“A Year of Biblical Womanhood”: Some (hopefully constructive) Thoughts on Evans’s Critics

For those of you have have read my blogs over the past year or so, I am about to beat on a familiar drum. And I am going to keep beating it, because I think its a huge point that gets overlooked.

Rachel Held Evans’s recent book A Year of Biblical Womanhood has inspired some strong reactions in certain American Christian subcultures. The main point of the book is to critique the phrase “biblical womenhood,” and the expectations of women surrounding this phrase, by engaging in a witty and entertaining way what the Bible says about woman. Evans seems concerned to point out that being a “biblical woman” involves much more than obedience to certain verses in the Bible (featured most prominently for Evans is the common abuse of Proverbs 31:10-31).

Of course, most Christians–conservative or not–are aware of this in principle, but Evans’s experience, which certainly mirrors the experience of many other American Christian women, is that when it comes to talking about women, passages from the Old and New Testaments are whipped out willy-nilly as proof for what God wants a Christian woman to look like. The examples Evans gives from her own fundamentalist subculture of her youth and from highly influential public leaders like John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and Mark Driscoll are anywhere from comical to disturbing.

No, not every evangelical or fundamentalist engages in these extremes, but anyone with any familiarity with these subcultures will know her observations have a ring of truth to them, and it is high time someone from the inside steps up to these bullies.

So, as I said in my review from a couple of says ago, Evans is not bashing the Bible, as some continue to insist, but a dominant voice of an influential American Christian subculture that has used the Bible in destructive ways.

But here is the question that keeps ringing in my ears: “Why has this one person with this idea caused such a stir?” After all, books and ideas a whole lot more destructive, by any reasonable notion of the word, are uttered daily for Christians to get worked up about (sex-trafficking, poverty, torture). So why do we see reviewers getting so focused about what one person thinks about “biblical womanhood” and resorting so quickly to condescension and destructive rhetoric? (In addition to misunderstanding some hermeneutical issues, that is my general assessment of two recent reviews here and here)?

To be sure–and let me be perfectly clear–to write is to be criticized, and Evans is fair game. Competent reviews will always point out blind spots and the shortcomings of any book. One can legitimately critique A Year of Biblical Womanhood on various levels, and Evans, like any author, would benefit from them. But why is the heat turned up so high so quickly? It seems that for some, if Evans is not neutralized quickly, the gospel itself is in danger of collapse.

I am not immune to overreacting when I disagree with someone about things I feel I have thought a lot about and formed firm opinions on. And when that happens, I have learned to stop myself and ask, “What is at stake for you here that brings up such a visceral reaction?”

I know that sounds like silly, pop-psychology mumbo-jumbo to veterans of theological conflict, who have learned to “contend for the faith” at all costs, regardless of consequences, damn the collateral damage to human beings. But that’s just too bad. The truth is that, when it comes to our faith in God, how we see ultimate reality and our place in it, we have a lot at stake–and losing that or seeing it “attacked” is unsettling and we tend to react.

The core theological issue at stake for many of Evans’s harsher critics is, nor surprisingly, biblical authority and inerrancy–even if they do not phrase it this way. Especially for conservative American Protestants, their entire system of belief rests on being able to trust the Bible as God speaking to them directly (or by inference) about matters of faith and life, which includes things like “What does God expect of women?”

What lies behind this frame of mind is a genuine, though broken, desire to obey the creator and redeemer–the God of Israel, and the Father of Jesus Christ. I say “broken” because all of our efforts to live in harmony and communion with God are hampered–not from straying from supposed universally accepted hermeneutical methods, as one of Evans’s critics complains–but by the simple fact that we all, myself and Evans’s critics included, think of God through our own cultural lenses, and too often uncritically so. And so God happens to wind up looking an awful lot like ourselves (as Durkheim famously observed 100 years ago). (As someone once quipped–and the quote has been variously phrased and attributed to various people: “God created man, and we have been returning the favor ever since.”)

The theologically humble and self-aware Christian will be on the look out for where the biblical witness and cultural conformity are melded together and labelled “biblical”–and this, as I see it, is the central point Evans is making in her book. She is standing up to powerful ecclesiastical bullies, self-proclaimed gatekeepers who are quick to level the charge “unfaithful to the Bible” to those within earshot. She is showing them, with wit and insight, that their game collapses rather quickly. (As a side note, I might suggest that Evans follows up with a book that focuses on reconstructing biblical womanhood according to her theological and hermeneutical vision–even though she already does some of this in her book.)

As I see it, here is the real problem some recent online reviewers have of A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It is not really a failure to follow proper hermeneutical procedure, or Evan’s incompetence or ignorance of church history, or similar criticisms. These sorts of criticisms could easily be aimed right back at the reviews I have read.

The core issue is that Evans’s conclusions undermine theological systems for which biblical inerrancy–which carries with it a strong tendency toward literalism, albeit on a spectrum–is the non-negotiable theological foundation. That is what motivates her critics. After all, Christian books are published daily that exhibit fairly superficial and quite dim-witted theological and hermeneutical engagement that these critics would not take the time to critique because the premises and conclusions of the authors are generally or wholly agreeable to them. The “reviews” of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, are really veiled defenses of an unstated theological substructure.

It does not help to calm things down that Evans has no academic degree to back her up, no ecclesiastical or institutional imprimatur, and no powerful donor funding her time. She is alone with her thoughts and keyboard and writes books that sell like sunscreen in the Arizona desert, is interviewed on national TV, has a massive following on her blog, speaks at conferences, and is seen as an articulate voice for a growing number of readers. (In my more cynical moments, I might even think there is a bit of professional jealousy involved.) So–Evans is not only wrong, but she is in a position of “leading people astray” (the very phrase presumes the inviolability of the critic’s theology).

Again, let me be perfectly clear: no book is immune from critique, including Evans’s, and pointing out shortcomings ultimately helps the conversation along. (In my own brief review I could have chosen to spend some time registering where I might have handled some passages differently, or have different hermeneutical or theological categories for certain issues. For example, I agree with some others that the literalism of Evans’s opponents would have been effectively undercut by emphasizing New Testament trajectories–though this, too, would extract a pound of flesh from inerrantists, given the hermeneutical maneuvers employed by the New Testament authors, but that is another blog post or two entirely.)

