Monday, January 7, 2013

Book Review :: A Year of Biblical Womanhood ::

I'd been hearing rumblings about this book for a while now.  A Year of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans, was on my reading wish list, and I couldn't stop talking about it.  I'd heard that Evans, a popular blogger, had done an experiment in which she took all the commands for women in the Bible literally for a year, in an attempt to discover what true womanhood is, as defined by the Bible.  My curiosity was piqued, and I talked about the concept to anyone who would listen.  That's why, on Christmas morning, when I found it nestled in a recycled, pink baby shower gift bag, I was ecstatic.  I leaped to my feet and kissed Scott with tears in my eyes.

"What's this all about?"  he asked, referring to my watery eyes and delighted kisses.

"It's just that ... I love that you gave me this.  It means that you care about me, and my journey, and my continuous discovery of who I am."

I immediately posted a picture on Facebook, and was lost in the book for the rest of the week.


In her introduction, Evans says,
Now, we as evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like it's Martin Luther's middle name.  We especially like to stick it in front of other loaded words, like economics, sexuality, politics, and marriage to create the impression that God has definitive opinions about such things, opinions that just so happen to correspond with our own.  Despite insisted claims that we don't "pick and choose" what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively almost always involves selectivity.
After all, technically speaking, it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father (Exodus 21:7), biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28), biblical for her to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34 - 35), biblical for her to cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:6), and biblical for her to be one of multiple wives (Exodus 21:10).
This is why the notion of "biblical womanhood" so intrigued me.  Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman?  And do all women of Scripture fit into this same mold?  Must I? (p. xx)
Evans set about her pursuit of biblical womanhood by identifying twelve virtues - gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence, and grace - and focused on one virtue each month of the year.  In October, she cultivated a gentle and quiet spirit, as per 1 Peter 3:3 - 4, took an etiquette lesson, attempted to kick the gossip habit, made herself serve penance by sitting on the rooftop for every time she was contentious with her husband.  My favorite part about Evans' month of gentleness was her experience with contemplative prayer.  I have heard these words in various forums for a while now, but wasn't sure exactly what contemplative prayer is.  Basically, I learned, it is a form of meditation, where you still your spirit and listen, rather than spend your time talking to (at?) God.   Reading Evans' beautiful words about contemplative prayer inspired me to attempt to practice it on my own.
I don't know for sure, but I think maybe God was trying to tell me that gentleness begins with strength, quietness with security.  A great tree is both moved and unmoved, for it changes with the seasons, but its roots keep it anchored in the ground.  Mastering a gentle and quiet spirit didn't mean changing my personality, just regaining control of it, growing strong enough to hold back and secure enough to soften. (p. 16)
I was beginning to fall in love with this book.  I loved Evans' fresh take on 'biblical' virtues that I have heard about my entire life.  See, the thing is, for me, the words 'biblical womanhood' come loaded with lots of impossible standards and shame.  I hear the word, 'gentleness', and I immediately think about my own fiery nature, the passion and drive that are as much a part of me as my left pinkie toe.  For so much of  my life, I have thought that I have two choices - either conform to the standard of a 'biblical woman', thereby forsaking some core part of my passionate identity, or be true to myself, and forsake God.  Neither solution seemed to be acceptable, so I spent my life walking a tightrope between attempting to fulfill standards, and shame.  With this first chapter of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I began to feel a weight lifted off my shoulders.  Here was someone who thought like me!  Here was someone who had the same questions I always have!

The next virtue Evans tackled was domesticity.  I found this chapter hilarious, as she described teaching herself to cook and attempting (not very well) to clean via Martha Stewart's Cooking School and Homekeeping Housebook.  I loved this part:
After reading Brother Lawrence, I tried to go about my housework with a little more mindfulness - listening to each rhythmic swishing of the broom, feeling the warm water rush down my arm and off my fingers as I scrubbed potatoes, savoring the scent of clean laundry fresh out of the dryer, delighting in the sight of all the colorful herbs and vegetables and cheeses on my countertop.  And sure enough, I found myself connecting with that same presence that I encountered during contemplative prayer, the presence that reminded me that the roots of my spirit extended deep into the ground.  I got less done when I worked with mindfulness, but, somehow, I felt more in control. (p. 29)
In December, Evans focused on the virtue of obedience.  She addressed her husband as 'Master' (1 Peter 3:1 - 6), and would have the entire month, except that he grew uncomfortable with it and ordered her to stop!  She also interviewed a woman living in a polygamist marriage, and held a touching ceremony honoring victims of misogyny.  

