Friday, October 26, 2012

A Review of A Year of Biblical Womanhood

The first thing you need to understand, before I say anything else, is this: Rachel Held Evans loves the Bible.

This point is important, because many Christians, upon learning that she is (gasp!) an egalitarian, (shock!) votes Democrat, and (horrors!) supports gay rights, tend to assume that she therefore must not take the Bible very seriously. This impression was only exacerbated when Evans announced some time back that she was going to undertake a "year of biblical womanhood" where, taking a cue from A. J. Jacobs' book, A Year of Living Biblically, she resolved to spend a year living according the Bible's instructions regarding women as literally as possible. Some Christians who do indeed hold to what they call "literal" interpretations of Scripture were convinced that Evans' purpose in undertaking this project was to make fun of them, and even to make "a mockery of God and Scripture" itself (as one of her critics is quoted as saying on p. 285).

While it should come as no surprise to my own readers to learn that this is not my understanding of Evans' intent, I will hardly be the first blogger to come to her defense. Indeed, there are a great many of us who will be writing about this book as it is officially released this coming week, having received a free PDF version of the book from the publisher with which to preview it (although I did previously pre-order a paperback copy through Barnes and Noble, which arrived a few days ago, well ahead of the official launch date of October 30th. Indeed, I'm told that many bookstores do have copies already). As many of us as there are, I doubt that our attempts to convince the nay-sayers that Evans isn't trying to make fun of them will be entirely successful, but I do appreciate how blogger Ryan Robinson points out that Evans actually goes through a considerable amount of pain and struggle in her yearlong effort: "People don't go through this much pain for the sake of mocking something."

So, what does Evans achieve in this book? For starters, she demonstrates that to attempt to live by a literal interpretation of Scripture is not just difficult, but that no one, no matter how traditional, manages to do so fully. In fact, recognizing that such "literal" interpretations are not the normal lens through which Evans reads Scripture, she gets help from a number of diverse sources, including an Amish grandmother, an Orthodox Jewish wife, a member of the "Quiverfull" movement (which opposes any form of contraception as immoral on the belief that children — as many as possible, and without regard to any other consequences — are a blessing from God), an Evangelical (not Mormon!) polygamist, and even (recognizing how important traditional homemaking is to many Evangelicals) Martha Stewart! Each group emphasizes a particular aspect of what the Bible teaches, but no group even attempts to cover it all.

But Evans isn't just trying to prove a point. She also goes into the effort in an honest attempt to learn more about what it is to take the Bible seriously. While her journey does not end up with her wholeheartedly adopting most of the "literal" interpretations of Scripture she takes on, she nonetheless does decide to continue some of the practices she learns after the year is over. A list can be found in the final chapter, but it includes such items as "try a new recipe every week" (no small change for a woman who didn't even know how to cook before the experiment) and spending more time in contemplative prayer.

As to those accusations of "mockery," it is certainly true that A Year of Biblical Womanhood is peppered throughout with a sense of humor, but Evans directs nearly all of it at her own failures (both perceived and, in more than a few cases, real). Despite clear disagreements with many of the people she interviews or references as espousing literal interpretations, the jokes are hardly ever directed at them. Indeed, I believe that most of those people, were they to pick up Evans' book, would at least be able to say that she describes their positions fairly, even as they will no doubt disagree with many of her conclusions.

When I read Evans' work, I see much of what I love about my own wife (and, indeed, I have convinced my wife that she and Evans would be such soul-mates that she promptly appropriated my paperback copy pretty much as soon as it arrived!). Any disagreements I have with her are few, although I do want to point out one such disagreement here. When Evans describes the background context behind certain Scriptures, she tends to write as though the context she describes is established fact, rather than a matter of conjecture among scholars. While, as often as not, her understanding of such background does echo my own, I know from my seminary background that these conclusions are not always watertight. For example, while Paul may well have written his words regarding women's silence in churches in I Timothy 2:11-12 (just to use the most infamous example) out of an Ephesian context where the Artemis fertility cults encouraged inappropriate behavior among women, it's not even a known fact that Paul was in Ephesus at the time I Timothy was written (or, perhaps even more importantly, whether Paul was the actual author, rather than someone appealing to his legacy, as was fairly common in that time. But, honestly, few scholars willing to question Pauline authorship are also willing to argue against women in church leadership).

All in all, this book is less about what "biblical womanhood" might look like, and more about what the Bible itself is, and perhaps even more importantly, about what we as believers often make the Bible out to be, even when our assumptions about the Bible do not stand up to scrutiny of the Bible itself. This is therefore not just a book that should be of interest to those who have a position on what the "biblical" role of women should be, but for anyone who cares about letting the Bible be the word of God as it is, and not simply what we would like the Bible to be.

All images used in this post were provided by Thomas Nelson Publishers, and are used with permission. Book Cover copyright 2012 Maki Garcia Evans (photo) and Thomas Nelson (design). Headshot photo by Maki Garcia Evans. Project image photos by by Dan Evans.

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