I chose, however, to try to keep the forest in view and not get lost in the trees: the Bible is too commonly mishandled and to the harm of everyday Christians. At the end of the day, regardless of what some might think of Evans’s strategy to get there, this is her goal.

I would like to see Evans’s critics more genuinely acknowledge the necessity of her critique, and maybe even use their power and influence to join Evans in calling influential public figures to account for their own theological and hermeneutical shallowness and the harm that results, rather than supporting them through silence and leaving to job to a relatively young woman who happens to have the courage to speak up.

 

  • sims key

    my take: i don’t buy “courage to speak up” bit. she is trying to make a living and wants to sell books…speaking up is what sells. also, it’s just a imitation of an idea already done…nothing too courageous about that. as for standing behind her, it would be much easier if it wasn’t done is such a sloppy way.

    • peteenns

      Until you’ve tried it, you have no idea how hard it is to live under constant disapproval by people of influence. You are right, though, she is trying to make living at selling books, but there are easier ways of doing it.

      • David French

        It’s not that hard to live under constant disapproval by people of influence — either on the Left or Right. Along the spectrum of things that make life difficult, it is virtually insignificant. Additionally, when one lives under disapproval from one set of folks, they often enjoy a corresponding wave of appreciation from others that most Americans will never enjoy in their entire lives. In our polarized world, one man’s hero is another man’s goat — the trick is to have the humility to keep listening to those who proclaim you a goat even as those who admire you pull you ever-deeper into vilifying and dismissing critics. Sometimes critics can be right — even vicious critics. And sometimes fans are bad for us — insulating us from criticism and even from humility. Anyway, as for Evans, she should be treated with respect, but make no mistake — she gives as good as she gets. She and Tim Dalrymple recently had an interesting exchange over her own tone against more conservative Christians.

        • peteenns

          Rachel is speaking out of her wounds and perhaps letting her opponents have too much influence in how she addresses these issues. I think that can change over time.

  • http://coolingtwilight.com Dan Wilkinson

    I think most of the so-called “backlash” is a direct result of the intentionally provocative marketing of the book. It’s not at all surprising that conservative Christians are taking issue with a “liberated woman … sitting on her roof, covering her head, and calling her husband ‘Master.’”

  • Jordan

    I appreciate your take on this Peter… and agree with your response that “selling books” is likely not a primary motivation here

  • http://thebookofdavis.blogspot.com/ Michael Davis

    “critics would not take the time to critique because the premises and conclusions of the authors are generally or wholly agreeable to them. ” I think this is true of those who agree with Rachel as well. Those who agree with her seem to be hesitant to critic her hermeneutics in detail, although Peter has done so on his blog. I don’t agree with Rachel on a lot of things but I am for a good debate. However, the debate never seems to get to the heart of the matter because Rachel’s hermeneutics are perceived as being so shotty.

  • megan

    This is pretty much dead-on, especially the part about “straying from supposed universally accepted hermeneutical methods.” The “oh noes, she hates the Bible!” reviews are disappointing but not surprising. But I admit that I am surprised by how many people couch their reviews in long-winded explanations of the Levitical purity code or the difference between “prescriptive vs. descriptive” (I’m guessing you and I have the same prominent reviewer in mind right now). Their aim seems to be proving that they have an elaborate hermeneutical grid that enables them to determine what commands are still binding–thus avoiding the hyperliteralism that Evans playfully interacts with in her book–but I’m not sure how proving that will undermine the book. If anything, they are affirming one of the book’s key premises: that reading the Bible is inevitably a hermeneutical exercise and we ALL have systems by which we pick and choose what commands to follow.

    As I read it, Rachel didn’t praise her husband at the city gates with a “Dan is awesome” sign because she found some secret Bible code that demands we take this literally. It’s a tongue-in-cheek occasion to interrogate our own interpretive grids. I’m genuinely surprised that so many reviewers appear to have missed this obvious point, unless of course they read the book with the goal of scoring a few theological points in their review, instead of honestly interacting with what Rachel actually said.

    Also, to your question of what’s at stake for people if Rachel is right: to me, one obvious answer is “power.” Both the power of being the theological gatekeeper of inerrancy and the power of being male in a system in which women are irrevocably subjugated to males. I think it’s too easy and cheap to automatically label her critics as power hungry, especially since some are women, but I do think it’s a conscious or subconscious influence for some of them.

  • Don Johnson

    Rachel is pointing out that the whole concept of Biblical womanhood and therefore the interpretive matrix that produced the concept is open to question. Questioning authority is a sure way to ruffle the feathers of those that claim their authority is bestowed on them by God by virtue of being male.

  • Alastair

    It seems to me that there are a number of reasons for the strong reactions. As someone who has tried to dialogue with RHE with little success in the past, the following are some of the things that have left me – and others who have tried the same route – disappointed and frustrated with her.

    1. She really doesn’t represent her critics fairly. So many of her critiques have strawmen at their heart. For instance, I don’t think that many complementarians recognize their beliefs or practice when she frames it in terms of ‘power’, ‘dominance’, and ‘subjugation’, as she is all too prone to do. Surely this sort of thing should come under the ninth commandment.

    2. She focuses so much on the extreme fringes of complementarianism and uses those extremes to characterize the whole. This is incredibly frustrating for those of us who deplore and speak out against the abuses of the extremes no less than she does, but find ourselves tarred by association.

    3. She employs emotive outrage, victim status, and sensationalism so much that it is very difficult to have a civil and calm conversation on a very important set of issues.

    4. She frames her thinking reactively, using some abusive form of practice as a highly emotive foil for her own position, rather than eschewing thinking via partisan formulations to focus on the complex reality of the Scriptures in engagement with contemporary culture, something that makes it hard to fall down tidily on any side. Not all of us are reacting against our upbringing or previous ecclesiastical or theological background as Rachel and many other post-evangelicals seem to be doing. We distinguish ourselves from evangelicalism and its positions, but her brand of reactionism makes the sort of careful engagement involved in distinguishing oneself very difficult, and continues to privilege the themes of evangelicalism in theological formation, merely inverting many of them.

