Book Review: Rachel Held Evans “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” (Part 2)

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’ latest 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, too!

In the first post of this review I argued that on closer examination, the main critiques of Evans’ book are all either misdirections which seek to 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. In reality, 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 this post, part two of my review, I wish to look more closely at the way Evans deconstructs the conservative evangelical notion of biblical womanhood.


The problem with writing such a summary of Evans project is that, since she examines a different aspect of “biblical womanhood” every month, a thorough look at the entire book would be far, far too long to count as a review. So instead of rewriting the book, what I have decided to do is focus on a few chapters within the book that I think provide particularly poignant examples of how Evans makes her case. For this post I have chosen five of the book’s topics: Domesticity (Chapter 2), Obedience (Chapter 3), Valor (Chapter 4), Submission (Chapter 9), and Silence (Chapter 11).

DOMESTICITY

I chose to begin with the chapter on domesticity because I think it provides a great example of Evans rising above the temptation to merely critique that which she does not like or agree with. Instead of taking such a simplistic, potentially arrogant, approach, Evans engages in a conversation with scripture in which she finds herself being critiqued alongside those with whom she disagrees. This is excellently illustrated in Evans’ discussion of the story of Mary and Martha in Luke chapter 10:

Feminists like me love this story. Here we have Jesus gladly teaching a woman who was bold enough to study under a rabbi, which was patently condemned at the time. However, conservatives note that Martha served future meals to Jesus and His disciples, suggesting that Jesus called Martha out of her critical attitude, not her role as a homemaker. As tempting as it is to cast Mary and Martha as flat, lifeless foils of each other– cartoonish representations of our rival callings as women– I think that misses the point. Martha certainly wasn’t the first and she won’t be the last to dismiss someone else’s encounter with God because it didn’t fit the mold. When an unnamed woman interrupted a meal to anoint Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume, some of those present complained that the money could have been donated to the poor (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9). When an invalid healed by Jesus ran through the streets, carrying the mat to which he had been confined for thirty-eight years, a group of religious leaders chastised him for lifting something heavy on the Sabbath (John 5). When my friend Jackie became the first woman to deliver a sermon from the pulpit of a megachurch in Dallas, she received hate mail from fellow Christians. When a new mom told me she felt closer to God since giving birth, I secretly dismissed her feelings as hormone-induced sentimentalism. I guess we’re all a little afraid that if God’s presence is there, it cannot be here. Caring for the poor, resting on the Sabbath, showing hospitality and keeping the home– these are important things that can lead us to God, but God is not contained in them. The gentle Rabbi reminds us that few things really matter and only one thing is necessary. Mary found it outside the bounds of her expected duties as a woman, and no amount of criticism or questioning could take it away from her. Martha found it in the gentle reminder to slow down, let go, and be careful of challenging another woman’s choices, for you never know when she might be sitting at the feet of God. (36-37)

The temptation that Evans could have embraced in interpreting this story, as she notes at the beginning of this quotation, is to say, “look at this: Jesus praises the woman sitting at his feet as a student (traditionally, a man’s role) and he criticizes the woman who is playing the traditional female domestic role. I guess women aren’t supposed to be domestic after all.” Such an interpretation isn’t completely baseless: Jesus does indeed seem to be elevating the status of women in this story and could very well be interpreted as downplaying the roles women traditionally played in ancient society. However, as Evans points out, there are some challenges to this interpretation. Aside from the narrative problems alluded to by Evans, such an interpretation also happens to be suspiciously close to the an embrace of her own self-confessed lack of domestic skills. That Evans decides to both engage the way those she disagrees with interpret this story, and even allow insights from their interpretation to let the story offer a critique of her own predispositions, demonstrates fairly clearly that this is not simply an exercise in interpreting the Bible to mean what she wants it to mean. Evans is attempting to read the text on its own terms, not on hers. Though, as she will acknowledge throughout the book, we always bring something of our own thoughts and beliefs to reading and interpreting the text, Evans cannot be charged with forcing the text to fit into her paradigm. She is in fact engaged in a conversation with the text, both interpreting it and allowing it to reinterpret her own understandings.

