Friday, October 19, 2012

In which I take on Trillia Newbell's review of "A Year of Biblical Womanhood"

Trillia Newbell, a freelance writer in Tennessee, wrote an early review of Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood for last week.  She and I have both written for her.meneutics, and I’ve found her pieces there to be interesting.  I was surprised, then, to find that this book review seemed to be more hastily (as a teacher of writing, I found a number of sentences that I wanted to re-write) and perhaps carelessly written than what I had seen in the past from her.

Newbell discovers a number of problems with Evans’s book, and reviews it, she says, with a heavy heart.  In reading her review, it seems to me that she has in several places misunderstood or misrepresented Evans’s ideas.  I’ll re-post key sections from her article below in bold, with my comments following.

As I read the book, it became increasingly clear to me of one theme: God’s word was on trial. It was the court of Rachel Held Evans. She was the prosecution, judge, and jury. The verdict was out. And with authority and confidence, she would have the final word on womanhood. 

This was not a theme that emerged in my reading of the book.  If Evans is putting anything on trial, it’s the notion that any human, herself included, can have the final word on what defines “womanhood”.

Evans makes it clear that although she holds the Bible in high esteem as a historical document, she would warn us to be careful in attempting to use it as a guide for living out the Christian faith. A few quotes explain her stance. {Here the quotes Newbell singles out are in bold and italics}
Despite what some may claim, the Bible’s not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today. (48)

Newbell has removed this quote from its helpful context.  In context, Evans is not arguing that we should avoid looking for principles to guide our Christian faith in the Bible; rather, she is pointing out that the particular version of “modern family values” that many conservatives espouse in America today is not something you find a lot about in the Bible.  You are more likely to read about polygamy than white picket fences, in other words.

I kept digging, and as it turns out, Peter and Paul were putting a Christian spin on what their readers would have immediately recognized as the popular Greco-Roman “household codes.” (216)

Indeed, this is helpful cultural context in understanding the text properly.  You can study historical context and still hold that that the Bible is a guide for living out the Christian faith, believe it or not.  You can admit that the human authors were influenced by the culture in which they lived and still believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.

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 God’s interaction with humanity. (293)

This seems to me to be pretty obvious, and agreed upon by most evangelicals.

And you see it most clearly in Evans' conclusion.
For those who count the Bible as sacred, the question when interpreting and applying the Bible to our lives is not, will we pick and choose? But rather how will we pick and choose? We are all selective in our reading of Scripture, and so the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Are we reading with the prejudice of love or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? (295)
And later:
This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does it say? But what am I looking for? I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (295)
Throughout A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans works to prove that the Bible is not without error and therefore cannot be applied literally — and in some cases cannot be trusted (as we see by the implications of Paul’s and Peter’s motives, she says, to keep their culture in the Scriptures)…

Yes, I too take issue with some of Evans’s conclusion.  What is clear, though, is that she wants us to admit that we all come to the Bible with our own sets of blinders and biases, and that these need to be humbly examined.  We should examine ourselves as we examine the text.

But she in no place says that the Bible is full of errors, as Newbell implies.  Her claim that the Bible (as a whole) cannot be applied literally is one to which most Christians assent. And the fact that she takes cultural context into consideration when seeking to understand God’s word shows how deeply she values its true meaning, not that she thinks God’s word is untrustworthy.

But while the book is engaging, her methods and her conclusions on womanhood are confusing at best.
If you go to Evans’s book looking for a systematic theology of womanhood, then yes, you will be confused.  But if you go looking for that, then you have misunderstood the project altogether.  The book is a record of  a performance art project intended to demonstrate a couple of truths: First, that any contemporary American definition of “biblical womanhood”  is necessarily selective in which Biblical references it uses; second, that the cultural context in which people read the Bible influences their interpretation of it.  Those two conclusions are fairly clear.

And this is largely because she selectively decides which Scriptures apply to women and which ones do not. She spoke with men and women from a full range of backgrounds and faiths and then attempted to apply them to evangelical Bible-believing Christianity.
Actually, she does not decide which Scriptures apply to women and which don’t.  She studies how professing Christians of a variety of stripes, as well as Jews, have understood Scriptures that refer to women, and then “tries on” their interpretations. She does this to demonstrate that "selectively deciding" which Scriptures apply to women, and how they apply,  is something that everyone does, whether they admit it or not, whether they have good (theological) reason for it or not.

Oh, and by the way, a “full range” of backgrounds and faiths would include more than white, professing Christian, Catholic, and Jewish.

The majority of her quotes and references from complementarians aim to show complementarianism as foolish and dated. Strangely she more often cites authors with a more traditionalist orientation (and less truly complementarian) and only one or two of the more biblical moderates.
I actually agree with you that in relying heavily on Debi Pearl in one chapter, she does create something of a complementarian straw woman.  But I’m surprised to hear you taking issue with the complentarians she cites, because she cites Piper and Grudem, arguably the leaders of the movement, a number of times.

Evans claims to be caught between conservative and liberal theology. She believes in the physical resurrection of Christ, and she believes in evolution. But in seeking to bridge conservative and liberal theology in this book, she invests so much time explaining what she does not believe, that readers will be left wondering exactly what she does believe.
I, for one, was not left wondering what she believes.

