As Biblical as Apple Pie: Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Carissa Smith read Rachel Held Evans’s new book, and found it heavy on the stunts and light on thoughtful wrestling with Scripture. 

As part of her exploration of “biblical” standards of modesty for women, blogger and writer Rachel Held Evans dons a full-length skirt, a slouchy sweater, and a knit beret for a month. This stunt, as you might expect (and as Held herself expects from the beginning) teaches her little about the Bible; she does claim, however, that it teaches her empathy with those whose garb leads to their being judged as religious fundamentalists, a judgment she confesses she has applied to others:

“When I saw women at the airport wearing the hijab, the first word that came to my mind was oppressed. When I saw families at the park boasting long denim skirts and tennis shoes, I labeled them sheltered. When I saw Amish buggies creeping down a busy street, I rendered their drivers legalistic, outdated. When I saw a perky coed donning a pro-life T-shirt and a ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bracelet at a concert, I filed her under Bible-thumper. Now I feared that all those harsh words were being mentally lobbed at me. There’s perhaps no better way to foster empathy for those whose appearances you judge than to spend a few weeks walking in their shoes.”

Empathy, eh? That’s a whole lot of different groups to identify with all of a sudden. Moreover, who’s to say that the feelings of a Pentecostal woman at being judged on her apparel are the same as those of an Amish woman? Is it really possible to say you’ve walked simultaneously in the shoes of women from all these groups, based on a month-long experiment in which you wore frumpy clothing and chatted with a few Amish women?

The American obsession with claiming grand life lessons drawn from hands-on experiments is nothing new. Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” could trace its ancestry back to Henry David Thoreau’s year (two years, actually, but he pretended it was only one) living the simple life at Walden Pond. In recent years the book market has been flooded with accounts of year-long projects that began as blogs, including Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously and A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Evans’s book reads something like a combination of these two (in fact, in a particularly meta angle, A Year of Biblical Womanhood includes a comment from a blog reader reminding Evans that “A. J. Jacobs already did this, you know”–sadly, Evans never tells us her response to this point). Like Powell, Evans devotes a good deal of time to laying bare her own neuroses and her kitchen disasters; like Jacobs, she seeks to highlight the arbitrary nature of biblical literalism. Unlike either of these two, Evans is also genuinely seeking to know and love God better and to conform her life to the pattern of Christ: unfortunately, the description of her stunts often gets in the way of her description of her actual quest.

On the deconstructing biblical literalism front, Evans seeks to call attention to the ways in which various cultural biases have shaped Christians’ ideas of “biblical” gender roles–a fair point, in my opinion. In Evans’s discussion of some Christians’ belief that a woman’s place is exclusively in the home, she points out that “this position is based primarily on an idealized elevation of the post–industrial revolution nuclear family rather than biblical culture.” Okay, I’m with her so far. Then why spend most of the chapter discussing her attempts to transform herself into Martha Stewart?

The structure of most chapters begins with a description of Evans’s specific plans for practicing a tenet of “biblical womanhood”–gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence, and grace–in a particular month. Many of these plans are as random as deciding that you’re going to cook your way through Martha Stewart’s Cooking School in order to practice biblical domesticity. For example, to emulate the Proverbs 31 woman, whose “husband is respected at the city gate,” Evans stands outside the entrance to her town with a sign proclaiming, “Dan is awesome!” I get the point that many Christians’ gender role prescriptions are equally arbitrary and culturally determined, but how useful is belaboring that idea with multiple examples?

On her blog, Evans has recently said that “the playful, humorous experiments” in her book “are clearly meant to be hyperbolic and provocative . . . My goal is to make readers first laugh, and then think, about the ways in which we invoke the phrase ‘biblical womanhood,’ because I believe both the Bible and womanhood are more complex than a list of rules and acceptable roles.” The main problem is that these experiments aren’t really all that funny, in part because we can so easily see through them and in part because Evans’s persona (note: her persona, not Evans herself) seems to be a distillation of all the charmingly messy, neurotic, self-deprecating women pop culture has given us in the past decade. For me, this persona is wearing thin, even in its “smart” Liz Lemon variety. I’ve begun to wonder if the type isn’t ultimately just another way for women to apologize to men for being competent: “Look, you don’t have to feel threatened, we’re just a cute little bundle of raw nerves and hormones” is the message it sends. In Evans’s case, this persona, who seems to prone to constant crying jags, undercuts her emphasis on celebrating “women of valor,” both in the Bible and throughout history. Sure, even women of valor have their weaknesses, but they don’t have to manufacture them to fit the current popular version of womanhood.

