I know I’m a little late to the game with both reading and reviewing the book. This was mainly due to the fact that I’m already well convinced that God’s kingdom rule functions from the perspective of mutuality between men and women (what most call egalitarianism). However, I did read many of the early book reviews and comments (from both “sides” of the fence), and I just recently found a good time to purchase the book, as it was available for $2.99 in the Kindle format a few weeks back.
Thus, I’ll share some reflections after reading the book.
Overall, I would summarize the book’s thesis as this: Rachel Held Evans challenges the typical way in which many Christians utilize the word biblical as an adjective, especially when attaching it to another intriguing word, womanhood.
This, my friends, is the big discussion-debate. What is biblical womanhood?
Accordingly, the way in which many Christians employ the expression “biblical womanhood” is taken to task from early on in her introduction. Held Evans offers these words:
Now, we evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like its 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 dont pick and choose what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity. (xix)
Of course, in many ways, we can assert that God has thoughts about such things as economics, marriage, sexuality, politics, etc. But no one group holds the corner-market on these issues. And this is true if we were to only look to the Bible to form our thoughts on these topics.
With regards to biblical womanhood, Held Evans reminds us:
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 her head (1 Corinthians 11:6), and biblical for her to be one of multiple wives (Exodus 21:10). (xix)
Of course, many understand the Christocentric approach to Scripture. This is the practice of reading the Old Testament through the lens of Christ. However, we forget there are plenty of interesting passages found within the New Testament that remind us that developing a biblical theology (alone) about a particular topic might not always yield the fruit we so desire.
This is why we are certain that head coverings, foot washing, slavery and other such aspects are not required. Actually, we even denote slavery as appalling action in the sight of God, though at one point some Christians quoted certain Bible passages, both in the Old and New Testaments, to support the practice of slavery.
And there is a lot to learn in the discussion around women’s roles in light of our rethinking of slavery over the past two centuries.
Forming a healthy theology in line with the kingdom rule of God does not itself stop with the Bible. It begins there. But it does not stop there. This is why I believe something like the Wesleyan quadrilateral offers a more holistic approach to forming sound theology. We look to Scripture, church tradition (or history if the word tradition scares you), reason and experience, rather than only Scripture. And I’d argue this has been the approach of the church historic.
How does Rachel Held Evans mainly accomplish her point of challenging the more complementarian approach to “biblical womanhood”?
It’s through the literary device known as satire. It’s quite evident that Evans is a clever writer, though she also holds her own while engaging in solid biblical theology. But what satire does is it utilizes humor, irony and exaggerations to make a point.
So, with “biblical womanhood,” the project asks this question: What would happen if we tried to obey each and every biblical instruction for women?
Obviously, living in a western culture, rather than eastern, and living many millennia after the time when Scripture was written, some of Held Evans’ actions probably aren’t exactly the way they would have been done in an ancient Jewish culture – creating a swear jar, camping out in a tent in her yard when on her period, praising her husband with a poster at the town line of Dayton, etc.
But the point was well taken.
And because it was in the form of satire, I did actually find myself chuckling out loud a few times. It is good to laugh and it’s good when we are reminded that God laughs with us.
Still, there were two very important contributions I took away from A Year of Biblical Womanhood:
1) The Proverbs 31 Woman
Many turn to Proverbs 31 as the ideal for what a woman should be like. But, in actuality, Proverbs 31 does not describe an actual woman that existed. As far as we can tell, no woman in Scripture met that standard. Still, this woman stands tall within the “biblical womanhood” culture, looming over every woman, calling out that this is who God has created you to be.
And Held Evans comments honestly about her “relationship” with this woman:
Our friendship was doomed from the start, really, because the two of us have nothing in common. The Proverbs 31 woman has children; I don’t. She is rich; I drive a 94 Plymouth Acclaim. She loves to work with her hands; I can’t make a row of stitches without dropping one. And worst of all, the Proverbs 31 woman is a morning person, and I am most assuredly not. (p82)
Consequently, Held Evans remarks in a way we’d expect from just about every other woman on planet earth:
In less than 14 days, the Proverbs 31 woman had made me feel guilty, inadequate, and poor. (p85)
And that is just it. This ancient, near eastern, Hebrew woman was not meant to be the flawless example of what a “biblical” woman was to be. Rather, as Held Evans notes, not just from her own personal perspective but also from engaging with solid biblical scholars, this Proverbs 31 passage is actually a wisdom poem that celebrated women in general.
