When Smart Theologians Endorse Dumb Hermeneutics

When Smart Theologians Endorse Dumb Hermeneutics October 31, 2012

If you’ve been anywhere near the evangelical blogosphere lately you’ve probably heard that Rachel Held Evans finally published A Year of Biblical Womanhood, her lame Christianized knock-off of a silly stunt-book produced five years ago. I’ve read enough of Evans’ blog to know she has a low view of scripture, so I’m not much interested in hearing a book-length treatment of how silly she finds the Bible [Update: I broke down and bought a copy on Kindle. My thoughts are below]. But I am interested in the reactions to the book.

One of the best is the open-letter/review by Kathy Keller. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that Keller’s is one of the best book reviews I’ve ever read.

What sets the review apart from the others I’ve read is that Keller takes the book seriously, much more seriously than Evans took her goofy, attention-grabbing stunt. Keller treats Evans as a woman capable of clear thought and intellectual honesty—and then shows how she failed to apply either.

Compare Keller’s take to reviews by my Patheos neighbors—Peter Enns, Ben Witherington, and Roger Olson. Each of these men wrote reviews that were between warm and glowing, and each wrote reviews that were pandering and condescending.

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. Each of these men has reduced their credibility by praising a hermeneutical approach that I have no doubt they disdainfully reject. Let me be clear that I’m not criticizing them for approving a method that I disapprove of; I’m saying these men—intelligent and respectable evangelical scholars all—are endorsing a method that they would normally condemn.

So why do they give their stamp of approval to a book that, as Keller says, ignores “the most basic rules of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation that have been agreed upon for centuries”? Is it merely a matter of tribalism? Is it because Evans shares the same theological “enemies” as they do, and so they feel obligated to come to her defense? I’m really curious to hear their reasoning.

Update: I’ll add my thoughts as I read through the book:

1. I can say with confidence that the people who are saying that Evans is being satirical in applying her hermeneutic don’t know what they are talking about. Here is a direct quote from the book which provides a representative sample of what her critics have been claiming:

The irony of course, is that while advocates of biblical patriarchy accuse everyone of biblical selectivity, they themselves do not appear to be stoning adulterers, selling their daughters into slavery, taking multiple wives, or demanding that state laws be adjusted to include death sentences for rape victims. . . at least not yet. Those who decry the evils of selective literalism tend to be rather clumsy at spotting it in themselves.

Now there are only two ways to explain this passage. Either Evans really does believe that “advocates of biblical patriarchy” are being “biblically selective” (e.g., she doesn’t have the first clue about hermeneutics or how it has been applied throughout history) or she is aware that she is misrepresenting the views of those she disagrees with by creating a strawman caricature. In other words, she is either too ignorant of the main topic of the book to write about it fairly or she is being intentionally intellectually dishonest. I suspect it’s the latter.

2. Initially, I was peeved by those who were defending Evans’ hermeneutical games. Having read the book for myself I have to say that now I’m deeply embarrassed that anyone is defending this dishonest trash. I don’t think the scholars who are praising this book realize the damage they are doing to their credibility. The only justification I can think of is that they skimmed the book and didn’t read it carefully. I can’t imagine a trained scholar could read her views (e.g., see passage above) and still believe it is something they want to defend.

3. Note to writers: If you are going to produce a book that copies a previous best-seller, make sure you have something original to say. Much of the book seems like Evans wrote it while flipping through the book she is ripping-off, A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically.

4. Fortunately for Evans, she is a genius at stirring up controversy. That will help sell books. If she had to rely on word-of-mouth, she wouldn’t sell too many copies. Strip away the dishonest swipes at those she disagree with her and there isn’t much to keep the reader’s interest.

5. No serious person can read the book and not see that Evans is mocking the Bible. There’s no getting around that. When you twist God’s word, act as if a narrative description is a Biblical command, and then use it to satirize views that no one holds, then you are mocking both the Bible and Christians.

6. I can’t remember when I’ve read a book that was so disrespectful to women. It’s ironic that an egalitarian Christian feminist can be so condescending toward her own sex (or maybe it isn’t so surprising).

7. Evans writes an entire section on justice for women and decries gender-based violence. When I get to that part I assume I’ll finally find a reason to give unqualified praise: She’s going to take the bold stance of opposing sex-selective abortion. But . . . she does not do that. Not a word about the slaughter of females in the womb, nary a mention of female infanticide. Obviously Evans realized that any hint she was pro-life (she is pro-life isn’t she?) would cause her to lose support amongst her fellow feminists. Smart marketing move.

8. In her conclusion, Evans shares the lessons she’s learned. Not surprisingly, her “year of biblical womanhood” has only confirmed that she was right all along. She says, “I’d learned a lot over the past 363 days, some of which changed my life.” Intriguing. So what did she learn? Some of the “resolutions for the future” include “Try a new recipe every week” and “eat more ethically.” Seriously, those are two of her ten resolutions after the “life-changing experience.” The book is quite a slog so it’s disappointing that her epiphanies are so banal.

9. A Year of Biblical Womanhood isn’t so much a book as it is a totem and cudgel. Despite being derivative, trite, and mind-numbingly boring, it will be overly praised because Evans has become the new spokesperson for disaffected young evangelicals (i.e., young people who won’t come out of the closet and admit they are liberal mainline Protestants). It will also be used—as Evans uses her text—to bludgeon the reputations of “advocates of biblical patriarchy” (e.g, inerrantists, complementarians) by spreading falsehoods about how we interpret the Bible.

This is a work that is as lackluster as it is dishonest. However, like The Shack the more it is criticized the more it will be embraced as telling uncomfortable truths. But the only uncomfortable truth is, as Kathy Keller said, Evan’s has “further muddied the waters of biblical interpretation instead of bringing any clarity to the task.” Perhaps Evans can be excused; perhaps she doesn’t know better. But there are smart theologians that do know better. And for them to endorse such dumb hermeneutics is inexcusable.

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