Thomas Nelson, 2012
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Mother’s Day is coming up on Sunday. What better time to offer a gift to all the women in our community, as we prepare to honor the most special women in our lives? I therefore present to you one of the most thoughtful, engaging, and invigorating books I’ve read in a while — Rachel Held Evans’s, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.
This book narrates a serious search for understanding wrapped in the delightful account of a creative personal experiment. Evans, who is from a southern U.S. evangelical culture with strong ideas about the appropriate roles of women in the home, church, and society, sets out to answer this question:
Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman?
By means of a year-long “performance art” project, Evans finds some answers to that question. In the end, she appeals to her readers to put nouns above adjectives, people above “principles,” and love above long-held cultural prejudices when we approach the subject of gender roles. In particular, she deconstructs the very idea that there is any such thing as a supra-cultural set of roles known as “biblical womanhood” to which women of faith are to conform.
At the heart of the matter is this tricky word “biblical,” about which she says,
Now, we evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like it’s Martin Luther’s middle name. We especially like to stick it in front of other loaded words, like economics, sexuality, politics, and marriage to create the impression that God has definitive opinions about such things, opinions that just so happen to correspond with our own. Despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity.
After all, technically speaking it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father (Exodus 21:7), biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), biblical for her to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), biblical for her to cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:6), and biblical for her to be one of multiple wives (Exodus 21:10).
What then, is “biblical womanhood?” Well, what Rachel Held Evans decided to do was to give it a try. She would attempt to follow as many of the Bible’s teachings regarding women in her daily life as possible, taking up practices from both Old and New Testaments in order to determine if there is such a construct as “biblical womanhood.”
Each month for a year she focused on engaging in practices that reinforced a different virtue the Bible commends for women, from domesticity to valor, from modesty to justice. She read Bible commentaries, seeking out various Christian perspectives on pertinent passages. She spoke with and sometimes developed ongoing relationships with women who were seeking to practice what they held to be “biblical” mandates in their lives — including an Orthodox Jew, Amish and Quaker women, a daughter from a “Quiverfull” family, a woman pastor, even members of a polygamist family. She studied the stories of women in Scripture, and one of the most valuable parts of her book, in my opinion, is a set of devotional summaries of what those women contributed to the Bible’s Story of salvation-history. She includes the voice of her husband Dan throughout the book, citing journal entries he kept that reflect on what they were learning together.
At times, this book is laugh-out-loud funny. There are priceless descriptions of the contortions it requires to keep an Alabama fan exhibiting a “gentle and quiet spirit” during football season. And she writes with lively and self-deprecating wit about the time she literally sat on the roof to symbolize penance for being a “contentious” woman, her valiant attempts, successes, and failures while learning the domestic arts, her adventures camping out in the yard during her monthly period to mark her ritual “impurity,” the effort it takes trying to find good kosher food and wine in her neck of the woods, the experiment of caring for a computerized baby to learn about the demands of motherhood, and her attempts to quiet the noise in her mind and cultivate silence in a Benedictine monastery.
Biblical interpretation is a messy, imperfect, and at times frustrating process. I wrote this book with humor and with love because I think both are needed in the conversation, particularly as it pertains to something as complex and beautiful as womanhood.
It is rare, for instance, for anyone discussing the issue of what the Bible says about the family, and men’s and women’s roles, to seriously examine the practice of polygamy. And yet there came a point, relatively early in the year, when RHE had to confront the fact that many of the ancient texts in the Bible “routinely describe women as property” and that the familial cultures portrayed in the Bible long predate our Western constructs of the nuclear family. Those cultures took practices like slavery, concubinage, arranged marriage, bride price, levirate marriage and clan inheritance laws for granted. Women had few “rights,” and laws relating to virginity, sexual misconduct, divorce, etc., were all skewed heavily to give advantage and power to males.
Most Christians and people in general in the Western world have long moved past these kinds of perspectives and practices, though there are religious groups that maintain a commitment to forms of “hard patriarchy,” such as Vision Forum, and RHE discusses some of their viewpoints.
But then she went a step further in her research when she contacted a group called Biblical Families. This is a community of self-described Bible-believing and evangelical Christians who “recognize the Biblical soundness of plural marriage.” A man named Eric, married to two women and having a family with both of them, communicated with her, and Rachel and one of the wives corresponded so that she could learn about their experiences in a polygamous household.
I find it fascinating that the Bible never explicitly condemns the practice of having multiple wives. God’s chosen people, the twelve tribes of Israel, came forth from Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel. This was the common “biblical” way among all the patriarchs and matriarchs (along with maintaining slaves and concubines). Even in the days of the kingdom, the practice of having multiple wives was common. And, how’s this for “biblical?” — according to 2Samuel 12:8, the prophet Nathan declared to King David that it was God himself who gave the ruler his (multiple) wives.
