A Year of Biblical Womanhood: Playful, Earnest God-Wrestling with Rachel Held Evans

Biblical Womanhood
As an evangelical Christian growing up in the deep South, Rachel Held Evans was surrounded by the concept of “Biblical womanhood.” Over the last thirty years of culture wars, this term has been used by evangelicals as a contrasting foil with second wave feminism. At one Biblical womanhood conference that Rachel attended, one of the main speakers held up 1950’s sitcom heroine June Cleaver as the exemplar of Biblical womanhood. Having always been a girl who asked too many questions, Rachel decided to spend a year from October, 2010 to September, 2011 exploring “Biblical womanhood,” living out and examining a mixture of the actual practices of the ancient women from the Bible along with some of the modern-day evangelical stereotypes. The result of Rachel’s journey is the book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which combines accessible, engaging storytelling with thoughtful Bible study and exploration of a variety of Christian and Jewish cultural traditions.

It’s the playfulness of this book that most made me enjoy it. Each month, Rachel had a different female virtue to embody and a different mix of silly and genuine challenges she would tackle in order to cultivate this virtue. In October, when the virtue was gentleness, Rachel had grown fascinated by the “contentious woman” who haunted the book of Proverbs, which says in verse 21:9, “It is better to live in a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman.” So Rachel came up with a goofy way of embodying this verse: she put coins in a jar to keep track of her contentiousness for a month and then spent an hour and twenty-nine minutes sitting on her roof as penance.

Some of what Rachel did was a bit satirical, like calling her husband “Master” in an “I Dream of Jeannie” voice during a month when she explored the virtue of obedience, but every month was also a sincere spiritual journey in which she wrestled and ultimately came to peace with a feminine virtue that she had initially found oppressive. She went to a social refinement consultant, learned how to sew, cooked her way through a Martha Stewart cookbook, and visited an Amish lady who to her surprise had a hula hoop in her kitchen that she used to get in shape even while wearing her ankle length dress.

One of the interesting twists that the book took was the degree to which it became an exploration of Judaism. Rachel befriended an Israeli Orthodox Jew named Ahava during January when she was exploring the nature of the Proverbs 31 woman who is a popular exemplar for Biblical womanhood in the evangelical world. Rachel’s friendship with Ahava becomes a narrative thread throughout the book. Ahava coached Rachel through such things as preparing a Passover seder meal, the niddah (monthly time of uncleanness when Orthodox Jewish women avoid contact with their husbands), and finally the rituals around Rosh Hashanah with which Rachel concludes her yearlong journey. Rachel also learned that Jewish culture uses the Proverbs 31 woman less to tell women how to behave and more to teach men to appreciate what their wives are already doing. Ahava shared with Rachel that her husband sings the words of Proverbs 31 to her every week at the Shabbat table.

Rachel’s book also had some tough realities to share. In her chapter on beauty, she talks about how the erotic love poetry in the Song of Songs was used by one fundamentalist pastor to tell a bride at her wedding of her responsibility not to get fat so that her husband wouldn’t have to find sexual gratification elsewhere. She also covers the Quiverfull movement, which believes that Christians are commanded to have as big a family as they possibly can, based on a questionable interpretation of Psalm 127. As Rachel says, “Poems were never meant to be forced into commands” (112), which is a common abuse of the Biblical text by people who have tried to make the whole thing into an “owner’s manual.”

Brave New Films

Towards the end of the book, Rachel discusses her principles of Biblical interpretation in general, quoting Christian thinker Peter Rollins: “In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naive attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of love” (294). Rollins is calling out the modernist folly of pretending to read the Bible without an agenda. Everyone has an agenda; feigned “objectivity” is the agenda of privilege. Rachel herself asks whether we should read the Bible “with the prejudice of love” or “with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest, and greed” (295). Without naming it, Rachel is echoing the hermeneutical principle that the great 4th century Christian theologian Augustine set forth in his guide to Biblical interpretation, De Doctrina Christiana, where he writes: “If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them” (De Doctrina 1:36:40). What Rachel calls the “prejudice of love” has been a long-standing hermeneutical standard throughout Christian history up until the recent post-Enlightenment period when integrity came to be equated with disinterest because of the prominence of the scientific method.

In addition to reading the Bible with the prejudice of love, I think that Rachel models for us an authenticity in dealing with challenging Biblical subject matter that I would call God-wrestling. She never suggests that anything in the Bible can be dismissed or set aside; she confronts the difficult parts quite openly, including what Phyllis Trible has dubbed the “texts of terror,” such as the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter and the gang-rape of the Levite’s concubine in the book of Judges. I think Rachel’s book would be an excellent discussion starter for small groups who are interested in confronting tough questions about how women are treated in scripture. Rachel proves that we can love the Bible and fully respect its canonical authority without denigrating the equal worth and giftedness of women for all aspects of Christian discipleship and ministry.

Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com. Follow Morgan on twitter at www.twitter.com/maguyton.

