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Monday, October 29, 2012

RevGalBookPals: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

It's rare that I read a book for this site that is as promoted as Rachel Held Evans's A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I excitedly received one of many advanced copies that were distributed to reviewers and bloggers. I planned to read the book anyway, because 1) I am always interested in theological experiments and 2) I think Rachel Held Evans is a powerful theologian who maintains an inspiring descant of openness against what can be the heavy beat of contemporary evangelical thought.

Before I even read my copy, I was already privy to the way Evans's own theological community, evangelicals, was reacting about her book. I do not want to link to negativity here, but there were those who were upset about her use of the word "vagina" in the book (it appears twice), those who accused her of mocking the Bible, those who already believe her theology does not fit the evangelical framework, and those who wrote with pity about her husband. Rather than support the book, which is fairly innocuous in its discussions of women in the Bible and of biblical interpretation and application, the backlash (I imagine) will just make people more eager to read it.

That's fine with me. The scholarship in this book reveals many lessons about biblical women and church history that may be ho-hum to clergy of all genders in mainline denominations, but it is likely to be very revelatory to those in the pews around us. Let's face it: most of us cannot be as loud as the evangelicals around us and Evans has done a commendable (and readable) job of making a book suitable for any Bible study- with brief sketches of biblical women, including Eve, Deborah, Tamar, Vashti, Mary of Nazareth, and Lydia, among others.

In her introduction, Evans talks about why she was considering undertaking a year of study and discernment as to what it means to embrace "biblical womanhood":

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. 
After all, technically speaking, it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father (Exodus 21:7), biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), biblical for her to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), biblical for her to cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:6), and biblical for her to be one of multiple wives (Exodus 21:10).  
This is why the notion of "biblical womanhood" so intrigued me. Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman? And do all the women of Scripture fit into this same mold? Must I? (xix)
Her questions are very powerful and not so different or far from what many RevGals and Pals asked themselves upon entering (or attempting to enter) ministry. Many of us are still only the second or third generation of women clergy for denominations (those of us who are leaders as such). Others of us come from traditions that have honored women's leadership longer, but we may be first female leaders in our denomination or judicatory.

Evans goes on to set up her experiment with certain virtues, values, and tasks. She gives herself monthly goals, regular practices, efforts for the whole year: including submitting to her husband's will in all things, nurturing a gentle and quiet spirit, dressing modestly, refraining from gossip, and avoiding teaching in church. (xxii)

Evans's research is thorough. She consults different Bible translations and has several mentors, including a Jewish woman who gently steers her understanding and interpretation of Hebrew scripture and its intersections of worship and life. Her goals including various cooking projects, attempts at mothering, sewing enterprises, global travel, and submission are not undertaken tongue-in-cheek or with an idea that these things, done correctly, curry favor with God.

Instead, her projects reveal how quickly an attempt to create, achieve, and perpetuate a biblical standard can leave one frustrated and feeling distanced both from those one loves (and who love one in return) and, possibly, even distanced from God. Her struggle to "fulfill" the various tasks described in the woman of Proverbs 31 is a good illustration, both of Evans's own realizations and how she communicates what a reader can take away from the scripture:

The whole exercise had brought to the surface one of my most persistent insecurities- the fact that, despite having breasts and ovaries, I can't multitask to save my lief. I've always hated this about myself because the prevailing theory is that nature created all women everywhere to be accomplished multitasks so they can care for their young while simaltaneously fighting off predators, searching for water, and talking on their cell phones. Well, somebody forgot to let me in on this one. When confronted with a long and varied to-do list, I react more like a squirrel in the path of a car, frantically darting one direction and then another without actually getting anywhere besides the backside of a tire.
 I knew from my research that Proverbs 31 was never meant to be turned into a to-do list, but there was something about the spectacularity with which I was blowing this that beleaguered my confidence. Most women walk around with the sense that they are disappointing someone. This year, I imagined that Someone to be God. Though Proverbs 31 represented a poetic ideal, I couldn't shake the feeling that if these were indeed the accomplishments of a competent, capable, virtuous, valiant, and worthy wife, then I must be none of those things. (85)

Evans's realization that the proverb that so many women hear in part or in whole as a challenge was written or spoken from a mother to her son about the kind of wife he should choose. Maybe she was the kind of mother who thought (or knew) there would never be a good enough woman. However, the standard for a "woman of valor" was set for thousands of years or until women, like Evans, reclaim it for their own place and time and circumstances.

Ultimately, the power of this book lies in its readability and challenge to understand scripture from one's own context. This is not a kind of relativism, but a reality infused with and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Who is God calling me to be, in the time and place where God has put me, with the gifts I've been given, and the circumstances in which I find myself? How do I apply the values that Jesus espoused, values of generosity, peace-making, openness, solidarity, and gentleness, as a Christian- not just as a woman?

Evans makes a valiant attempt to stake a corner of the tent of feminist scriptural interpretation for the evangelical tradition. Many in that tradition will ignore or attempt to negate her efforts. Arguably, it's up to those of us who have found shelter in that tent for years to welcome her, to support her, and to salute her- "Woman of Valor!".

I strongly commend this book to your young adult classes or reading groups, to your adult studies (men and women), and for your own reading. There is a significant amount of supplementary material to the book found on Evans's website. I believe this was to limit the length of the book, rather than draw traffic.

The truth of this book, and of the time in which we are living, is that there are too many negative words and images that surround being female, being feminist, and being honest about one's own self, one's body, and one's experiences. We need all the voices we can raise, lest the rocks do our own work, to say that we are valued, gifted, and powerful creations of God- as much as any other work of creation. We have to do the simultaneous work that is Evans's struggle throughout the book: We must  1) work to forgive ourselves more easily and remind ourselves of the words of grace that come from God, but 2) be far more stringent with those who attempt to box us in, with impossible or painful standards, and who would say their words belong to God.


  1. just read another review on this book. Love hearing another opinion. Thanks!

  2. Thanks Julia, I appreciate this review. I saw Rachel on the Today show, which left me thinking that I would never read the book....but your review is helpful. Thank you.

  3. I do plan to read the book and currently have her other book -- Evolving in Monkey Town -- checked out from my library to read first. Thanks for the review.


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