Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

October 18, 2012 in Books · 0 comments

Following closely in the footsteps of A.J. Jacobs’ 2007 book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, blogger and writer Rachel Held Evans offers her own contribution to the genre of reality-show inspired memoirs in the unimaginatively titled A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.”

Based upon Evans’ year-long exploration of what it means — and doesn’t mean — to be a “biblical” woman, A Year of Biblical Womanhood provides a powerful polemic against prevailing views of gender roles within the evangelical subculture. Although the conceit occasionally felt forced — she had the luxury of choosing which guidelines to follow and how to follow them — it served as a useful artifice upon which to hang insightful discussions of biblical interpretation and Christian life. Through her humorous, overly literal and sometimes arbitrary implementation of the supposed characteristics of the biblical woman, Evans effectively makes a crucial point: all Christians interpret the Bible by  selectively applying its admonitions, usually to the detriment of women.

Amid the trials of living out portions of the Bible in as literal a way as possible, Evans offers supporting commentary on the relevant biblical texts. Her exegesis is unlikely to convince most complementarians, but she does present a concise apologetic for a more progressive understanding of the biblical passages that are so crucial in the on-going debate regarding Christian gender roles. In this regard, her discussion of Proverbs 31 is a notable highlight. For those not already familiar with the “P31” movement (I thankfully had not encountered it before), it is an outlook that views Proverbs 31 as the definitive biblical standard by which Christian women must measure their worth. Evans carefully examines the passage and rightfully interprets it not as a rigid checklist for a woman’s role in the family and society, but instead as a heroic song extolling the power, wisdom and strength of the eshet chayil — the woman of valor. Such empowering messages are sadly lacking within Christianity. Re-appropriating Proverbs 31 as a noble declaration of women’s inherent worth should be a primary goal of the progressive Church.

Evans also includes brief biographies of many important women in the Bible, drawing much-needed attention to their struggles and their often very non-traditional lives. These interludes give the book depth and round out the picture of how women in the Bible are truly depicted. Their lives aren’t just incidental side-notes to the biblical story but play pivotal roles in God’s redemptive plan. Ruth, Vashti, Deborah, Tabitha and others demonstrate biblical virtues that are decidedly in contrast to the modern “biblical” woman and serve as role models for living a godly and empowered life.

In analyzing the modern conservative understanding of biblical womanhood, Evans regularly cites the positions of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, primarily through the work of its founders, Wayne Grudem and John Piper. But it seems to me that she failed to engage with the strongest complementarian exegetical arguments. It is not always as simple as asserting that we “pick and choose” what guidelines we want to implement or that Junia really was a female apostle or that Paul’s admonitions against women teaching men are merely cultural and circumstantial artifacts. Arguments for and against these positions can be quite complex and are rarely as straightforward as Evans presents them. Positions that may seem prima facie absurd to postmodern sensibilities informed by feminism and cultural sensitivity are not necessarily contrary to a faithful reading of the biblical text. While we must be cautious about reading overly conservative and restrictive values into the Bible, Evans too readily reinterprets the relevant biblical passages as definitively supporting egalitarianism.

Unfortunately, Evans noticeably avoids mention of the other gender-related issues facing Christendom: homosexuality and gay marriage. Although such issues may fall outside the strict purview of her biblical womanhood project, they are nevertheless highly relevant to the church’s understanding of gender. Her omission is telling — she is either kowtowing to the conservative Christian publishing industry or is still too connected to the vestiges of her conservative upbringing to feel comfortable confronting such issues. Both possibilities are understandable but do not inspire hope for open and honest engagement in regard to the gender issues currently confronting Christian evangelical culture.

Evans also offers little in the way of concrete examples of how we can move forward. How do we make change? How do we speak up? Evans seems loath to reject the evangelical subculture of her upbringing en toto, but it is that very subculture that actively works against women in countless ways. At what point does toleration of subjugation become outright subjugation? When do we, as Christians who purportedly believe that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female,” stand up for justice and hold the church accountable for its implicit and explicit subjugation of all those outside the existing hierarchical power-structure? Buying fair-trade chocolate, baking challah and visiting a monastery may make for a good story, but how do we confront inequality and enact meaningful change within the church — how do we truly become “one in Christ Jesus”?

Despite these shortcomings, Evans still provides a humorous, thoughtful and enjoyable look at the notion of biblical womanhood. Although her argument is essentially a reductio ad absurdum, she paradoxically finds lasting value in some of the disciplines she undertakes — a cautionary example of how these issues do not always fall into the neat categories we might expect.

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