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).