Book Review: Rachel Held Evans “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” (Part 1)

Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a long semester, I have finally gotten the chance to do some reading for myself, and at the top of my list was catching up with the rest of the blogging world and reading Rachel Held Evans’ newest book A Year of Biblical Womanhood.  Having read Evans’ blog a fair amount, I was familiar with the project.  I also recently read and reviewed her book Evolving in Monkey Town, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I was very excited to read this book as well!

Even before reading the book I had already been engaged in some of the controversy surrounding it.  On this blog I posted the text of a debate between myself and several friends from Southeastern Bible College on many aspects of biblical interpretation that surround the topic of “evangelical feminism.”  That debate had been sparked by a review of Evans’ book linked by a friend to Facebook.  At the time none of us had read the book, so the debate was largely theoretical.  Now I can finally comment on the book itself.

The controversy surrounding this book has been quite substantial, and so in this first post I want to start by reviewing some of the criticisms before approaching the book on its own terms. After reading through numerous reviews, both positive and negative, I found that the overwhelming majority of critical viewpoints towards Evans’ project were wrapped up in pretty high-strung rhetoric.  John Piper’s Desiring God network posted a review by Trillia Newbell which described Evans’ book as putting the Bible “on trial” with Evans as “the prosecution, judge, and jury” preparing to give the “definitive view on womanhood.”  The same review went on to claim that this book sought to undermine the doctrine of inerrancy and therefore curtail the authority of the Bible literally applied to today’s world.  In a similar vein, the Gospel Coalition posted a critical review of the book by Kathy Keller and Justin Taylor posted a review of the review in which he went so far as to suggest a new title for Evans’ work: A Year of Ridiculous Biblical Interpretation.  I’m not sure how much market research Taylor put into that title suggestion, but he seems pretty confident it will catch on.  Throughout these critical reviews links kept circling back to a post by a “secular-postmodern-feminist” who apparently saw through Evans’ ruse and definitively declared that the book was making a “mockery” of the Bible.  This may be the first and only time that Justin Taylor has cited a secular-postmodern-anything (and gasp, a feminist, too!) as a credible source (though it’s not clear from the post that this reviewer had actually read Evans’ book, so her actual credibility is in doubt…).

Unfortunately for Taylor and the other critics of Evans and her book, all this rhetoric is really just rhetoric.  As Taylor acknowledges in his “review,” those with a more sympathetic view toward Evans’ project have formed polar opposite conclusions about the nature and merit of her book, perhaps most notable among them three evangelical academics: New Testament scholar James McGrathOld Testament scholar Peter Enns, and theologian Roger Olson.  McGrath, for example, writes of Evans’ interpretation of scripture:

If I occasionally had quibbles or the instinctive scholar’s desire for more precise nuance, I didn’t have any strong objections, places where I felt that Rachel’s treatment of the Bible was wide of the mark.  Overall, she did a good job of taking into account what scholars have to say about the Bible.

And Peter Enns writes about Evans’ overall treatment of the Bible:

It will be clear to any alert reader that Evans is not mocking the Bible as some by-gone, worthless relic of ancient misogyny (again, a point her entrenched critics have missed). Rather, with each chapter she is very clear about what she gained spiritually from her yearlong odyssey… Rather than a rant against the Bible, readers will quickly see that Evans has found some deep source of wisdom in this process.

When there are clear lines drawn in the sand a good rule of thumb is to take high-strung rhetoric (whether vehemently negative criticisms or delightful agreement) as more of an indication of where the commentator stands in the debate and less a reflection on the work they are commenting on.  For that, we should examine the author’s work on its own merits.

That said, there are some more specific, some might say substantial, criticisms thrown at Evans’ book.  Those deserve a closer look before we continue on.

(A)  In Trillia Newbell’s review for Desiring God, she writes:

Evans selects various Old Testament laws regarding women and discusses the horror of such laws, yet she never rises to the place where the purpose of these laws are made sense of. And yet she never introduces the redemptive history of Scripture. This point could take up an entire lengthy blog post of its own. Evans will not allow redemptive history into her courtroom.