    5. Her form of theologizing without a denominational or congregational affiliation, apart from regular participation in the sacraments and the assembled worship of the people of God in a particular locality strikes me and many others as incredibly dangerous and unhealthy. We shouldn’t be given so much value to such voices in our theological conversations. We may have all sorts of problems with the churches in our area, but we don’t have the luxury of just opting out.

    6. Her use of a gimmicky stunt at the heart of her project merely reinforces the perception that many have that she is more interested in engaging with a grossly caricatured ‘biblical womanhood’ that serves her purposes than with the far more complex reality of ‘actually existing’ complementarianism, for instance, which isn’t committed to the bizarre form of literalism that she holds up for ridicule. It also tends to lower the standard of the conversation. The gimmick primarily reaches those already converted to the position and holds up a position for ridicule to those outside of the Church. However, it just alienates those who feel that it is merely functioning as a replacement for serious and taxing engagement with them or the Scripture, a dismissal through caricature rather than anything else.

    7. In my experience, at least, conservative evangelicals can be rather naïve on the subject (in their hermeneutics, in their forgetfulness of the cultural otherness of the text, as in their sense of the sort of entities that the Scriptures are and the degree to which the shifting material culture of the Scriptures alters our forms of engagement with them), but they seek to take Scripture seriously throughout. One of the things that has struck me in my lengthy following of Rachel and attempts to engage with her is that this emphasis on biblical authority or careful reading and engagement with challenging and unsettling texts really does not seem to be characteristic of her approach. Maintaining the challenging otherness of the text to our agendas and visions of the world is lacking in her approach. The observation of the cultural otherness of the text leads to a diminishing of its authority, rather than a relativization of our own cultural setting. The text then becomes something that is selectively mined to serve our agenda. Now, while conservative evangelicals may do this unwittingly and naively, in my experience the Scriptures have considerably more traction against their cultural presuppositions, prejudices, and conceits than they do in the case of the sort of ‘what am I looking for?’ hermeneutic of such as Rachel.

    8. Rachel tends to generalize things in terms of the cookie-cutter critiques of feminism, critiques that make it very difficult for us to engage with the particular and unique historical characters of various societies. Really, ‘patriarchy’ is a rather obfuscating category and tends to forestall close analysis and predetermine conclusions, rather than enabling us to engage with historical and sociological realities on their own terms.

    9. In my experience, at least, she seems to be rather naïve about the degree to which her own egalitarian position and the egalitarian family more generally is culturally conditioned by the place of the family in contemporary capitalism and by the suspect anthropology of liberalism, something that arises out of a rather particular and peculiar set of historical and cultural circumstances. The fact that she is so seemingly unaware of how conditioned she is by many of the cultural assumptions of the contemporary situation makes it very difficult to have the sort of receptive, attentive, and intelligent conversation that we should have on the subject, or the sort of genuine hermeneutical engagement with the biblical text that we should be pursuing.

    Most importantly, and in summation, she is raising very important issues – issues that I would love to see addressed – but she is doing so in a decidedly unhelpful way. We need a conversation surrounding these issues, but Rachel’s modus operandi of caricature, strawmen, outrage, and the shutting down of a deeper hermeneutical encounter through her privileging of a particular set of prevailing cultural assumptions and framings is making it very hard for us to have the sort of receptive and careful conversation, leading to the production of heat rather than light and encouraging polarization. By her tendency in her critiques to associate all complementarians with the extreme forms of the movement and privileging the abusive varieties of the movement for engagement, she makes it incredibly difficult to have the sort of conversation in which egalitarians and complementarians could make common cause in stamping out the abuse and marginalization of women and in which we could move beyond baptizing the marital order of either the 1950s or contemporary capitalism to a serious improvising application of biblical principles in the present context.

    • peteenns

      You make some interesting observations here, Alastair. I don’t mean to deflect from them when I say that it is also quite tough to engage in dialogue the Mark Driscoll’s of the world.

      • Alastair

        Absolutely. I have criticized Driscoll myself on many occasions and he is no less frustrating to engage with (though, like Rachel, not without genuine points worth engaging with).

        Mark Driscoll doesn’t speak for me: I find him exceedingly unhelpful in many areas and am on record on that point. However, the problem is that Rachel all too commonly seems to act as if theological shock-jock types like Driscoll represented all complementarians, even when there are moderate critics of her position (who also happen to be critics of Driscoll’s position) trying to engage with her directly. In other words, by focusing on such as Driscoll (much as Driscoll will focus on his more extreme critics), Rachel seems to frame the ‘conversation’ to her own advantage, enabling her to ignore moderating voices and present hers as the natural and reasonable position. Take my word for it: it isn’t easy to get anything resembling a hearing in critical dialogue in such a context, as she seems to be fixated on the extremes. People such as Driscoll become a convenient excuse to avoid engagement with or dismiss the challenges of moderate and receptive critics.

        When the discourse is framed by continual outrage at decontextualized soundbites, extremist formulations, or caricatures of the opposing party we will have our thinking shaped by polarized extremes and false dilemmas. People’s thinking becomes determined by reactivity, rather than attentive and patient hermeneutical engagement with the scriptures, critics, and the culture. The ‘he-hit-me-first!’ or ‘but-she’s-doing-it-too!’ brand of justification for this behaviour is puerile, something that should be beneath any of us who aspire the sort of self-defined and self-controlled guides to lead others into mature, receptive, and careful thought.

        • Phil Miller

          I don’t know that I’d say that Driscoll represent an extreme faction of evangelicalism. He’s more polarizing in the way he presents himself, but overall, I think the ideas he presents aren’t that far out there to many Evangelicals. He just states aloud what many people think quietly or what exists as subtext in many churches.

    • Phil Miller

      This is a really long comment, but the one thing that stuck out to me was this:

      I don’t think that many complementarians recognize their beliefs or practice when she frames it in terms of ‘power’, ‘dominance’, and ‘subjugation’, as she is all too prone to do.

      Personally, I think that’s part of the problem. People don’t recognize these things or maybe think they don’t exist, but they are there. My wife and I were campus pastors at a somewhat large evangelical church, and we were actually co-pastors. We shared ministerial duties and responsibilities, but often times when in discussions with the senior pastor or other leadership, people often simply asked me the questions, sent me the emails, etc. I could challenge the pastor on something, and it wasn’t a big deal. But for my wife to do the same thing, she had to be willing to be labeled a b*tch behind her back.