Next, Evans addressed valor, and it was my absolute favorite chapter of the book, hands down.  Here she looked at the 'Proverbs 31 Woman', that ideal we are all held up to.  When I read Proverbs 31, I am inspired by the words, but also hear that nagging voice in the back of my head - "YOU don't rise at dawn" ... "YOU don't keep the house very clean (watch over the affairs of the home)" ... "YOU spend way too much time 'eating the bread of idleness'".  At the end of the passage, when the husband rises up and says, "Many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all", I always feel a longing to be worthy of that praise, but know in my heart that I fall short of earning it.  So you can imagine how incredibly freeing it was to read the words of the wife of a Jewish rabbi, 
Here's the thing.  Christians seem to think that because the Bible is inspired, all of it should be taken literally.  Jews don't do this.  Even though we take the Torah literally (all 613 commandments!), the rest is seen differently, as a way of understanding our Creator, rather than direct commands.  Take Proverbs 31, for example. I get called an eshet chayil (a valorous woman) all the time.  Make your own challah instead of buying?  Eshet chayil!  Work to earn some extra money for the family?  Eshet chayil! Make balloon animals for the kids at Shul?  Eshet chayil!  Every week at the Shabbat table, my husband sings the Proverbs 31 poem to me.  It's special because I know no matter what I do or don't do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity.  All women can do that in their own way.  I bet  you do as well.  (p. 87)
After valor, Evans spent a month on beauty, modesty, purity, and then fertility. (During which she adopted a computer baby.  Hilarious.)  And then came June, and the virtue of submission.  Here is where I hit a snag in the book, and found some things I disagree with Evans on.  One of the things I love (and love and love and love) about her is that she looks at the Bible with a fresh perspective.  She puts a female spin on old stories, pointing out things that I have never noticed before, probably because I hear most of my bible teaching from men.  After each chapter, she writes a short vignette about a woman in the bible, putting a real face and human emotions on what used to be secondary, sideline characters, who served as footnotes to to bigger stories.  I love this, and it has caused me to approach my own bible readings with new eyes and a fresh curiosity.

In the chapter on submission, Evans says that, "with Christ, hierarchical relationships are exposed for the sham that they are, as the last are made first, the first are made last, the poor are blessed, the  meek inherit the earth, and the God of the universe takes the form of a slave (p. 219)."  I like that Evans pointed out how Christ made us all equal, and it's true, he didn't care who a person was or what status they had.  But I disagree with her assertion that Christ was against any kind of hierarchy.  Christ Himself said, "I can do nothing on my own initiative.  As I hear, I judge; and My judgement is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me (John 5:30)."  Even within the Holy Trinity there is a hierarchy, with God at the head and Christ submitted to Him.  You see this concept of hierarchy and order repeated throughout the Bible.  It's impossible to ignore.  

In addition to this, in referencing the passages in the Bible about submission, Evans skipped over some parts that are, to me, important.  She quoted Ephesians 5:22, "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord," and never mentioned the verse right after it, which says, "For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body."  Evans says of the Ephesians passage (and the ones in Colossians and 1 Peter), 
The questions modern readers have to answer is whether the Greco-Roman household codes reflected upon in Ephesians, Colossians, and in 1 Peter are in and of themselves holy, or if their appearance in Scripture represents the early church's attempt to blend Christianity and culture in such a way that it would preserve the dignity of adherents while honoring prevailing social and legal norms of the day.  The Christian versions of the household codes were clearly progressive for their time, but does that mean they have the last word, that Christians in changing places and times cannot progress further?
A very good point.  But I would say that still does not answer the section where Paul compares the husband as head of the wife, to Christ as head of the church.  No matter what way I look at it, there is no way around that picture.  And I love the picture, because, as it says in verses 30 - 31, "we are members of His body.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh."  I love that Paul dignifies women in a culture where they had no voice or autonomy, by addressing them directly and even telling men to "love his own wife even as himself", a radical concept at the time.  

