A Year of Biblical Womanhood

In a book that has generated no small controversy, Rachel Held Evans pulls off something remarkable as she is able to be charming and punchy at the same time. Somehow she strikes a perfect balance between being acerbic, but approachable. Its no surprise that she has a massive following; her ability to evoke feelings of empathy is an admirable one.

But sometimes she displays an annoying habit (which is not unique to her) in that she seems to relish recalling her days as a benighted fundamentalist who was unwittingly bamboozled into a confounding belief system by a backwards upbringing. The point: we are meant to get the impression that she has come a long way down the road less traveled of theological sophistication. Allow me to rant on this a bit. While there is a healthy sense of wonder one can have upon reflecting on how much one has changed, there is something oddly self-serving about hastily re-imagining oneself as a paradigm example of closed-minded ignorance so as to set up a contrived contrast with the present, broad-minded self. I call this the ‘Frankie Schaeffer Syndrome’, and it is a particularly obnoxious style of autobiography that seems to ail those who resent something about their Christian upbringing and write spiritual memoirs about it.

Why do I take time to point this out? Reading the autobiographical statements of the Ronald L. Numbers in his seminal volume The Creationists, I noticed that while he now strongly disagrees with the teaching of his Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, he maintains a charitable and admirable respect for his past. This is no mere empty sentiment. It informs his posture towards his historical subjects and sets the stage for a fair representation that is recognized by all sides of the public debate over creation and evolution. How this is relevant to Evans is that deep down, I think she is more like Numbers than Schaeffer. So why does she write with the posture of the ‘Frankie Schaefer Syndrome?’ I suppose it is more stylistically entertaining, but it detracts from the substance of her point. To this we now turn.

Evans is concerned that evangelicals are too liberal with their use of the word “biblical” to modify whatever subject they deem perfect and true. This is fair insofar as it goes, but when it comes to things like marriage and sexuality she is particularly exasperated with those who would deploy this word to “create the impression that God has definitive opinions about such things.” Well doesn’t he? Anyone who reads the Bible and believes what it says might thinks so. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that when it comes to determining what the Bible says, everyone “picks and chooses” texts that speak for the whole Bible while ignoring others. Hence, her project is meant to ridicule this state of affairs by taking every text that talks about women into account, no matter what the context, and putting them into practice. If it’s between a leather-bound book cover with the words “Holy Bible” on it, it’s “biblical.”So Evans spent a year trying to abide by every text as literally as possible.

The product of her approach is her “Ten Commandments of Biblical Womanhood:”

  1. Thou shalt submit to thy husband’s will in all things. (Genesis 3:16, Titus 2:5, 1 Peter 3:1, Ephesians 5:22, 1 Corinthians 11:3, Colossians 3:18)
  2. Thou shalt devote thyself to the duties of the home. (Proverbs 14:1, Proverbs 31:10-31, I Timothy 5:14, Titus 2:4-5).
  3. Thou shalt mother. (Genesis 1:28, 1 Timothy 5:14, Psalm 127: 3-5, Psalm 128:3, Proverbs 31:3-5.)
  4. Thou shalt have a gentle and quiet spirit. (1 Peter 3:3-4, Proverbs 11:22, Proverbs 19:13, Proverbs, Proverbs 21:9, Proverbs 27:15-16, Titus 2:3-5, 1 Timothy 2:22, 1 Timothy 3:11)
  5. Thou shalt dress modestly. (Genesis 24:65, Deuteronomy 22:5, 1 Timothy 2:8-10, 1 Peter 3:3).
  6. Thou shalt cover thy head when in prayer. (1 Corinthians 11:3-16)
  7. Thou shalt not cut thy hair. (1 Corinthians 11:15)
  8. Thou shalt not teach in church. (1 Corinthians 14:33-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-12)
  9. Thou shalt not gossip. (Numbers 12:1-10, Proverbs 26:20,  1 Timothy 5:13, 1 Timothy 3:14)
  10. Thou shalt not have authority over a man. (1 Timothy 2:12)
One particularly puzzling application of hers comes from Proverbs 21:19 which says that it is better to live on the corner of a rooftop than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. To better foster in herself ‘a gentle and quiet spirit,’ Evans makes a ‘swear jar’ of sorts that she contributes pennies to for every negative thought or verbal complaint. Then, as penance, she spends time on the rooftop to ‘pay off’ the debt in the swear jar. Why she interprets this verse as directed to the quarrelsome wife, and not the exasperated husband, as if it were a staple of “biblical womanhood” to spend time on the rooftop for being quarrelsome, makes little sense. Obviously, she was going for laughs here, but the joke is too haphazardly concocted to be funny.*

This is not to say that Evans is without wit as her contrast of Martha Stewart with the likes of Debi Pearl and Stacy MacDonald shows, “Sure, Martha can be a real stickler for doing things her way, but you don’t hear her saying that you’ll go to hell if you don’t.” Perhaps the warmest parts of the book are those that record her and Dan’s conversations, not to mention his journal entries. The artificial hierarchy imposed upon on their marriage makes for a delightful awkwardness between what seems like a playful and tender couple.

Nor do I mean to say that all of her biblical interpretations are flat-footed. Her ruminations on the story of Mary and Martha are empowering as she freshly discerns the point of the story for those with tender consciences who have heard it time and time again. The “ceremony” she holds for the Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:37-40) is a touching episode of lament over the the violence and oppression suffered by women in Scripture. She then insightfully links it to the violence and oppression suffered by Christ on the cross. The section on Proverbs 31 deserves a wide reading as she rightly understands that the passage was meant to be memorized by men so that they might find ways to praise their wives as “women of valor” or “wives of noble character.” The fact that it has been used as a kind of checklist for women to measure themselves against is a tragic outcome of our pragmatic, ‘give me a list of things to do’ evangelical culture. Evans encourages husbands to follow the practice of orthodox Jewish men who cry “Echet chayil!” (wife of noble character!) when their wives contribute their well-being and the good of the household. I can testify that this has been a enjoyable practice to imitate.

