Rachel Held Evans. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master”. Thomas Nelson, 2012. (352 pages; 5684 Locations. This review is for the Kindle Edition.)
I was raised evangelical, which means I spent a good part of my life feeling sorry for the rest of humanity on account of its certain destiny in hell. (p.xv)
Evangelicalism is like my religious mother tongue. (p. xviii)
“This is a woman’s place, and all of us need to know what our place is and to be put in it. The command of God puts us there where we belong.” [1. Elisabeth Elliot, Let Me Be a Woman (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1976), 54.] (p. xix)
According to the Danvers Statement, the acceptance of feminist ideology among Christians has led to a “threat to Biblical authority as the clarity of Scripture is jeopardized and the accessibility of its meaning to ordinary people is withdrawn into the restricted realm of technical ingenuity.” The statement says that rather than following the prevailing culture, women of God should pursue “biblical womanhood.” [3 “Core Beliefs: The Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, http://www.cbmw.org/Danvers.]
Now, we evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like it’s Martin Luther’s middle name. We especially like to stick it in front of other loaded words, like economics, sexuality, politics, and marriage to create the impression that God has definitive opinions about such things, opinions that just so happen to correspond with our own. Despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity. (pp. xix-xx)
Throughout the year, my “Biblical Woman’s Ten Commandments” would serve as a guide for daily living:
- Thou shalt submit to thy husband’s will in all things. (Genesis 3:16; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1; Ephesians 5:22; 1 Corinthians 11:3; Colossians 3:18)
- Thou shalt devote thyself to the duties of the home. (Proverbs 14:1; 31:10– 31; 1 Timothy 5:14; Titus 2:4– 5)
- Thou shalt mother. (Genesis 1:28; Psalm 128:3; 1 Timothy 5:14)
- Thou shalt nurture a gentle and quiet spirit. (1 Peter 3:3–4; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Timothy 3:11)
- Thou shalt dress modestly. (Genesis 24:65; Deuteronomy 22:5; 1 Timothy 2:8– 10; 1 Peter 3:3)
- Thou shalt cover thy head when in prayer. (1 Corinthians 11:3– 16)
- Thou shalt not cut thy hair. (1 Corinthians 11:15)
- Thou shalt not teach in church. (1 Corinthians 14:33– 35; 1 Timothy 2:12)
- Thou shalt not gossip. (Numbers 12:1– 10; Proverbs 26:20; 1 Timothy 5:13– 14)
- Thou shalt not have authority over a man. (1 Timothy 2:12)
EVE, THE FALLEN …like most good stories, this one begins with both a hero and a heroine. (p. xxv)
What we read into the Creation narrative often says as much about us as it says about the text. And for women emerging from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the vilification of Eve has been disastrous. (p. xxv)
October: Gentleness — Girl Gone Mild
Contemplatives have long taught that mastering the volatile human spirit is the key to serenity. “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles,” the Buddha taught. “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who captures a city,” says Proverbs 16:32 NASB. In our increasingly fragmented, chatter-filled world, the quest to live and think deeply requires concerted acts of self-control. Staying grounded means growing some serious roots. (p. 14)
So in a last-ditch effort to master my not-so-gentle spirit, I decided to explore something I’d been meaning to try for a while: contemplative prayer. (p. 14)
Jesus used the same word— praus, in Greek— to describe himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11: 29). … Far from connoting timidity or docility, gentleness is associated with integrity and self-control, particularly in the face of persecution. The readers of Peter’s epistle would have immediately recognized praus as the same word they used to describe a wild horse that had been tamed or a torrent of wind that had softened into a breeze. (p. 17)
November: Domesticity — Martha, Martha
The importance of homemaking in the contemporary biblical womanhood movement cannot be overstated, and proponents tend to use strong, unequivocal language to argue that the only sphere in which a woman can truly bring glory to God is the home. This position is based primarily on an idealized elevation of the post–industrial revolution nuclear family rather than biblical culture, but proponents point to two passages of Scripture to make their case. (23)
Proverbs 31:10– 31, which, among other things, extols the domestic accomplishments of an upper-class Jewish wife, and Titus 2:4– 5, in which the older women of Crete are encouraged by the apostle Paul to teach younger women to “love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, and to be busy at home” (emphasis added). | Dorothy Patterson, in chapter 22 of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, concludes from these two passages that “keeping the home is God’s assignment to the wife—even down to changing the sheets, doing the laundry, and scrubbing the floors.” Ambitions that might lead a woman to work outside the home, says Patterson, constitute the kind of “evil desires” that lead directly to sin. (pp. 23-24)
While cooking strikes me as an essentially creative act, cleaning seems little more than an exercise in decay management, enough to trigger an existential crisis each time the ring around the toilet bowl reappears. (p. 27)
It was out of ignorance and insecurity that I ever looked down my nose at women who make homemaking their full-time occupation. (p. 28)
Peace and joy belong not to the woman who finds the right vocation, but to the woman who finds God in any vocation, who looks for the divine around every corner. (p. 30)
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 on 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. (p. 36)
I guess we’re all a little afraid that if God’s presence is there, it cannot be here. … 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 may be sitting at the feet of God.