      The fact is my wife is more educated than me and makes more money than me. She’s smarter than most people and pastors in churches. But in many churches the most responsibility she could have we be teaching Sunday School or making meals for sick people. Not that those things aren’t important, but let’s be honest, it’s kind of a slap in the face that those are the only things women are valued for in churches.

      • Val

        And, for the women who aren’t so great at making casseroles or teaching 4 year olds, they are marginalized and drift off. I have several friends who don’t go to church. Maybe they “should” but they aren’t really all that welcome there. If they won’t hangout in the mom-time groups (one friend can’t have kids), make meals when told to (many work brutally long hours at professions, and can barely get a meal for themselves, let alone some random person they never met), or can’t commit every Sunday to an over-leagal-limit of kids/adult Sunday School class, due to work, etc. They just don’t count in an evangelical church.

    • AHH

      On #2 in this comment, is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood really at the “extreme fringes”? From where I sit, it seems to be an awfully wide and influential fringe.
      I also agree with the commenter who noted that Driscoll is not particularly outside the mainstream of complementarianism in terms of his basic views; he’s just more outrageous (or less careful and less thoughtful) in the way he expresses his views.

    • John I.

      In my experience, at least, Alastair and patriarchalists / hierarchalists that I have read seem to be rather naïve about the degree to which their own egalitarian position and the egalitarian family more generally is culturally conditioned by the place of the family in prior serf oriented econonmics, monarchical politics and economics as well as contemporary capitalism and by the suspect anthropology of western thought, something that arises out of a rather particular and peculiar set of historical and cultural circumstances.
      Tu quoque

    • Val

      Hi Alistair,

      I do remember your face on RHE’s comment threads, I don’t remember her being dismissive towards you, but, I didn’t read every comment thread, so she may have. I can’t actually recall all the trails of the comment threads, but now, reading this I am thinking of a few things.

      First, I don’t know where you attend church, or how large your church is, but I think this makes a difference. Say Tim and Kathy Keller’s church, in NY no less, has great areas for women to serve, minister and learn. That is not the norm. In small town or suburban areas, with many churches under 400 people, whatever the theoretical roles women and men could play, they just don’t exist. In the average church, women are expected to help out in cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Men are expected to help out in leading, deciding what happens with the budget and sometimes in church repair. It is not easy to see how little opportunity there is to grow and learn, or ask questions for most Christians. The Sunday service is taught by a pastor with a business degree, not a seminary degree.

      What ends up happening is, churches keep those who conform to these sort of roles, and push out – intentionally or, more often, unintentionally, women who don’t want to be relegated to the kitchen or nursery every time there is an event. For me, I can look after my kids at home and cook at home. Why would I spend all my time looking after other people’s dietary and childcare needs as a form of fellowship? It is disguised as outreach, so that all the church members do all the work, and everything is “non-church friendly”. Meaning shopping tips and recipe exchanges. Non-chrisitans rarely show up, usually it is women from other churches who are avoiding doing that work at their own churches. Frankly, that is more of a waste of my time then staying home and listening to internet sermons. Since, it is the endless role for a church wife/mom. So, I get Rachel’s lack of attendance.

      Many of those women over on Kathy’s blog, I suspect, aren’t living in suburbia or doing much of the mundane roles that most Christian women get assigned to. I was younger, single and lived in a larger urban centre once upon a time. I never thought much about gender roles. I went to work, hung out with 20 somethings at church, and would have defended an articulate Christian woman and her theories about women not living under OT laws without much thought to how that really plays out for the average middle-class mom.

      Now, years later, married, kids and in suburbia (husband actually works out here, or we would have never moved), the churches are all pot-lucks and outreach to other moms. Meaning, we do the childcare, baking and listen to fluff – inspirational, child-rearing videos. I really want a place to learn more, study a book deeper than 10 ways to be a great mom (“Biblical” ways, of course). But, that just doesn’t exist in evangelicalism. I am not respected for wanting more spirituality or asking tough questions. It is either shut-up and put-up or move along. As for our church’s theological examinations, Mark Driscoll was the video they chose – laughable at best. They did try to say the “wives submitting” was about his own church – they are a bait and switch group, who hides their comp views until people are fully members, then only allows people who are very comp./in-love with the pastor to do anything in the church. They will deny this, but I actually have friends who tried to approach the pastor to get more women involved in leading, having no idea his stance on this, and was given a weird go-around. When she left, she realized he’d never answered the question.

      So, it is great to be all highly theological about complementarinism, but it isn’t a fit for suburban moms anymore, let alone the rest of our culture, it is secondary, and hinders women from growing in so many ways. Sure, in a great big church, where they value teaching, it might be fine for women to teach women. But in little churches, no one has time to learn and grow, so it all comes down to serve, serve, serve. Ask nothing, be happy and don’t rock the boat. We are all kept too busy to see much personal growth from church. Each church is similar, visions, church growth, etc. are really a numbers game, not a spiritual place of gathering.

  • Michael Jordan

    A friend’s facebook pointed me here. Thanks for your excellent thoughts on this book; I think you’re right about what is largely behind the visceral reactions to RHE’s writing in general. One minor point: I think you overstate it when you say that Kathy Keller’s review is condescending and contains destructive rhetoric. I was fully prepared for that when I saw the review was on TGC’s website, but I think her review asks some pointed–but very fair–questions about RHE’s hermeneutical approach.

    • peteenns

      Michael, where I see Keller’s review as condescending is on the motherly, scolding, didactic tone she adopts. “I tried contacting you while you were in NY but wasn’t successful, but I think you really need to hear this, so here it is,” and then chides her for, basically, being stupid. Did Keller actually think Evans would be available and even willing to sit down and here her out? If you was really that concerned, and email or letter would have done the trick.

      • http://kolhaadam.wordpress.com Joseph Ryan Kelly

        I think it is important to point out that, aside from being condescending, Keller’s review is hermeneutically naive. I addressed her criticisms point-by-point here: http://kolhaadam.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/in-defense-of-rachel-held-evans-and-a-year-of-biblical-womanhood/

        • peteenns

          That was my immediate conclusion, Joseph. I really can’t understand, at least academically, how people trained in biblical scholarship would think much of her arguments. I’ll read your post.

