out the Christian faith. A few quotes explain her stance. {Here the quotes Newbell singles out are in bold and italics}
Despite what some may claim, the Bible’s not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today. (48)

Newbell has removed this quote from its helpful context.  In context, Evans is not arguing that we should avoid looking for principles to guide our Christian faith in the Bible; rather, she is pointing out that the particular version of “modern family values” that many conservatives espouse in America today is not something you find a lot about in the Bible.  You are more likely to read about polygamy than white picket fences, in other words.

I kept digging, and as it turns out, Peter and Paul were putting a Christian spin on what their readers would have immediately recognized as the popular Greco-Roman “household codes.” (216)

Indeed, this is helpful cultural context in understanding the text properly.  You can study historical context and still hold that that the Bible is a guide for living out the Christian faith, believe it or not.  You can admit that the human authors were influenced by the culture in which they lived and still believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.

The Bible is a sacred collection of letters and laws, poetry and proverbs, philosophy and prophecies, written and assembled over thousands of years in cultures and contexts very different from our own, that tells the complex, ever-unfolding story of God’s interaction with humanity. (293)

This seems to me to be pretty obvious, and agreed upon by most evangelicals.

And you see it most clearly in Evans' conclusion.
For those who count the Bible as sacred, the question when interpreting and applying the Bible to our lives is not, will we pick and choose? But rather how will we pick and choose? We are all selective in our reading of Scripture, and so the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Are we reading with the prejudice of love or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? (295)
And later:
This is why 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 suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (295)
Throughout A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans works to prove that the Bible is not without error and therefore cannot be applied literally — and in some cases cannot be trusted (as we see by the implications of Paul’s and Peter’s motives, she says, to keep their culture in the Scriptures)…

Yes, I too take issue with some of Evans’s conclusion.  What is clear, though, is that she wants us to admit that we all come to the Bible with our own sets of blinders and biases, and that these need to be humbly examined.  We should examine ourselves as we examine the text.

But she in no place says that the Bible is full of errors, as Newbell implies.  Her claim that the Bible (as a whole) cannot be applied literally is one to which most Christians assent. And the fact that she takes cultural context into consideration when seeking to understand God’s word shows how deeply she values its true meaning, not that she thinks God’s word is untrustworthy.

But while the book is engaging, her methods and her conclusions on womanhood are confusing at best.
If you go to Evans’s book looking for a systematic theology of womanhood, then yes, you will be confused.  But if you go looking for that, then you have misunderstood the project altogether.  The book is a record of  a performance art project intended to demonstrate a couple of truths: First, that any contemporary American definition of “biblical womanhood”  is necessarily selective in which Biblical references it uses; second, that the cultural context in which people read the Bible influences their interpretation of it.  Those two conclusions are fairly clear.

And this is largely because she selectively decides which Scriptures apply to women and which ones do not. She spoke with men and women from a full range of backgrounds and faiths and then attempted to apply them to evangelical Bible-believing Christianity.
Actually, she does not decide which Scriptures apply to women and which don’t.  She studies how professing Christians of a variety of stripes, as well as Jews, have understood Scriptures that refer to women, and then “tries on” their interpretations. She does this to demonstrate that "selectively deciding" which Scriptures apply to women, and how they apply,  is something that everyone does, whether they admit it or not, whether they have good (theological) reason for it or not.

Oh, and by the way, a “full range” of backgrounds and faiths would include more than white, professing Christian, Catholic, and Jewish.

The majority of her quotes and references from complementarians aim to show complementarianism as foolish and dated. Strangely she more often cites authors with a more traditionalist orientation (and less truly complementarian) and only one or two of the more biblical moderates.
I actually agree with you that in relying heavily on Debi Pearl in one chapter, she does create something of a complementarian straw woman.  But I’m surprised to hear you taking issue with the complentarians she cites, because she cites Piper and Grudem, arguably the leaders of the movement, a number of times.

Evans claims to be caught between conservative and liberal theology. She believes in the physical resurrection of Christ, and she believes in evolution. But in seeking to bridge conservative and liberal theology in this book, she invests so much time explaining what she does not believe, that readers will be left wondering exactly what she does believe.
I, for one, was not left wondering what she believes.

Part of this comes down to widely differing worldviews. To understand womanhood, Evans blends Eastern practices and mysticism, with a few selected Scripture quotes. For me to properly understand biblical womanhood, I can only finally return to God’s sufficient word…

I was really astounded to read this criticism.  I can’t think of any “Eastern practices” Evans practiced… unless Newbell is talking about Jewish traditions she tried?  Evans does write a bit about centering prayer and the discipline of silence, both pretty standard Christian practices, not some far out mysticism.

To understand womanhood, Evans didn’t blend “Eastern practices and mysticism, with a few selected Scripture quotes.” To understand womanhood, Evans spent a year reading, meditating on, researching, practicing, and writing about the Bible.  About everything the Bible says about women.  To me, it appears that Evans relies upon God’s word, just as Newbell says she herself does.  What Evans questions are her own interpretations, and the point of this project is that while God’s word should be our guide, we need to be more careful to understand it correctly, approaching it with humility, interpreting it rightly, and not using it prescriptively in ways God never intended for it to be used.

Read my full review of Evan's book here.

Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

A few thoughts on Rachel Held Evans’s new book:

First of all, some personal background:

The first time I encountered Rachel Held Evans was when Slate profiled her Year of Biblical Womanhood project over a year ago.  At the time, I skimmed the article, and dismissed the project (and, by extension, Rachel) as derivative, snarky, and irreverent. 