Somewhere between the chicken soup and the butter-bleeding pie, I’d made peace with the God of pots and pans— not because God wanted to meet me in the kitchen, but because He wanted to meet me everywhere, in all things, big or small. Knowing that God both inhabits and transcends our daily vocations, no matter how glorious or mundane, should be enough to unite all women of faith and end that nasty cycle of judgment we get caught in these days. (p. 43)
God, it seems, prefers chutzpah to status. (p. 46)
December: Obedience — My Husband, My Master
If you ever decide to try a year of biblical living yourself, there are a few things you should know ahead of time: First of all, translation matters. (p. 47)
Despite what some may claim, the Bible’s not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today. (p. 48)
Those who decry the evils of selective literalism tend to be rather clumsy at spotting it in themselves. (p. 52)
Those who seek to glorify biblical womanhood have forgotten the dark stories. … We may not have a ceremony through which to grieve them, but it is our responsibility as women of faith to guard the dark stories for our own daughters, and when they are old enough, to hold their faces between our hands and make them promise to remember. (p. 66)
What had been laid to waste in ruin by this sex, was by the same sex re-established in salvation. Eve had believed the serpent; Mary believed Gabriel. That which the one destroyed by believing, the other, by believing, set straight. – Tertullian (p. 69)
Theotokos refers not to Mary as the mother of God from all eternity, but as the mother of God incarnate. She is what made Jesus both fully God and fully man, her womb the place where heaven and earth meld into one. (p. 72)
Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist can either say, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly become the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary. – Madeleine L’Engle (p. 72)
Old Testament scholar Ellen F. Davis notes that the poem was intended “not to honor one particularly praiseworthy woman, but rather to underscore the central significance of women’s skilled work in a household-based economy.” She concludes that “it will not do to make facile comparisons between the biblical figure and the suburban housewife, or alternately between her and the modern career woman.” | And yet many Christians interpret this passage prescriptively, as a command to women rather than an ode to women, … 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. (pp. 76-77)
January: Valor — Will the Real Proverbs 31 Woman Please Stand Up?
We abandoned the meaning of the poem by focusing on the specifics, and it became just another impossible standard by which to measure our failures. We turned an anthem into an assignment, a poem into a job description. | But according to Ahava, the woman described in Proverbs 31 is not some ideal that exists out there; she is present in each one of us when we do even the smallest things with valor. (p. 90)
I suppose that the moral of this story is that trying to copy another woman, even a woman from the Bible, is almost always a bad idea. As Judy Garland liked to say, “Be a first rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else.” (p. 95)
February: Beauty — My Breasts Are Like Towers
Ladies, your husbands appreciate oral sex. They do. So, serve them. It’s biblical. Jesus Christ commands you to do so . . . Let me assure you of this: if you think you’re being dirty, he’s pretty happy. – Mark Driscoll (p. 103)
Jesus Christ commands oral sex? (p. 103)
So for all of its complexity and incongruity, its mysteries and its dark stories, the Bible consistently presents us with a realistic and affirming view of female beauty. The writers of ancient Scripture seemed to acknowledge what all women instinctively know— that our bodies change as we get older, as we bear children, when we get sick, and as we experience joy, pain, life, death, victory, heartache, and time. And frankly, the suggestion that men are too weak to handle these realities is as emasculating as it is unbiblical. (p. 105)
Both husbands and wives bear the sweet responsibility of seeking beauty in one another at all stages of life. No one gets off the hook because the other is wearing sweatpants or going bald or carrying a child or battling cancer. Any pastor who claims the Bible says otherwise is lying. End of story. (p. 106)
Sometimes you serve by getting in the mood for your spouse. Sometimes you serve by waiting. But when sexuality gets relegated to the realm of religious absolutes, the focus tends to shift from serving one another to servicing one another. And that’s no way to love. (p. 109)
