A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

A-year-of-biblical-womanhood-book

I’m not sure what more needs to be said about Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical WomanhoodHundreds of reviews already appear on Amazon, dozens have been published on various blogs looking at the book from numerous angles… is there more that can really be said about it?

I hope so, or this is going to be a really short review.

One thing is certain: Evans struck a nerve with her critique of the so-called “biblical womanhood” movement. Taking a page out of A.J. Jacobs’ playbook, Evans determines to see what the hubbub is all about by setting forth on a grand experiment: following every command related to women in the Bible as closely as she possibly can for one year.

So over the course of a year she (among other things):

  • learns to cook (and finds out she kind of likes it);
  • camps out in her yard during her period;
  • holds up a sign letting people coming into town know her husband is awesome;
  • determines to become quiet and gentle in spirit (via centering prayer and mystic practices)
  • practices a month of solitude in church (while also visiting a Benedictine monastery and a Quaker worship gathering); and
  • sits on the roof of her house for part of a day.

These are just a few of the many aspects of her year of “biblical” womanhood described in the book. The question readers are left with after reading of her adventures is: Are they biblical at all?

This is Evans’ question as well. And it’s an important one.

If women are being given a false impression of what it means to be a faithful female follower of Christ, they need encouragement and correction. And on some points, Evans actually does a very good job of this—particularly in light of what she sees as an unnecessary overstating of the value of a woman’s role as mother.

“As a Christian, my highest calling is not motherhood; my highest calling is to follow Christ,” she writes. “And following Christ is something a woman can do whether she is married, or single, rich or poor, sick or healthy, childless or Michelle Duggar” (Kindle location 3282).

This is important for all readers to understand because Evans is right. The high calling we all have is to follow Christ as His disciples—a calling that can be fulfilled regardless of marital status or the number we have.

Indeed, where Evans shines is bringing some balance to the idea of the so-called “Proverbs 31″ woman. Where the final chapter of Proverbs serves positionally as a beautiful endcap to the theme of wisdom personified that runs through the book (depending on your interpretation, naturally) and also a celebration of an “excellent wife,” it was never meant to be a list of rules.

“Somewhere along the way, we surrendered it to the same people who invented airbrushing and Auto-Tune and Rachel Ray,” Evans writes. “We abandoned the meaning of the poem by focusing on the specifics, and it became just another impossible standard by which to measure our failures. We turned an anthem into an assignment, a poem into a job description.” (Kindle location 1848)

She is right to point out this false view of Proverbs 31 that some have promoted (intentionally or otherwise). This is a consistent problem with how many treat the entire book of Proverbs, by failing to recognize it for what it is—principles, rather than promises and explicit commands.

In other words, failing to treat wisdom literature as wisdom.

It’s no wonder that so many women, as she puts it, “walk around with the sense that they are disappointing someone” (Kindle location 1782). When wisdom is enforced with a whip, the burden is too much to bear.

If the entire book were a celebration of those aspects, I’d likely have no issue with A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

And yet this is not all we find within its pages—and much of it concerns me deeply.

First, there’s the question of who she is really fighting against in this book.

Evans, a self-described “liberated” woman (and apparently glutton for punishment), clearly doesn’t agree with what she sees complementarianism—the idea that men and women are created equal in value yet distinct in role within their relationship—as representing. She is opposed any and all so-called “patriarchal readings of Scripture that idolize the culture and context in which the Bible was written over the equality and freedom granted to each of us in Christ” (location 5117).

The brunt of her ire is directed toward the wicked nonsense found in Debi Pearl’s Created to Be His Help-Meet and some of Mark Driscoll’s comments and teaching on sex and marriage, which she seems to take as being indicative of the movement as a whole—that women should be baby-making fembots who ought to keep their mouths shut and the kitchen stocked with delicious pies.

And as much as I like pie, in all honesty, if Debi Pearl or Mark Driscoll in his less than stellar moments were indicative of complementarian position, I’d probably be right there with her.

Yet this is clearly not the case.

To some degree, this is a matter of people talking past one another. Neither side is really hearing what the other is saying and both end up frustrated. The way she describes her relationship with her husband, Dan, is lovely. He sounds like an awesome guy. There’s a real sense of mutual love and respect in how she describes their dynamic, one where the two act as partners, rather than one being subordinate to the other.

Now, I’ve got a secret: this is what complementarians believe, too.

There’s a massive concern about equality that runs through the book, and I understand it. The Bible has been used to treat women shamefully. And she is right to be infuriated by this. The understanding underneath her saying, “I respect Dan because he has never once in our marriage demanded my submission” (location 3966) is right because anyone who has to “demand” submission isn’t worthy of being submitted to, anyway.