Kathy Keller similarly writes in her review for the Gospel Coalition about how redemptive history fails to make an appearance in Evans’ book:

Perhaps the most basic rule—agreed upon by all branches of Christianity—is that Jesus’ coming made the Old Testament sacrificial system and ceremonial laws obsolete… This is why no Christian anywhere has offered sacrifices since the crucifixion, nor observed the rules of temple worship (cf. Galatians and Hebrews). This most fundamental rule of interpretation is based on the fact that the Bible is the story of God’s salvation coming into the world, climaxing in Jesus, and therefore we can’t read the first part of the Bible as if Jesus never came in the last part.  Yet you [Evans], who surely know this as well as anyone, proclaimed at the start of your book: “From the Old Testament to the New Testament, from Genesis to Revelation, from the Levitical code to the letters of Paul, there [will be] no picking and choosing” (xxi, emphasis Keller’s). To insist that it would be “picking and choosing” to preclude the Levitical code from your practice of biblical womanhood is disingenuous, if not outright deceptive.  In making the decision to ignore the tectonic shift that occurred when Jesus came, you have led your readers not into a better understanding of biblical interpretation, but into a worse one. Christians don’t arbitrarily ignore the Levitical code—they see it as wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus. In him, we are now clean before God.

The basic criticism seems to be an accusation that Evans has, wrongfully, put the Old Testament law on an equal playing field with New Testament commands, thereby ignoring the impact of “redemptive history” on the way Christians interpret such commands and giving an overly austere, straw-man image of “biblical womanhood” as it is understood by Christians today.

Several things can be said in response to this:

First, we might note that Kathy Keller has almost certainly overstated her case by claiming that “all branches of Christianity” “since the crucifixion” agree on how the incarnation affects the Christian understanding of the Old Testament law.  With regards to the sacrificial and temple system (which, interestingly, is also not practiced in contemporary Judaism because of the lack of a temple but nonetheless is not considered “obsolete”), we might note, first, that the disciples regularly visited the temple in the first few chapters of Acts; second, that one of the most important debates recorded in the New Testament has to do with with the application of Old Testament purity and ceremonial laws to new Gentile converts; and third, that the idea of sacrificial offering is kept alive in many Christian understandings of the Eucharist.  Even among evangelicals there is some disagreement on the extent to which the law applies– I remember while I was at Southeastern reading numerous articles by the preeminent evangelical Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser in which he argued that the Old Testament law was in fact meant to apply to Christians today– as well as disagreement about what distinguishes particular aspects of the Old Testament law (such as “sacrificial” or “ceremonial”) from one another.  And certainly evangelicals continue to use the Old Testament ceremonial laws about purity when arguing about issues such as homosexuality.  So Keller’s claim is perhaps overly ambitious.

Second, both Keller and Newbell are over-inflating a small piece of the book to make this criticism.  Evans project is based on the year-long keeping of what she identifies as the “ten commandments” of biblical womanhood (see pages xxi-xxii in the introduction) and a monthly focus on a particular topic associated with biblical womanhood.  Not a single one of the “ten-commandments” Evans adopts for the entire year is based on the “ceremonial law.”  And every chapter in the book is based on discussions of both Old and New Testament passages.  In fact, only during the month of April, in which her focus was on purity, does the Old Testament ceremonial law play a particularly prominent role in the project (during this month Evans practices both ritual separation during her monthly period and participates in a traditional Jewish passover celebration, including the keeping of Kosher).  To claim that Evans consistently elevates the Old Testament law beyond what is normal within a Christian understanding “is disingenuous if not outright deceptive,” to use Keller’s own words.  Even in the passage from the introduction cited above by Keller there is a selective reading of Evans at work.  In the rest of the paragraph cited, Evans gives examples of texts she will be considering during the project.  The texts she cites include an equal number of passages from the Old and New Testament but only one reference to the Old Testament law (the rest of the Old Testament references are from the wisdom literature).  With the exception of her dive into Judaism during the month of April, Evans appears to be examining the concept of Biblical womanhood in almost exactly the same way as many evangelicals, putting a heavy emphasis on the “order of creation” in Genesis, Old Testament wisdom literature in Proverbs and Song of Songs, and the New Testament teachings around marital relationships and the role(s) of women in the church.

Finally, we might note that, contrary to Newbell and Keller’s claims, Evans does in fact take stock of “redemptive history” in her interpretation of the law.  As just one example, following one of the most thorough discussions in the book of the laws governing the role of women in ancient Israelite society (48-53), Evans turns to the New Testament to examine how Jesus responds to these very laws when a woman caught in the act of adultery is brought before him.  She concludes this section by writing:

Jesus once said that his mission was not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.  And in this instance, fulfilling the law meant letting it go.  It may serve as little comfort to those who have suffered abuse at the hand of Bible-wielding literalists, but the disturbing laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy lose just a bit of their potency when God himself breaks them. (54)

Though I’m sure both Keller and Newbell would quibble with her handling of this story, likely saying that this is further evidence that Evans does not interpret the Bible as inerrant or displays some other theological error, what cannot be said is that Evans has ignored the impact of New Testament on the application of Old Testament laws (see also pages 144-45 and 218-219 for other particularly poignant discussions of the impact of “redemption history” on the biblical notion of womanhood).  The charge that Keller and Newbell are making is actually a misrepresentation, whether intentional or not I do not know, of what the book contains.

