A Review of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” by Rachel Held Evans (or Hermeneutics 101)

In case you haven’t noticed, Rachel Held Evans has a tendency to strike a nerve now and then when she writes.

Her blog has become a go-to refuge for disaffected Christians who are journeying outside of familiar theological boundaries and are looking for voices to help them articulate their experiences—or at least to assure them they are not alone. In her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions, Evans chronicled her own journey out of fundamentalism that mirrored the questions and experiences of many others.

For Evans, the fundamentalist Christianity of her upbringing (that seriously overlaps mainstream evangelicalism) doesn’t explain very well the world she actually lives in. It doesn’t even explain the Bible all that well. Evans writes as an explorer transparently looking for fresh articulations of her faith, i.e., for ways to bring her faith and her experiences into some sort of meaningful conversation. A lot of people are watching her go through this process, and it is fair to say she has quite a following—and along with that, as is always the case, a lot of critics.

Now, in her second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master,” Evans takes aim at one specific issue that will be sure to divide even more clearly between fan and critic: what would it look like to take seriously the idea of being a “biblical woman,” i.e., what would it look like if women did what the Bible actually says?

The book has already made its mark, if internet discussions are any barometer. Some people love it for voicing what they are thinking, an ensign for a new way of looking at a nagging and pressing issue. And, predictably, some hate it for encouraging rebellion against God by voicing everything that is wrong with this new loosey-goosey generation of Christians who feel they can judge the Bible anytime they want to.

Reading a bit between the lines (and also from having read enough of her blogs, interviews, etc.), Evans has a problem with people using too freely “Bible” as an adjective (“biblical” for you grammatically challenged). Growing up as she did in the shadow of the infamous Scopes Monkey trials in Dayton, Tennessee, Evans is a particularly sensitive to how the fundagelical subculture uses “biblical” to great harm.

One area is the social pressure for young women to grow up to be a “biblical woman,” which in that subculture means things like needing to be married and bear children, quasi-subservience to the the authority of the husband and males in general, and basically the minimizing of the woman’s voice in the life of the church (organizing pot-lucks, running VBS, looking pretty, teaching children’s’ Sunday School, etc.).

Evans rightly puts the blame for this attitude on literalistic readings of the Bible that allegedly “command” such things of women. Briefly put, Evans exposes this type of literalism as unworkable and unavoidably selective, since no one really follows what the Bible says about women. Being “biblical” automatically involves us in hermeneutical process, so the question quickly becomes “Why are some things the Bible says seen as abidingly valid but other things aren’t?” Evan’s book models this type of basic hermeneutical engagement of the Bible

Evans also makes the point that some favorite go-to slam dunk passages in the Bible that command how women should behave are not really being understood according to their ancient context. The big culprit here Evans goes after is the list of a “wife’s” qualities in Proverbs 31:10-31.

Too often in fundagelical subculture this passage is used as a list of qualifications for a godly wife that young women need to aspire to and that young men need to be on the prowl for. Taking her cue from contemporary biblical scholarship, Evans rightly points out that this list of behaviors (like weaving and economic savvy) are valued in the context of a ancient household-based patriarchal economy; Proverbs 31:10-31 is not an eternal to-do list for women to be truly godly. Evans also points out that Hebrew term that opens this section, eshet chayil, means something more like “woman of valor” rather than “good wife” (NCV) or “excellent wife” (NASV).

If I can thrown in my own two cents here, the “woman of valor” is an answer to the “adulteress [or wayward] woman” of Proverbs 1-9. In those chapters, Wisdom and Folly are both personified as women. The concrete expression of “Lady Folly” is the adulterous woman: “if you want an example of what a foolish life looks like, look at the adulteress.”  We do not meet the concrete expression of Lady Wisdom until 31:10-31. The activities for which she is praised are the day-to-day mundane activities that occupy the entire book of Proverbs. The woman of valor in Proverbs 31 shows us all, men and women, what a life of Wisdom looks like: doing well in the small things. This “woman of valor” is a great ending to a practical book for all.