And this is what consistent, level-headed complementarians believe, too.

Second, there’s her approach to Scripture. 

While Evans states that she took her research “way too seriously,” combing through commentaries from all across the spectrum of Christian thought, as well as looking into modern Jewish interpretation, I’m not certain she came to the Scriptures with equal seriousness. This comes through in the heavy-handed application of the commands she finds—some of which aren’t actually commands at all, nor are they commands for women.

One example is her decision to sit on the corner of her roof because she can be a bit contentious (by her own admission). In all fairness, she’s aware that there’s no explicit command for women to do this. In fact, there’s no implicit command to do so either.

Proverbs 21:9 says, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.” So not only is this not a command for women, it’s not a command at all. It’s telling us that a marriage characterized by conflict is among the least appealing lifestyles imaginable.

Just as we’re right to remember that Proverbs 31 isn’t a woman’s job description, neither is this a declaration that people ought to sit on their roofs if there’s marital strife.

We don’t get to have it both ways, and yet it seems that Evans wants to. This is a consistent pattern that runs throughout the book. She may have “scoured the Bible, cover to cover, isolating and examining every verse [she] could find about mothers, daughters, widows, wives, concubines, queens, prophetesses, and prostitutes,” but it doesn’t seem to show, largely because she’s guilty of the same kind of literalistic reading of Scripture that she seeks to condemn.

This is why we find her isolating herself during her period (Leviticus 15:19-30), calling her husband “master” (cf. 1 Pet. 3:6), deciding to keep the dietary laws (Leviticus 11) and so much more… she seems set on majoring in the minors.

This is what Jesus condemned among the Pharisees when he told them, “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23). It’s not that (in their case) the minor points of the Law were unimportant when it acted as a guardian for God’s people (cf. Gal. 3:24), but the external didn’t match the internal.

Evans, in taking a literalistic approach to Scripture, ignores both context and genre (something she herself cites as a problem with complementarian readings), and so winds up coming across as mocking the Bible (which I would hope is not her intention).

And yet, this is still not the greatest concern I have.

The greatest concern I have about this book is a seeming misunderstanding of the gospel itself.

Evans sits on her roof because she “was determined to engage in some kind of public display of contrition for my verbal misdeeds” (location 649). Because she can’t live up to a particular expectation of what it means to be a woman, she imagines that God is disappointed with her ( location 1782).

There’s this sense that because of her attitude or inability to fulfill the commands of God, she’s got to do penance, as though her actions will somehow make it all better. She says that while God had long ago forgiven her, after a prayer that brings her year of “biblical” womanhood to an end, “I had forgiven myself for all I had done and all I’d left undone. I was starting fresh” (location 5367).

What’s troubling to me here is it seems like Evans hasn’t fully grasped the grace given to us in Christ.

We don’t need to forgive ourselves because God has forgiven us in Christ.

We don’t need to follow the dietary laws because Jesus has declared all things clean.

We don’t need to perform acts of contrition or penance because Jesus emphatically declared, “It is finished.”

There is nothing we can add to or subtract from the work of Christ. And understanding this changes everything for us, including how we relate to one another as men and women.

Because the gospel is at work restoring what was broken in the Fall of mankind, men and women are able to come together, by God’s grace, in mutual submission to Jesus and one another. Men are called to sacrifice themselves, to cultivate, nurture and protect their wives. Women are called to trust and follow their husbands, just as the Church is to follow Christ. This is what Paul calls the “mystery” of marriage; that in our relationships as husband and wife we are putting the gospel’s work on display (see Eph. 5:22-33).

For those who would go into a book like this already assuming they’re going to disagree, it can be tempting to write it off in its entirety. On some points, A Year of Biblical Womanhood offers some extremely helpful insights. On others, though, it comes across as petty and juvenile.

Those willing to dig through this book to find the good points will appreciate what they find. However, I don’t believe it represents an entirely honest attempt to discover a biblical view of womanhood and if you go in expecting that, you’ll likely be disappointed.


Title: A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master”
Author: Rachel Held Evans
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2012

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  • Kim Shay

    Great review, Aaron. I read Evans’s first book, and I knew enough of what she thought about Scripture and the gospel to know that her second book would leave me largely irritated and annoyed, so I chose not to read it. Thanks for being so balanced and highlighting her misunderstanding of the gospel.