Then Rachel started showing up in my social media life more and more.  Friends linked to her blog posts on twitter and facebook, and I found myself agreeing with her as often as not, though at times I still found her manner a bit abrasive.  

Over the last year, as I’ve started following the online evangelical community more regularly, I’ve started reading Rachel’s blog consistently, and I’ve also read her first book, “Evolving in Monkey Town”.  I’ve  found that she is hardly the most offensive or outspoken among us evangelicals on the web, and in fact I’ve become something of a fan of hers.  She is thoughtful, honest, and compassionate; I appreciate the way she fights for the underdog, wrestles with the Bible, and creates community on the internet.  I think she’s whip-smart  and web-savvy, two things evangelicalism needs.

We have a fair amount in common, too.  Rachel and I actually share a birthday (June 8, 1981).  We both grew up in the Bible Belt of the south, in wonderful Christian families.  Both of us have fathers who were fairly prominent conservative evangelical leaders in our communities, and both of us were… let’s face it…goody-two-shoes.  Her love of football, though, sure does leave me stumped.

Now, onto the book:
In A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans recounts her experiences over a year of studying everything the Bible has to say about women, and trying to live it all out as literally as possible.  The book is not intended to be a theological treatise or an argument for what “Biblical Womanhood” is. Instead, it’s a record of a kind of performance art project in which Evans wore a head covering, cooked her way through Martha Stewart’s cookbook, slept in a tent during her period, and blew a shofar.  This year-long performance art project is intended to demonstrate a couple of truths: First, that any contemporary American definition of “biblical womanhood”  is necessarily selective in which Biblical references it uses; second, that the cultural context in which people read the Bible influences their interpretation of it.

To this end, rather than trying to create a systematic theology of womanhood, or to argue for egalitarianism and against complementarianism, Evans investigates the ways in which various Christians (and Jews) have interpreted Scriptural texts about women,  and “tries on” their interpretations, experimenting with Catholic ideas about silence and prayer, Amish ideas about modesty, Jewish ideas about purity, Quiverfull ideas about fertility, and complementarian (well, specifically, Debi Pearl' – whom some complementarians disavow) ideas about submission and wifely duty.  

Each month, Evans focused on a different trait – gentleness, domesticity, obedience, etc – and each chapter covers one of those months.  Each chapter also includes a section from her husband Dan’s journal during the project, as well as a brief portrait of a woman from Scripture.  The writing is engaging, eminently readable, and funny.  I laughed out loud more than once, and I agreed with her often, especially appreciating the way she engaged with Proverbs 31, with ideas about justice, and with expectations about beauty.

As for criticisms, I do have a few.  Evans neglects to comment on the distinction that most Christians make between how we interpret the Old Testament laws and how we interpret the New Testament epistles, and I think a word on that would have been instructive.   

Due to the nature of the book, Evans often makes theological observations or arguments that are not fully fleshed out.  For example, when she examines the complementarian position on 1 Timothy 2, she does well to point out the difficulties in practically implementing Paul’s instruction that women are not to “teach or have authority” over men, and the almost ludicrous extremes to which theologians have gone to demarcate what is acceptable for women.  But because she doesn’t deal with the intricacies of the theological argument, her point is less authoritative than it could be. She doesn’t , for example, note what is really the hinge-point for many on this verse, that Paul refers to pre-fall creation order to make his point, and to be convincing to anyone who has studied the passage, she has to address that.  

If she wants to critique complentarianism (as she does in the chapters on “Submission” and “Silence”), she must be sure she’s not setting up a straw woman.  (I can speak to this issue because I am well-versed in complementarian arguments… I can’t speak as much to other interpretations she critiques, such as polygamist Christianity, or Amish traditions.) By choosing Debi Pearl’s book as her source text, she’s drawing from a specific branch of complementarian thought, a conservative rather than a moderate one.  Again, given the nature of this book, I think her approach is acceptable, and makes for good comedy, but it’s worth noting that what she’s offering here should not be taken as a full theological argument (nor is it meant to be, I believe).

My only real quibble with Evans is in the conclusion, where she makes what I think is a very valid and important point, but makes it without some qualifications that I think it needs.    

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. We are all selective… We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it… If you are looking for Bible verses with which to support slavery, you will find them.  If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them…” (p. 296)

I wholeheartedly agree with Rachel that we ought to examine our motives, our presuppositions, our cultural contexts, and our desires as we read Scripture looking for truth, and I think the point she is making here is extremely important. 

In fact, this is the very point that the literary theory of Deconstructionism makes in arguing that a text has no intrinsic meaning, but only the meaning that the Reader brings to it.  The Reader, deconstructionists argue, is more the author than the author is; all meaning is constructed, not essential.

I believe (and I’d guess Evans does, too, although she doesn’t make it clear here) that the Bible does have meaning apart from what the reader brings to it.  While it’s vital to consider our own biases and blinders as we approach the Bible, as well as the cultural contexts of the Bible’s human authors, it’s also vital to acknowledge the power of the Holy Spirit to speak to us and inform our reading, the power of Christian community to refine and strengthen our understanding, and the essential truth that exists in the text itself. 

Evan’s book is worth reading.  I enjoyed it, and I think both women and men will find it amusing, thought-provoking, and (perhaps especially in regard to valor and beauty) freeing. 

Next Up: Tomorrow I will post a review of Trillia Newbell’s review of the book (which has some serious flaws).