In most chapters, Evans adopts a preferable persona–the curious scholar–when she proceeds to explore various interpretations of relevant Bible passages, usually including a look at genre, context, or both. Proverbs 31 is meant to be poetry, she discovers, not a recipe for behavior. In the best chapter of the book–the “Beauty” chapter–Evans, after examining what the Bible has to say about beauty, opts to completely skip the stunts she had planned, determining that they’re unnecessary. If only she had decided the same for the whole book. What we get in the “Beauty” chapter, unhampered by the facade, is an indictment of evangelical subculture’s double standards for female appearance and sexuality and a celebration of the Bible’s better priorities–mutuality and mystery–in these matters.

Evans can also be insightful in the area of cultural analysis. For example, once we get beyond the seemingly endless narrative of apple-pie-baking, the “Domesticity” chapter suggests that maybe one reason conservative Christians rally round the flag of domesticity is that the art of homemaking, for both men and women, is genuinely in danger of being lost in our society, and that this is something to be mourned–but, Evans argues, the solution doesn’t lie in telling women that homemaking is the only vocation in which God can be found.

In her frequently reposted review of the book, Kathy Keller criticizes Evans for trying to cherry-pick her own set of culturally derived principles from scripture and for failing to distinguish between narrative and prescriptive portions of scripture. As regards the latter charge, from reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood, it’s clear to me that Evans many times makes the very genre distinctions that Keller accuses her of ignoring. Evans’s point is that others are inclined to do equally silly things when they read poetry as a list of rules. Evans also admits her cherry-picking, claiming that it’s what we all do: but, she says (possibly in desperation), we can choose good prejudices, reading with “the prejudices of love.” Yet how hard it is to achieve even a culturally trendy virtue like empathy in meaningful practice. Throughout the book, Evans makes comments like, “be careful of challenging another woman’s choices, for you never know when she may be sitting at the feet of God”–statements that seem genuine in the portions of the book in which she explores scripture but which are undermined by her various “experiments,” many of which seem aimed at not only challenging but mocking other women’s choices.

While I agree with Evans that it’s impossible to completely shed our cultural biases when approaching the Bible, I’m not confident that we can consistently apply the “prejudices of love,” either, especially not when the individual is the sole arbiter of what “love” means. Too often “love” ends up being some superficial claim to identify with another, because we want to feel better about ourselves, rather than the true death to self that the Bible enjoins for men and women, married and single. There may be no surefire way to rid ourselves of our cultural lenses, but at least we’re more aware of when we have them on if we take the time to truly listen to the voices of Christians across the centuries and from different areas of the globe–while wearing our normal apparel.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

  • http://www.Christandpopculture.com Alan Noble

    Carissa (or others who have read the book),

    As someone who has not read the book, and due to a dissertation, will be unable to for a long, long time, one question I have is does Evans acknowledge that women who take more “conservative” (or “literal”) readings of passages about womanhood have thoughtful hermeneutical reasons for doing so and not “literally” following other passages?

    This issue keeps coming up in reviews and is one of my concerns. It seems to me that what is important is that we discuss the validity of particular interpretations, but Evans’ language of “picks and choses” seems to imply (or does it? help me out here) a sort of postmodern nihilism towards interpretation.

    Also, in regard to her performance art, what exactly is it supposed to prove?

    Assuming that it is supposed to demonstrate the arbitrariness and socially constructedness of “biblical womanhood,” don’t they implicitly mock more conservative women? Does she acknowledge that “conservative” women typically have hermeneutical reasons for not following these extreme practices? If not, isn’t this a strawman argument? If so, then don’t these examples not prove anything meaningful about a “literalist” hermeneutic?

