This book’s yellow cover evokes Curious George, except the Man with the Yellow Hat never shows up. But rather than judging a book by its cover – or by the negative reviews of some – I read for myself 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 (Tyndale, 2012, Kindle edition). What I discovered was a story that is funny and thought-provoking, though neglecting one important principle of interpreting the Christian Scriptures.
Who is Rachel Held Evans, and why this book?
Rachel Held Evans grew up in a fundamentalist Christian tradition. More recently, she has moved away from the narrow tenets of her upbringing and developed a huge following on her weblog. She has pulled this off largely through championing the cause of women, especially in the context of the dominant patriarchal ethos of American evangelical Christianity. It was in conversation with her blog readers (and apparently as a follow-up volume to A.J. Jacobs’ earlier book on living a year as a biblical man) that Evans decided to attempt living out for a year the major commands of the Bible directed toward women. Her purpose in writing becomes clear in the introduction (p. xix):
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 definite 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 almost always involves selectivity.
Her activities included letting her hair grow longer without cutting it, sitting in a tent alone in the front yard during her monthly “impurity” (period), calling her husband, Dan, her “master,” covering her head, remaining silent in church, taking care of a computer baby for three days, and “praising her husband at the city gate” by holding up a sign at the outskirts of Dayton declaring: “Dan is awesome!”
On Proverbs 31: A “Woman of Valor”(eshet chayil)
It is in her treatment of Proverbs 31 that Rachel Held Evans shines. Noting that many women evangelical speakers have made their name writing about the “virtuous woman” of Proverbs 31, and identifying it with domesticity, Evans sets out to become such a woman. Evoking the late Erma Bombeck, she finds humor in trying to sew (p. 78):
“…We dragged out my sister-in-law Debbie’s twenty-five-year-old Simplicity 8131 from the attic, knowing perfectly well that it was good enough for a beginner, especially one who can’t afford a dependable car, much less a sewing machine that costs about as much. The instruction manual was nowhere to be found, but an orange pouch containing a tiny screwdriver, three spools of thread, and a pin cushion had been taped to the side. I heaved the machine onto the dining room table, consulted the diagram in my Dummies book, and plugged it in. The little light bulb glowed brightly. When I stepped on the pedal, the machine issued a gentle humming noise, and the needle started hopping up and down like a jackhammer. It worked. Well, now. That seems like enough sewing for one day, I thought.
In her various domestic tasks, including housecleaning and cooking, Evans finds both drudgery and pleasure. The main lesson she learns, however, is that God can meet us in the mundane as much as he can meet us in the sublime. She draws a telling conclusion (p. 29):
If God is the God of all pots and pans, then He is also the God of all shovels and computers and paints and assembly lines and executive offices and classrooms. 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.
In a later chapter, she finds women of valor in Bolivia, while visiting a World Vision irrigation project. Again and again, she compliments heroic women with the verbal gold medal, “eshet chayil!” In the end, Evans argues convincingly that the message of Proverbs 31 is not that every woman must become a master of domesticity, but that husbands should praise their wives at all-times and in all places for their use of the unique talents that God has given them, whether those talents are best expressed inside the home or a dozen other venues in the outside world, including all roles of ministry in the Church.
Where Evans goes wrong
Yet all is not well with A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Granted, Evans is writing a popular book and not a tome on biblical interpretation. Still, she would have done well to introduce a few basic interpretive concepts for the reader. For example, she dives deeply into Jewish traditions such as the making of chametz (leavened bread), which admittedly is fascinating reading and I have to admit: I really wanted to sample some of her tasty bread fresh from the oven! But it begs the question:
Why would a Christian woman keep Jewish customs?
Evans criticizes evangelical Christians for using “selectivity” in how we approach Scripture, but her criticism ignores the underlying interpretive reasons why often we as Christians should be selective, especially of what we read in the purity codes of the Old Testament. As a student in a Jewish seminary once remarked, “You Christians read your Bibles backward.” Indeed, we do. The question is always: What has the Old Testament become in light of Christ? We are no longer under obligation to observe Old Testament regulations, some of which Evans re-enacts, such as observing times of separation during one’s monthly period. Other dietary regulations (that she never addresses, since they apply to all and not just to women) are contained in the Levitical code, including not eating pork. Yet with the vision of Peter on the rooftop in Joppa (Acts 10), God declared that all that was before “unclean” should no longer be called such. This basic rule of how Christians read Scripture is strangely absent from Evans. Are there any Christians today – however fundamentalist – who impose upon their women the need to separate themselves during their period? If so, I’ve never met one. In this instance, Evans appears to have set up a straw man, only to knock it down.
Finally, in her zeal to emphasize that “womanhood” is often culturally defined, the author would have done well to more clearly reaffirm what biblical principles are universal. To this effect, she does speak of love of God and neighbor (p. 292), which is certainly very welcome and very Wesleyan. Yet in disagreement with her quote at the beginning of this essay regarding the ill-advised use of the term “biblical sexuality,” there are indeed trans-cultural, timeless principles that God has given on that topic as part of the Christian ethic. Yes, the Christian ethic is broader than sexual ethics, including Creation Care, empowering the poor, and much else, but sex is relevant, particularly in our world of HIV-AIDS. Thankfully, God has not left us at the mercy of transient cultural trends to define something as foundational as the nature of sex and its purpose. Evans’ quote may leave the door open to drift in areas where God has given us firmer – dare I say it? – biblical anchors bound neither by geography nor time.
Despite these weaknesses, Rachel Held Evans has written a solid book. It makes one question what is truly a God-given design and what our own ecclesiastical sub-culture may have superimposed upon the Bible text. In a funny, disarming manner, she invites the Church to reconsider its treatment of women, calling us to be examples to the world by loving God and neighbor, whether male or female. I recommend A Year of Biblical Womanhood, but be warned: It will stretch your thinking!
Cover: Biblical Woman
Evans in domestic mode: The Cranky Copywriter