It's not that one is 'higher' or 'more important' than the other - they are one flesh.  And yet there has to be a head (since God seems to place so much importance on it throughout the Scrpitures).  It seems like a paradox - how can we be unified, equal, and one, and at the same time man be possessed with the authority of headship?  Paul agrees, saying, "This mystery is great."  (v. 32)  I don't think we will ever be able to fully understand it.  I have had to become comfortable sitting in the paradox. 

The problem I have with this whole debate, the debate of complementarian vs egalitarian, is that they represent two extremes.  I really do feel that they are both right, in a way.  As Scott said while we were discussing the topic later, "You can't cut an apple in half, throw away half of it, and still have a whole apple."  In other words, both concepts are important to the whole.  Yes, hierarchy is established by God for order in the world.  But that does not mean that men rule over women.  It does not mean that all women have to submit to all men.  The very big, very real problem with complementarianism is that it has been taken way, way too far to impose control and dominance over women.  I know, because I have experienced it first hand.  I know a single mother in her 60's who calls her son, 'sir', and will submit to 'obeying' him because he is a man and, in her eyes (and his), is the ultimate authority.  Scott has personally been told by someone of the complementarian mindset to 'get control of' me, his wife.  It is ugly, and it is wrong.  And it is a sad, sad shame that it is perpetuated by the church, in the name of Christ.  

At one point in my life, not too many years ago, I would have denounced the paragraph above that I just wrote as, 'feminist propaganda trash'.  I would have called the author, 'rebellious to her authority', and vulnerable to the 'Jezebel spirit'.  I was so sure that I was interpreting the Bible passages correctly.  Now, I have a different interpretation.  I say this, to demonstrate that just because I disagree with Evans' view on submission, I can't say that I have the definitive view on it, either.  I may be right, she may be right.  People a lot more knowledgeable than I am have been debating this subject for centuries.  All I can do is approach the text with a humble, open, seeking heart, and ask God for wisdom when reading it.  And then, give grace to my sister who obviously did the same thing and came away with a different interpretation.  I still love what she had to say about so many other things, I loved the way she fleshed out biblical characters, and I won't allow a differing view I have with her on one point, to negate the rest of what she has to say.  

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book to anyone, women especially, who are looking for a fresh take on what it means to be a woman of God.  It made me laugh, it made me cry, and most importantly it made me turn back to the Scriptures, searching them for myself to discover the truth God's heart towards His daughters.

4 comments:

  1. I loved this book. I usually won't touch "Christian" parenting books or books on biblical womanhood with a 10 foot pole.

    I especially appreciated how she took back Proverbs 31. I always looked at it like some impossible list. I like much more the Jewish perspective. I do serve my family and that does make me the Proverbs 31 woman. It just looks different for every woman.

    I didn't have a problem with the part on submission. I loved the Jewish picture of "helpmeet." Two posts supporting one another is perfect balance. I ended up making a visual when Fynn and I were playing with his citiblocks. It wasn't easy to get the two blocks to sit perfectly so that they didn't fall down. I like that picture of a marriage. It seems to say when we both give our all, in complete trust of one another, things are held up.

    That being said, I don't think the subject of submission has come up between Jeremy and I (except maybe my verbal assault of whatever group is taking it completely out of context). We have never really discussed what is should look like or the theological implications of it.

    I can only think of one time it could be said I submitted to him, and it was probably the lowest point our marriage has been through up to this point in time. I didn't think of it as submitting at the time, but looking back it could probably be seen as that.

    That was a long comment, but discussion on this topic sounds like fun!

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    1. Yeah, I love the visual of the posts supporting one another as well. I've had a growing curiosity about Jewish and Easter Orthodox interpretations of scripture. It seems to me that they have such a balance, good approach to the bible. I've actually got some Eastern Orthodox commentaries on the back burner for our upcoming bible study on Ephesians. I can't WAIT to read them - all I've ever read were written by Evangelical Prodestants.

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  2. Thank you for sharing this review Danica. I've heard bits and pieces about this book and would love to read it myself after reading your thoughts.

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    1. The entire book was wonderful, I only disagreed with about 6 pages of it. Overall, an insightful, inspiring read. I was reading through Acts this morning, and the characters came alive to me like never before, because I was reading through the new lens RHE gave me. Love it!

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