    My impression from reading reviews (both positive and negative) seems to be that Evans had some constructive and helpful things to say about “biblical womanhood,” a phrase that I, like Carissa, find deeply problematic. But her colorful framing of this discussion alienated those who disagree with her by implying (intentionally or not) that those who take a “literal” reading of the Bible are extremists who should want women to follow every command in the Bible regardless of context to be logically consistant. This point, which doesn’t take the conservative reading seriously and charitably, was what I and many, many others assumed based on the promotion of the book, the cover of the book, and the title of the book all of which gave the impression that the book was primarily about how ridiculous it was to live according to “biblical womanhood,” and how any enlightened person would reject such beliefs.

    Now, I’m not accusing Evans of making this argument in her book, or even for intending this argument in the book’s promotion. My point is that it seems to me that much of the backlash she is experiencing has come from a misunderstanding about her argument that could have been avoided if she had framed it differently. And if her goal is honest and productive dialogue about these issues, I worry that her book has done more harm than good by emboldening those who agree with her and alienating those who don’t.

    Take that all with a grain of salt. I haven’t read the book. And I’m quite open and willing to be corrected by those who have.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/joecarter Joe Carter

    Great review. This observation—”The American obsession with claiming grand life lessons drawn from hands-on experiments is nothing new.”—was particularly insightful. There are numerous books and magazine articles where a writer has a message they want to convey and so concoct an experiment-in-living to use as a hook. I hope you’ll consider examining that trend in more detail in a future essay.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Carissa,

    Thanks for the thoughtful review. This sentence right here is probably my biggest worry about the type of hermeneutic RHE and others seem to be arguing for: “I’m not confident that we can consistently apply the “prejudices of love,” either, especially not when the individual is the sole arbiter of what “love” means. Too often “love” ends up being some superficial claim to identify with another, because we want to feel better about ourselves, rather than the true death to self that the Bible enjoins for men and women, married and single.”

    The question is whether our concept of love is, itself, canonically-defined instead of merely culturally-defined. This is where the dictum “Scripture interprets scripture” is so important. I know RHE would probably say she’s getting her idea of love from Christ and the Cross, I hope she is, but those events can only be understood within the broader framework of the NT which is understood in light of the covenant promises of the OT, etc. I have to withhold final judgment because, like Alan, I haven’t read it yet.

    Thanks again for the review.

    Alan,
    Read the dang book and answer those questions yourself!! I want to see what you think too!
    D

  • arthur1526

    I should share:

    Be certain of this, that the highest aim of creation and its most important result is belief in God. The most exalted rank in humanity and its highest degree is the knowledge of God contained within belief in God. The most radiant happiness and sweetest bounty for jinn and human beings is the love of God contained within the knowledge of God. And the purest joy for the human spirit and the sheerest delight for man’s heart is the rapture of the spirit contained within the love of God. Yes, all true happiness, pure joy, sweet bounties, and untroubled pleasure lie in knowledge of God and love of God; they cannot exist without them.
    The person who knows and loves God Almighty may receive endless bounties, happiness, lights, and mysteries. While the one who does not truly know and love him is afflicted spiritually and materially b y endless misery, pain, and fears. Even if such an impotent, miserable person owned the whole world, it would be worth nothing for him, for it would seem to him that he was living a fruitless life among the vagrant human race in a wretched world without owner or protector. Everyone may understand just how forlorn and baffled is man among the aimless human race in this bewildering fleeting world if he does not know his Owner, if he does not discover his Master. But if he does discover and know Him, he will seek refuge in His mercy and will rely on His power. The desolate world will turn into a place of recreation and pleasure, it will become a place of trade for the hereafter.

    From Risalei Nur collection by Said Nursi.
    http://www.nur.gen.tr/en.html#leftmenu=Risale&maincontent=Risale&islem=read&KitapId=499&BolumId=8783&KitapAd=Letters+(+revised+)&Page=262

  • http://www.sometimesalight.com Hannah Anderson

    Thanks for a thorough review–you hit many of my concerns and articulated them better than I could. Especially in your ability to wrestle with the genre and express why it doesn’t work–e.g. the use of “persona” vs. actual RHE. Really good work.