          • http://kolhaadam.wordpress.com Joseph Ryan Kelly

            Two words: confirmation bias. Unfortunately, that is too often the name of the beam in my own eye.

          • peteenns

            True, we are all engaging in that on one level or another.

        • peteenns

          Joseph, I appreciate the points in your blog post. You mirrored many of my own concerns. I would add to the prescriptive/descriptive barrier Keller builds the fact that as early as 2T Judaism, the Bible as a whole became words of wise instruction; “torah” included the narratives. Similarly, Proverbs, though clearly “words to live by” are surprisingly non-prescriptive: their wisdom needs to be searched out, like narratives. I would also suggest that the “tectonic shift” of the NT is much more severe than Keller either understands or is willing to admit: the hermeneutical creativity of the NT writers as they bring together Israel’s story and the gospel is well known and is quite a handful for conservative Calvinists to square with their theology.

          • Michael Jordan

            Joseph, thanks for the post. It was helpful! Just for the record, my goal was not to start a debate about whether Kathy Keller is right. I think what is viscerally frustrating to many complementarians about RHE’s work is that they feel that RHE’s work tries to argue against biblical womanhood by creating a caricature of it that they don’t recognize nor have they ever argued for. They feel, in essence, that someone will pick up RHE’s book and say, “Huh, biblical womanhood means you have to stay in a tent when you’re menstruating…biblical womanhood sure is dumb, huh?” I’m not a complementarian, but I don’t think that that’s a completely unreasonable concern for them.

            As someone who has espoused unpopular theological positions in the past, I know that I feel a great deal of anxiety when someone uses the cudgel of popularity to marginalize a position without actually arguing with the position on its merits. To me, Keller does a good job of responding to RHE without that anxiety. (I say that even though I think Keller is wrong.) I don’t see it as motherly or scolding or saying that she’s stupid. I recognize you and I read her differently, and that’s OK. But I think you can make your point effectively without lumping her in with “bullies.”

  • Jeff Y

    Pete, couldn’t the same be said of the myriad of “reviews of the reviewers?” Why have there been so many of those if it is just a small book on not such a huge subject? At the same time, the book has garnered a good bit of notoriety (an appearance on the Today Show and The View). I suspect most religious books that touch on hot cultural topics – impacting (positively or negatively – depending on one’s view) evangelical perspectives – would garner reviews. I think it’s a non-issue that the book is reviewed and has a lot of interest to evangelicals.

    You may be right about the issue of inerrancy – but I haven’t seen much of that in the reviews I’ve seen (I haven’t read many). I do think that could be an issue. I am looking forward to reading the book so I’ll reserve comment on it til then. As a pursuer of truth I really am not concerned about where the book winds up – but whether the reasoning and arguments appear sound. Some of her own blurbs and writings in the past don’t always fly. But, looking forward to it.

    • peteenns

      Good point about reviews of reviews, Jeff.

  • John

    As I see it, what Evans has done is quintessentially evangelical – she took something that was successful outside of Christian circles (A.J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically) and made a second-rate imitation of it marketed for evangelicals. It looks exciting and innovative to evangelicals since even the progressive ones are in enough of a bubble that they have no idea what’s current in the wider cultural world.

    Maybe in a couple years she could right a book about dropping weight and getting healthy (for any evangelicals reading this, that’s Jacobs’s current book).

  • http://hoxeyville.blogspot.com/ Eric

    I think you are right on track in saying that what irks deeply some of her critics is that she has a compelling attack on a specific theory of the Bible, something close to what Christian Smith describes as biblicism. One critical reviewer believes the “Bible to be the inerrant word of God, written by men, inspired by God, infallible in all that it teaches, sufficient for all of life and doctrine, and the very words of God, words from God.” And, she goes on to say, “this new book from Evans is a recent example of how this essential truth is lost.” Get that? ESSENTIAL TRUTH. Essential for what? Surely not to be one whom God is reconciling to Himself. Maybe, and here I admit to being snarky, essential to be a member of our corner on the truth theological club.

    • peteenns

      It is an essential truth for their theological system.

  • http://www.bravelass.blogspot.com Kamilla

    Dr Enns,

    Some have tried the gentle, private approach only to be ignored.

    IMO, Keller’s tone was spot on. We could do with a little more Titus 2 womanly wisdom and with a little less of the 30-year-old woman with a pouting chair.

    • Phil Miller

      Gee, no condescension in this comment… I’m shocked, shocked I tell you that Rachel wants to ignore this sort of, uh, advice.

    • peteenns

      Did Evans ignore you, berate you, what? Did you approach her in conversational respectful manner, or was there a clear undertone of needing to set her straight? I am not saying you haven’t tried genuinely, but some of this may be in the eye of the beholder. I get all sorts of critics sending me emails imploring me “gently” to turn from my path or I will soon become Staan’s sidekick. Some I engage briefly if I have time, others more deliberately, some I ignore, and one or two I felt the need to put in their place. What is more objectively objectionable re: Keller’s review was her hermeneutical stance, as others have pointed out.

      • http://www.bravelass.blogspot.com Kamilla

        Where did I say I was talking about myself?

        Just to be clear, I wasn’t. I’ve heard from several, both publicly and privately, who have approached Evans in a genuinely irenic manner who have been rebuffed, etc.

        Mrs. Keller nails it from a Titus 2 perspective and today Doug Wilson has nailed her silly exegetical stunts to the wall:
        http://www.dougwils.com/Sex-and-Culture/bluestocking-feminism.html

        I am grateful to be on their side in this battle (yes,I said it). I thank my God for their faithful work in this

        • peteenns

          I wasn’t accusing you, Kamilla. I assumed. But again, I am not sure Keller “nails it” and I certainly don’t think what she does can be characterized as “silly exegetical stunts.”

          • http://www.bravelass.blogspot.com Kamilla

            I didn’t say you accused me — I was pretty sure you were assuming something not in evidence.

            If we dont call the roof-sitting episode a silly stunt, I’m not sure what else we can call it. She gets it the wrong way around, and that’s just the most obvious problem with the stunt.

          • peteenns

            Why does the “stunt” bother you so much?

