If you think Rachel Held Evans’ new book is making a mockery of the Bible, then you’re not reading it right.
A Year of Biblical Womanhood, written by the 30-something evangelical writer and feminist and published this week, has been causing somewhat of a stir on both sides of the Atlantic.
The book sees “strong-willed and independent” Held Evans take on a different ‘biblical’ virtue each month for a year – from modesty to purity to silence, justice and submission. By following some of the Bible’s descriptions of womanhood, she finds herself calling her husband Dan ‘master’, covering her head, being silent in church and camping in a tent outside her house during her period.
It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times – particularly her interactions with her year-long-suffering husband. And there are some sad moments – because life, with all its real troubles, doesn’t stop while Held Evans works on her project.
It’s clear that she is choosing to follow some of the ideas of biblical womanhood hyper-literally. I don’t think Held Evans really thinks the Old Testament calls on “contentious women” to pay penance by sitting out on their rooftops alone.
But many commentators – a lot of whom have not actually read the book – have slammed Held Evans, as if she is some backsliding defector of the faith, trying to take down the Church from the inside with her strident feminism.
Denny Burke claims that the book makes “a mockery of the Bible”. Writing on his blog, he warns: “The Bible is not a book to be trifled with. Much less should it be used as fodder to promote false teaching before a watching world. This piece presents the Bible as hopelessly irrelevant to the modern people.”
But I don’t think that’s the writer’s intention.
The rooftops and the tents and the head coverings and the Martha Stewart Cooking school marathon are symbolic. Like the project as a whole, they are clearly gimmicks; tongue-in-cheek explorations which along the way give rise to some profound truths; to deeper understandings of the concept and place of ritual – particularly within the Jewish tradition; of friendship and life and community and marriage and love.
Held Evans is a woman just like me. She gets it. She gets what it’s like to grapple with what it is to be both a follower of Christ and female. And she’s actually trying to bring the rest of the sisterhood on a journey deeper in love with the Bible and with God, rather than all the guff that surrounds our reading of it and our relationship with Him.
When you use biblical as an adjective you run into trouble. Because you imply that by reading the Bible you will arrive at this understanding of this one thing that is womanhood.
Held Evans quotes Dorothy Patterson who, writing in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, says that “keeping the home is God’s assignment to the wife – even down to changing the sheets, doing the laundry, and scrubbing the floors”. She also quotes Debi Pearl, author of Created to Be His Help Meet, who writes: “A young mother’s place is in the home, keeping it, guarding it, watching over those entrusted to her. To do otherwise will surely cause the Word of God to be blasphemed. Even if you could disobey God and it not produce visible ill consequences, it would only prove that God is long-suffering … but the judgment will assuredly come.”
Both seem to have arrived at this one view of what biblical womanhood is.
This book has reminded me of many of the stories I learned about in Sunday School. Each chapter includes an exploration of a biblical woman – a female character found in the Bible. There’s the Samaritan woman at the well; Leah, the unloved; Mary Magdalene, the witness; Deborah, the warrior. Each different. Each playing a significant part in the Bible narrative.
The quotes from Patterson and Pearl suggest a one-dimensional view of womanhood and what it entails. Sure, being a wife and a mother and looking after your home are good things; great things. But being a follower of Christ who is a woman must include other great things too.
We read in the Bible that Huldah prophesied. Martha hosted. Ruth worked. Deborah judged. Sarah laughed.
So what do I do?
Do I run around frantically trying to meet some ideal by following mentions in the Bible of what women are, how they behave and what they do? No. Rachel Held Evans already did that. And because she already did it, I know that I don’t have to. That’s why I’m thankful for this book.
I guess what it comes down to is this thing called grace. Our salvation – whether we are women or men – does not come through our striving or bashing ourselves over the head with some handbook, keeping laws or following rules and trying to fit into some cookie-cutter mould of Christianity in male or female form. I don’t think the Bible was intended to be a guidebook for how to be a woman.
I am a woman.
And I’m a woman saved by grace.
The word biblical used as an unclear adjective and the word womanhood used as a rigid noun get in the way of following the radical and transformative teachings of Christ. You know – the bits that speak not of head coverings and Levitical purity laws but of forgiveness and grace and reconciliation and hope and resurrection and the Kingdom of God.
I think that’s what Rachel Held Evans is getting at.