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About the Author

Morgan Guyton

Morgan GuytonMorgan Guyton is the author of How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. His blog Mercy Not Sacrifice is hosted at Patheos. He and his wife Cheryl are co-directors of NOLA Wesley, a Reconciling United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, LA.View all posts by Morgan Guyton →

  • I just heard Evans’ interview on Q—a popular show on CBC Radio in Canada. Jian (the interviewer) asked her why, with all the strange laws and customs of the Bible, did she not seek another path to spirituality. She responded with Jesus’ words to love God and neighbour and emphasized that Jesus Christ is the person through whom she interprets the entire Bible. I felt like cheering.

  • Frank

    Sarah Flashing writes:

    “Her analysis of “biblical womanhood” begins from a feminist perspective but a bit of misinformation resides in this subtitle. She didn’t exactly find herself in these various circumstances. It’s not like she was captive of a religious cult demanding her unyielding obedience or commanded by her husband to a position of servitude. Evans—as the liberated feminist she claims to be (36)—deliberately placed herself on the roof, in the kitchen, and in Hobby Lobby with the primary objective to prove that there is no single understanding of “biblical” womanhood to be derived from the pages of Scripture.”

    “I don’t believe this book is really about biblical womanhood, or biblical anything. YBW is a book about the Bible and how we read it. To fulfill her objective to live out this year of biblical womanhood and prove that there lacks a complete of consensus on what it is, Evans employs a feministhermeneutic of suspicion that begins with the assumption that instances of female submission in Scripture and as applied by the evangelical biblical womanhood movement are cultural artifacts rooted in the male pursuit of power and domination. But her fallacious methodology casts a shadow of mock and ridicule on a movement of men and women who seek alignment with the character of God in all manner of living.”

    “It’s just not true that evangelical advocates for biblical womanhood view the Bible as merely a self-help manual or a list of rules and regulations. This sort of misrepresentation is foundational to YBW, but it needs to be clarified that as evangelicals, we do believe the Bible contains helps and rules in the form of principles and precepts found within the various scriptural genres.”

    “It is Evans, however, who has conjured up the idea that evangelicals treat the text in a flattened manner by giving her readers the impression that every command in the Bible applies to every person every day and that if we don’t follow all of the commands all of the time, we are simply being selective. Her “obedience” to the Levitical purity laws during one month is treated with the same weight as her plan to obey the command for women to have a gentle and quiet spirit in yet another month. All commands being equal in her mind, it is Evans who has approached this project with a flattened view of Scripture, resulting in an erroneous perception of biblical womanhood.”

    “But most dangerous here is her assertion that we can’t arrive at the correct meaning of a passage. That we can not “interpret objectively” is postmodern spin that assumes evangelicals accept the modernist assumption that through reason alone do we understand Scripture. While the exegetical work and the historical-grammatical hermeneutic is an effort to remove our own self-interests from the interpretive task in pursuit of truth, we don’t believe this process exists in isolation from the work of the Holy Spirit. Reason alone simply isn’t enough, a truth that the apostle Paul affirms and evangelicals agree”

    “A Year of Biblical Womanhood is a sophomoric approach to a worthy investigation.’


    • Questioning

      Questioning writes….. whut? I think she liked it…. a little. Not graduate level, but maybe worthy of a Bachelor’s degree. Or maybe not….

    • Please put this in your own words instead of just cutting and pasting from another article.

      • Frank

        I thought it was important to hear from a woman’s perspective. A very telling one at that. Why are you threatened by it?

        • Questioning

          It’s an opinion…. nothing more, nothing less. I guess it’s telling because you seem to agree with it. I have not read the book so…. I just thought the opinion was a bit lofty and took too many readings to understand. It seemed to be a piece written by a professor, for other professors….

          “While the exegetical work and the historical-grammatical hermeneutic is an effort to remove our own self-interests from the interpretive task in pursuit of truth, we don’t believe this process exists in isolation from the work of the Holy Spirit.”

          Ok whatever…. and your audience is who?

          • Frank

            Well professors teach that’s why they exist. This one is teaching why what Rachel was trying to do was flawed from the get go. An interesting experiment that ultimately tells us nothing except exposing Rachel’s bias.

          • Questioning

            Teaching no, offering an opinion, yes. If there’s bias, it’s on both sides most likely.

          • Frank

            An educated opinion that shows the folly of Rachel’s methodology and conclusions.

            It is however an important subject to see what a biblical woman looks like. I hope someone explores it in the proper way.

          • I don’t think you understood what that lady was saying. Explain to me what historical-grammatical hermeneutic means. Otherwise stop trolling with other peoples’ words.

          • Frank

            Morgan based on your posts here we wonder whether you know what you are talking about. Apparently not.

            There is nothing wrong with quoting other people’s wise words to make a point. And a great point Sarah Flashing makes. Pretty much schools Rachel, and you for that matter. Why are you angry about it? You might learn something.

  • SamHamilton

    I thought Matthew Lee Anderson’s review is worth a read if you’re interested in a charitable, yet critical review of the book:


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