          • http://www.lambpower.net Steve D

            Kamilla,
            Many Proverbs make exaggerated comparisons to bring home a point. I’ve actually read Evans’ book and have come to realize that some of her harshest critics don’t “get” what she is trying to do. Evans’ isn’t mocking the Bible, she’s mocking some of our interpretations. Actually, mocking isn’t really even the correct word. She’s really showing some of the issues that our interpretations create.

            As for the roof sitting, I’m not sure I agree with how she handled that situation, however, it did not cause me to believe that she was mocking the Bible either.

  • http://www.bravelass.blogspot.com Kamilla

    Because it serves well as a touch point for the entire project. She doesn’t even bother to get this one right. Where does it say the contentious woman should be up on the roof? If this doesn’t show up her mockery snd duplicity in spades, you’re not taking it seriously.

    In a way, I couldn’t care less what Evans gets up to. I do care, however that she mocks my Father (not in the book, but see part 2 of her women of the Resurrection series) mocks my Lord and Saviour (Jesus broke yhe rules) and is leading tender souls to destruction.

    That I care about deeply. And I won’t cease my warnings until my Lord shuts me up.

    • peteenns

      Kamilla, I would suggest she is mocking more your understanding of God, Jesus, etc. That is one of the common problems in this and similar debates: people equate their theologies with the “mind of God.” I also think you may be giving Rachel more credit than she deserves. She is not leading tender souls anywhere. She is more voicing what others already think. Hence her influence.

    • ss

      As RHE explicitly states, the point of her sitting on the roof was -not- that she thought the proverb commanded it. She never claimed that the bible commands contentious women to sit on the roof of a house. Rather, she made it clear that sitting on the roof was her -own- (lighthearted) idea for a way to keep track of her contentious behaviour. She just based her disincentive for being contentious on the proverb’s notion that contentious women are even more unpleasant as roof-sitting.

      If you want to criticise her roof-sitting, fair enough, but at least don’t make it seem like she thought the proverb commands women to do roof-sitting penance.

      Here’s are some (lengthy, sorry) quotes from the chapter,

      “The contentious woman gave me an idea for kicking some of my
      less-than-gentle habits.

      I decided to make a swearing jar of sorts. Each time I caught
      myself in the act of contention, I’d put a penny (or nickel or dime,
      depending on the severity of the infraction) in the jar.
      ….
      I labeled it “The Jar of Contention,” and resolved that at the end
      of the month, each cent would represent one minute I’d have to
      spend doing penance on the rooftop of my house to simulate what
      it’s like to share a house with a contentious woman, according to the
      book of Proverbs.” (p. 8)

      “By this point I’d been reminded about a million times that the
      Bible didn’t explicitly command contentious women to sit on their
      roofs, and that rooftops in the ancient Near East would have been
      flat and habitable anyway, but I was determined to engage in some
      kind of public display of contrition for my verbal misdeeds.” (p. 17)

      Additionally, it’s worth noting she concludes that trying to be gentle/non-contentious for a month was a positive experience.

      (I don’t agree with the way she did everything in that book, and I haven’t finished reading it yet. I just don’t think it’s fair to describe the roof-sitting thing the way that you do, because you imply that she actually thinks proverbs actually commands that contentious women sit on roofs…)

  • http://www.bravelass.blogspot.com Kamilla

    Oh, puhleeze! One only has to recall v-gate to know Rachel is and intends to be a leader.

    By the way, it’s not just my understanding of God. But then you already knew that.

    • peteenns

      I’m still not clear why so much obvious anger is coming up for you, Kamilla. There are so many more things to be angry about than someone who writes a book you don’t like. Do you react this way with everyone you disagree with? I doubt that. And v-gate was not Rachel’s creation, was it?

    • peteenns

      Actually, Kamilla, I just glanced at your website and your personal history. I think I understand why this issue generates so much anger for you. Rachel is what you once were, and this likely stirs up deep feelings for you.

      • http://www.bravelass.blogspot.com Kamilla

        Goodness! I’ve made mistakes, committed grevious sins, brought shame on my Lord. Yes, i am angry. I’m angry and sad and I wish more than you will ever know that there was someone Rachel would listen to before she sails past the point of no return.

        I was almost there. But if you’ve read my blog you know that I am more thankful than words can express that brothers (even though the harshest of words passed between us)who cared about the fate of my soul prayed for me.

        I pray for Rachel. It is my shame that I have not been more faithful in that endeavour. .

        • peteenns

          You think Rachel is bound for hell because of how she views women? Or that her interpretation of the Bible differs from yours? Do you think you might be projecting your own difficult journey on her?

          • http://www.bravelass.blogspot.com Kamilla Ludwig

            Dr. Enns,

            I am sure you realize that your ad hominem attempts to psychologize away my criticism is illegitimate and does nothing to support your own case. I am equally sure you realize how easy it would have been for me to respond in like manner, for instance and if I may put it this way, be theorizing about your frustration at having to leave your former employment because of your views. I could just as easily speculate that some psychological wounding resulting from that is behind your vigorous defense of Evans’s antics.

            But even if such speculation were true, it wouldn’t change the truth (or lack thereof) of your assessment of Mrs. Evans’s project.

          • peteenns

            Heavens, Kamilla, you misunderstand me completely. I believe solemnly that we are all psycho/social beings, created that way, and theology is ALWAYS done in those contexts. I have my own that could be addressed psychologically. I was not dismissing but understanding. Given your background, I can now understand why you ahve such anger toward Evans.

    • http://www.lambpower.net Steve D

      If i remember correctly, Evans posted that her publisher wanted her to leave the correct term for part of the female genitalia out because it would prevent her book from being sold in certain stores. She posted and those on her blog responded with their opinions. What exactly is the big deal?

      • http://www.bravelass.blogspot.com Kamilla

        They suggested she remove a single gratuitous use of the word. She took to Twitter and her blog and ginned up a firestorm of criticism and Nelson relented. If thats not leadership, nothing is.

