Thursday, October 18, 2012

Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

A few thoughts on Rachel Held Evans’s new book:

First of all, some personal background:

The first time I encountered Rachel Held Evans was when Slate profiled her Year of Biblical Womanhood project over a year ago.  At the time, I skimmed the article, and dismissed the project (and, by extension, Rachel) as derivative, snarky, and irreverent. 

Then Rachel started showing up in my social media life more and more.  Friends linked to her blog posts on twitter and facebook, and I found myself agreeing with her as often as not, though at times I still found her manner a bit abrasive.  

Over the last year, as I’ve started following the online evangelical community more regularly, I’ve started reading Rachel’s blog consistently, and I’ve also read her first book, “Evolving in Monkey Town”.  I’ve  found that she is hardly the most offensive or outspoken among us evangelicals on the web, and in fact I’ve become something of a fan of hers.  She is thoughtful, honest, and compassionate; I appreciate the way she fights for the underdog, wrestles with the Bible, and creates community on the internet.  I think she’s whip-smart  and web-savvy, two things evangelicalism needs.

We have a fair amount in common, too.  Rachel and I actually share a birthday (June 8, 1981).  We both grew up in the Bible Belt of the south, in wonderful Christian families.  Both of us have fathers who were fairly prominent conservative evangelical leaders in our communities, and both of us were… let’s face it…goody-two-shoes.  Her love of football, though, sure does leave me stumped.

Now, onto the book:
In A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans recounts her experiences over a year of studying everything the Bible has to say about women, and trying to live it all out as literally as possible.  The book is not intended to be a theological treatise or an argument for what “Biblical Womanhood” is. Instead, it’s a record of a kind of performance art project in which Evans wore a head covering, cooked her way through Martha Stewart’s cookbook, slept in a tent during her period, and blew a shofar.  This year-long performance art project is 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.

To this end, rather than trying to create a systematic theology of womanhood, or to argue for egalitarianism and against complementarianism, Evans investigates the ways in which various Christians (and Jews) have interpreted Scriptural texts about women,  and “tries on” their interpretations, experimenting with Catholic ideas about silence and prayer, Amish ideas about modesty, Jewish ideas about purity, Quiverfull ideas about fertility, and complementarian (well, specifically, Debi Pearl' – whom some complementarians disavow) ideas about submission and wifely duty.  

Each month, Evans focused on a different trait – gentleness, domesticity, obedience, etc – and each chapter covers one of those months.  Each chapter also includes a section from her husband Dan’s journal during the project, as well as a brief portrait of a woman from Scripture.  The writing is engaging, eminently readable, and funny.  I laughed out loud more than once, and I agreed with her often, especially appreciating the way she engaged with Proverbs 31, with ideas about justice, and with expectations about beauty.

As for criticisms, I do have a few.  Evans neglects to comment on the distinction that most Christians make between how we interpret the Old Testament laws and how we interpret the New Testament epistles, and I think a word on that would have been instructive.   

Due to the nature of the book, Evans often makes theological observations or arguments that are not fully fleshed out.  For example, when she examines the complementarian position on 1 Timothy 2, she does well to point out the difficulties in practically implementing Paul’s instruction that women are not to “teach or have authority” over men, and the almost ludicrous extremes to which theologians have gone to demarcate what is acceptable for women.  But because she doesn’t deal with the intricacies of the theological argument, her point is less authoritative than it could be. She doesn’t , for example, note what is really the hinge-point for many on this verse, that Paul refers to pre-fall creation order to make his point, and to be convincing to anyone who has studied the passage, she has to address that.  

If she wants to critique complentarianism (as she does in the chapters on “Submission” and “Silence”), she must be sure she’s not setting up a straw woman.  (I can speak to this issue because I am well-versed in complementarian arguments… I can’t speak as much to other interpretations she critiques, such as polygamist Christianity, or Amish traditions.) By choosing Debi Pearl’s book as her source text, she’s drawing from a specific branch of complementarian thought, a conservative rather than a moderate one.  Again, given the nature of this book, I think her approach is acceptable, and makes for good comedy, but it’s worth noting that what she’s offering here should not be taken as a full theological argument (nor is it meant to be, I believe).

My only real quibble with Evans is in the conclusion, where she makes what I think is a very valid and important point, but makes it without some qualifications that I think it needs.    

For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We are all selective… We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it… If you are looking for Bible verses with which to support slavery, you will find them.  If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them…” (p. 296)

I wholeheartedly agree with Rachel that we ought to examine our motives, our presuppositions, our cultural contexts, and our desires as we read Scripture looking for truth, and I think the point she is making here is extremely important. 

In fact, this is the very point that the literary theory of Deconstructionism makes in arguing that a text has no intrinsic meaning, but only the meaning that the Reader brings to it.  The Reader, deconstructionists argue, is more the author than the author is; all meaning is constructed, not essential.

