A Year of Biblical Womanhood

I got to meet Rachel Held Evans at ACU last year. She was speaking at our Summit event and as a part of that she and I also filmed a conversation about blogging for the Honors College. This was the September before last, and she was at the tail end of her "Year of Biblical Womanhood." I still recall her covering her head during the prayer at the Honors dinner.

There are many reviews coming out about A Year of Biblical Womanhood. You can read these all over the Internet. Rachel sent me an advanced copy but I wasn't asked to do a review. Still, I'd like to add my two cents.

A few patriarchal Christians out there have already dinged Rachel for "making a mockery of the Bible" or for her "flat hermeneutic." The criticism comes from the fact that Rachel attempts, over the course of the year, to follow the commandments regarding "biblical womanhood" as literally as possible. This, as you might expect, leads to many hilarious situations. The criticism Rachel faces here is that no one would be so undiscerning in reading the bible as to assume that all the commandments in the bible directed at woman should be treated literally and equally. This is a "flat hermeneutic" that doesn't recognize that some commandments are more important than others and that other commandments just aren't applicable today.

But that's sort of Rachel's point. Agreed, no one is following all the commandments literally. People pick and choose. But here's the deal: They don't realize they are picking and choosing. And even if you argue with these people, pointing out how they are picking and choosing, they still can't see it. And in the face of that (I think willful) denial Rachel does something pretty remarkable. Rachel engages in a hermeneutical performance, one that, in refusing to pick and choose, reveals to anyone reading her book just how much picking and choosing is actually going on. She helps you see it. And laugh at the same time.

And that's what is pretty badass about the book, intellectually speaking. The book is hermeneutical performance art.

Intellectually, that's what I admire about the book. But let me tell you what I like most about the book.

What I like most about the book is Rachel. And Dan, Rachel's husband. He's as much of the book as she is and it was great to read his journal observations throughout the book/year.

What I loved most about Rachel's first book Evolving in Monkey Town was the transparent human drama of her story, her journey from certainty to learning to live with the ambiguities and open-endedness of faith. And that was also my favorite part of A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Again, the book is an intellectual treat, and very funny, but the parts that drew me in the most were the parts where Rachel wrestles with herself, her husband, the bible, evangelical culture, her past...and her oven. To name only a few things.

Here's the great paradox of the book. The book is entitled "A Year of Biblical Womanhood." And in the eyes of her critics, and perhaps many of her fans, the book seems to suggest that there is no such thing as "biblical womanhood." Or, at the very least, "biblical womanhood" can't be reduced to one particular biblically-endorsed vision. A one size fits all vision.

But I actually think Rachel's wrong about that. Thus the paradox.

Biblical womanhood does exist and it means something very, very specific. And if you read Rachel's book, and if you watch Rachel closely in the book, chances are you'll see it.

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12 thoughts on “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”

  1. I'm a fan of Monkey Town--but I have yet to read this book.  To tell you the truth, the title was off-putting to me. I should have known it would be funny and enjoyable (since that's Rachel's style), but the title sounded otherwise.  The evangelicals I know and love do know that they "pick and choose" and they know that they take some things metaphorically (parables) and other things as literal and factual and historical.  They just believe that they are "rightly dividing the word of truth," whereas "liberals" (like myself) just change up or throw out what doesn't suit us.  

  2. i agree  from a theoretical point of view that "biblical womanhood" exists. or rather, that "biblical personhood" exists (though i would phrase even that much differently).  what i take issue with is the way in which the language of"biblical womanhood" and the way in which the concept is used as a weapon against women in the church -- from subtly segregating women as such, and thus communicating that the importance of their identities not as children of god first, but as women first, to dictating what behaviors and qualities characterize a "good christian woman," a feature of the evangelical church in america that harms and alienates not only women but men, too. not to even get into the odd and revealing fact that there is a much more vociferous cohort exalting and scrutinizing biblical womanhood than do the same for "biblical manhood."

    i do like RHE though, and trust the book captures the warmth and honesty of her personality, as does her other writing.  that is, I agree, the best endorsement for her writing.

  3. Thank you for this review. Putting the book in my Amazon cart now. I can't wait to read it!

  4. "Hermeneutical performance art" seems like a handy gloss on radical prophetic symbolic action. You mean patriarchal reviewers aren't seeing the connections between Rachel and, say, Hosea or Jeremiah?

  5. "Hermeneutical performance art"--That is exactly what it was!  Rachel is surely one of the virtuosos of the genre.  But you're right that, even more than that, it's about Rachel and Dan themselves.  Their journey is one I recognize myself in, and I am apparently not the only one.

  6. I think one of the great untold stories--at least to outsiders--is the plethora of strong, strong, strong women in evangelical/ conservative circles. Women who dismiss doctrinal squabbles with an airy "let the men talk all they want" and go on with the business of discipleship. Women who argue for literalist, even "patriarchal" interpretations while carving out creative space to provide the real leadership in their homes and churches. Women who say, "O.K., if I can't preach, maybe I can pray"--and then end up leading networks of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands in prayer ministries that (along the way) teach Scripture and make disciples and enforce church discipline--but without preaching! And, of course, other women who fight the "I can't preach" rule and take that fight to their elders and husbands, arm-wrestling them into a more faithful hermeneutic.

    Thanks for noticing that more important than Rachel's constructive mockery of literalism, stands Rachel's own struggles to be faithful to God. I see the fire in Rachel's eyes and see her as a worthy heir of all those women I've known who find their own ways of living out biblical womanhood. 

  7. In my circles, "performance art" is exactly the language we use for the radical prophetic symbolic action of Hosea, Jeremiah, or Jesus. (We literally spent yesterday's OT class talking about Ezekiel as performance art--and the preacher of our congregation refers to his own ministry as "street theater.") So I don't think reviewers who use this language are slighting Rachel.

  8. I'm loving this book so far. It helps me to check my own views at the door, and see them from a bigger picture perspective. Would you help us get Rachel Held Evans on The Colbert Report? Join our movement: @RACHELonREPORT. Thanks so much, and thanks for your viewpoint!

  9. For any interested, Rachel spoke at Mars Hill Bible Church earlier this year(11 march) The title is Eshet Chayil! ; and among other things she speaks about her book. Towards the end she talks about some aspects of "biblical womanhood" that never get mentioned in most church circles. Well worth a listen-very moving.. You can listen to Mars Hill Bible Church podcasts on I-tunes.

  10. Ah, rightly dividing the Word of truth! That's the first time I've heard that KJ phrase in many a year. It was the sort of "blanket endorsement" for the kind of hermeneutic we imposed on the Bible back in "the good old days," an earnest and yet blatantly naive attempt to apply the words of scripture to our lives and times. Alass...those days are rapidly slipping away, and our fervent pronouncements supported by tons of scripture lie dead or mortally wounded on the uncharted shores of postmodern reconstruction.

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