On the one hand, we have centuries of medieval Christian theologians who went to great lengths to render the poem entirely allegorical, interpreting the intimacy between the man and the woman as the love between Christ and the Church. This required some interpretive gymnastics that at times preclude common sense. According to Origen, the two breasts that the suitor is so eager to grasp represent the Old Testament and the New Testament. The lips he longs to kiss represent the Eucharist, noted another medieval scholar. The luxurious bed on which the lovers lie represents the convents of the Church, said Saint Bernard. | Sure. And Hooters represents the American affinity for owl culture. (p. 111)
Poems were never meant to be forced into commands. | I think Ellen Davis offers the best advice for making sense of the Song of Songs when she says we must “learn it from the poets”— not psychoanalysts, not theologians, not pastors using sex sermons to fill the pews. Like any good poem, the Song should tickle the imagination. It should deliver its meaning indirectly, through metaphor and rhythm and rhyme. It should speak to the heart, not the mind. It “should not mean, but be.” (p. 112)
If Christians have learned anything from our rocky two-thousand-year theological history, it’s that we make the most beautiful things ugly when we try to systematize mystery. Even the writers of Scripture knew that some things were simply beyond their grasp. (p. 114)
March: Modesty — Hula-Hooping with the Amish
In Judaism, the term used for modesty is tzniut, and it refers to both the inward traits of humility and the outward observance of laws pertaining to dress. I asked Ahava about this and she said, “Tzniut is more than just a list of rules about how to dress. It’s a state of mind. The idea is to avoid dressing in a way that draws attention to your outer self, but instead to dress so that your inner self is allowed to shine through. You should try to be pretty, but not alluring. You do a huge disservice to modest dress if you wear the same outfit over and over again, particularly if it’s frumpy. Nobody wants to be around a schlumpy dresser.” | Schlumpy. I love these useful Jewish words. | “Tzniut is also about how you act,” Ahava added. “You don’t want to try to make people notice you or force yourself to the forefront for attention. Having the newest and nicest things is a way that many people try to get attention, but that is not the way of tzniut.” (pp. 122-123)
(ISAIAH 3: 16– 23 UPDATED NIV). At first glance, this passage would suggest that Westboro Baptist Church has it wrong: what God really hates is accessories. But the larger context reveals that what so troubled Isaiah and his fellow prophets was the blatant materialism among Israel’s rich to the neglect and disenfranchisement of its poor.
| In biblical times, gold jewelry signified wealth, and although several of the Bible’s heroines wore it (Genesis 24: 22– 31; Song of Songs 1: 10– 11), jewelry was far more commonly associated with excess and idol worship (Genesis 35: 2– 4; Exodus 32; 33: 4; Jeremiah 4: 30; Ezekiel 7: 18– 20; 16: 9– 15; Hosea 2: 13). This sentiment carries over into the New Testament, where both Paul in his letter to Timothy and Peter in his letter to the churches of Asia Minor discouraged women from wearing gold jewelry and pearls in the context of a Christian community that prioritized simplicity and charity.
| In fact, it seems that most of the Bible’s instructions regarding modesty find their context in warnings about materialism, not sexuality . . . a pattern that has gone largely unnoticed by the red-faced preacher population. I’ve heard dozens of sermons about keeping my legs and my cleavage out of sight, but not one about ensuring that my jewelry was not acquired through unjust or exploitive trade practices. (p. 128)
That’s because true modesty has little to do with clothing or jewelry or makeup. The virtue that is celebrated in Scripture is so elusive we struggle to find words to capture its spirit— humility, self-control, plainness, tznuit, Gelassenheit.
| And so we codify. We legislate. We pull little girls to the front of the class and slap rulers against their bare legs and try to measure modesty in inches. Then we grow so attached to our rules that they long outlive their purpose, and the next thing we know, we’re adding leaves to our tables and cutting the ends off our roasts. We cling to the letter because the spirit is so much harder to master.
| More often than not, this backfires, and our attempts to be different result in uniformity, our attempts to be plain draw attention to ourselves, our attempts to temper sexuality inadvertently exploit it, and our attempts to avoid offense accidentally create it.
