"As much as we may long for the simplicity of a single definition of 'biblical womanhood,' there is no one right way to be a woman."
~ Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood
I don't normally write book reviews. I like to think that what I do here is just tell stories about everyday life, hoping to catch moments that hint at larger truths. But because this book is important to me and the faith I am growing into in my adulthood, because this book is also about using everyday stories to get at a larger truth, and because since finishing this book I cannot stop thinking about it, I could not help sharing my thoughts about it.
By chance, I was offered an advance review copy of Rachel Held Evans' new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on the Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master. I read it slowly at first, thinking over each chapter, but as the momentum of her project grew throughout the book, so did my eagerness to keep turning pages. The book reads as part anthropological experiment, part diary, and part bible study. Inspired (or perhaps confused) by the idea of modern biblical womanhood, Evans has devoted a year to researching and living out this biblical womanhood ideal as literally as possible.
In addition to ten rules she agrees to follow throughout the year (ranging from modest dress to submitting to her husband's will in all things), Evans chooses a specific virtue to focus on each month. Gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence, and grace: each month she digs in to the meanings and implications of one aspect commonly associated with the idea of biblical womanhood, gathering scriptural references and historical perspectives on the virtue, while also creating experiences that allow her to try out the physical incarnation of each aspect of this feminine ideal. At the end of each month's chapter, Evans examines the story of a woman from the bible who exhibited the trait she has been studying for the past thirty or so days.
By adopting these experiences, everything from sitting on a roof and camping out during her time of uncleanliness to observing traditional Jewish holiday rituals and spending a weekend of silent reflection at a monastery, Evans is able to examine this issue from within the arc of a story. The experiences, and inevitable misadventures, she has while trying to act like a true biblical woman give us both the fodder that makes Evans an easy target for critics and the substance that provides for a real transformation that this author-as-character displays within the pages of the book. Coupled with the casual, direct narrative that makes this book read like a diary and causes us to feel at times as if we are peeking in on something we're not supposed to see, the monthly tasks Evans has assigned herself have us laughing, cringing, and cheering along with her.
It is exactly at the honest and often awkward moments Evans describes that early rounds of criticism are aimed. Evans has been accused of mocking the bible by her hands on approach, often by people who have not actually read the book but who are basing their reactions on the premise itself. I understood that the organized Christian church at large was never going to embrace this book because they have come to equate the idea of biblically prescribed gender roles with the male dominant church and home leadership hierarchy that they believe is unquestionably God-breathed. The tradition of patriarchal leadership is so deeply ingrained that many in Evangelical church leadership cannot fathom entertaining a reevaluation of this interpretation without expecting a baby-with-the-bathwater type loss of everything they believe. So it comes as no surprise to me that critics have attacked both the book and its author whether or not they have read anything beyond the blurb on the back cover. This book would necessarily seem dangerous to those whose faith is, at least on some level, contingent on God prescribed gender roles.
And that is truly a shame because what Evans reminds readers in A Year of Biblical Womanhood is that biblical womanhood, as it actually worked in biblical times, does not even remotely resemble the 1950s inspired ideal advocated today. As Evans notes, "Despite what some may claim, the Bible's not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today. The text predates our Western construct of the nuclear family and presents us with a familial culture closer to that of a third-world country (or a TLC reality show) than that of Ward and June Cleaver." The picture of biblical womanhood, as it appeared in ancient Israel, was one in which women were property of their husbands, girls were property of their fathers and could be sold into marriage or slavery (whichever would bring a higher price, of course), men regularly took multiple wives and often also kept slaves and concubines who were expected to be sexually available to them, widows were expected to marry their husband's brother, and rape victims were either stoned to death or expected to marry their attacker.
Obviously, this is not the biblical womanhood the modern church intends to reclaim. Evans gently pokes at this wound, this uncomfortable revelation that biblical womanhood, as it's peddled today, doesn't really exist by examining other traditional faith practices. Who would know more about modesty than the Amish and Quakers? Who could teach silence better than the monks? Who could address the thorny issue of multiple wives better than modern day polygamists? Evans does not intend readers to adopt the rituals, faiths, or lifestyles she researches. She does not suggest that present day Christians should begin to live by Old Testament laws. Rather, she highlights the fact that Christians, men and women both, are supposed to be governed by the freedom of grace, not legalism, an obsession with standards, or a rigid adherence to conformity.
God did not leave us a ruler by which we are supposed to measure the length of our skirts. He left us a ruler by which we are supposed to measure our intentions, and that is a task much harder to achieve and almost impossible to quantify. It is much easier to acquiesce to the safety of rules and regulations. Thou shall not show your thigh is much easier to police than thou shall not have a self-seeking spirit.
For me, the genius of A Year of Biblical Womanhood is that Evans does not write as an authority preaching to the eager masses. She writes as the humble seeker. She writes it as one who is honestly asking, "Is there one set way God expects women to behave? And, if so, why doesn't anyone agree on what that is?"
By coming to the project with curiosity and vulnerability, Evans does not simply discuss the twelve monthly virtues but lives with them, bringing them to life in her closet and her kitchen and her bedroom. In openly learning, questioning, and confessing her shortfalls as they relate to her list of virtues, Evans shows us a shift from the formulaic, stereotypical view of each virtue to a more nuanced and layered understanding.
Gentleness does not mean scouring away boldness and replacing it with unwavering timidity; instead gentleness "begins with strength, quietness and security." Domesticity is not synonymous with female divinity, and yet cooking can be a kind of divine meditation. Valor can be reclaimed from Proverbs 31, and cries of eshet chayil can be voiced as an anthem rather than an assignment. Marriage and family, though both lauded callings, must be remembered as secondary because, as Evans reminds herself: "As a Christian, my highest calling is not motherhood; my highest calling is to follow Christ. And following Christ is something a woman can do whether she is married or single, rich or poor, sick or healthy, childless or Michelle Duggar."
Ultimately, Evans' resilient faith points us back to this ultimate truth again and again throughout the book. Though she writes powerfully and authoritatively on scripture, tells an engaging (and funny!) story, and makes compelling arguments for a new approach to gender roles within the church, it is her ability to turn the spotlight back on the individual reader's life that makes A Year of Biblical Womanhood truly exceptional. In each chapter, I found myself searching my own heart and remembering that whether I do it from the end of a spatula or a scalpel or a pen, my true calling as a woman is to bring glory to God.