        • http://splitframeofreference.blogspot.com/ Nicholas Ahern

          Kamilla,
          I think if Rachel’s fans had spoken up in favor of getting rid of the word, she would’ve done so. Personally, I’m indifferent to it in the same way I’m indifferent to the color of my socks. In the spirit of charity, let’s give her a little more of that, okay?
          On the other hand, have you read any scholarly works on the gender debate? I can recommend several if you are interested as I’m quite steeped in that controversy.
          Blessings.
          –Nick

  • JenG

    I like how this turned in to a counselling session… I often enjoy the comments section as much as the post : )

  • Andy

    I enjoy reading Rachel’s blog. Although I have a feeling that this book will frustrate me in the same way ‘Love Wins’ frustrated me. I felt like Rob Bell had some valid points for discussion but spoilt it with sometimes shaky hermeneutics and emotional appeals. I am worried that this book will just stir up controversy rather than conversation. And I say this as someone who passionately believes in women within all roles/ le els of ministry . I also think there are some other reasons why this book is stirring up controversy. I believe people are concerned about the other places Rachel’s hermeneutics have taken her. Also

  • Phil Miller

    I think the reason why her critics react in such visceral ways comes down to some pretty simple answers, some of which have been illustrated here. Primarily, I think it comes down to fear. Jealousy could be part of the issue, too (“I have PhD in theology, but people are listening to dumb girl instead of me!”). But I think fear explains most of the reaction to people like RHE, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Peter Enns ( :-) ). I actually had a relative say me once, “Phil, you read too many books. You need to know what you believe!”. There seems to be this underlying fear in evangelical circles that the people sitting in their churches are merely sheep who are going to led away by the next shiny object at the drop of a hat.

    And maybe some people are so immature that they will be “led astray” by any argument that sounds somewhat convincing, but if that’s the case it tells me a few things. First, there is an inherent weakness in the evangelical position if people can so easily be convinced to leave it behind. Second, it has a ring of “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” to it. When leaders react viscerally, it makes me suspicious of their motives. Are they truly concerned about “the sheep” or are they concerned about staying in power and keeping their jobs? Perhaps I am too cynical, but I’ve had enough personal discussion with evangelical leaders, that I think many times it is that latter.

    • peteenns

      Bingo, Phil.

    • AJG

      This is one of the best comments I’ve read on the blog. You nailed it, Phil.

  • PJ Anderson

    I don’t know if this will add anything at this point, much has been said, but I’m thoroughly unimpressed with her book and her work. The first issue issue is that Mrs Held-Evans is simply facilitating a kind of ironic contrarianism inherent in the millennial generation (of which I am part.) To that end her work suffers along the same lines as Jacobs’ “A Year of Living Biblically”: essentially that she doesn’t actually say anything.

    The second issue, and perhaps Dr Enns and other influential voices might help, her mischaracterizations of complementarianism are astounding. Her theology of egalitarianism is weak and her anthropology seems underdeveloped. Add this to the contrarianism belying the text and it isn’t a step in a better direction for us egalitarians.

    Finally, I just can’t get all hopped on about this issue. No one is berating and belittling women in complementarian churches. There is no actual persecution going on. If you don’t like your church’s views…go somewhere else. This is a terrific example of the intolerance of tolerance in my opinion.

    Hers’s my paradigm for saying this: One of my missionary friends called yesterday, he buried three church members last week that were dragged out in the street and beaten to death by Muslim extremists for praying privately in a shop. There is real persecution in this world. The persecuted church needs our help…and yet we can’t get beyond these myopic discussions to realize that this junk doesn’t actually matter.

    • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com krwordgazer

      Mr. Anderson, may I suggest that merely because you don’t see a problem doesn’t mean that everyone who does see it is delusional? Women who stay within the status quo are not berated or belittled, true. But when a woman tries to step outside the box she’s been relegated to, this is what happens:
      http://allisonquient.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/should-it-matter-2/

      A quote:
      At first [attending seminary] I did not catch on that the issue was gender. I just noticed that my opinions were not so welcome often or that there would be an odd tension in the room. Many women here at Trinity have told me they feel uncomfortable and when I have heard them speak up in class they are usually nervous and/or have many qualifiers to go along with their opinion. Many women at Trinity (Egalitarian or Complementarian) have shared horror stories about how they were treated in class by students or teachers. One woman recently took a preaching class where the teacher listed all the things women could not do and thus singled out the two female students in his class. When a girl who was Complementarian meekly suggested that the things they could do be emphasized, her opinion was dismissed. When the other girl brought the issue back, they were made out to be disrupting the class. Another woman gave a sermon in class (she is very bright and speaks well) and one student spoke down to her as he only said what he felt she did incorrectly (his review was much more glowing for his male peers). No one came to her aid.

      As far as the persecuted churches are concerned– it’s my understanding that the underground churches in China are largely led by women. The church is facing hardship there, God is raising up women, and no one has the luxury of telling them they can’t serve, because they are needed. In my studies of church history, I have found this to be a consistent pattern. New moves of God tend to accept the full participation of women, until they become established and start wanting to be respectable. Then they tell the women to sit down and be quiet. So if you’re going to hold up an example of the persecuted church as a reason why women should not try to change anything over here, you might at least take notice that the persecuted church is largely not doing to women what we in our comfort and respectability are doing. Maybe if we realized that “this junk” is hamstringing half of Christ’s workers in our own country, it might make more sense to us why we don’t seem to be getting the work done over here.

  • Phil Miller

    No one is berating and belittling women in complementarian churches.

    Um, I’m sorry, but yes they are. And often times the berating comes more from women in these churches than from the men, but that happens too. I’ve heard it stated explicitly, but it often happens silently as well, but women are simply expected to fit in a certain mold in evangelical churches, and if they don’t, well they simply aren’t in the club.

    Sure, people can leave, but that’s easier said than done. I’ve read from several different sources that removing yourself from a close-knit religious community can have a similar emotional impact as dealing with the death of a relative. And often times, people do have actual relatives in churches they’re attending. So it’s not that they’re just leaving a social group, they’re seen as turning their backs on their family in some way.

    People can try to minimize the thoughts and feelings of women like Rachel all they want, but they aren’t going to simply go away.

  • John I.

    “this junk doesn’t actually matter.” ? What is the “junk”? Equality for women? The ability of women to serve God in the church according to their gifting? That’s junk? That doesn’t matter? For shame.
    And to whom is it junk that does not matter? Obviously not to you. But many women, and men, do consider it important and not junk.

    And if everything is to be considered in the light of dead martyrs, then keep that in mind next time you spend money on fast food, by a CD, fail to preach, fail to go on missions, fail to give every nickel possible to missions where there are martyrs. The point being, you drag martyrdom in as a universal rubrik that trumps whatever others are saying on the topic, and it is not so.