| Perhaps this is why Paul encouraged women to “adorn themselves” with good deeds, why he instructed all Christians, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ,” and why the valorous woman of Proverbs 31 is praised because she “clothes herself in strength and dignity.” | It’s not what we wear but how we wear it. | And like clothing, modesty fits each woman a little differently. (pp. 140-141)
April: Purity — The Worst Time of the Month to Go Camping
As our exchanges got more personal and substantive, I grew increasingly thankful for her friendship and advice, and I realized how anemic my Christian faith had been without context, without a connection to the people from whom my Bible came. (p. 152)
In The Red Tent, menstruation is portrayed as a time of rest, repose, and female bonding as the women of the house of Jacob gather together each month to mark the new moon and the arrival of their cycles beneath a secluded red tent. While many cultures use huts or tents for the purpose of secluding menstruating women, there is no solid biblical or archaeological evidence to suggest this happened among tent-dwelling family groups in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, though it is certainly possible. (p. 154)
May: Fertility — Quivers Full of Arrows and Sippy Cups
Sometimes our actions shape our beliefs, rather than the other way around, and I think this is especially true when it comes to raising families. We tend to take whatever’s worked in our particular set of circumstances (big family, small family, AP, Ezzo, home school, public school) and project that upon everyone else in the world as the ideal. We do this, I think, to protect ourselves, to quiet those pesky insecurities that follow us through life, nipping at our heels. To declare that your way is the only way effectively eliminates any fear that you might be wrong, or at least pushes it below the surface for a time.
| Things get even hairier when parenting philosophies and religion mix, and the folks dishing out the parenting advice are convinced that God is on their side. From contraception, to spanking, to family size, to the decision of a mother to work or stay at home, there is perhaps no arena in which women of faith are more subjected to the expectations of “biblical womanhood” than in their capacity to bear and raise children. (p. 178)
As a Christian, my highest calling is not motherhood; my highest calling is to follow Christ. And following Christ is something a woman can do whether she is married, or single, rich or poor, sick or healthy, childless or Michelle Duggar. (p. 180)
War, famine, persecution, and instability bring us face-to-face with the sobering reality that the children we bring into the world are capable of being hurt by it. The blessing of parenthood carries enormous risk. | “One of the most astonishing and precious things about motherhood,” writes Kathleen Norris, “is the brave way in which women consent to give birth to creatures who will one day die.” (pp. 183-184)
Blogging is an inexpensive form of therapy if you do it right, if you use it to tell the truth about something other than what you had for dinner that night. (p. 186)
There’s a certain security that comes with feeling like you’ve found a magic text, be it authored by Sears, Ezzo, or God Almighty, that tells you exactly when to have children, exactly how to raise them, exactly how to love them, and exactly how to be a good mom . . . right down to the very last detail. But no such text exists because faith isn’t about having everything figured out ahead of time; faith is about following the quiet voice of God without having everything figured out ahead of time. (p. 188)
June: Submission — A Disposition to Yield
The belief that the womanly submission described in the epistles of Peter and Paul is normative, extending to all women everywhere, has led many conservative evangelicals to conclude that gender relationships are inherently [hierarchical], that men must always lead and women must always follow. (p. 203)
“When addressing those without power,” notes Peter H. Davids, the apostle Peter “does not call for revolution, but upholds the values of the culture insofar as they do not conflict with commitment to Christ. He then reframes their behavior by removing it from the realm of necessity and giving it a dignity, either that of identification with Christ or of identification with the ‘holy women’ of Jewish antiquity.” (pp. 217-218)
It is hard for us to recognize it now, but Peter and Paul were introducing the first Christian family to an entirely new community, a community that transcends the rigid hierarchy of human institutions, a community in which submission is mutual and all are free. (p. 218)
The question modern readers have to answer is whether the Greco-Roman household codes reflected upon in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter are in and of themselves holy, or if their appearance in Scripture represents the early church’s attempt to blend Christianity and culture in such a way that it would preserve the dignity of adherents while honoring prevailing social and legal norms of the day. The Christian versions of the household codes were clearly progressive for their time, but does that mean they have the last word, that Christians in changing places and times cannot progress further? (p. 218
Women should not have to pry equality from the grip of Christian men. It should be surrendered willingly, with the humility and love of Jesus, or else we miss the once radical teaching that slaves and masters, parents and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor, healthy and sick, should “submit to one another” (Ephesians 5: 21). (p. 219)
