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.”
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.