The problem Evans addresses is how the Bible has been used poorly, falsely, harmfully, in certain Christian subcultures in marginalizing women. She makes her point by lampooning a literalist hermeneutic, a rhetorical move that many of her conservative critics have inexplicably missed. Evans is not mocking the Bible, but exposing the illegitimacy and randomness of a literalist reading of the Bible; the book is an exercise in biblical hermeneutics.

To make her point, Evans took it upon herself to live like a “biblical woman” for one year, which meant observing (as much as possible) the various and sundry commands of the Bible concerning women. From October 2010 through September 2011, Evans focused each month on obeying the Bible around a cluster of biblical attributes and behaviors. For example, in chapter one her focus was “gentleness,” taking her cue from 1 Peter 3:3-4 (which speaks of women being adorned with gentleness rather than jewelry and fine clothes). The topics for the next eleven months were: domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, charity, silence, and grace.

Along the way, Evans is not at all shy of pointing out some of the problems of what the Bible says about women. She isn’t too keen on the command to treat virgin daughters as property or for women to be silent in church (among other things). And she is clearly unsettled by how women are considered a plunder of war and other violent acts toward women that the Bible either condones or commands.

But these are issues that all Bible readers have to deal with, which is precisely her point: how to be a “biblical” woman is an exercise in mature, Christian biblical interpretation, not prooftexting.

What took me more by surprise was how she recounted with respect her experiences of living according to biblical models of womanhood. It will be clear to any alert reader that Evans is not mocking the Bible as some by-gone, worthless, relic of ancient misogyny (again, a point her entrenched critics have missed). Rather, with each chapter she is very clear about what she gained spiritually from her yearlong odyssey, helped along as she was by familiarizing herself with current Jewish practices of, say, keeping kosher (which is not exactly the same thing as in biblical times) and by hanging out with Amish, who actively try to model biblical simplicity in life.

Rather than a rant against the Bible, readers will quickly see that Evans has found some deep source of wisdom in this process, and the big lesson learned is applicable to everyone: Taking the Bible seriously does not mean “do what it says.” No one lives that way, even hardened literalists. Taking the Bible seriously means reading it with discernment and living it out responsibly, and no biblical injunction concerning women is immune. Tracing what the Bible says or implies about women brings to the surface this unavoidable hermeneutical process.

Readers who are conscious of the challenges that confront the application of an ancient text to contemporary life will benefit from the point Evans is making, even if they disagree with where she takes some things or some specific claims. (For example, Evans seems to have misunderstood Proverbs 21:9 as directing the contentious woman to live on the roof, when it is the husband who banishes himself there to get away from her.)

Those who will be most upset with her—and already are—are those who read the Bible as a Christian cookbook for life, an owner’s manual designed to plot out for us a list of dos and don’ts. These critics mistake Evan’s lampooning of literalism with a lampooning of Scripture, Christianity, Jesus, and God.

To paraphrase Jesus, “The literalists you will always have with you.” These critics, with their predictable and worn arguments, should not detract from the value this book will have for every-day readers, both to voice what they are thinking and to generate needed conversations.

What also likely irks her critics is that Evans writes in such an entertaining and engaging style. She is able to be snarky, funny, and insightful in the span of a single paragraph. Her style appeals directly to the masses, bypassing gatekeepers and fretful apologists. Evans has a wide sphere of influence and this will put some on red alert, feeling the need to protect the flock from this insidious, “unbiblical” influence.

But Evans has her finger on a strong cultural pulse, and books like this will continue to bring hermeneutical self-consciousness where it is needed most: to normal readers of the Bible. They already sense the urgency. What they need now are guides to put to words what they are thinking. Rachel Held Evans is quickly becoming one of them.

 

  • Katie

    Enjoyed this review! Haven’t had a chance to pick up the book myself yet, but I do follow Rachel’s blog… I do recall the Prov 21:9 thing being pointed out by others as well, but just wanted to mention… if I am recalling correctly, Evans specifically articulated (in one of her little video “trailers” for the book) that the Proverb in question does speak of it being better for the *husband* to live on the corner of the roof than with a contentious woman. Her idea was that since being contentious makes a woman so hard to live with, every time she caught herself being “contentious” she would add another minute to the amount of time *she* had to spend sitting on the roof, in an effort (as I understood it) to see what it was like to bear the consequences of her behavior. I got the idea that since this was not specifically a “command” verse, she was trying to find a creative way to apply it to her experiment. Then again, I haven’t read the book yet, so maybe she isn’t taking the exact same approach to explaining it in her writing.