What comes out of Evans’ reading of this particular text, as is true of the way she handles many other texts throughout the book, is a view of biblical womanhood that is neither a knee-jerk reactionary return to “traditional family values” nor a militantly liberal demand that every woman adopt the kind of lifestyle and norms that Evans practices. Instead, Evans finds, God is bigger than our systems and is present in whatever calling God extends to each person as an individual. Ours is not to demand that everyone’s lifestyle look a particular way but to affirm the presence of God wherever it exists in the lives of others.

OBEDIENCE

One of the most interesting chapters in the book, from my perspective, was the chapter on obedience because in this chapter Evans severely dismantles any notion that “biblical womanhood” was a rosy, idealistic mode of being. The chapter contains a very thorough review of many of the laws governing the treatment of women of various status throughout ancient Israelite society, from slaves to wives to prisoners of war (48-51, 58). Also contained within this chapter is a discussion of what Evans refers to as “the dark stories” (61-66) of many women who met terrible fates, often at the hands of men, in ancient Israel. The inclusion of a discussion of these commands and stories serves to very effectively call into question an idea that I have heard promulgated in many evangelical discussions of women’s roles relative to those of men: that a difference in roles does not imply a difference in ontological equality but only a difference in station. I think it is fair to say that the commands and stories Evans discusses demonstrate very clearly that women in ancient Israel were expected to be obedient to men not because they were ontological equals assigned by God to that role but because the law, and the men who wrote it, clearly did not see them as equals. Evangelical interpretations of these texts which attempt to get around this hard reality are, at the end of the day, sugarcoating the text, and Evans does a great job of pointing out just how much they are doing so.

Even still, there is another layer to this situation, which Evans finds inspiration from:

I took some comfort in the fact that the woman hailed as my model for submission wasn’t any good at it either. Saint Peter chose an unlikely candidate in Sarah, who in a pivotal moment in Israel’s history usurped the wishes of Abraham, and apparently won the support of God in her defiance… Frankly, the story makes Sarah look more like a potential cast member for The Real Housewives of Canaan County than a dutiful and submissive wife. But a survey of the Old Testament reveals that she was not alone, that, when it came to the futures of their families, the matriarchs often did whatever it took to get their way. Rebekah tricked her own blind husband into giving his blessing to her preferred son, Jacob. Rachel, despite being Jacob’s second wife and barren throughout most of their marriage, ensured that her son Joseph won his father’s favor over Leah’s six older boys. What went down behind the flaps of the women’s tents in Canaan influenced the fate of nations. Sarah’s banishment of Hagar, for example, is hailed in both Jewish and Muslim traditions the moment in which the Nation of Islam was born. “Master,” it seems, is a relatively loose term. (56-57)

In noting the subversive nature of many of the stories of women in the Bible, Evans is using narratives to challenge the normativity of the biblical law (contrary to Kathy Keller’s claim that law must be used to establish the normativity of narratives). If the law clearly views women as less than men, the stories of matriarchal heroes who took control of the fate of nations challenges us to question whether this underlying principle really had (or has) any merit. While such a reading of the text may conflict with an assumption of inerrancy (and especially with an assumption that the entire Pentateuch was written by Moses), from the perspective of someone who doesn’t hold onto such assumptions I found this interpretation very insightful and thought-provoking!

VALOR

The chapter on valor is perhaps the most important chapter in the book as far as the constructive argument of Evans’ own understanding of biblical womanhood is concerned. I will discuss that in greater detail in the next post. For right now, it is worth noting that this chapter develops from an examination of the holy grail of biblical womanhood in contemporary evangelical culture: Proverbs 31. Evans makes some very interesting observations about the nature of this text which form the basis of a re-reading of it:

The only instructive language [the Proverbs 31 poem] contains is directed toward men, with the admonition that a thankful husband honor his wife “for all that her hands have done (Proverbs 31:31)… And yet many Christians interpret this passage prescriptively, as a command to women rather than an ode to women, with the home-based endeavors of the Proverbs 31 woman cast as the ideal lifestyle for all women of faith… No longer presented as a song through which a man offers his wife praise, Proverbs 31 is presented as a task list through which a woman earns it. (76)

In essence, what Evans is arguing is that contemporary evangelical interpretation of this text has failed to take into account the text’s own genre. Understanding this genre would give us a better reading of this text, helping us to recognize that it is not a set of commandments to be followed but a song of praise for those women who live a valorous life (as it is understood in Jewish culture). In the next post we will examine in more detail how Evans hopes to reclaim the meaning of this passage, so for now I will leave this at noting that Evans hermeneutical insights about the genre of this poem are very important considerations that drastically effect its meaning. The fact that such considerations have not been taken into account by many evangelicals using this text as a basis for understanding biblical womanhood is a shameful bit of corner-cutting and sloppy exegesis which has drastically affected the way an entire generation of evangelical women understand themselves.