July: Justice — Eat More Guinea Pig (224)
While the word charity connotes a single act of giving, justice speaks to right living, of aligning oneself with the world in a way that sustains rather than exploits the rest of creation. Justice is not a gift; it’s a lifestyle, a commitment to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam—“ repairing the world.” (p. 227)
A recent study found that Americans who read their Bibles regularly are 35 percent more likely to say it is important to “actively seek social and economic justice” than those who own a Bible but don’t bother to open it too often. (p. 228)
Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. (p. 235)
August: Silence — I Am Woman, Hear Me No More (250)
I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah. —F. F. BRUCE (p. 259)
We forget sometimes that the Epistles are just that . . . epistles. They are letters, broken pieces of correspondence between early Christians, dating back thousands of years. (p. 259)
In our rush to extract sound bites for our nature-themed desk calendars, we tend to skip past the initial greetings that designate the recipients of the message—“ to the church of God in Corinth,” “to the churches in Galatia,” “to God’s holy people in Ephesus,” “to Timothy,” “to Titus,” “to Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier— and to the church that meets in your home”— and scan over the details that should remind us that we are essentially listening in on someone else’s conversation—“ I have made a fool of myself,” “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else,” “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (1 Corinthians 1: 2; Galatians 1: 2; Ephesians 1: 1; 1 Timothy 1: 2; Titus 1: 4; Philemon 1– 2; 2 Corinthians 12: 11; 1 Corinthians 1: 16; 2 Timothy 4: 13 UPDATED NIV). | We also tend to ignore the embarrassing bits, like when Paul tells Titus, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1: 12 UPDATED NIV). (pp. 259-260)
My point is, we dishonor the original intent and purpose of the Epistles when we assume they were written in a vacuum for the purpose of filling our calendars and bumper stickers. (p. 260)
It is a tragic and agonizing irony that instructions once delivered for the purpose of avoiding needless offense are now invoked in ways that needlessly offend, that words once meant to help draw people to the gospel now repel them. (p. 263)
At the beginning of the month, I confess that I feared my silent retreat would stifle me, that it would divert me from my newfound passion for advocating on behalf of women who preach and teach. But in the quietness of St. Bernard’s Abbey and among the West Knoxville Society of Friends, I encountered Something much bigger than myself, Something that assured me everything would be okay if I could just quiet myself and stop trying so hard.
| There is a big difference, after all, between being silenced and silencing oneself. And it is precisely because women like Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena knew how to silence themselves before God that they gained such significant influence over the Church in times when women had little voice.
| In silence, I had found a reservoir of strength that, if I could just learn to draw from it, could make my words weightier. In silence, it seemed, I had finally found my voice. (pp. 278-279)
So 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. To those who will not accept us as preachers, we will have to become prophets. (pp. 281-282)
September: Grace — Days of Awe (282)
That last one surprised me a little. I figured I’d be so sick of the Bible after this project was over that I’d have to take a break and start reading the Bhagavad Gita for a while. But somewhere between the rooftop and the red tent, I’d learned to love the Bible again— for what it is, not what I want it to be.
| 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 that don’t fit our tastes. In an attempt to simplify, we try to force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated and at times troubling holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.
| So after twelve months of “biblical womanhood,” I’d arrived at the rather unconventional conclusion that 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.
| Among the women praised in Scripture are warriors, widows, slaves, sister wives, apostles, teachers, concubines, queens, foreigners, prostitutes, prophets, mothers, and martyrs. What makes these women’s stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal, but that, regardless of the culture or context in which they found themselves, they lived their lives with valor. They lived their lives with faith. As much as we may long for the simplicity of a single definition of “biblical womanhood,” there is no one right way to be a woman, no mold into which we must each cram ourselves— not if Deborah, Ruth, Rachel, Tamar, Vashti, Esther, Priscilla, Mary Magdalene, and Tabitha have anything to say about it. (pp. 294-295)
By acknowledging that all our readings [of Scripture] are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love. – Peter Rollins (p. 296)
Are we reading with the prejudice of love or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? (p. 296)
This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does it say? but what am I looking for? I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” | If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm. | So what was I looking for when I started this project? | I think, at the surface, I was looking for a good story. And I certainly found one.
