Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans


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Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood is engaging. She brings her readers on a journey and shows us what can happen when someone decides to take some of the Bible’s commands concerning feminine conduct literally.

For those readers who are not aware, there’s a faction of Christianity that is obsessed with upholding certain standards among men and women. When people discuss Biblical womanhood they often emphasize things such as the notion that a woman should focus on bearing and caring for children, as well as being modest and submissive.

In light of this idea, what did some of Ms. Held Evans’ duties include?

Over the course of her year of experimentation, she did things such as alter her mode of dress and wear a head covering as a display of modesty. She also sequestered herself in a tent and avoided touching men during her “time of the month”. Although these changes may sound odd to our modern ears, one can easily find support for them in scripture. Which begs the question that I believe drove Ms. Held Evans’ work: When people say that they support Biblically-based gender roles, just how far are they willing to take things?

In my opinion, Rachel Held Evans’ book illustrates a flaw in a much-heralded system. It’s true that there are women who prefer domestic pursuits. However what about those who do not fit the mold?

I have a love-hate relationship with feminine virtues. I think that having a family is a blessing. If my time and budget allowed for it, I would welcome the chance to get married and be a homemaker. However, what if, after having children, I decide that I would like to go back to work? Or, what if none of my domestic dreams come true? There are Christian women out there who are single and/or childless whose existence does not deserve to be diminished.

It seems foolish to me to reduce femininity to a series of stereotypes. Yet many individuals and entire church communities have no problem displaying a bias in the way that they treat women who do not fit the mold of a so-called Biblical woman.

For challenging these notions, Rachel Held Evans will have my eternal respect and gratitude.

Apart from my regular review, in writing about this book, I believe I would be remiss if I didn’t address some of the controversy surrounding it.

Lifeway Christian Resources is an American bookstore chain that has decided not to carry Ms. Held Evans’ book. Although the official reason remains unknown, Ms. Held Evans has mentioned that she believes that their rationale has something to do with her use of the word “vagina”.

I disagree. I saw the dreaded v-word in her text. To be quite honest, I barely noticed it. (I believe my reaction was, “What? That’s IT…?”)

However, throughout Biblical Womanhood I saw items that I thought provided evidence of the real reason why Lifeway would not permit her book to be on their shelves.

The more I read, the more one thing became clear to me: The ideas that Held Evans expressed do not coincide with the conservative Evangelical community’s agenda*. And quite frankly, customers who follow said agenda are big-box “Christian” bookstores’ bread and butter.

Here are a few of the things that I believe fundamentalists might object to:

1. Rachel does not frown on Catholicism. (Among other minor indiscretions, in one chapter she spends time in a monastery.) In response to my mentioning this, I know many will say “So what?” However, in this day and age I still encounter people who believe that Catholics do not worship God.

2. Rachel mentions aspects of other religions in a non-judgmental way. When she says things such as how if she was feeling differently about a particular circumstance** she might read the Bhagavad Gita, she doesn’t offer any apologies or disclaimers. Mind you…I know that a person can be rooted in Christ yet respectful of other religions. However in most Fundamentalists’ minds, such a thing is impossible. In fact, if you admit to some folks that you can learn something relevant from another faith’s traditions, you may as well tell them that you are consorting with the devil.

3. Time and again she attempts to edify her readers concerning the content of God’s word. Her book contains references to historical context for certain passages, as well as little-known facts. Her writing does not discredit the Bible. Yet here I feel it’s vital to note something. I notice that there tends to be a rift between what some Christians think the Bible says, versus what is actually in the text. I admire the fact that Ms. Held Evans aims to close that gap. However I’m not sure that others will feel the same way.

4. Rachel dares to call a spade a spade. In light of her book’s general premise, Ms. Held Evans speaks openly about some of the problems related to Evangelicals’ gender bias. Along the way, she mentions one of Evangelical Christianity’s leaders–John Piper. In addition to being a popular author and speaker, Pastor Piper is one of the cofounders of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Some of his ideas are interesting–or troubling, depending on who you speak to. Either way, in her chapter entitled “Silence” Rachel provides interesting food for thought related to regulations concerning women speaking–and teaching–in church. I deeply respect Ms. Held-Evans for noting the potential flaws in a popular leader’s line of thinking. Nevertheless I also know that there are those who likely believe that John Piper’s ideas are above reproach.

Let me make myself clear: I do not have a problem with any of these points. In fact, Held Evans’ honesty is one of the things that I love the most about A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

However, I think that with her latest book, Rachel Held Evans may have reached her Rob Bell* moment. She has shown that she is not afraid to discuss ideas that are contrary to what the Evangelical establishment expects. Overall, I think this is wonderful. In spite of what critics may have to say there are scores of people like me who appreciate Held Evans’ bravery.

Women need to know that their faith communities recognize their worth—beyond the domestic realm. In that regard, Rachel Held Evans’ work is revolutionary. I look forward to reading her next book.

*Maybe I’m off my rocker for theorizing about why Lifeway isn’t carrying her book. But I think I’ve read enough Christian books and known enough Fundamentalists in my day to make a solid hypothesis. If you believe I’m being unfair, let me know in the comments below.

**I apologize for being so vague. (Rachel, feel free to correct me!) There’s a sentence where Held Evans casually mentions the Bhagavad Gita. It was a very simple passage, and I didn’t take proper notes on it. Suffice it to say it was as harmless as me saying that I’d consult the Koran if I was interested in learning about Muhammad.

***I haven’t read the straw that broke the camel’s back. Yet I know that Rob Bell is an author who has been slammed for not toeing the party line. I say that respectfully, in spite of the fact that I may not agree with everything that Mr. Bell may believe.

Book has been provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Thomas Nelson.

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