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January 9, 2013

What the Bible Says About Womanhood

Rachel Held Evans’ 12-month journey in “biblical womanhood” contains intriguing statements about traditional family values.

evans_biblical_womanhood_blog.jpg

“When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word . . . we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t fit our tastes . . . More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.”

This is one of Rachel Held Evans’ conclusions at the end of her yearlong adventure in “biblical womanhood.” The popular blogger and author spent 12 months living according to biblical instructions for women, as literally as possible.

Along the way, she wrote about her experiences and observations, each month with a different goal focused on a specific theme: gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence, and grace.

The book is both hilarious and serious. Her education in cooking and failed attempts at sewing are funny and relatable. She adds some absurdity, including camping in the front yard during her period and referring to her husband as “master.” She also tackles some influential voices that define the way many women believe they should live.

Evans uses biblical scholarship and her experiences to examine widely espoused roles and restrictions placed on women in the evangelical world. She is careful not to pit women against one another, and affirms those who choose a way of life more traditional than hers. But she is also bold about saying, “The Bible is not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today.”

Each chapter ends with a profile of a woman from the Bible, helping us understand her circumstances and celebrating what she can teach us. Ultimately, the book is a celebration of women and God’s work in and through us.

She casts a vision for women beyond regulations and rhetoric, calling us to pursue God’s work. She inspires us through a true understanding of the Proverbs 31 woman, who “is a star not because of what she does but how she does it—with valor. So do your thing.”

Talk about It
: When I first heard about Evans’ project, I was turned off by what felt like a gimmick, disrespecting the destructive power of playing with a topic over which so many have been wounded; possibly fueling the war between women by mocking those who embrace domesticity with conviction and joy.

After reading the book, I appreciate the care Evans took to make peace among women. But I still feel uncomfortable with her approach, essentially a false experiment. It’s more an adventure in proving a point. I agree with her starting (and ending) assumptions about women, but her “experiment” comes across as disingenuous.

Granted, much of the problem isn’t in the book’s content, but in its presentation. The cover, subtitle, and promotion suggest it isn’t a serious book. Marketing copy calls her experience a “radical life experiment.” The back cover refers to what she “learns the hard way.” But she didn’t set out to learn. In her words, she “set out to . . . show that no woman, no matter how devout, is actually practicing biblical womanhood all the way.”

That said, if a silly “experiment” will gain an audience for women’s voices and open doors for God’s work through them, I say do it.

The book contains a few other flaws. Some of the biblical “instructions for women” Evans mentions (polygamy) or follows (holding a sign declaring her husband awesome) accomplish little because they aren’t embraced as instructions by mainstream Christians. While her overall tone is warm and uplifts women, some of what she intends as evangelical self-deprecation comes across more like self-loathing. And some bits of snark are delivered without the attendant humility required for a sting rather than a cut.

Evans is at her best when she moves beyond exploring domestic tasks and into misconceptions about topics such as modesty, submission, and silence. In January, she dethrones the Proverbs 31 woman in a chapter that is especially freeing. And her focus on justice is truly inspiring.

This book isn’t flawless, but it is worth reading. Readers should know they are picking up not a neutral description of an experiment, but a strong argument in favor of Evans’ point of view.

Women who think different from Evans will be challenged to examine their views. Women who don’t will find encouragement. All will find affirmation of their potential as women of valor.

Amy Simpson is editor of Gifted for Leadership, Marriage Partnership, and ParentConnect, and is a regular contributor to the TCW blog.

Related Tags: acceptance, adventure, challenges, choices, creativity, rachel held evans, women in biblical times

Comments

amy--i thought the same thing when i saw the cover, turned off by the lightheartedness/gimicky-ness of it; but after reading some excerpts from the book that rachel evans has posted, i realized the content (or some of it anyway) is much richer than the cover implies. your review has validated this--and i have much respect for your thoughts and critique...thanks! i plan to read the book.

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