“Will you guys review this book?” read an email from one of our Ungrind readers.
I quickly clicked on the included link and found a picture of a woman wearing a head covering as she sat on the roof of a house. As I read the title, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on a Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master,” I thought, “Oh great, another one of those ‘experiment’ books.”
It’s true; the concept behind A Year of Biblical Womanhood isn’t new. Like A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, Rachel Held Evans’ book chronicles a year-long experiment to live out the Bible literally. Except for Evans, the project wasn’t intended to determine the general relevance of faith to modern culture, but “to challenge the idea that ‘biblical womanhood’ could be reduced to a list of roles and rules.”
As I read the description, my inner skeptic emerged. “Gimmick,” I thought. I saw it as an attempt to invoke media attention. And sure enough, it’s gained the media’s attention. From NPR to Oprah to The View, Evans is riding the circuit and creating controversy in the Evangelical community.
But, not one to merely judge a book by its cover, I decided to read it.
On her website, Evans describes herself as “a thoroughly liberated beneficiary of the feminist movement, complete with a blossoming career and egalitarian marriage. I strongly support women at all levels of leadership in the church, home, and society, and am suspicious of anyone who would claim that the Bible presents just one ‘right way’ to be woman.” In her book, she’s quick to offer qualifiers before identifying herself as an Evangelical. She writes, “Despite the fact that I vote for Democrats, believe in evolution, and am no longer convinced that everyone different from me goes to hell, I don’t mind being identified as an evangelical Christian. Evangelicalism is like my mother tongue.”
As someone who believes there is only one path of salvation, I began to question just what approach she would take, and how her biases would influence her conclusions.
Evans begins her project with a list of what she terms “Biblical Woman’s Ten Commandments.” Included on this are submission to her husband in all things, devotion to household duties, exploration of motherhood, cultivation of a gentle and quiet spirit, modest apparel, the adornment of a head covering, and no haircuts, no teaching in church, no gossiping, and no authority over a man.
She spent a month focused on each of these topics and created “To Do This Month” lists. In December her bullet points included calling her husband “master,” while April featured “observe the Levitical Purity Laws by undergoing twelve days of ritual impurity during menstruation.”
With each page, I neither loved nor hated A Year of Biblical Womanhood.
What I Liked
So what did I like? What did I find notable?
Evans writes with vulnerability. She admits her fear of motherhood, her inability to multi-task, and even confesses that deep cleaning her kitchen “forced me to confront the ugly air of condescension that permeated my attitude toward homemaking. It was out of ignorance and insecurity that I ever looked down my nose at women who make homemaking their full-time occupation.”
Her willingness to be authentic makes her relatable. It reminds me that while I, unlike Evans, vote for prolife candidates and believe that God literally breathed humanity into existence, we do share commonalities. We’re both women who love Jesus and strive in our own ways to honor Him with our lives. It’s a reminder that, as Evans points out, “knowing that God inhabits and transcends our daily vocations, no matter how glorious or mundane, should be enough to unite all women of faith and end that nasty cycle of judgment we get caught in these days.”
Also notable is Evans’ long-distance friendship with Ahava, a rabbi’s wife from Israel, whom she met through the Internet. Ahava serves as a resource to Evans, schooling her in Jewish tradition, customs, and interpretation of the Old Testament. As Evans explores the Proverbs 31 woman, she turns to Ahava for guidance on whether Jewish woman struggle to live up to this ideal as many Evangelical women do.
Through Evans conversations with Ahava, she discovers that “in the Jewish culture it is not the women who memorize Proverbs 31, but the men. Husbands commit each line of the poem to memory, so they can recite it to their wives at Sabbath meal, usually in a song.” It’s unconditional praise, Ahava shares, that blesses the woman for the energy and creativity she brings to the family. Evans walks away with a new understanding of the Proverbs 31 woman not as an ideal we strive to live up to, but as someone who “is present in each one of us when we do even the smallest things with valor.”
What I Didn’t Like
For those who read Evans’ book, read it carefully. While in general I applaud her “ends” — the desire to empower Evangelical women — her “means” deeply concern me.
One of these means is Evans handling of Scripture. She doesn’t affirm it as the inerrant word of God. (Though I think that was obvious with the whole “I believe in evolution” statement. But I digress.) Evans proclaims:
The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat, perspicuous 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 God’s interaction with humanity.”
It seems to me that Evans is reducing the Holy Writ to just another “sacred text.” We can believe it was inspired by God, but we can’t trust it to inform — at least not in a literal sense — our modern lifestyles. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated statement. It’s only one of many instances in the book where she discourages readers from taking the Bible at face value.
Additionally, I felt that Evans purposely sought out extremes in order to validate her points. It seems she has bones to pick, and sought out sources to affirm her side of the argument. She interviewed polygamists, spoke to those in strict biblical patriarchy movements, visited the Amish, yet she didn’t once speak with a woman who lives out complementarianism and reformed theology in a balanced way. Yet I know these women exist; I happen to know many of them. In my opinion, her biased research and slanted writing damage her arguments.
So what does Evans discover about biblical womanhood? At the end of her project, Evans concludes:
As much as we long for the simplicity of a single definition of ‘biblical womanhood,’ there is no right way to be a woman, no mold into which we can cram ourselves.”
I couldn’t agree more; although I’m not sure we needed a year-long experiment to discover this. When I read this line to my husband Ted, he was like, “Well, yeah, duh.” But perhaps that’s not the case for everyone. Perhaps for some, Evans’ book will be the first time they come face to face with the realization that it’s okay that we as Evangelical women aren’t all alike.
Her opportunistic experiment revealed to Evans that she likes to cook and created a desire in her to “nurture the contemplative impulse” more. But her project didn’t yield any significant “aha” results — either for her, or for me as the reader. Evans confesses:
I think, at the surface, I was looking for a good story. And I certainly found one. But further down, in the deeper recesses of my heart and mind, I think I was looking for permission — permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself, permission to be a woman.”
Yeah, I don’t really understand what Evans is trying to say in this conclusion either. Which is why, as I said earlier, I neither hate nor love this narrative experiment. Meh.