a year of biblical womanhood – what I thought

This book is fun.

Here’s the deal – Rachel Held Evans spends a year applying the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible. She camps in a tent during her period, adopts a ‘baby-think-it-over’ doll, visits women in Bolivia, sits on a roof, eats kosher, wears a head-covering, attempts to sew and bake and calls her husband ‘master.’ She assigns a ‘womanly’ virtue to each month: gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valour, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence and grace.

biblical womanhood

The great strength of A Year of Biblical Womanhood is that Held Evans writes to you, not like a theologian delivering a lecture or a pastor sermonising, not like a self-help book or a manual talking down to you. Her book reads like it’s written for a friend. She confides in you. She makes you laugh. She tells you her doubts and fears and hopes. She’s open to correction. She just wants you to share the experience she’s had and to dwell on it with her. After reading her book, I feel like I know her, and I think we’d be friends.

For this reason, I’d recommend it to almost anyone who reads for fun. Read it at the beach on your summer holiday. Someone who is not yet Christian could read this and enjoy it and even come to understand a little of the joy of following Jesus. My complimentarian friends: If you put aside your theological disagreement with her for a minute, as you would when chatting with a friend you love but with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye, you could have a bit of fun with this book too.

There seems to be a universal consensus among people of faith that God is a morning person. The Dalai Lama rises at 3.30am to meditate. Pope Benedict begins his day around 5. I don’t know what time Oprah gets up, but I bet it’s before 7. Even as a kid I remember hearing stories about our pastor’s “morning quiet time,” that magical space between dawn and breakfast when God told him exactly what the Bible meant and what to say about it on Sunday morning. But I didn’t experience any magic or inspiration when I rose with the sun to meet God. Instead my Proverbs 31 routine went something like this: wake up, make coffee, choose a centring word for meditation, fall back asleep, wake up again, feel guilty, drink coffee, lift my five pound weights for three minutes [‘she girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong’], practice knitting, give up, write. After a few days, I ditched the centring prayer altogether to revert to the old standby – a hurried, half-awake Lord’s Prayer while I washed my hair.

“You look like a hippie,” Dan said, “But it’s not that bad. I promise.” 

I stood in front of the bedroom mirror in a billowing brown peasant skirt, matching brown tights and flats, a simple lavendar cardigan buttoned all the way to my collarbone, and a white, loose-knit beret on my head. No makeup. No jewelry. No product in my nest of hair.

“I look like a religious freak,” I wailed. “I can’t go out like this. People will think I’m – I don’t know – homeschooled.”

Dan sighed. (Have I mentioned that he was homeschooled?) “Hon, this was your idea, remember.”

The cool washcloth over my eyes did little to dull the relentless pulses of pain assaulting my sinuses, head and shoulders. I’d slept for eleven hours straight, and still no relief. When I tried to sit up, it was as though a magnet pull forced me back down into the damp, twisted sheets. I was too tired to throw up again, too nauseated to move. My limbs felt heavy. The room spun around. So I lay in the fetal position for hours more, listening to the gentle swoosh of the ceiling fan and praying for death.

No I didn’t get typhoid.

I quit coffee, cold turkey.

Of course there is a serious agenda to the book too which is why our American sisters and brothers have so many issues with it (I haven’t heard anyone speak up against it in Australia yet though). She is not a complimentarian. She describes her position as ‘mutalist’. Mutuality means that husbands and wives mutually submit to one another, mutually lead the home and mutually minister to others. It means that men and women are equal partners rather than the husband as the ‘head’ of the wife who submits.

So she gets a little cheeky in her month of ‘silence’.

My advice to women is this: if a man ever tries to use the Bible as a weapon against you to keep you from speaking the truth, just throw on a head covering and tell him you’re prophesying instead.

