It’s been more than a year since Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood book came out. So why review this book now?
First, Evans keeps growing in popularity thanks to this book, which is a New York Time’s Best Seller. Since publishing A Year of Biblical Womanhood, her platform to write and speak on subjects such as Scripture, women in ministry, faith, etc., have grown to reach a much wider audience. Through the means of this book and her blog, Evans is becoming a formative voice for young evangelical Christians. Secondly, The only negative reviews and criticisms on this book that I have found have come from those in the camp which Evans criticizes in much of her book. I hope my contribution comes from the fact that I am neither strictly complementarian nor egalitarian (although I come closer to the latter than the former); therefore, my response will hopefully be more nuanced.
Evans is a self-proclaimed “liberated woman,” having emerged from the fundamentalist, evangelical tradition of which she grew up in. After becoming frustrated with the views held by those in The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and others on the far right (as she sees it!), Evans decides to challenge the hermeneutic and thereby the adjective “biblical” they utilize for an interpretation regarding women. To achieve this she set aside one year to follow all the commands in Scripture for women—literally. Her book reads like a satire, showing through narrative and sarcasm how it is impossible and foolish to apply all the commands of the Bible literally and universally.
Another purpose for writing this book was to liberate women from the fears of getting Scripture wrong, Evans said during an interview on The Today Show. One way she accomplishes this goal in her book is by using comedy relief, a transparent writing style, and being open to discuss typical “forbidden” issues such as sex, fears of becoming a mother, etc. She also engages with her readers by using diary entries, photos and many personal stories throughout the book.
This book is divided by months, and each month of the year is given a chapter. She begins each month with a to-do list, concludes with a “read more” section that directs readers to her blog and a feature of a woman in the Bible. Instead of following all the biblical commands for women collectively for the year, with the exception of not cutting her hair, she divided the commands into months. She either kept the commands for an entire month or for a shorter length of time within the month. So, for example, she only practiced being modest for the month of March, and she only followed the “command” to praise her husband at the city gate (Prov. 31:28) on one particular day in the month of January.
First, in way of a positive review, I share in Evans’ grievance with those on the far right who fit Scripture’s picture of a woman into an image of a 1950s June Cleaver. She is right in highlighting the inconsistencies in the application of what women can and cannot do in Scripture by those in The Council of Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and the like. For example, some on the far right will make 1 Timothy 2:12-14 the guideline for women in ministry while not grapping sufficiently with passages of women prophesying, teaching, serving as deaconesses, etc. (see 1 Cor. 11:5, Judges 4:4 or Luke 2:36). I also agree with Evans that some women have gone too far in their application of Scripture. Evans summarizes one woman’s belief saying, “Ambitions that might lead a woman to work outside the home … constitute the kind of ‘evil desires’ that lead directly to sin.” She quotes another saying, “A young mother’s place is in the home, keeping it, guarding it, watching over those entrusted to her. To do otherwise will surely cause the Word of God to be blasphemed. Even if you could disobey God and it not produce visible ill consequences, it would only prove that God is long-suffering … but the judgment will assuredly come.” (pgs 23-24) These women whom Evans quotes, I believe, have it wrong.
While I sympathize with some of Evans’ criticisms, I had a number of concerns with this book.
First, Evans employs a classic liberal approach to Scripture. She calls this approach a hermeneutic of love, echoing perhaps back to St. Augustine’s hermeneutic of love for the neighbor. But the question is whose definition of love does Evans use? The one she seems to employ is not the one defined by God; rather it sounds more like something from Rob Bell’s Love Wins book. For example, she writes, “I … am no longer convinced that everyone different from me goes to hell.” What does she do then with John 14:6? Perhaps she is just being provocative here, which she tends to do a lot in this book, and in saying “different” she is referring to believer’s baptism versus infant baptism or Calvinism versus Arminianism. However, since she does not explain her meaning she is being unhelpful and setting up a broad understanding of love that is not consistent with Scripture.
Another common factor of classic liberalism is the tendency to interpret and apply Scripture with you, the interpreter, at the center. It is a humanistic approach. In conjunction with this is a tendency to replace a relationship with Jesus with a mystical spirituality, where the person’s spiritual journey is the most important aspect and Jesus is reduced from an incarnate, crucified, resurrected God-human to a “divine,” “a spirit,” “a presence.” Sometimes I felt as if I were reading Schleiermacher! Consider these examples. Evans writes, “And sure enough, I found myself connecting to that same presence that I encountered during contemplative prayer, the presence that reminded me that the roots of my spirit extended deep into the ground. I got less done when I worked with mindfulness, but somehow, I felt more in control” (page 29). And, “Instead, meditation filled me with a sense of security, strength, and unyielding resolve. As I prayed, it felt as though my feet were extending through the ground, growing into long, winding roots, while my torso stretched like a trunk, my arms and fingers extending like branches. With every prayer and every silence the image of a great tree returned to me again and again until I found myself sitting up straighter, breathing in deeper, and looking up. I don’t know for sure, but I think maybe God was trying to tell me that gentleness begins with strength, quietness with security. … Mastering a gentle and quiet spirit didn’t mean changing my personality, just regaining control of it, growing strong enough to hold back and secure enough to soften” (p. 16)
Count how many times the pronouns, “I,” “me” and “my” were used. Jesus is nowhere to be found; the interpreter takes center stage. This is also an example of spiritual mysticism. Scripture has no concept nor teaching about prayer the way Evans described it. And if so, Evans does not give a Scriptural model for it. Also, if context determines meaning, the God she mentions is not necessarily the God of Scripture.
There are many other examples I could cite, but I want to narrow in on one other significant example. During the month of January as Evans sought to follow the guidelines of Proverbs 31, she was told by one Jewish woman (who was not a student of Scripture but was simply Jewish) that Proverbs 31 is sung by her husband to praise her in everyday tasks. Proverbs 31 can be reduced to “eschet chayil” or valorous woman. Evans runs with this and then determines that Proverbs 31 should be condensed to a blessing we should give every woman – “a woman of valor.” Valor then is determined not by who we know (God) or what He does through us or what it has to say about wisdom but rather about what we as women do. “The woman described in Proverbs 31 is not some ideal that exists out there; she is present in each one of us when we do even the smallest things with valor” (p. 90). She will continue with this idea throughout the rest of her book. When she gets to the chapter on justice and recalls her trip to Bolivia with World Vision, she spends pages 238-246 admonishing “women of valor” by what they had accomplished despite their poverty and with the help of World Vision. Jesus isn’t mentioned as having a part in this. Only at the very end of the chapter does she credit Jesus for His ministry to the poor.
I think Evans’ lack of theological training and maturity is evident and problematic to her wanting to be taken serious in evangelical Christian circles. Instead of her offering work that is helpful to further along the discussion of women in Christian ministry, she widens the gap and confirms conservative complementarian belief that a woman’s place is in the home and not in biblical teaching. And irony above all ironies, I think that she is one woman who would do better to remain silent at this time.