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  • http://www.carisadel.com Caris Adel

    I thought this review was kind of mean and honestly, a little bizarre. I honestly don’t know how someone can read it and come away thinking she was light on wrestling with the Bible. That is just astounding to me, actually. It is obvious that she has worked through many passages and read tons of commentaries and books on the issues. Just because the book isn’t an academic volume doesn’t mean it’s light on Scripture.

    It feels like you are mocking, even judging, her empathy. The feeling of being judged on your appearance can transcend specific situations. Why not be glad that someone has realized how they have been judgmental, and cheer the fact they are trying to understand other people, and change how they treat people? And then to say that empathy is a culturally trendy virtue? I thought that was a Jesus-like virtue.

    I also found the wording odd, in ‘sadly Evans doesn’t tell us her response’….why is it sad that you think RHE hasn’t responded to certain comment? (Which she has, several times. Even in the book, I believe. Don’t have my copy on hand to check.) – That probably seems like a nit-picky point, but it just makes this review stand out even more as being odd and mean, to assign feelings to something that minor.

    “unfortunately, the description of her stunts often gets in the way of her description of her actual quest.” Maybe this point is a matter of opinion, but I strongly disagree. Even in her descriptions of her stunts, she is talking about what she is learning and how it applies to what she’s been reading and what the Bible says. She moves in and out of the stunts and application.

    “Then why spend most of the chapter discussing her attempts to transform herself into Martha Stewart?” This feels like you’ve missed the whole point. She is transforming herself into MS to show how much pressure women feel in having to be MS. Because following MS is one of the stunts. And this is helping to open up the conversation about what we expect out of women. Should they be excellent cooks? Can you be a godly wife if you don’t like to cook? She’s making the point that this kind of standard is a relatively new one.

    “Many of these plans are as random ” – she’s picking topics that get hammered home time and time again in churches and books and the whole evangelical world. I have heard so many sermons and teachings on all of those topics, except valor and justice. She didn’t randomly decide what the evangelical world thinks about womanhood. She picked her topics from what they are already teaching.

    “I get the point that many Christians’ gender role prescriptions are equally arbitrary and culturally determined, but how useful is belaboring that idea with multiple examples?” That’s the entire point of the book. I’m glad you get the point :) Multiple examples because there are multiple topics and multiple chapters and multiple interpretations. If you have one shot at putting something out to the public, don’t you want to make sure you hammer home your point? Each little stunt and example comes from different verses that are lobbed at women to reduce them to a role.

    (note: her persona, not Evans herself) – It’s absolutely possible that I am just too involved in this topic and book and person, haha, but I thought this was pretty offensive. It’s pretty clear that this book is by Rachel, about Rachel, and it is her life, not her persona. Honestly, I would be more upset with RHE if this had been some persona she was pretending to be to do this book. It’s more meaningful and real because it’s an actual person actually wrestling with her Bible and her God trying to understand what it means to be a woman. Is it her persona that tried be silent at the monastery? Is it her persona that meditated and found clarity in what strength meant? Saying that a created persona is the one doing the wrestling takes it out of the realm of practicality. If a real person can’t struggle this way, can’t cry when it gets hard, can’t be funny, or uncomfortable, then what is the point??? Being who she is is undercutting her celebration of women of valor??? Do you see how offensive that is? Constant crying jags? She’s trying to live like an ancient woman in modern times! Really, that wouldn’t make you cry? Would you prefer she cut out all of that honest emotional stuff so that we get a polished, perfect woman? My favorite sentence in the whole book is when she screams at Dan and tells him it is sexist for him to say she’s emotional. Haha! I love it. I have some of those same reactions over here. The humanity of Rachel and Dan and their openness in their vulnerability and transparency is why this book in this format works so well. If she’s manufacturing weaknesses, then what would you accept as real and honest weaknesses??

    “If only she had decided the same for the whole book.” Because that would have made her point…… It feels like the author is looking for an academic work on exploring the topic and not the book that was created.

