Held Evans, Rachel, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012). (Amazon.com)
I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of 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 a couple of weeks ago. Quickly, I began reading it. I respect all that Rachel has done as a popular blogger and her willingness to be a voice for women and other people who are ignored and/or mistreated within broader Christianity. I had a hunch that this would be an enjoyable book to read and she did not fail me. It was excellent.
On Twitter I described it using these four words: fun, adventurous, challenging, and prophetic.
Aim of the Book:
If you are unaware of the aim of this book it is an effort to spend one calendar year trying to live according to various mandates in Scripture aimed at women. Some people find this blasphemous. I find it fits within the heart of the Christian tradition. Immediately as I began to read the book the words attributed to the apostle Peter in the Book of Acts 15.10 (NASB) came to mind: “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” Christianity has not disrespected Scripture by acknowledging that strict, literalistic approaches are overwhelming and impossible. Rather, Christianity has honored Scripture by acknowledging its perplexing, exhausting, weighty nature. Christianity has said that the mandates of Scripture direct us toward Christ, because we cannot bear the yoke of rules and regulations.
This book (like A.J. Jacob’s A Year of Living Biblically) aims to make this very point with a smile.
Over the course of the year Rachel works on developing gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility (kind of), submission, charity, silence, and grace. I think the most wonderful aspect of this book is that while it exposes our pick-and-choose hermeneutic (and the blind selectivity of groups like the so-called Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) Rachel does an amazing job of (1) bringing forth the positive principles found behind the problematic passages of Scripture and (2) honoring women (and people in general) who have decided to live strictly in accordance with a more literalistic reading of various passages.
While reading this book I learned about Jewish women, Amish women, Roman Catholic monks, a community of Quakers, and so forth. I learned about the positive side of their stories. The healthy disciplines they develop. The attractive aspects of their spirituality that might benefit us all. I know that some will dismiss this book as a radical feminist slandering of all things that progressives deem archaic and out-of-touch. If this is your presupposition, you’ll miss reading a great book. Rachel is very respectful. She realizes something my wife tells me often: there is no greater way to ruin women’s solidarity and support of one another than to turn them against each other for choosing to live their lives differently.
This book invites the reader on a wild roller coaster where Rachel tries to cook like Martha Stewart, honor her husband at the “gate” of her city, dress according to the strictest standards of modesty one can find in Scripture, and on and on. This book had me smiling and laughing on numerous occasions.
It made me upset as well. Rachel has done her homework and she shares with her readers the worldview of some writers–men and women–who advocate “biblical womanhood” as a woman staying home, having a half dozen children, never going to college, never having a career, and living for her husband as a servant. While there may be women who find this to be fulfilling there are other women who have a sense that this is not the aim of their life. These authors attempt to guilt women into a model of womanhood that has nothing to do with ancient Israel or first century Galilee as much as it does everything to do with 1950’s America. Rachel exposes this and she does it without being hostile. I must commend her on this because while I was reading excerpts from this or that author my face would turn red with anger. I cussed to myself on many occasions. What Rachel has done through this experiment is out do the legalist in their legalism!
Rachel’s book does not mock Scripture; her book exposes our inconsistencies as readers of Scripture, our false objectivity (a mythological epistemology that needs to die), and our foundationless and often hypocritical piety. Rachel proves to be a better and more honest reader of Scripture than many people whom I have met with doctorates in biblical studies. She lets Scripture bother her. She lets it challenge her. I found her honesty about Scripture to be refreshing and she has become a fellow pilgrim in my own journey to understand this complex, concerning, beautiful book known as the Bible.
In this book Rachel puts flesh on the “redemptive hermeneutic” of Scripture (e.g., see W.J. Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis). In other words, she displays quite well how the Gospel provides a foundation for the flourishing of women even if there are passages in the Bible that seem to be oppressive. She reminds us of the respect Jesus showed women. She wrestles with the cultural contexts of some of Paul’s words regarding women while drawing our attention back to his cornerstone claim that “in Christ” there is “neither male nor female.” This book takes the Bible seriously, even if Rachel doesn’t read the Bible like some people think she should read the Bible. (For what it is worth, my approach to Scripture is far more like Rachel’s than it is conservative evangelicalism’s.)
The Main Point:
The best part of this book was Rachel’s (here comes a big word) “Christocentrism,” which is encapsulated in what I consider to be the “money quote” of the book:
“As a Christian, 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, mom on nineteen (p. 181).”
This is the main point: Christ calls women to be his disciples in this world. He leads them by his Spirit as he does men. This means some women may be stay at home mothers, and others may be CEOs. Some women may have a dozen children, and some may dedicate a life of singleness to Christ. Some women may organize the nursery on Sunday, and others may be preaching the sermons from pulpits. If I can put it this way, Rachel’s book reminds me of the words of the apostle Paul (Romans 14.4): “Who are you to judge another man’s servant?” If God calls woman to do something with which you are not comfortable her responsibility is to God.
Throughout the book the reader is introduced to Rachel’s husband Dan through journal entries he wrote during the course of the book’s development. Let me tell you something: Dan challenged me to be a better husband to my wife far more than any literature from Focus on the Family or Desiring God could ever do. Dan is the ultimate team player. He supports Rachel. I gain from the book that he makes Rachel a better person and she makes him a better person. One can critique egalitarian marriages, but the fruit of the Spirit seems to be blossoming in the midst of their relationship, so do what you will with that. As I read his thoughts he made me ask myself if I am doing all that I can do to help Miranda become all that God has made her and whether I have supported my wife in her giftedness. Someday I’d like to meet Dan, give him a big handshake, and thank him for existing.
At the end of chapters Rachel provides short profiles on women from biblical narratives like Deborah, Rachel, Mary, Tabath, Junia, and more. As with the Gospel of Matthew’s genealogy one realizes that God has done some of his greatest work quietly through humble women over history right under the nose of radically patriarchal cultures! Yes, Scripture focuses on males far more than females, but the quirk of this is that it is in the silent, humble side of Scripture that we find the story moving forward to its destination.
The most challenging and prophetic part of the book is the vision she casts for women. This book does not spend all of its time arguing over women pastoring (it assumes the legitimacy of this acts, as do I), nor does it give tons of attention to all the quirky injustices we find in the church regarding women (as important as these are), but rather Rachel opens the reader’s eyes toward the global problems facing women: human trafficking, prostitution, abuse, abandonment, and so much more. She appeals to our calling as Christians to care for our sisters locally and globally. In her chapter on ‘Justice’ she reminds readers that feminism is not the stereotypes you hear on talk radio, but “the radical notion than women are people too.” Women are not property. Women are not ontologically inferior to men. Women are equals to be valued, respected, honored, admired, and supported.
Humanity could not exist without women (and this is applicable to more than giving birth). Women are essential to the mission of the church. Women are essential to the health of humanity. If we don’t invest in women we harm our present and our future.
I enjoyed this book. I recommend you read it. I presume that people who are sympathetic to Rachel’s views on this or that are more likely to read it than those who oppose her. That is fine. But I do hope some who find themselves skeptical will take the risk of reading this book. I think you will find it isn’t what you suspected (or what book reviewers for some coalition who claim to have a monopoly on the “Gospel” might say about it). This book exalts Christ, it honors the work of the Spirit, it respects Scripture, it challenges the church, and it serves as a prophetic voice in a world where women who are beloved by God wait for an advocate.