| But further down, in the deeper recesses of my heart and mind, I think I was looking for permission— permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself, permission to be a woman. | What a surprise to reach the end of the year with the quiet and liberating certainty that I never had to ask for it. It had already been given. (pp. 296-297)
Some rabbis say that, at birth, we are each tied to God with a string, and that every time we sin, the string breaks. To those who repent of their sins, especially in the days of Rosh Hashanah, God sends the angel Gabriel to make knots in the string, so that the humble and contrite are once again tied to God. Because each one of us fails, because we all lose our way on the path to righteousness form time to time, our strings are full of knots. But, the rabbis like to say, a string with many knots is shorter than one without knots. So the person with many sins but a humble heart is closer to God. (p.303)
— VIA —
As this book rises on the bestseller charts, it must be stated that there are very good reasons. The issue of gender in the church is not only a contentious one, but some would say we’re at a critical turning point in our history regarding the subject. Two, Evans is a good writer. Captivating, funny, witty, admittedly snarky at times, and (most importantly) well studied. While not a scholar, her references and scholastic work should be honored.
However, this work, like others I have reviewed, include a few weaknesses. Often times when an author writes about a subject, there are usually boundaries and “rules of play” that are put forth as necessary components of their argument, rules that “others” dismiss in their interpretations and proclamations. The problem is that those very same authors subtly and often unknowingly break those very same rules themselves. Evans is guilty of this herself, and while I would commend this book to you as someone wrestling and considering this subject, I would do so, as with everything, with a thoughtfully and critically engaged intellect.
A few examples.
On the opening pages, Evans writes:
As it turns out, there are publishers out there who will actually pay for you to jump down rabbit holes, so long as they believe said rabbit holes are marketable to the general public. So on October 1, 2010, with the support of Dan and a brave team of publishing professionals, I vowed to spend one year of my life in pursuit of true biblical womanhood.
This quest of mine required that I study every passage of Scripture that relates to women and learn how women around the world interpret and apply these passages to their lives. In addition, I would attempt to follow as many of the Bible’s teachings regarding women as possible in my day-to-day life, sometimes taking them to their literal extreme. (pp. xx-xxi).
At first glance, there is a ‘great commission’ in this work, in partnership with the publisher. As Jacobs has done with “biblical” living, and Dobson has done with “living like Jesus,” now Evans is embarking out on her own journey on “womanhood.” However, the last phrase poses a weakness in her approach and may do damage to her overall thesis. While many in the “biblical womanhood” category may push the teachings to “their literal extreme,” this may misrepresent the complementarian or male headship interpretations and cast Evans as establishing straw-men. The art of discerning cultural influence in hermeneutics is more nuanced that this approach may lend itself to.
I’ve heard all kinds of explanations from Christian apologists for why the Bible includes such harsh laws about women: that the laws were progressive in comparison to the surrounding culture, that they were designed to protect women from exploitation, that they weren’t strictly observed anyway. These are useful insights, I suppose, but sometimes I wish these apologists wouldn’t be in such a hurry to explain these troubling texts away, that they would allow themselves to be bothered by them now and then.
As a Christian, I do take some comfort in the fact that Jesus got himself into quite a bit of trouble for his own selective literalism. Known for healing on the Sabbath, touching the untouchables, and fraternizing with prostitutes and tax collectors, Jesus liked to begin his sermons by quoting a passage of Scripture (“ You have heard that it was said . . .”) and then turning it on its head (“ but I tell you . . .”). Perhaps the most famous example of this technique is captured in Matthew 5:43– 45, where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (UPDATED NIV). (p. 53)
Jesus responded not with a sermon or a rebuke, but by stooping to the ground to write something in the sand with his finger. The text leaves the content of his message a mystery, though I’m sure you could find a handful of first-year seminarians happy to tell you exactly what it meant. (p. 53)
In addition to being a bit snarky, there seems to be two distinct contrary thoughts in the same stream. First, most apologists aren’t “in such a hurry to explain these troubling texts away.” Much of the work done by historians and cultural anthropologists in hermeneutics are trying to “explain the texts” period. Not “explain the texts away.” This, in my purview, may misrepresent the ethic, the foundation, and the respectable struggle scholars engage in. Second, we must ask the question, What if Jesus didn’t “leave the content of his message a mystery?” What if it was loud and clear to the original audience? This is why this historical work is important. Some have suggested that Jesus’ “writing in the ground” may have been a reference to Jeremiah 17, a passage that resonates quite clearly with the John 8 story. If there is merit there, should we not take advantage of that for understanding? And if so, would that not change Evans’ thoughts on “apologists?”
