Nothing makes me want to read a book like a little controversy. Even better if the controversy involves fundamentalist religious types who DON’T want something to be read. So when I heard an interview with author Rachel Held Evans, whose new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood had actually been refused by a number of Christian bookstores in the U.S., I was intrigued.
Now, if you’re anything like me – that is, a person who holds the crazy idea that men and women should be considered equal – the words “biblical womanhood” probably make your stomach turn.
“Women shouldn’t speak in church.”
“Women should submit to their husbands as the head of the household.”
“Women should dress modestly so as not to lead men astray.”
…and so on and so forth. Why would any forward-thinking woman in her right mind want to follow all the Bible’s rules for women as literally as possible? For a whole year?
For a challenge, perhaps. For an adventure. For a story… and it sure makes a good story. For one year, Evans sets out to explore the idea of biblical womanhood, to decipher what exactly that entails, and then to follow it as literally as possible. This means everything from praising her husband “at the city gates” with a giant “Dan is Awesome” sign, to sitting on her roof to pay penance for her dirty mouth, to camping out on her front lawn when “the way of women” a.k.a. “Aunt Flo” pays a visit. What she discovers along the way is encouraging, thought-provoking, and apparently unconventional enough to garner a good old-fashioned book-banning controversy.
So what is going on inside these contentious pages? One of the things Evans discusses is how expectations placed on women by people and churches under the pretense of what’s “biblical” are often mixed messages, messages taken out of context, or messages applied inappropriately or unevenly. For example, “The Proverbs 31 Woman” is often held up in Christian circles as the ideal women should aspire to, but Evans discovers this chapter was apparently never meant as a prescriptive list of things a “biblical woman” should be. It was originally written to praise women, and in Jewish culture, the men are the ones to memorize this passage, to recite it in praise of their wives.
“Women should not have to pry equality from the grip of Christian men.” -Rachel Held Evans
In another example of a message taken out of context, Evans discusses the idea of submission. She discusses how the command for “wives to submit to their husbands” is based on the Greco-Roman household codes of the day, in which men have unilateral authority over the women, slaves and children. The apostles likely advocated this system, she writes, because it was the best culture had to offer, but the “Christian” spin they put on it was for the head of the household to be kind to slaves, loving to wives, and fair in their treatment, which is not at all present in the Greco-Roman code. In doing this, and also speaking directly to women and slaves in the letters, the apostles elevate them subversively: “It is hard for us to recognize it now, but Peter and Paul were introducing the first Christian family to an entirely new community, a community that transcends the rigid hierarchy of human institutions, a community in which submission is mutual and all are free.” Essentially, one doesn’t have to follow this line of thinking very far to realize that we are no longer living in a Greco-Roman culture, and should be updating how we treat one another accordingly. As Evans writes, “Women should not have to pry equality from the grip of Christian men.”
What I appreciate about Evans’ attitude towards her project is that she does not come across as having an ax to grind, but approaches it with a sense of honest curiosity and an eagerness to learn from it. She is open about her roots and her biases, and describes growing up in the heart of the Bible Belt with a relatively free-thinking mother who “seemed to know instinctively that rules that left people guilt-ridden, exhausted, and confused were not really from God.”
In her conclusion, Evans writes, “When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word (like manhood, womanhood, politics, economics, marriage, and even equality), 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.”
Without giving too much more away, I can see why her conclusions are unpopular with certain groups. Fundamentalist types love to take holy books and turn them into lists of rules, which in most cases they were never intended to be. When someone comes along and questions the basis of those rather convenient rules (for some), it can understandably be uncomfortable. But if you want to remain relevant these are exactly the kinds of questions you need to ask, the kinds of challenges you need to face.
This post was written in response to The Daily Prompt: Bookworm. If you have ever been confused or turned off by the Bible’s supposed “rules” for women, or have ever wondered if the Bible could possibly have anything relevant at all to say on the subject, this book’s for you!