A Notable Critique of Rachel Held Evans’s “Year of Biblical Womanhood”

Over at CBMW Reviews you’ll find a short, irenic and theologically muscular review of the controversial A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. The review is by complementarian voice Aimee Byrd (at left).

Here’s a selection:

With all the research that Evans does, she seemingly doesn’t understand the basic principles of biblical hermeneutics. Literal interpretation, i.e., reading the Bible literarily, always discerns the different genres that are involved. More specifically, faithful interpretation pays attention to both the grammar and redemptive historical setting of the passage in question. That is, we read Scripture in its historical and linguistic context, with the final revelation of Christ’s fulfillment in all its words.

This is painfully missing in Evans’ book. Instead, she playfully uses what I call an “Amelia Bedelia” method of Scripture interpretation to try and prove that the traditional view of biblical womanhood is nonsense. In these popular children’s stories, when Amelia Bedelia sees a date cake on the Christmas baking list, she tears out actual days from the calendar and mixes them into the batter. You can use your imagination for what she does when told to “steal home plate.”

Read the whole review. I strongly commend it.

Evans’s book drew a sizeable audience. As a writer, Evans is clearly gifted; she’s passionate, witty, and modern. Few topics are taboo for her, which is undoubtedly a part of her appeal. The public-confessional style of the modern blogger features significantly in the text. Evans knows how to write for a wide audience, and it’s apparent why a publisher would seek out her services.

But for all her gifts, Evans’s text comes up short when it comes to hermeneutics and theology. Her method of interpretation in the half-serious, half-joking A Year, as best I can piece it together, most resembles the eccentric movement known as Dominionism, which read the Bible flatly. By this I mean that R. J. Rushdoony and others approached the Old Testament as if its civil laws were applicable today. This was, to say the least, a minority view among evangelicals.

In her generally lighthearted mockery of “biblical womanhood”, Evans uses a similar approach, purporting over the course of a year to live by many biblical commands related to womanhood. There are some humorous moments, to be sure–rarely has challah bread caused more excitement in a Gentile home–but in reality, she won’t exactly mind if she  scores some cheap points against complementarianism. But here’s the problem: no complementarian reads the Bible the way Evans does. If a student used this hermeneutical approach (interpretive grid) in the theology classes I teach at Boyce College and Southern Seminary, they would fail. That’s not happy. But it’s true. This hermeneutic is subject to a basic flaw: it doesn’t take into account promise and fulfillment, prototype and type, old covenant and new.

These are basic principles of biblical interpretation. I’ve got to guess that Evans is aware that Christ fulfilled the law, but I came away from the text confused. Yikes.

This is not to say that egalitarians never come up with hermeneutical proposals that merit serious attention. William Webb’s “trajectory hermeneutic,” for example, is one such original hermeneutical proposal. Webb offers over 20 criteria by which one can determine whether the teaching of a biblical text is operative in our day or not. I strongly disagree with both Webb’s hermeneutic and his theological conclusions, but I have to take them seriously and consider them.

Other egalitarian thinkers have engaged complementarianism fairly. They have not caricatured it. I think of a scholar like Craig Keener, who points out bad arguments by fellow egalitarians, which I respect and which complementarians also do in their own house. In his writing, Keener also critiques views that complementarians actually hold, unlike Evans, who cites figures like Debi Pearl as emblematic of complementarianism. Let me be frank: I’m the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. I’ve written numerous journal articles and reviews on biblical complementarity. I had never heard of Debi Pearl before reading Evans’s book. That is a problem, Houston. If you’re engaging an outlier whose views complementarians either do not know about or widely reject, you’re not really debating. You’re setting up a straw man. That, in turn, does not lend strength to your argument. It undermines it.

In sum, I’m thankful for Byrd’s review, and I hope that the ensuing conversation leads many to the fresh water of biblical truth. I hope in coming days that Evans will use her sharp mind and writing ability to point people to the Scripture, inerrant, inspired, and good for us.