When I first asked my wife if she would like to read a book titled A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she the look she gave me pleaded, “No, not one of those books please.” I’m sure that many know what kind of books “those books” are, the ones that list off how you are to be a better wife, mother, daughter, cook, maid, artist, philanthropist, archaeologist, hockey player. Okay maybe not all of those, but you get the idea. My response to this was, “I don’t think it is that type of book, this one is controversial.”
I wasn’t exactly so certain what the controversy was although some presented A Year of Biblical Womanhood as a textbook on undermining Biblical inerrancy and the importance of the Bible. After reading it, I can say that I still don’t really know what the controversy was all about, or at least why the book caused controversy period, and that it is not a textbook at all. I’m not exactly sure what you would call it, but I’d say that A Year of Biblical Womanhood is more of a “spiritual experiment log”. It reminds me of back when you had labs in high school and college and had to record various findings for the experiment that you were doing at the time.
Of course Rachel Held Evans is not mixing chemicals, dissecting small animals, or observing biological growth. She is attempting to live a year of Biblical womanhood by following certain parts of the Bible as literally as she can. This included things as mundane as having her hair grow out to the unusual of living in a tent during her period one month.
She didn’t try to do everything all throughout the year, but would pick a theme to focus on for a month and then write about where the theme came from, her reflections on the month, stories from other communities of women, and even some observations from her husband during the time. It’s an interesting and engaging read with a good amount of humor thrown in.
So what about the controversy? I understand some of it, but most of it doesn’t strike me as all too controversial. I think the most significant point that I do understand is that Rachel interviews and writes about all kinds of people from different backgrounds, but doesn’t seem to focus on the group that is perhaps most behind the book and much of the critique presented, complementarians.
Maybe that’s because she figured that most Christians are familiar with the movement, or maybe it is because it wouldn’t fit with the way she presented things in the rest of the book? Would attempting to do that turn the book into something else other than what she wanted to do? Would it simply be too hard to find a complementarian that everyone would agree as being a “true complementarian”? I just don’t know.
If I were a complementarian then I might be a bit unhappy with that, but I’m not sure that invalidates some of the critique. After all I’m a stay-at-home Dad and I’ve felt the subtle thoughts that my place isn’t in the home and my wife has felt the same only on the other side of things. We’ve both felt the idea that the place for the woman is in the home with the children, and while that may not always come under the label of complementarian, these mentalities exist in the church.
The other main critique is one that I get to a certain point, but then think people are making a bigger deal out of it than is needed. This is with Rachel Held Evans’ hermeneutics or interpretation of Scripture. Now I admit that sometimes her work is a bit sloppy, for example I would reference her use of Titus 1:12. However, I think she’s sloppy here mainly because she doesn’t include more context, not because she’s necessarily wrong.
That verse itself is simply Paul quoting someone else, but she doesn’t present it as such and cuts of the first part of the verse. Now the meaning may not change much because Paul says after that, “This witness is true” in Titus 1:13, but this isn’t included either. Maybe there is a way to interpret that differently, but at this point one winds up helping Rachel’s idea of different ways to interpret passages and apply them. I’m not sure it warranted the long anecdote in the book, but I’m not sure that Rachel is exactly off base either here, even if it might have helped to include all of verse 12 and 13 (assuming it was her choice and not an editorial decision).
Beyond this, the issues I have with her are minor. She does seem to lean into the Old Testament is bad, New Testament is good way of thinking. I don’t really like that approach to the Bible, but I do understand it because there is a lot that is just very different in the Old Testament and hard for us to wrap our heads around today. On the other hand I also didn’t see her really saying that the Old Testament is of no value either, so as I said it is a minor point.
What I didn’t really get was the big push back for her in taking the Old Testament literally and not focusing enough on the New Testament and Jesus’ fulfillment of the ceremonial laws and such things like that. It was pretty clear to me from the beginning that she was doing this full knowing that it wasn’t the requirement for today, but that it was a requirement of the Bible at some point in time (and for Orthodox Jewish believers who still adhere to purity laws). Her point wasn’t about writing on Jesus’ fulfillment of the ceremonial laws, and to place that expectation on her seems to be missing the point.
She also does take some liberty with some sections that she tackles. Like the whole standing at the city limits with the “Dan is Awesome” sign. I’m pretty sure she knows this and isn’t trying to say that people are really saying this is what being a Biblical woman means. However, I think if anything she is presenting a problem that is very real in the way we approach some scripture. We take a very literal approach on some passages regarding women or a certain subject, but then find interpretive ways to get out of literal approaches on others. These may be valid, but they may not always be. Understanding that the same Bible that people hold as God’s Word can be interpreted in different ways by different people or groups of people is a point we often miss.
So I didn’t really get a lot of the push-back on these issues. As I said, I can understand why some complementarians may dislike no representation except from certain books that may or may not be reflective of the larger movement. I also thought that some broader engagement with some of the verses she used would be nice, but both of these are really fairly minor points in my mind. I think a lot of the hubbub was people putting other expectations on Rachel Held Evans that weren’t in line with what she was trying to accomplish with the book.
All this said I’m still left unsure what to do with the book. It was an interesting read but I also felt it was lacking. She does have good insights throughout the book; my particular favorite being how Proverbs 31 was used not as a checklist for women, but a praise for your wife no matter what she has or hasn’t done. While insights like these were in the book, I felt that the impact just wasn’t the same as all the work that she put into each chapter and presented to us in a handful of pages.
Overall, I guess my thoughts are this. I can see how this book can help those who struggle with the rigid concepts of what a women is supposed to do by seeing someone go through things that are within some circles presented as what “good Christian women” should be like. Rachel succeeds, she fails, and she struggles through parts of her experiment and you’re with her through the ups and downs. However, some of the aspects of her experiment that are a bit out there and it may put some off as being a “I did crazy things and wrote about it” kind of book.
If you’re coming to it for a theological textbook on inerrancy, Jesus’ fulfillment of the ceremonial laws, a point by point comparison of complementarianism vs. egalitarianism, or something along those lines you’re going to be disappointed and probably write a bad review. If you are reading this book looking for a how to be a “Biblical woman” you will again be disappointed, or perhaps pleasantly surprised I suppose. A Year of Biblical Womanhood is a story about an experiment first and foremost. It contains insights and thoughts from that experiment. While this book may influence you in certain ways, I imagine that the largest benefactor of this book was Rachel herself. Conducting an experiment yourself often teaches you more than reading somebody else’s lab notes even if they are deftly written.