  • http://www.churchabusepoetrytherapy.com Alice

    Eight years ago on my birthday, September 29th, I was voted out of membership (31 years) in my church, with my name up on a big screen (3 times), followed by the words: “Conduct Unbecoming a Child of God.” Called to a meeting of deacons (16 “men”) not allowed to have a woman with me and asked “Are you still having sex with your ex?!

    Spiritual abuse; I had never heard of it, until I experienced it….I fought the (Baptist) spiritual abuse for 18 months to try and stop the pastor (of disaster, LOL) from “counseling any more women going thru a divorce, because two of those women were suicidal because of his “counseling ” skills.

    I survived 36 years of verbal and physical abuse and then found the courage to get a divorce; ;their problem was that I let him stay in my house awhile after the divorce.

    I haven’t been to a church in 8 years. Talk about feeling betrayed….however, I made something positive come from the ashes: http://www.churchabusepoetrytherapy.com

    I am a 66-year old college student, because I wrote about my life and won a scholarship…Feel free to contacat me: carleton@oakland.edu

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  • http://www.theproblemwithkevin.com kevin s.

    From the critiques I have read, the problem seems to be that she is conflating arbitrary picking and choosing with sensible picking and choosing. No serious person regards scripture as a cookbook for life, adhering to every principle with no regard for context (especially the context of Christ’s death on the cross) and so she is attacking a straw man.

    My guess is that none of the folks in her corner will bother addressing that (or any) argument, and instead deal in ad hominem attacks, as you have done here. Insofar as the book aspires to start a serious and honest discussion, it has failed miserably in the early going.

    • peteenns

      Others disagree, Kevin.

    • http://www.hwaetglennabolas.com GAB

      Is it a strawman or a reductio ad absurdum?

    • jlb

      I agree with you completely. It was a miserable fail.

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    Thank you for an actual review of the book. All I’ve read so far are reviews of the reviews. Which are interesting in their own way, of course. But I appreciate that you deal a bit more with the book itself. I hear pretty regularly from people who grew up in fundamentalists backgrounds and like Ms. Held-Evans, remain faithful to God while rejecting that particular permutation of the faith. What I really love about these folks is that they are simply using what they have been taught – to take the bible seriously, take their faith literally, be willing to stand against the current around them and to value love above all else. So as much as I disagree with fundamentalism, I will say that some of the most remarkable Christians I know were raised by them!

  • toddh

    Great review! Looking forward to reading it. There’s probably a laundry list of issues that could benefit from a similar treatment to the one RHE has given biblical womanhood.

  • rvs

    “Gatekeepers and fretful apologists”–great language. Thanks for this–I’ve forwarded it to friends. In my experience, a lot of fundamentalists do not like the priesthood-of-believers idea, nor do they approve of Christians who know too much about historical context, etc. The gatekeepers and fretful apologists want to be popes of a sort, or–more properly–CEOs of Scripture, always at the ready to discipline or fire those who have not been “inspired” in the ways they deem fit. Happily, God is much greater–and Christianity a lot more enjoyable–than some would have us believe.

    And now, obviously, G.K. Chesterton: “There has never been, and never can be, any Christianity that is not corybantic.”

  • Jonathan Ponniah

    I’m curious whether Rachel’s approach, to attack an absurd method of biblical interpretation not used by evangelicals, will resonate with evangelical women. The folks at the Gospel Coalition are not terribly impressed with the effort.

    Personally, I don’t see how the evangelical community can accept the theory of evolution, biblical criticism, egalitarianism, gay marriage, etc., and still distinguish itself from the liberal protestants. All of these positions are what make evangelical Christianity what it is.

    • peteenns

      Maybe maintaining evangelicalism should not be a top priority. I wonder, Jonathan, if you’ve read the book. She is (1) lampooning literalism, and (2) clearly gaining something spiritually from trying to follow some biblical models and commands as literally as possible. But, the much larger picture, she is after the likes of Driscol and others who use the Bible to great harm to others.