  • Jeff

    Nice review, Aaron. I’ve been reading Rachel’s blog for the past few months since the whole complementarian debate blew up. She’s an angry person on a vendetta against caricatures. She doesn’t leave her attacks with Driscoll – she has it out for everyone at the gospel coalition. And she fails to realize that behind Driscoll’s extremes have actually done a lot of good. I personally know men who now attend his church and for the first time in their Christian walk are taking their role as husbands and fathers seriously. I’ll take a little extreme from one pastor to give everyone else a jolt in their complacency.

  • Chris

    Well done, Aaron…grace and wisdom here. I hope Rachel would see this and spend time reconsidering her approach.

  • Amber

    Good review. I appreciate the grace-filled approach in your review (which has been lacking in many of the other reviews I’ve read). Although her conclusions might be off, her concerns are legitimate and I don’t think other reviewers have taken that seriously enough (throwing out the baby with the bathwater).

    I don’t think she is trying to have it both ways in the book, though, regarding her view of Scripture. I think she is trying to show that a literal/non-contextual application of the Bible is absurd, and her interpretation of Proverbs 31 is her way of not treating all of the Bible as a law book.

    Although I’m sympathetic to much of what she says, I did think her explication of how she contextualizes Scripture was muddled and unclear. I actually read the book she cites, The Blue Parakeet, to try to understand her approach more. After reading it, I can see that her philosophy leans heavily on it, but she didn’t do a fabulous job of explaining it. Though I don’t agree with all that McKnight (the author of Blue Parakeet) concludes, I think his book is at least a very thought out and clearly communicated view point, which I think was lacking in her book. A complementarian interested in understanding what egalitarians have to say on this topic would do better to read his book, although hers is certainly entertaining.

  • http://sayable.net/ Lore Ferguson

    One of the better overviews I’ve read and also filled with grace. Thanks for the fair review.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500128603 Sean Chandler

    I haven’t read the book, but the mere premise and title of the book had me concerned. Clearly she’s borrowing the tactics of an agnostic who wrote his book for the purpose of criticizing taking the Bible seriously. Naturally this means her work comes off as also criticizing being “Biblical.”

    Likewise, when the title of the book is based on a misunderstanding of a Proverb, it seems she values being clever over biblical integrity. It’s also difficult to take her arguments seriously when her presentation of “Biblical Womanhood” is based on sensational hermeneutic and she presents the differing opinions by only using extreme quotes.

    Really, it’s very frustrating to me that given all the issues the church is facing that a Christian would write a book which on the surface looks like she’s saying, “Look how silly it is to try and live biblically.” It’s boost book says and her blog readership, but it’s enables the disenfranchised to reject portions of biblical authority.

  • Flyaway

    Amen!

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  • http://twitter.com/debwelch deb welch

    Aaron, thank you for this excellent, gracious and biblical review. Grace and peace to you in Christ.

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  • hannah anderson

    Hey, Aaron, did you ever read A. J. Jacobs’ original book that is the basis of YBW. I never hear it mentioned in reviews but I think had significant (if not too much) influence on how RHE crafted her approach. The only problem is that Jacobs was honestly ignorant of Scripture before he embarked on his project–as least as the book reads–and given RHE’s background I don’t think she can claim the same starting place. Point being, the reviews I read tend to take her seriously when half the time she’s borrowing pages from Jacobs’ approach of assumed ignorance.

    Secondly, I think that there is definite conflation of complementarian positions but ironically, I’ve realized that a lot of complementarians themselves have dumped “a conservative reading of gender” under the complementarian heading. Historically, complementarianism is a distinct movement and should be distinguished as such. But very few of us–including RHE–are doing that.

    I’m not offering this to diminish your review ( it is much appreciated despite the fact that I missed it the first time around) but it’s funny to me how everyone keeps landing on hermeneutics as the significant issue. I personally struggled with the book because of the things I mentioned more than anything. I read RHE’s blog fairly regularly so I didn’t even approach the book expecting a similar hermeneutical paradigm to my own, but I was disappointed by how closely it borrowed from Jacobs’ original.

    • Bill Norton

      Hannah,
      I read your post to Kathy Keller ‘s review and had thought the same thing; you said it better, however.

      Satire is extremely difficult to write. It works best when the author knows her/his audience and vice versa. In this case, I am not sure RHE is so skilled she could sustain her satirical/postmodern-ironic edge throughout.

      She also borrowed a premise from A.J.’s sendup, while dealing with serious theological matters. After nearly 40 years in writing for the general public, whenever I see another writer having to explain herself, as RHE has, I usually conclude the writer overshot his/her talent, neglected to make clear the work’s genre and, finally, was unable to sustain the style, among other shortcomings.