    “but, she says (possibly in desperation)” – again, this wording just feels mean and bizarre. Why are you trying to add negative emotions to this?

    “many of which seem aimed at not only challenging but mocking other women’s choices.” – she is exploring and trying to understand other choices, as well as point out that all of these other choices fall under the umbrella of Biblical womanhood. There is never any derision in her writing, never any laughing at or poking fun at other people. She honors their choices, offering no condemnation on even something like polygamy. I see this point repeated and I think it is just unfair and untrue. How exactly is she mocking? By investigating and writing about it? How is showing us other lifestyles without passing judgement or making jokes considered mocking? She’s very clear that she’s trying to learn how people interpret what it means to be a biblical woman.

    “I’m not confident that we can consistently apply the “prejudices of love,” either, especially not when the individual is the sole arbiter of what “love” means. ” – this view of reading the Bible through the lens of love is an old one and doesn’t start with Rachel. And, that’s kind of what Jesus says to do. It doesn’t mean it’s easy to do, but that should be our goal of how we interact with the Bible and with others, not to just dismiss it because we can’t do it consistently, or act like it’s an excuse to deal with the Bible however we want.

    I don’t really want to argue or discuss this much, but I couldn’t squeeze this review into a response to a tweet :)

  • http://www.sometimesalight.com Hannah Anderson

    Just a brief thought regarding persona vs. RHE: I’m a regular reader of RHE’s blog and I *felt* that certain parts of the book read very differently than her posts. Less confident, less sure, less robust. It’s very possible that the year changed her into a woman of greater strength and insight, but given that she entered the project with certain assumptions and wrote the book precisely as a way to disprove certain teachings, it’s hard to read it with the naivete she projects. Truth is, I give her credit for actually being more mature and educated than the persona she describes in the book.

    This is not a judgment, just a consideration: is it possible that we could actually become somewhat inauthentic in an attempt to become “authentic” to other women? In trying to relate to her readership and communicate with their lack of knowledge on these topics, does she deny her own in the process?

    Clearly, it’s a very engaging book–funny and so far, obviously well-loved by a certain demographic. To critique the book is not to critique her; it’s simply to give her the credit of taking her seriously as an author.

  • http://theatompanopticon.wordpress.com/ Brandon Blake

    Alan said:
    “This issue keeps coming up in reviews and is one of my concerns. It seems to me that what is important is that we discuss the validity of particular interpretations, but Evans’ language of “picks and choses” seems to imply (or does it? help me out here) a sort of postmodern nihilism towards interpretation.

    Also, in regard to her performance art, what exactly is it supposed to prove?

    Assuming that it is supposed to demonstrate the arbitrariness and socially constructedness of “biblical womanhood,” don’t they implicitly mock more conservative women? Does she acknowledge that “conservative” women typically have hermeneutical reasons for not following these extreme practices? If not, isn’t this a strawman argument? If so, then don’t these examples not prove anything meaningful about a “literalist” hermeneutic?”

    Exacto mundo. This is why she doesn’t take it as serious as we are led to believe. Sure, there are some Martha Stewart stunts that complementarians do but there are women like Frederica Matthewes-Green http://www.frederica.com/writings/womens-ordination.html
    who don’t have problems with some of it and it’s not as if all they are doing is being told by patriarchs that this is the way things should be. What it seems to do is not trust the women in these positions to come to their own convictions, about these things, something Paul speaks about in Romans 14.

  • Rebecca Mills

    My perception – and this is solely my perception based on following Held Evans and other writers such as Custis Jones – is that RHE’s points have been made before. Over and over and over again. By many, many female (and a few male) writers. Over the past hundred years. And they’re dismissed, over and over again, or rebutted with mere theory and dismissive cliches. Only when someone actually translates these principles … that so many Christians are willing to fight to the death to uphold … into flesh, takes them from theory and talking points into actual daily actions, does the church engage and pay attention long enough for a genuine conversation to be had around what the church is saying, really saying, about women. That that immediate response to these principles that the church is so hell-bent on upholding is that, in reality, they are “silly” says more about the church’s views of women (and how their contributions and “roles” are valued) than it does about RHE’s actions.

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