      • Jonathan Ponniah

        Thanks for your response Pete. I have not read the book. My comment was intended as a question about tactics not a critique. In light of the storm the book seems to have generated, it appears RHE does have some influence in the evangelical community. I’m somewhat baffled though, because her opinions are pretty consistent with a liberal protestant worldview. If RHE can really change the minds of an audience unimpressed with evolution and biblical criticism, then she should consider running for president on a green party platform.

        • peteenns

          What I find interesting from a historical point of view is how regularly over the decades–almost like clockwork–people raised in conservative circles wind up mirroring classically liberal views. Some chalk this up to rebellion, but the matter may be more complicated. Some very competent thinkers over the last 100+ years have said, “We really need to revisit issue X that we had thought had been settled.” It may be that evangelicalism is the aberration.

  • Derek

    I absolutely resonate with the need to understand Scripture so I always appreciate books that shed some light on issues that we can and do get wrong.

    I do however question this “lampooning of literalism” as it seems to be little more than a straw man. After all, those of us with a mature evangelical view of the Scriptures certainly don’t treat the Bible in a flattened manner. Indeed, most evangelicals and evangelical teachers I know have a very mature, nuanced view of the Scriptures and God’s plan of redemption from Genesis to Revelation.

    It is also curious how Evans is taking aim at the biblical brand of womanhood, complementarianism, yet fails to avoid interacting with the teachings of of two high profile female complementarians Mary Kassian (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Nancy Leigh DeMoss (Revive Our Hearts) which again makes me wonder whether or not she is merely burning one big strawman..or should I say straw-woman?

    PS: Jonathan I absolutely agree. Also Mrs. Evans’ dust up with the Gospel Coalition really was illuminating.

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  • James

    Christians of all stripes have the common problem of interpreting Scripture in cultural context–whether on the liberal or literalist side. Trouble is, we aren’t even sure what these terms mean and where we might locate ourselves on a continuum between them. Lampooning literalists seems fruitless to me. We have only slices of ancient culture from which to receive light on our path today. Let’s not dullen the Grand Story of Jesus by overly disecting the slices. Next, someone will try re-enacting the crazy postures God demanded of the prophets–like lying on your left side for 390 days and then on your right for 40 or refusing to mourn when your spouse dies…

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  • Ben Westra

    Evan’s book is written so that christians will realize there are certain portions of scripture that we focus on and derive things from that may be entirely different from what was being said in the original context. If I wrote a letter to a group of Christians today and someone read it 1500 years later would everything I said be interpreted the same way by them as it was the original audience? NO, IT WOULDN”T.

    Evan’s is calling people to look at why they live their lives the way they do and what biblical evidence they have for doing so. She has chosen to live ridiculous to illustrate that many of us do things that were not what the author had intended for the original audience or what is truly applicable to us today.

    I have read about 80% of the book. I skipped and skimmed parts. I find it to be humorous, a bit silly, thought provoking, and challenging. Evans is a feminist and fights for the cause of women world wide and we see that in the book. Reminding and enlightening others to the treatment of women across the globe is her greatest accomplishment here as women are oppressed in ways that we oftentimes find unfathomable in this country.

    If you are going to review the book, don’t make Evans out to be something she is not. She is not a theologian and some of her theology and hermeneutics are shallow in their grasp. She is not reformed and huge segments of evangelical Christianity are not either. That is only an issue the church has been divided upon for hundreds and hundreds of years, no need to bring it to this discussion, no one will be convinced by your internet post on it, I almost guarantee that.

    I ask that all of you who read the book who come to that undertaking while throwing aside as much preconceived bias as possible, then make your conclusions. I think every author is deserving of that.

    Take care and God Bless,
    Ben

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  • Jean

    The congregation needs to step back and not try to run the whole show. They should be ashamed for treating Carleton@oakland the way they did. Shame on all of them! The pastor of that church needs to grow a set and put the bullies in their place (back in the pew) not running the show like they’re God!
    That’s why non-believers say the Christians are the nut jobs in the world, well duh!!! look at what they did in this case!

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  • http://mymusingcorner.wordpress.com Lana

    wow, so good to see someone on the evangelical channel with this perspective!!!

  • RD
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