I believe (and I’d guess Evans does, too, although she doesn’t make it clear here) that the Bible does have meaning apart from what the reader brings to it.  While it’s vital to consider our own biases and blinders as we approach the Bible, as well as the cultural contexts of the Bible’s human authors, it’s also vital to acknowledge the power of the Holy Spirit to speak to us and inform our reading, the power of Christian community to refine and strengthen our understanding, and the essential truth that exists in the text itself. 

Evan’s book is worth reading.  I enjoyed it, and I think both women and men will find it amusing, thought-provoking, and (perhaps especially in regard to valor and beauty) freeing. 

Next Up: Tomorrow I will post a review of Trillia Newbell’s review of the book (which has some serious flaws).


Katie said...

Thoughtful critique! I'm curious to read the book, and glad your review stayed away from "vaginagate."

J.R. Goudeau said...

Amy, I love your writing. You are thorough and fair and I think, not having read the book yet, these are valid and interesting points. Can't wait to read it--I'd love to talk more about it when I have.

John Dyer said...

Amy, this is super helpful and helps me better understand some of what you shared at your house (thanks again for that!).

While I appreciate Evan's attempt to show some of the complexity in interpretation, I'll be happy when we see fewer books attempting to popularize the "we all bring our own viewpoints to the text" stuff [I just finished Jonathan Dudley's 'Broken Words' which is along the same lines], which is of course true, and more authors expending their writing talent actually trying to help us get at that "meaning apart from the reader."

If such a book were written, I'm sure it'd sell 10s of copies!

Amy said...

Thanks so much, you guys!

John, now you're making me wonder what exactly I said that evening about RHE!

Pam Beam said...

Thanks for an honest reveiw. I just saw her on The Today Show.
It's sad as a Christian women, who is a housewife, to be mis-represented.
She must not know much about the bible at all or she would know the grace that we receive when we accept Christ as Savior.
Also, we live under a new covenant and are not ask to keep the tradtions of the OT.
Most important, as gentiles we are not ask to carry out Jewish traditions. Even under the new covenant the Jewish people are free from the legalism they put themselves under and are to live a blamless life because of Christ, always bringing our sins to Him who freely forgives us (if we accept Christ as Savior).
This was just a money making effort for her and a chance to mis-represent the bible. I don't blame Lifeway for not carring it.

hanoibelle said...

amy--i just finished YBW, and of course my first thought was 'now i need to re-read amy's review'. i appreciate all that you've said here, especially the suggestion that evan's does hold scripture to have meaning apart from what we bring to it. that said, i love her point that we find in it what we are seeking. your characterization of 'performance art' is good; i wouldn't have thought of that. it seems to go deeper than just a performance, though. as always, wish you were local so we could enjoy in-person discussion.

Amy Lepine Peterson said...

I definitely didn't mean "performance art" to be a derogatory description. I thought the project was kind of a kin to what OT prophets would do to make their points...

I would say you should move to Indiana, but I think it's pretty clear that actually, we should be the ones to move. California wins.

E.A. Lepine said...

whenever i read RHE's blog i leave angry.

When i read her stuff (granted, i don't read it regularly), the words entering my mind feel somewhat similar to the way i would imagine it would feel to rub my hand up and down a cactus. In other words, i think that she writes with a brash, rude, condescending tone that, to me, implies an immature understanding of her own viewpoint and identity. She stands for egalitarianism, and although she firmly states that men don't have to be weak in order for women to be strong, I think her attitude says otherwise. To me, the way that she writes is an effort to paint herself as a strong, independent, confident woman rather than writing in such a way that her content says those things (in a much more genuine way) for her.

I can't think of an exact post where Evan's has said this, but i think she would agree that ultimately, two spouses should live in such a way that they lay their lives down for one another. Although I'm a complementarian myself, i can agree to disagree with women (like you, i think) who take an egalitarian stance, but at the end of day, are striving to love their husbands with a gospel-humble (borrowing that from Tim Keller) love, putting their husbands before themselves. Evan's writing as I interpret it is not encouraging women to do that, it is encouraging them to take an increasingly higher view of self without giving them any instruction as to how they can love their husbands while doing it. I simply can't respect that.

Amy Lepine Peterson said...

I don't get the same tone from RHE that you do, especially not in the way she talks about men, and especially not in the book. But I think I know what you mean, as I sometimes felt that way when I only read her occasionally.

I think the best critical review is Kathy Keller's:

I think Keller makes some good, important points. 

I think, in Rachel's defense on those points, that she wanted her book to be not a theological argument, but a conversation starter. Some of the theological arguments are on her website. 

As for me, I don't really like to use either term, complementarian or egalitarian, for myself. I think my  position at the moment is more nuanced than either term suggests. The book that distanced me from complementarian thought most was Finally Feminist, by John Stackhouse, which I highly recommend.

Annette said...

Great review, you were tactful to point out good and bad points of book and reasons why. Thank you.