I admit, I concur with the sentiment. Evans is right in that too many people have easy and pat answers to everything. I simply suggest that the proper response is not to dismiss the work of explanation, but rather to find better explanations that help bring further illumination.
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. (p. 54)
Completely disagree. “Fulfilling” the law means to live and interpret the law in such a way as to make it come to full life in each and every generation. There are additional problems with “God himself breaking the laws.” This makes God capricious, double-minded, different then than He is now, and His commandments a poor substitute for God’s presence. A better argument to “Bible-wielding literalists” is not that God breaks his laws, but that God Himself within the commands is not a literalist. This is quite distinct from “breaking” (see definition of “fulfill”).
In addition, this ethic that Evans writes has a consequential inverse effect. If “God breaking” is an argument against biblical literalism it can also be an argument against biblical egalitarianism. Passages used (as Evans does all throughout this book) like Romans 16, etc. can be similarly dismissed due to a changing culture, tide, etc. If God “breaks” Levitical and Deuteronomical laws for a new culture, it is possible that epistolary dictates could also be broken for modern or postmodern culture.
That Christ ushered in this new era of life and liberation in the presence of women, and that he sent them out as the first witnesses of the complete gospel story, is perhaps the boldest, most overt affirmation of their equality in his kingdom that Jesus ever delivered. And yet too many Easter services begin with a man standing before a congregation of Christians and shouting, “He is risen!” to a chorused response of “He is risen indeed!” Were we to honor the symbolic details of the text, that distinction would always belong to a woman. (pp. 145-146)
Here is where Evans’ betrays her own ethic. While she doesn’t use the word “biblical” in this phrase, the closing line of her argument could very well have read “Were we to honor the biblical story of Easter, that distinction would always belong to a woman.” Evans argues throughout her book against modern practices in light of historical context and culture, and yet contrarily promotes and argues for a modern practice in that very same ethic. This is not a big deal, per se, and if I myself lighten up, I can see the sentiment that she is arguing. I simply point this out as a reference point for anyone with an argument, to recognize that we often betray our own ethics due to our underlying biases. Cutting through the crud is an important work, and extremely difficult, requiring high levels of objectivity and introspection.
For Christians, the answer must be considered in light of Jesus, who made a habit of turning hierarchy on its head. (p. 218)
I simply want to say here that this is not so simple a statement. What Jesus did in regards to hierarchy may not be as easily discernible as we may perceive. Again, I can see the sentiment that she is arguing (and much of her book is great journalistic rhetoric), but underneath lies a host of complications that ought to be considered, and ought to keep simple statements like these accountable with good hermeneutical checks and balances.
I don’t respect my husband because he is the man and I am the woman, and it’s my “place” to submit to him. I respect Dan because he is a good person, and because he has made me a better person too. This is grace. And for us, it goes both ways. (pp. 220-221)
My only thought on this was the interchangeability of the words “respect” and “submit.” Some clarity would be nice here, as well as a discerning interpretation of both “respect” and “submit.”
The apostles never meant for their letters to be interpreted and applied as law in the same way that the Torah had been, so careful readers must do the hard work of sorting through which instructions might continue to illuminate and guide the modern church, and which are more specific to the context. (p. 261)
I’ve been fairly harsh in a few examples above, so here is an example of something I can commend…with annotation. True, we ought to recognize what is “Torah” and what is “first-century Jewish follower of Jesus” interpretation of Torah. There is a lot of hard work, and with this I concur. However, like the teachings of Sages eventually became “canonized” in the Jewish tradition (Talmud) so the NT became that way in the Christian tradition, and quite early on, it appears.
Bottom line, good work. This is a fun, provocative, entertaining and educational read. While I personally find some of the detailed anecdotal story telling a bit lengthy, others will appreciate it greatly. Evans’ engagement with complementarianism is respectful, while maintaining robust arguments for egalitarianism. Her research is not exhaustive by any means, but it is extensive, and she makes good use of her references.
Well done Rachel, “ewe” good and faithful servant.
(And as a side note, I thought it fun that she called her husband “my master,” (adonai) which in Hebrew has the same morphology (and possible etymology) to the word “judge,” which in Hebrew is “Dan,” her husbands name. Just thought that was fun.)