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Rachel Held Evans’ Year of “Biblical Womanhood”

Proverbs 21: 9 says that “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.”  While sitting on one’s rooftop is not technically a prescribed punishment for a woman’s belligerence, Rachel Held Evans decided that a minute of roof time per contentious remark of the previous month was an appropriate penance.  Because she is accused of making a mockery of the Bible with her new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master, one might think Evans would be the epitome of the contentious woman, but I, in fact, found the opposite to be true.  While undoubtedly bold, Evans is about as gracious as they come, and her book celebrates womanhood rather than promoting division.

About two years ago Evans, a popular blogger and author of the memoir Evolving in Monkey Town, embarked on a twelve-month project of trying to follow the Bible’s instructions to women as literally as possible.   Picking themes such as “valor,” “modesty,” “fertility,” and “silence” for each month, she attempted to practice values considered “biblical” for women in various Christian and Jewish contexts.  To the confusion of her neighbors, the now-31-year-old Dayton, TN resident refrained from cutting her hair all year.  One month, she spent her period outside in a tent.  Another month, in an effort to get in touch with her maternal side, she adopted a fussy computerized baby doll intended to discourage teen sex.  At other points throughout the year she wore head coverings, focused on cooking and cleaning, cared for the poor, and celebrated several Jewish holidays.

From the beginning, the purpose of Evans’ project was to serve as material for her book, which encourages readers to consider the importance of hermeneutics in how we apply Scripture to our lives.  It’s understandable that her book has provoked controversy since she discourages literalistic approaches to the Bible in favor of interpretations and applications more aware of each passage’s literary and historical context.  Her conclusions are unapologetically egalitarian, and this fact alone is enough to upset some readers.  However, Evans deserves a great deal of credit, even from those who disagree with her conclusions.  As much as she hopes to free women from unrealistic or unhealthy expectations that often accompany the idea of “biblical womanhood,” she is not on an angry tirade against complementarianism.  In fact, A Year of Biblical Womanhood consistently displays the quality of “gentleness”—one of Evans’ month-long themes.

Evans has struck a magnificent balance, managing to challenge the status quo in evangelicalism without arrogantly dismissing women who understand their faith differently from her.  For example, she maintains dialogues with other women throughout the book, learning what she can from Amish and Old Order Mennonite women, Orthodox Jewish women, and Quiverfull families.  Similarly, as Evans goes about her year, she could engage in various practices simply to prove the point that women shouldn’t typically be doing so, but instead she seems genuinely open to what she might learn about God, herself, and others by only wearing skirts, changing the dynamics of her marriage, or refraining from speaking in church.

While some Christians will dismiss the book without reading it or hold a prejudice against Evans for her egalitarianism, there is a humble, invitational quality to the book for those willing to engage with its ideas.  In this way, A Year of Biblical Womanhood has a great deal to offer Christians from all points on the spectrum:  To the complementarian willing to listen, Evans shares the joys of her egalitarian marriage, her appreciation for women of the Bible like Huldah the prophet and Junia the apostle, and her research and reflections on significant passages of Scripture.  To the egalitarian willing to listen, Evans is a model of honest searching and respectful conversation, encouraging us to not become embittered towards the complementarian majority in evangelicalism but rather to continue to maintain relationships and thoughtful engagement, fueled by faith, hope, and love.

2 Comments

  1. Don Johnson
    Comment #96946 posted November 7, 2012 at 7:48 am

    Here is my review from Amazon. ***

    When I first heard about this book over a year ago, I thought it was going to be a re-do of Jacob’s book and therefore not original. Not so. Rachel gives herself a task each month that she tries to do faithfully and sets herself the subtasks based on the Bible and other current books.

    She is very engaging and it is an easy read. She takes to task the current teachers of patriarchy and the less strident version called complementarian (which is an invented name since patriarchy sounded too negative). It is for those that are caught in these cultures that she writes and I hope that those who really should read this book actually do read it and are not put off by the negative reviews made by those in the patriarchy or complementarian movement.

    Her main point about Bible interpretation is that everyone makes choices about what is cultural and what is transcultural, there is no reason to think the patriarchy or complementarian interpreters are any different, even if they do not see this is what they are doing, they do it also. If the goal of a Christian is to be like Christ, is this easier for a male to do just because they are male? She rightly skewers some of the most outrageous claims of some of the more infamous in the “Bible says men are on top” crowd.

    She does make a few interpretive mistakes, these do not affect her argument. On p.53, Jesus is not quoting Scripture in her example on “hating your enemy”, he is quoting others. On pp. 53-54, Jesus did not overturn Torah in John 8 with the adulteress, he kept Torah while his opponents did not in this case and were therefore sinning. Paul was almost certainly a widower, not never married. p. 169-170 on Levitical purity codes, it is not true that touching or being touched by a woman with a flow of blood was forbidden as Rachel claims, it simply made the touched person unclean and unable to participate in temple things until cleansed. The basic idea is that for Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, he would have met all the requirements of Torah and not violated them.

    She does have some great insights in the chapters on Valor and Submission. Rachel is a woman of valor.

    End of Review ***

    I find myself in the perhaps curious position of NOT affirming more than a few of RHE’s handling of various Scripture texts, but affirming her overall message. Yes, RHE has some incorrect Bible interpretations, they are easy to find, I found 5 and did not try very hard. But that is not the point of the book, in other words, do not read her book thinking it is a textbook on how to interpret the Bible, that is not its genre. It is a book about asking questions and enjoying the process of trying new things. In some ways she was being overly wooden in her literalism of some passages, but that was the way she decided to make her point in terms of questioning (and not answering) what is cultural and what is not in the Bible.

    This is a book one can curl up with, have some good guffaws, learn some things and think some.

  2. Susan L.
    Comment #96963 posted November 9, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Thanks Ashleigh and Don on some helpful ways to approach RHE’s book. I”ve been hearing a great deal about it but haven’t gotten hold of a copy yet. Your comment after the review, Don, raises an interesting point about provocation and conversation. I’m not saying Evan’s interpretations were intentionally erroneous, but certainly her approach seems designed to help engage (provoke?) folks into wrestling with the idea (if not with each other ; )) regarding what we mean by Biblical . It is a noble goal, imo. I fear that we’ve come through the “politically correct” and kinder, gentler, i.e. more tolerant cultural phases having seemingly lost the ability to have a discourse on important matters of disagreement that is both civil and constructive. The more simplistic our thinking, the more polarizing.

    I came across a woman named Brene Brown recently on YouTube. She’s a social work researcher and has some fascinating things to say about courage and vulnerability. She connects the two this way: vulnerability is the face of courage. Or to look at it another way, we are at our least courageous when we refuse to be vulnerable. Yet vulnerability is necessary for connection.

    What that boils down to in discourse (and this is roughly from Brown) is that the less vulnerable I’m willing to be, the more I need certainty. The more I need certainty, the more simplistic my thinking. The more simplistic my thinking, the more polarizing because retreating to an isolated extreme is an effective way of defending my vulnerability.

    All this to say, bravo to RHE if her exposure of our simplistic thinking advances conversation and a willingness to come out of our bunkers and try to actually understand each other and to connect. Agreement with each other isn’t even the goal, but understanding, respect, and connection. (“and the second commandment is like unto it”)

    BTW her rhetoric does remind me of a certain Galilean who said, “You have heard it said . . . but I say . . .”

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