Why I’m Allowed to Read Rachel Held Evans

Why I’m Allowed to Read Rachel Held Evans December 10, 2015

So I came into the way of having a copy of Rachel Held Evans A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and I’ve been reading it very slowly, here and there, interrupted constantly by my regular life, putting it down often to pick up other books I’ve either promised to read, or thought looked interesting. At the rate I’m going, I won’t be done with it until the middle of next year. Somehow, in my own mind, I wasn’t going to say anything about it all until I had come to the end, and then I would do one excessively long post and that would be that. But Matt keeps pestering me about it, and insisting that a person can write whatever she wants, whenever, even if the book isn’t all the way read.

One reason it’s taking me so long (unlike with Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling, which can be understood for what it is in a half an hour) is because I keep adding caveats every few minutes. ‘Well, if I start to talk about this, I will have go over here and talk about that first.’ The way it’s shaping up in my mind is substantially an entire dissertation, and it’s not exactly on my list to write a thoroughgoing book length response to this particular book. So, perhaps the pestering of my husband should be heeded, and I should blog here and there, as I get through the text, and see where it goes. And how funny is that, that the man should be right snd I should listen to him.

So, today, I only want to launch in with a justification for why I should be allowed to write about this book, and secondarily, what the most basic issue is. First, this book probably could have been written by me, had providence ordained itself differently. Into all the boxes of evangelical weirdness and rebellion, I can scribble a little X in. I have traveled down the questioning everything road. I have lived in the same culturally Christian sea. I have heard all the sermons. I’ve been to all the studies and spiritual emphasis weeks. I have chaffed under a brand of Christianity that felt contrary to who I am and how I perceive myself. And counterbalanced against that, I have swum in the tepid, vague bath water of liberalism. I got my undergraduate degree at a secular institution of higher learning, peddling in feminism, gender studies, queer theory, literary theory, decadence, and a variety of other playful and useless topics. From thence I went to a liberal seminary where I learned all about how to read the bible as an enlightened person and not like a dumb brick encumbered by trusting, so last century, belief. I had the short hair and the glasses and the depression. For heaven’s sake, one of the homes of my heart is Portland, OR. If I were Paul, defending myself, I would be able to join him in saying ‘I was a feminist among feminists, as to liberalism, practically perfect.”

In other words, I do feel substantially equipped to read what Ms. Evans is saying, understand where she is coming from, and consider what she is saying. It’s not like I live in a hut in Appalachia, sitting in the back row of church with my hands folded, meekly toting up the moments until I can rush home and get dinner on the table for twenty and then bowing before all the men in the room before retiring to the kitchen to do up all the dishes. ‘How can I serve you today, dear Husband,’ is not usually on my lips.

That was all part one. I’m black enough to criticize. No wait, that was some other controversy.

Part Two is that it all comes down to the bible. Biblical Womanhood would have to, wouldn’t it. But I say that on a more basic, fundamental level. As I read along, rather than feeling very angry, as I expected to, I felt desperately sad. This book–well written, funny, coherent as it is–unwittingly exposes what has happened to the church over the last fifty or more years. And that is that the word of God, preached comprehensively and coherently from a pulpit, yay even by a man, was frittered away for self help, right action, proper culture, being a better person, for (to apply those haunting and indicting words) moral therapeutic deism, usually with a hefty shellacking of legalism lathered loving all over it all.

I understand why it happened. It’s the first thing the human person wants to do when confronted with something like the bible–a communication so vast, so personal, so ancient, so unlike us, that the business of translating it, relating it each horrid person sitting in the pew tempts each and every preacher with the siren song of the Topical Sermon, the Three Points, the Announcements Rather than Homily, the What This Verse Means To Me, and, of course, the Here’s How To Live To Show You Are A Christian. I used to sit in school, in church on Sunday, trying to forgive the preacher, a different one every week, for just making me feel guilty, and then trying to get me saved. I was constantly being encouraged to read the book of James. My attitude, foul as it was, was always under suspicion. It was always kind of a relief to go home to America to sit in a nice smooth episcopalian pew and hear that I was really a good person after all, even though that wasn’t true either.

Where the bible isn’t understood by the preacher and then unfolded, splayed out for the congregation, there is going to be either moral legalism or its opposite, tolerance of everything except the truth. And that’s where the American church is. That’s the landscape. That’s why we have the sudden incredible proliferation of mega pastor heretics, previously good teachers falling into error (I’m looking at you Beth Moore), that crazy Pisseth Against The Wall guy on YouTube (just google those words and he comes right up), and the entire episcopal church.

Is the bible understandable? Is it sufficient? Is it good enough? Is if enough for you? Can you read it and have its living power bring you from death to life? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then there’s no point roiling on about something like Biblical anything, let alone womanhood. Trying to reshape or mush it into some kind of mold so that it looks like a yes, but only with a special secret seminary degree, means that it’s still a no, and we are all wasting our time. You take the book, you tilt it in the light, you look in the mirror, you half close your eyes, and there you are–all the trappings of belief and understanding, without having to deal with what’s actually there.

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