It is true that, by the time we get to the New Testament, we hear Paul instructing the church in Ephesus that an elder should be “the husband of one wife,” testifying to the fact that the apostles lived in a different culture and time when polygamy was no longer the norm. However, Paul does not base his counsel on any scriptural mandate or universal prescription.
This one small portion of Rachel Held Evans’s book exemplifies a couple of key points made throughout —
- It is a complex interpretive matter to separate out time-bound cultural practices described in the Bible from timeless divine instructions prescribed in its pages.
- Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to realize how much of our own experience and preconceived notions we carry to the Scriptures. This often leads us to see the cultural practices we have come to accept within our religious traditions as valid representatives of what “the Bible teaches.”
Few of us would assert that polygamy is acceptable practice in contemporary society. But why? It would be extremely hard to argue against it using just the Bible. There is more going on here. This suggests that we may be on shaky ground when we try to use the adjective “biblical” to advocate for particular social or cultural practices as though the Bible always has a clear mandate about such matters.
The same could be said about the “household codes” of Greco-Roman society, which form the background of the apostolic exhortations to husbands, wives, and other household members in Ephesians, Colossians, and elsewhere. Though the apostles infused them with Christian content about what it means to love and serve others in one’s household, the codes themselves represented the culture of the day, which presupposed that men had unilateral, military style authority over their wives, children, and slaves. Evans takes this up in her chapter on “Submission,” noting that the apostolic instructions actually end up subverting the hierarchical nature of the household codes, granting dignity in Christ to those without cultural dignity and calling for mutual love and service regardless of one’s position in society. (We wrote about this HERE on this blog in 2011.)
But I don’t want to make it sound like A Year of Biblical Womanhood reads as a didactic study or argument. It is much richer, more personal, creative, and winsome than the debates its subject generates.
How can you not love “hula-hooping with the Amish,” learning why the sex lives of Orthodox Jews may be the steamiest around, or getting lessons on how to sound a shofar?
Who could not be moved by the lessons she learned about the worldwide sufferings of women? — “It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, then men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century,” she learned from reading Kristof and WuDunn. The kind of feminism that Christians can and should get behind is that which embraces “the radical notion that women are people,” a view still not universally acknowledged.
As part of learning that faithful women in Scripture were committed to justice and helping the poor, Rachel received an invitation to travel to Bolivia with World Vision to see for herself some projects for empowering women and improving community conditions there, and she writes about it with a wonder that is exhilarating.
Some of the most poignant words in the book come from Rachel’s husband Dan, such as this reflection near the end of the project:
At its core, our relationship isn’t a hierarchy; it’s a partnership. What kind of person doesn’t want success for their partner? A weak, insecure person. What kind of man doesn’t want success for his wife? A weak, insecure man. I’m not supporting Rachel like a passive piling supports a dock. I’m supporting her like the Saturn V supported Apollo 11. I want her to succeed in her pursuits, and will do everything in my power to make it happen. She wants the same for me.
That sounds eminently “biblical” to me. Those words exemplify the true “one flesh” kind of relationship men and women should have in marriage, the partnership specified in the creation narrative when God makes a “helper corresponding to” Adam (an equal, complementary partner, not a helpmeet — as in an assistant). It’s about two people living in mutual submission to one another, loving and serving as Christ did, each seeking the ultimate benefit, welfare, and flourishing of the other — no matter what “roles” we play and without regard to who “leads” in any given situation.
In the end, Rachel Held Evans concludes that the way to be a “biblical woman” (or man, for that matter), is to let Jesus’ definition be the final guide.
Far too many church leaders have…attempted to define womanhood by a list of rigid roles. But roles are not fixed. They are not static. Roles come and go; they shift and they change. They are relative to our culture and subject to changing circumstances.
A calling, on the other hand, when rooted deep in the soil of one’s soul, transcends roles. And I believe that my calling, as a Christian, is the same as that of any other follower of Jesus. My calling is to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. Jesus himself said that the rest of Scripture can be rendered down into these two commands. If love was Jesus’ definition of “biblical,” then perhaps it should be mine.
That is ultimately why I love this book.
I love Rachel’s spirit and creativity, her transparency, the gift she has for writing, the vivacity with which she embraces life. These winsome qualities come through on every page of this fine book. I was especially struck by her humility and willingness to stretch herself beyond comfort to learn new lessons, even from those whose views and experiences were vastly different from her own.
But it’s that final note of a “Jesus-shaped” approach to life that I love best. If the pursuit of the “biblical” does not lead us to that, we are nothing.