(B)  Kathy Keller makes a second similar critique to the one above when she writes in her review for the Gospel Coalition:

In choosing what passages you would take as models for your behavior, you [Evans] chose narrative passages rather than prescriptive ones. This is a second major hermeneutical principle you concealed your knowledge of throughout the book. Polygamy, concubinage, rape, adultery, and a host of other sins, many of them against women, truly happened and are recorded in the biblical record with unblinking faithfulness. Yet you cite accounts of historical events such as Genesis 16, 30, and 35 and remark, “If you were a slave or concubine, you were expected to be sexually available to your master,” as if the Bible condones this behavior (48). However, it never endorses such conduct, much less commands it. On the contrary, recording the relentlessly sinful behavior of his people was God’s way of demonstrating how desperately in need of a savior they really were.

Setting aside that this critique seems to actually stand in tension with her earlier comments that the quotation of the Levitical code is irrelevant in light of the incarnation, Keller now seems to be arguing that Evans has wrongfully interpreted narratives as normative without properly showing that they are in fact linked with biblical statues.

This is actually an embarrassingly easy critique to refute because Keller is either guilty of very sloppy reading or willful misrepresentation of the book.  In the very same paragraph that Keller cites on page 48, the paragraph in which Evans apparently references narrative passages as “normative” without showing “prescriptive” texts which condone these actions, Evans goes on to cite the laws in Exodus which govern exactly this behavior.  Over the next several pages of the book, she gives numerous other examples of both laws governing the treatment and status of women in various capacities in the ancient world and narrative instances demonstrating how this treatment and status played out.  Keller’s critique is actually a patently false depiction of the very passage of the book she cites as her example.

(C) Finally, many of the critiques of Evans’ book attempt to point out particular passages that she has misinterpreted.  Three passages in particular that I have seen cited as “misinterpreted” are Proverbs 21:9 (“it is better to live in a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman,” NASB), 31:23 (“her husband is respected at the city gate,” NIV), and Titus 1:12 (“One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons,’” ESV).  Despite the fuss, none of these passages are particularly central to the project Evans is undertaking.  What is central to Evans’ project is demonstrating the ways in which many of the passages that are traditionally understood as prescribing the proper role for Christian women are frequently misinterpreted by “complementarians,” a point that none of the critics I have read have attempted to deny or refute.  By pointing instead to minor misinterpretations of texts only peripherally related to her point, the critics are, it would seem, attempting to distract from the real issues being raised by Evans’ book.

On closer examination, the main critiques of Evans’ book are all either misdirections which distract from the main point of her project, absolute misrepresentations of the book itself (whether willful or not I leave to my readers to decide), or heated rhetoric revealing a clear bias against the book and its author.

Why would Evans’ critics be so eager to distract, distort, and disdain her work?

It seems to me that these critics have their feathers ruffled because of what Evans’ book actually does argue for.  Evans successfully deconstructs the traditional understanding of “biblical womanhood,” showing it to be based on faulty, inadequate, or selective interpretations of numerous biblical texts, and in its place she leaves us a new vision of “biblical womanhood,” one that recognizes the cultural boundedness of the biblical texts and yet still finds in them a source of wisdom and inspiration for living lives of “valor,” the key virtue which Evans attributes to genuine biblical womanhood.  Evans writes in the last chapter of her book:

After twelve months of “biblical womanhood,” I’d arrived at the rather unconventional conclusion that there is no such thing.  The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth…. Far too many church leaders have glossed over these stories [of women of valor such as Deborah, Ruth, Rachel, Tamar, Priscilla, Mary Magdalene, etc.] and 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.  It’s not our roles that define us, but our character.  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.  (294-95)

Evans very effectively reveals the selectivity of traditional evangelical understandings of biblical womanhood and argues for, in their place, a biblical womanhood defined by a virtuous and faithful character in whatever calling women find themselves in.  In doing so Evans raises serious questions about conservative evangelical hermeneutics.  By questioning the foundation of their claims about biblical authority, Evans’ project actually poses a serious threat to the conservative evangelical establishment, and it is for that reason, I think, that she has been the subject of such fierce criticism.

In the next two posts we will examine this book on its own terms, first tracing how Evans goes about deconstructing the conservative evangelical notion of “biblical womanhood” and then examining the new model of womanhood that she puts in its place.


What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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