SUBMISSION

Continuing the same basic theme as was found in the chapter on obedience, in the chapter on submission Evans notes that the context of the passages frequently invoked to argue that women should be submissive to men have a much different connotation than usually supposed:

Biblical passages about wives submitting to their husbands are not, as many Christians assume, rooted in a culture epitomized by June Cleaver’s kitchen, but in a culture epitomized by the Greco-Roman household codes, which gave men unilateral authority over their wives, slaves, and children. (216)

Similarly to what Evans did in the chapter on valor, Evans is here pointing to a major tool of biblical hermeneutics which has seemingly been ignored by many of those who interpret these texts: an examination of the historical and cultural context. Evans does an excellent job of parsing through the scholarship on how these texts reflect an adaptation of the standard cultural definitions of household roles in the first and second century. In our next post we will examine more closely how Evans reinterprets these passages in light of such scholarship. Suffice it to say now, however, that Evans insights into the historical and cultural origins of such “household codes” calls into serious question the attempt to transform these texts into timeless, normative statutes by many evangelical scholars today.


In a similar vein, Evans also draws attention to the biblical context of these passages, something frequently overlooked in discussions of them among contemporary evangelicals. Evans writes that, “All three of the passages that instruct wives to submit to their husbands are either preceded or followed by instructions for slaves to submit to their masters,” (215). This context raises one of the most significant and yet often avoided questions for those attempting to use New Testament passages about submission to define the role of women today: if we as a culture have decided that biblical texts about slavery are no longer applicable because we recognize the practice of slavery to be immoral, why is it an affront to biblical authority to also set aside the teachings on wives being submissive to their husbands?

SILENCE

To wrap up part two of this review I want to look at the chapter on silence. In this chapter Evans does an excellent job at making clear what is at stake in this debate. Having demonstrated throughout the book that many of the broadly accepted evangelical interpretations of biblical passages about women are hermeneutically inadequate and fail to take into account the full-range of how the Bible portrays and talks about women, Evans notes the incredible, negative repercussions these misinterpretations have for the church:

Research shows that the overall number of women attending church has dropped by 11 percent in the last twenty years. When female executives, entrepreneurs, academics, and creatives are told that they have to check their gifts at the church door, many turn away for good. And while our sisters around the world continue to suffer from trafficking, exploitation, violence, neglect, maternal mortality, and discrimination, those of us who are perhaps most equipped to respond with prophetic words and actions– women of faith– are being systematically silenced in their own faith communities. [Theologian Scott] McKnight wisely asks: “Do you think Paul would have put women ‘behind the pulpit’ if it would have been advantageous ‘for the sake of the gospel’?” The answer to that question should be a lot simpler than it has become. (263)

It is important to read this section of the book in light of the arguments Evans has made throughout the entirety of this project. For many conservative Christians, claims that the church is not “up-to-date” or is out of step with society are irrelevant if the church is in keeping with biblical teaching. It would be easy for Evans’ critics to attempt to paint her as one complaining that the church isn’t relevant enough for today’s world, and it would be easy for them to respond to such a portrayal by saying relevance doesn’t matter, holding fast to biblical truth does. What Evans has actually done, however, is argue throughout the book that evangelical understandings of biblical womanhood are not in keeping with biblical teaching, that they are misinterpretations of the text. So in light of that, what Evans has to say in the passage above is not so much about the cultural relevance of the church as the damage done by a Christian community which distorts its own texts and teachings. That distinction is important to keep in mind when evaluating what Evans has to say and what those who disagree say in response to her.


In the next post I will examine in more detail Evans’ more constructive arguments throughout the book about what biblical womanhood should look like. Stay tuned!


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