  • Dan from Georgia

    Kamilla, just an honest question if you are still around. If you are so concerned about the state of RHE’s soul because of her feministic bent, then why do you spend time on this blog, your blog, and other blogs (yes, I have read your posts elsewhere) running RHE down with name-calling (on your site you refer to RHE as the Mistress of Scoundrels) or approving of those who call her names (as you recently did on Doug Wilson’s blog)? Do you pray for her? Do you honestly care for RHE’s soul? Honestly? It seems like you are not acting in a very Christlike manner in your desire to see RHE turn from feminism. It seems like you are more interested in bashing her and being condescending to others who support her. BTW, I don’t think RHE is correct in alot of her views, but I support her right to publish her book (which I plan on reading in the near future in order to make up my own mind), and I have found much in common with some of her experiences in the evangelical culture.

  • Craig Beard

    Pete, how would you respond to Joe Carter’s claim?

    “If a student of Enns, Olson, or Witherington, had turned in a paper that applied as shoddy a hermeneutical approach as Evans uses in her book, they would have given them a failing grade. Yet work that would not pass muster in their class and would only be seen by a professor is lauded when it is made public. … I’m saying these men—intelligent and respectable evangelical scholars all—are endorsing a method that they would normally condemn.”

    • peteenns

      I read his post yesterday. I would suggest that if three highly trained, seriously published, and widely experienced scholars of Bible and Theology (and there are many others) are saying there is an important message in what Evans is doing (even while raising some legitimate questions), he should take that as a sign that he might have to pause and reconsider his own hermeneutic that he seems to present as an inviolable standard. There is a very good chance that if Carter were to write a paper for us, he’d be the one getting a failing grade.

    • Phil Miller

      I didn’t know Evans was claiming her book rose to the level of graduate level theological work? That seems like a silly argument to me. It’s like saying someone who teaches at Juilliard couldn’t possibly say something good about the new Bob Dylan album simply because if Dylan handed in one of his songs for one of their composition classes, it wouldn’t be up to their standards.

    • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com krwordgazer

      RHE herself said that the inconsistencies in her hermeneutic were deliberate. They are neither accidental nor ignorant. Given that, I would say that rather than bashing her hermeneutic for being inconsistent (“shoddy”), it might make more sense to find out why she chose to deliberately use an inconsistent hermeneutic. What point was she trying to make? And could it be something that scholars could learn from, if they stopped finding fault with the book for not being what it has never claimed it was?

  • Pingback: Around the Blogosphere (11.02.2012) | Near Emmaus

  • Lauren L

    Wow… I just finished reading all the comments (and it took a bit of time to do so).

    I have found much of the discussion either extremely valuable or extremely enlightening (in both a “pro” and “con” sense). I’d like to weigh in as a regular person who is a casual reader of Rachel’s blog (and Peter’s). My only qualifications are that I’ve been a Christian for 20 years, and I definitely have opinions on this subject based on experience in the church, in various settings (both urban and suburban).

    First, theological landmines aside (which I really don’t feel qualified to speak on), my “take” on Rachel’s thesis is simply what she has already stated on her blog in other posts: “Biblical Womanhood” in our modern day United States resembles a 1950′s housewife, rather than what life really looked like for a woman in Biblical times. That’s it! Yes, she went about it in a way that is humorous, which clearly doesn’t sit well with some. I also agree with Peter Enns in that our picture of God does tend to be interpreted through our own cultural lenses. I think her book is a parody with a point. One that will most surely be missed as so many engage in theological battle over the finer points. (It’s not wrong to engage on the finer points.) But I think it’s also valuable to have discussion on the over-arching principle of her book, which Peter did brilliantly I might add. I get so disheartened when I read the comment section on most theological blogs that I rarely finish them, because it usually disseminates into theological arguments that keep us polarized defending our own positions. It’s not unlike the nonsense that goes on in politics. It gets us nowhere but spinning in circles.

    People like me….. we resonate with Rachel’s message. Not to say I am not concerned with correct theology. I am. And we can certainly engage in dialog about where her assertions don’t hold up. BUT, if we miss the main message, we’ve missed dialoging about something really important: how the church tries (very successfully in my opinion) to fit a women’s role in to a neat and tidy little package that makes the men in charge feel more comfortable and keeps us from growing into who we could fully be in Christ.

    I don’t say this an indictment of all churches either. I’ve lived mostly in urban settings, involved in large evangelical churches, where women are pastors and women lead ministries; myself included. I was deeply involved in homeless ministry in a city of over a million, until relocating to a city with less than 13,000 population.

    I’ve never been “involved in” or had any kind of opinion on “women’s issues” until recently, when I realized that my ministry ideas have been met with *crickets* in the church setting I’m in. I’ve tried coordinating with three different churches (the largest ones in my immediate area) to get a homeless ministry going and have been met with the “runaround”. Not a “no”, but rather lip service followed by no action.

    “Regular women” like me resonate with Rachel not because we are agreeing that her thesis is theologically sound in every area, but because it matches our experiences in the church. I am now mostly surrounded by women who agree with the 1950s ideal of womanhood as Biblical, and feel that childbirth immediately makes your ministry focus inside the home. Period. What?!! So, because I am a mom now, I no longer qualify to contribute in any other way? And if I dare to even broach this subject, I’m seen as a “bad mom” who isn’t fully content with my role (as if that role alone is somehow inadequate and “not enough”). Talk about a shaming message!

    I CAN raise my children AND fulfill ministry activities that I feel God has gifted with and called me to, thank you very much. If that’s “feminism” then — wow — I guess I’m a feminist. I’m also probably a socialist since I agree with the church being involved in social justice issues. This just blows me away. One only has to go and read the words of Jesus to know that to be involved in these issues is at it’s very core, being involved in the issues that were important to our Savoir. I believe and read where Jesus greatly esteemed women.

    Having become a believer as an adult, the biggest disappointment of my Christian life is finding out that when interpretations of what Jesus meant differ, we’ll spend our lives looking for ways to stay polarized in our assertions, rather than look for ways to come together, or even agree to disagree. If we spent our energy in this way, then Satan has won. Because we are certainly not bearing witness to the world of knowing we are Christ followers by our love.


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