So if you’re a woman and if you’ve spent any significant potion of you life inside a church, whether in Sunday School, high school youth group or college Bible study, you’ve heard many sermons, talks and opinions about what it means to live as a woman according to the Bible.
The opinions can differ according to denomination, church and pastor and if you need more opinions, there is a multimillion dollar industry devoted to telling women how to live more “biblically.” Hell, there’s even an official Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that can tell you what both women’s (and men’s role) in the church and in the home are all about. (Warning: clicking on the previous link may lead to rage stroke in some readers. Proceed with caution).
In an effort to find out what the Bible really says about how women should live their lives, Rachel Held Evans, a blogger, award winning writer and self-professed liberal woman and evangelical undertook a year-long project to try and live by as many of the laws and commandments set forth for women in the Bible as possible. She chronicles the project in her new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head and Calling Her Husband Master. If this idea seems a bit familiar, you’re right. A.J. Jacobs conducted a similar project which he chronicled in his book, The Year of Living Biblically and Held Evans states on her popular blog that she always wanted to see a woman’s take on the issue.
Like Jacobs, she divided the project into twelve monthly segments, but for each month, she decided to focus on one aspect of traits the Bible states are inherent in the ideal woman. Those traits are gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, charity, silence, and grace. Held Evans incorporates practices from both the Torah and the New Testament to highlight each trait. For example, she lived in a tent on her front lawn during her period in order to adhere to Levitical law, hosted a Passover seder and submitted in everything to her husband in accordance to one of three passages in the Bible that commands women to do so. The stories she tells of the foibles, mistakes and things she’s learned along the way are funny and quite touching, especially the interactions with her husband, family and friends as she tried to go about her daily life while adhering to certain rules and regulations not normally practiced in her community. Also included at the end of each chapter are profiles of a “Woman of Valor,” a title inspired by Proverbs 31:10, “A valorous woman, who can find? Her value is far beyond pearls.” It highlights a different woman from the Bible, from Tamar to Deborah to Mary to Junias.
Between all the stories and self-deprecating jokes about her lack of domestic skills, Held Evans conducted an investigation into both the hermeneutics of Biblical passages pertaining to women and the cultural context in which they were written. In the midst of recording this project and conducting research, she tackles the controversy surrounding women leading and teaching in the church, the troublesome ideas surrounding modesty and beauty, and the oftentimes violent stories of women in the Bible. Held Evans never shied away from the parts of the Bible that are disturbing and tell of extreme violence towards women, nor did she make apologies for them and theorize them away. Instead she acknowledged that she wrestles with those stories and passages regularly. She turns passages and stories that are drilled into Christian women on their head and offers a different take from the traditional conservative interpretations. For example, she takes the woman spoken of in Proverbs 31; who is used as the shining example for all Christian women, young and old alike as an example of a virtuous woman and domestic goddess and points out the militaristic nuances to her actions that are lost in the English translation.
She conducted interviews and spent time with women from different traditions and faiths who interpreted the Bible’s messages and commands to women differently from her own tradition. She spent time with Amish women, interviewed a woman in a polygamist marriage, and regularly corresponded with an Orthodox Jewish woman in Israel. All these women claim to live in accordance to “biblical womanhood,” but every woman differs in how that is lived out in their individual lives. Therein lies the crux of Held Evans main thesis; while Christian conservatives accuse liberals and feminists of selective readings of scriptures to suit their own needs, those same conservatives also go about picking and choosing what passages women should adhere to because as Held Evans points out:
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 22:28-29), biblical for her to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), biblical for her to cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:6) etc.
In taking (almost) all the exhortions and commands literally, Held Evans illustrates how trying to force Christian women into one mold and one ideal is impossible, especially when that ideal venerated by conservative Christians adheres more closely to the idea of an idyllic 1950s nuclear family than to marital and family relations in the ancient Middle East.
The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth.
Unlike Jacobs’ book, this is a book written by a Christian and though it can be read by a wider audience, it is a book for Christians, particularly evangelical Christians. I find myself ok with that prospect since the issues that the author brings up in the book are issues that need to be discussed in the evangelical Christian subculture. The notion of biblical womanhood has been a source of oppression and condemnation for women of the Christian faith for far too long. It is tragic that there are hundreds of books and probably millions of blog posts about the three passages in the New Testament where the apostles talk about wives submitting to their husbands when a good deal of the Old Testament and almost everything that came out of Jesus’ exhorts believers to care for the poor, needy and oppressed. I wholeheartedly agree with Held Evans that these are grand adventures in missing the damn point.
The book has already fostered much conversation and controversy over it’s contents and intentions, with critics accusing Held Evans of mocking the Bible and ridiculing the Christian faith, which is ridiculous. I think the brouhaha just proves that subtle humor and satire are lost on most people. While I don’t think this book will change the minds of the staunchly theologically conservative (they’re like that uncle you have who still thinks Obama is a Muslim terrorist), I do think it offers affirmation and peace to those of us who never felt comfortable in the traditional roles and narratives the Christian church offered to women. It gives hope to someone like me, who left the Church to retain both her sanity and love for Jesus. It gives me hope that there might be a way to return without feeling like I would lose part of myself in order to fit into someone’s narrow view of my gender.