Part of this comes down to widely differing worldviews. To understand womanhood, Evans blends Eastern practices and mysticism, with a few selected Scripture quotes. For me to properly understand biblical womanhood, I can only finally return to God’s sufficient word…

I was really astounded to read this criticism.  I can’t think of any “Eastern practices” Evans practiced… unless Newbell is talking about Jewish traditions she tried?  Evans does write a bit about centering prayer and the discipline of silence, both pretty standard Christian practices, not some far out mysticism.

To understand womanhood, Evans didn’t blend “Eastern practices and mysticism, with a few selected Scripture quotes.” To understand womanhood, Evans spent a year reading, meditating on, researching, practicing, and writing about the Bible.  About everything the Bible says about women.  To me, it appears that Evans relies upon God’s word, just as Newbell says she herself does.  What Evans questions are her own interpretations, and the point of this project is that while God’s word should be our guide, we need to be more careful to understand it correctly, approaching it with humility, interpreting it rightly, and not using it prescriptively in ways God never intended for it to be used.

Read my full review of Evan's book here.


ed cyzewski said...

Thanks for this thoughtful reply Amy. I don't think I could have responded to that review with such a level-headed and on point response!

Christie said...

Yes, thank you for this, Amy! Well written, well argued, and very helpful.

Amy Young said...

Hi Amy, I heard about you from Joy B -- and she mentioned you used to be in SEA with the same org I'm with. And then yesterday I read your review of Rachel's book and knew why she thought I'd enjoy your writing. She was right! I'll read back through your posts but am getting kicked out of a coffee place in Shanghai :). Good night!

Amy said...

Thank you, guys!

Amy Young: I'm gonna try to email you.

Lisa notes... said...

Happy to see this! I haven't read the book yet but I will. I just finished Rachel's "Evolving in Monkey Town" last night and loved her honesty and courage to question. I'm assuming I'll pick up the same in the new book.

Tim B. Dedeaux said...

Great counter-review. I wonder if the key to understanding this review (and so much of the Neo-Reformed movement) is that they're so invested in complementarianism and predestination that anyone who questions either is AUTOMATICALLY by definition
"questioning the Bible," "putting God on trial," and "not taking scripture seriously."

Laura N. said...

Glad to have you 'on the case.'

Kelly said...

Very nice review Amy! I actually saw this author on the Today show yesterday. She was very gracious when responding to critics who said her book makes a "mockery of the Bible." She responded with just what you said - that "biblical womanhood" is very complex and cannot be boiled down to a single American-style definition. She did a great job on the show, and your review lines up exactly with her speaking points. I hope that other women can be supportive of her journey and the questions she embraced rather than immediately discounting her.

Katy Sammons said...

I appreciate the time and thought you have put into these posts on RHE's book. It is very helpful to have another perspective.

Amy Lepine Peterson said...

Thank you, Katy. There certainly are a lot of extreme reactions to the book out there. Sometimes taking the middle ground means you please no one -- but I hope there's value in that middle ground.

hannah anderson said...

First time visitor today--really appreciate your perspective on this whole YBW. TN's review felt far too emotional and reactive. Having said that, I do have a question that's been rolling around in my head as this has played out and would love to hear your feedback.

Do you think that RHE's literary device creates confusion when the book is marketed to a mainstream audience? I've been watching the secular press/morning show interviews and I'm finding the response might be different than what RHE intended it to be. Among the evangelical subculture, it's pretty clear that she's poking fun at "biblical woman" stereotypes and by doing so, effectively undermining the stereotype. We know enough Bible to catch the argument--we can differentiate between stereotype and principle. But for an audience that doesn't have this context, does her approach actually end up undermining faith and the Scripture (regardless of how you parse it)? So many comments I've seen online are expressing things like, "This is exactly why you can't believe in Christianity. It's bronze-aged" or "The Bible is just a bunch of legalistic rules made by men to subjugate women." ad naseum

Curious on how you see this playing out.

Amy Lepine Peterson said...

hannah, that's a really interesting point. I watched her on the Today show, and as they were doing the video lead up to the live interview, I thought, "this sure does make for good tv," because we like things to be extreme on tv, don't we? But tv isn't the best format for nuanced argument or sane discussion most of the time.
I'd guess that hearing about the book through the mainstream media isn't going to really change many minds either way, for or against Christianity, but might reinforce stereotypes people already have, maybe?

hannah anderson said...

Truthfully, I think very little nuanced argument or sane discussion occurs most any place these days. :-) Still I'm interested in seeing what happens when an argument is crafted in one milieu and then transitioned to a completely different one--does the rhetorical structure hold up or does it morph into something that you never intended? Curious if marketing to an audience that doesn't necessarily value Scripture as a guide for life will force her to a position of having to defend Scripture's validity even though her original intent was to showcase the simplicity of using it as a rule book. We'll see.

Annette said...

Trillia Newbell's review was one of the first I'd read on A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I read her review before I began reading the book, which made me wonder what I'd gotten myself into by agreeing to review the book! Thanks for expressing yourself well through this review!

Amy Lepine Peterson said...

Thank you! Come back and post a link to your review when you finish. I'd love to read it.