Even more, Held Evans’ Jewish (non-Christian) friend, Ahava, helps her discover an important practice among the Jews concerning Proverbs 31. It is not Jewish women who commit Proverbs 31 to memory. It is the men. The men recite this poem to their wives at the Sabbath meal, usually in song. It’s something celebrated in each home. Thus, each wife, in their own unique way, is celebrated as a woman of valor, a virtuous woman. Whether married or unmarried, whether Jew or Gentile, whether black or brown or white, whether bearing children or not, each woman deserves the blessing of Eshet chayil!
2) The Larger Hermeneutic Contribution
I’ve mentioned the word already – hermeneutics. It’s a big, nasty word that simply deals with how we interpret, understand and apply Scripture.
You see, for evangelicals who turn to the Scripture as God’s great revelatory written masterpiece (I’d add that Jesus himself is the great living revelation of God), we can easily find ourselves creating all kinds of systems, boxes and laws – all that we might tame this fierce text. But the holy Scriptures cannot be so easily subdued. And it might just take a satirical treatise from one who doesn’t hold a Master’s or doctorate in Bible or theology to remind us of some of the major interpretive conundrums to which we have confined ourselves.
I’ve seen this recently with the whole hoo-haa surrounding John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference and book. I’m a continuationist, believing all gifts of the Spirit spoken of in Scripture are still present today. On the other hand, you have cessationists – those who don’t deny God can do miracles and healings today, but these are mainly obsolete today because they only served to attest to the gospel message of Christ and the first apostles. But now that we have the canon of Scripture, it is the great attestation to the gospel message and sound doctrine.
And here is the question many of my continuationist kindred offer: “Can you point to any text of the New Testament where we’re told to stop prophesying [or insert in any other gift in 1 Cor 12]?” To this, many cessationists will offer the response: “I don’t need to. Because we don’t only base doctrine on the explicit teaching of Scripture, but on reasonable deductions from Scripture.”
But here would be a misguided response from continuationists: “Well, if we get to pick and chose which bits of the New Testament we are going to obey, we have undermined the sufficiency of Scripture.”
And, let me just add, these quotes give pretty much the exact wording I’ve seen in print!
Now, what’s this have to do with biblical womanhood?
Very much – and Rachel Held Evans hits this nail on the head!
We all pick and choose. Every…single…one…of…us!
To claim the old adage – The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it! – is a fatal flaw that exists amongst evangelicals today. This might not be Hermeneutics 101, but it should be. And this is something that comes forth in Scot McKnight’s helpful book, The Blue Parakeet (which Held Evans also refers to in her own book).
There is a sense in which, at times, we must “pick and choose” in order to form a heathy theological perspective. Yes, of course, this can create major problems. Many have used this to abuse Scripture, pushing aside some very important words. However, misuse and abuse should not lead us to fear of such a practice. Instead, we need to faithfully prepare people how to holistically engage Scripture. And this does not include such practices as reading the whole Bible as if it were literal, claiming the Bible is absolutely clear on all matters, as well as recognizing there are tensions within the text itself.
So, while complementarians will run through the buffet of Scripture and point out a handful of verses as to why women cannot teach or lead (though I would add that I think they mishandle many of these passages), we have to consider all of these in light of the trajectory of Scripture. We are to, at times, ask: Where is Scripture headed in light of God’s new creation that began with the resurrection of Jesus?
But, as Held Evans also reminds us:
We cling to the letter because the spirit is so much harder to master. (p140)
We really just want a rule book – “God, tell us exactly what to do and how to do it, and we’ll be safe.”
But, though Aslan is good, he is not always safe. Of course, there are parameters we offer through pastoring and teaching. But they are guiding parameters, not static laws.
The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat, perspicuous [clear] 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 Gods interaction with humanity. (p294)
Though this might drive many complementarians bananas, challenging the nice and tidy boxes that come forth in a systematic tome of a mountain, these are wise words to consider as Christians in all ages and cultures engage with holy Scripture.
Those of an ancient near eastern culture had a very different perspective from us. Not that our modern-day, western view is better. It’s simply that we stand worlds apart. And, so, while Held Evans mainly offers a contribution in the discussion revolving around the role of women, many of these principles need to be considered in light of our discussions on varying other topics – economics, politics, church life, etc.
Rather than running to Scripture and copying every single action of the ancient Hebrews or the very early, mainly Jewish church, we consider what Scripture teaches in light of their world and then ask how can this become real in our own context today. Otherwise, we’ll encounter the many passages in tension with one another (even contradicting one another) and it will leave us with great cognitive dissonance.
So I’m thankful for Rachel Held Evans’ contribution to the discussion – her witty, yet refreshing engagement with Scripture. She leaves us with the reminder to love the Bible that God has actually given us, not the Bible we wish he had given us.