She does not give us a thorough exegetical argument for her mutualist position – that, after all, is not the point of the book and many others have done this. Nonetheless, I found some of her critiques of complimentairan teaching valid and quite concerning. These, however, were done in a spirit of concern (and a little frustration), rather than with a desire to tear down. This was perhaps the most direct attack:

…Wayne Grudem offers equally confounding advice for women by extracting from 1 Timothy 2:12 and eighty-three-item list detailing exactly what women can and cannot do in the church. A woman can be a choir director, but not preside over a baptism or a communion service, he says. She can write a book about theology that is read at Christian colleges and seminaries, but she cannot teach theology at Christian colleges or seminaries herself. She can teach vacation Bible school to children, but she cannot lead a Bible study with adults.

I’ve watched congregations devote years to heated arguments about whether a female missionary should be allowed to share about her ministry on a Sunday morning, whether students older than ten should have female Sunday school teachers, whether girls should be encouraged to attend seminary, whether women should be permitted to collect the offering or write the church newsletter or make an announcement ..It that’s not an adventure in missing the point, I don’t know what is.

Fortunately, in my experience, churches in Australia aren’t distracted by the same fruitless controversies or pharisaical regulations. Though sometimes I worry that we’re on our way.

Held Evans is not a liberal. She’s evangelical. Her disagreement with complimentarians is by no means based on a decision to simply ignore parts of the Bible (she reads them as culturally particular). Rather, her concern is for the gospel.

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.

I could feel Held Evans’ deep love of the Bible throughout the book. It is her love for the Bible, her hunger to understand it and to wrestle with it (ok, and the prospects of writing a great book) which drive her to undertake this crazy experiments.

It was her love of the Bible which draws her to what I found was the underlying question of the book – not ‘what is Biblical Womanhood?’ but ‘how should we interpret the Bible?’

The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat perspicuous list of rules and regulations that we can interpret objectively and apply unilaterally to our lives.

The Bible is a sacred collection of letters and laws, poetry and proverbs, philosophy and prophecies, written and assembled over thousands of years in cultures and contexts very different from our own, that tells the complex, ever-unfolding story of God’s interaction with humanity.

When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word (like manhood, womanhood, politics, economics, marriage and even equality) we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible which don’t fit our tastes…More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the BIble to say than what it acutally says.

So after twelve months of ‘biblical womanood’ I’d arrived at the rather unconventioanl 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…

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 neighbour 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.

How should we interpret the Bible? This is a such great question. Unfortunately I didn’t feel like Held Evans was equipped to answer it. She argues that everyone inevitably ‘picks and chooses’ when it comes to reading the Bible and that we usually find what we want to find. She suggests we adopt ‘an approach that creatively interprets with love.’ This is a good start, but not a satisfying answer.

I’m even less qualified than her to suggest an answer, but rather than a mere hermeneutic of ‘love’, I’d put forward one of ‘Jesus’ – interpreting the Bible in a way which assumes it’s all about him, interpreting it in light of our new status as followers of Jesus, co-heirs with him, inheritors of the promises, understanding that the New Covenant and New Creation have already begun, and the New Creation is soon to be brought into its fullness.

So, she doesn’t really give a thorough answer to big questions of hermeneutics, but at least she’s asking the question and raising it for a popular audience, getting it out of the seminaries and making it fun and relevant. Perhaps someone should write a response (‘Biblical Manhood’ anyone?).

At the end of the book, there were 10 things she resolved to continue once her year was finished.

  1. try a new recipe every week
  2. eat more ethically – it’s worth paying extra to know we did our due diligence to ensure the food we eat does not perpetuate the exploitation of other people
  3. identify and praise women of valour
  4. embrace the prospect of motherhood
  5. nurture the contemplative impulse
  6. make room for ritual and remembrance
  7. champion women leaders in the Church
  8. partner with World Vision to work for the education and empowerment of women around the world
  9. honour Dan (her husband)
  10. keep loving, studying and struggling with the Bible.

Not bad at all.

What do you think?

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