Yet her chapter on justice is the least substantive as she asserts, “Justice means moving beyond the dichotomy between those who need and those who supply and confronting the frightening and beautiful reality that we desperately need one another.” This is a rather odd view of justice to take in light of the fact that her practical applications include purchasing only fair trade coffee and chocolate: “Who knew justice could be so delicious?” she writes. Yet the classic meaning of justice, which is to render that which a person is due, covers her concern for distributive justice (how goods should be distributed in some social order) and commutative justice (how goods are exchanged via legal contracts) just fine.

Why, then does she offer such a contrived view of justice?  It is because she is influenced by the very interesting and provocative book Half the Sky by Kristoff and WuDunn, which insightfully argues that a society prospers insofar as its women prosper. The sort social interdependence at work in their thesis is what Evans has in view. But if this is the case, then I wonder why Evans failed to at least footnote the social of disaster of sex-selective abortion. One doesn’t need to be a right-wing Southern Baptist to sense the travesty of such a practice; Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection is proof enough that the the injustice of this issue transcends the dichotomy of left and right. This would have at least related to the value of women which ought to be respected at all stages of life (why not draw attention to that in addition to the plight of cocoa farmers?).

This sets the stage for the most painfully ironic part of the book in which she says,

“I’ve watched congregations devote years and years to heated arguments about whether a female missionary should be allowed to share about her ministry on a Sunday morning, whether students older than ten should have female Sunday school teachers, whether girls should be encouraged to attend seminary, whether women should be permitted to collect the offering or write the church newsletter or make an announcement . . . all while thirty thousand children die every day from preventable disease. If that’s not an adventure in missing the point, I don’t know what is.”

I can appreciate anyone who lampoons Wayne Grudem’s list of approved activities in church for women (60 out of 83!), but why should anyone even read Evans’ book if thirty thousand children die every day? This is supposed to be some sort of trump, but the fact that it comes from someone who took a year poke fun at the notion of “biblical womanhood” just cannot be taken seriously.

With that said, there are things to which Evans rightly draws our attention, particularly the scandalous treatment Jackie Roese suffered from her complementarian detractors. The first woman to preach a sermon at Irving Bible Church (near Dallas, TX) was counseled to hire a bodyguard after being told she was exemplifying “cancer in the Church,” a “dangerous sign,” and a “threat to Christianity.” Evans’s interview with Roese tells her side of the story with grace and dignity, and it leaves the reader with the impression of a woman who has learned how to love her enemies in the midst of her calling.

By the end of the book the reader gets the sense that Evans has run out of material for the project, because her last month of “biblical womanhood” has little to do with women in the Bible; her project is to bake some bread for an offering and celebrate Rosh Hashanah (Lev 23:23-24; Num 15:17-21; 29:1-6). Perhaps the takeaway here is that the Bible doesn’t say that much about women, because it is more interested in telling us about what it means to be human.

So what are we to learn from Evans’s year of ‘biblical’ womanhood? That the Bible is a complicated book and if we stick the word “biblical” in front of chosen topic, we are inevitably selective and ignore passages that make trouble for our favored opinion. As much as I can sympathize with this point, it is somewhat banal. Whenever one engages the process of interpretation of Scripture, it is inevitable that one set of passages will be taken to interpret another set of passages. That’s just part of the process of interpreting Scripture with Scripture, a time-honored hermeneutical practice if there ever was one. Calvinists, Arminians, and Open Theists do this, as do Complementarians and Egalitarians, as does anyone who is trying to hear the central message of the Bible. It is true that we come to the Bible looking for things we want to get out of it; I guess I am just more optimistic that one can hold those things in one hand and work objectively through a method of interpretation that “gets at” what the writer was trying to say.

A professor of mine likes to distinguish between that which is “biblical” and that which is “biiiiblical.” The former refers to what’s between the bookcovers and the latter refers to what the point of the central message is supposed to be. The reason I think Evans’s project doesn’t amount to much (even though it was kind of fun) is because I think one can discern the content of the latter, that which is biiiiblical, and work hard to explain the disparate texts that are puzzling to us in a principled manner. Evans gives the impression that this isn’t really possible, even though that is what she tries to do throughout her book when she reports the findings of her Bible studies on texts like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and Proverbs 31.

Another reason I push back on this point is because I am a believer in “biblical equality.” I can relate with Evans a lot in that I was raised in a context of creationism, attended complementarian churches, and went to an inerrancy-affirming liberal arts college, but later found myself asking many of the same questions and experiencing many of the same doubts she describes in her earlier work. Maybe it is because I’ve published articles contending for an egalitarian view of gender roles, and have had to pay the price for that in my social contexts (albeit a small one), but I would hope that my cause transcends a mere statement of personal values, and aims at the normative truth and goodness of there being “no male and female” in God’s economy (Galatians 3:28). I think Evans and I share this much, which is why I gently implore her to articulate to a higher view of hermeneutics; in many cases, she already practices what she should preach.


*Another error: Evans claims that if a woman was raped and her screams were heard by passersby, both the woman and her rapist would be put to death. But this is false: “only the man who has done this shall die” (Deut 22:25).


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