I’ve had the luxury of reading a lot of reading a lot of good books this summer. I can’t wait to share what I’ve been reading and what I’ve been learning here.
I just finished reading Rachel Held Evans’ book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood–How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, & Calling Her Husband “Master”. I have to admit, I don’t remember putting it on my to-read list and when I saw it had arrived at the library for me, I didn’t know if I wanted to pick it up and crack it open. And I only started reading it because no other book I was really interested in was around to dive into. But, boy, am I glad I opened this book!
If you like to learn and be entertained by the same book and have been wrestling with what the Bible says about women, this book is for you. But, warning, this book is likely controversial because she challenges some commonly held beliefs in the Christian sub-culture. This book may make some people uncomfortable because it pokes at strongly held beliefs about women of faith and challenges you to look at how you interpret and apply Scripture. Rachel doesn’t expect everyone who reads this book to ascribe to her values, but she does explore how the church interprets verses that address women and challenges you to consider why you believe what you believe.
I have long wrestled with what I believe about women’s roles in the church, society, and the family. I have a strong personality and believe that God gifts both men and women in teaching, discernment, and leadership so how the church and believers apply certain Scriptures has long been an interest of mine. When the church I attended in Minnesota took steps towards including a woman in their preaching rotation, I felt uncomfortable, but quickly figured out that it was more because of my experiences growing up than what I believed theologically. As I delved into the issue of women in the church and what women are called to do, I was not comfortable with those who interpreted Scriptures more conservatively but built exceptions into how they applied these verses…exceptions or caveats that were not stated in the very Scripture they claimed to be following. That bugged me because their stated beliefs and how they applied them did not align. There was incongruence there. Either you apply the verses the way you claim to interpret them or be intellectually honest that those verses can be interpreted differently or may be bound by the context in which they were written. And for me, I came to believe that the context of those difficult verses about women was important for how we apply them today. Whether you are more complementarian or egalitarian, feminist or conservative, this book raises a lot of great issues.
Years ago, I stumbled upon the quote, “In things essential, unity, in things non-essential, liberty” and loved its simplicity and truth. It also aligns with Paul’s thoughts in Romans 14 and while he was speaking about food back then, he could still be speaking today about current hot button issues. Believers run into problems when they insist that everyone interpret Scripture the same way they do. I have a really hard time when people say that something is the “biblical” way or “God’s” way. God is a God of variety and diversity and He calls us to love and be understanding towards other believers who believe differently on non-essentials. People get extremely heated when discussing homosexuality, gender issues in the church (and in society), the definition of modesty, and how to live out faith in our society today. I think we need to do a better job of deciding which hills we will die upon. Are these hills essential to our faith in God or are they non-essential? Can we agree to disagree with other believers without questioning their faith and love for Jesus? Can we vote differently, live out our callings differently, and still worship next to each other on Sundays? So often believers are known for what they’re against instead of what we’re for. We get caught up in divisive issues, majoring on the minors, and the gospel gets lost in the shuffle. Where is our trust and faith that God may use the differences in our beliefs for His glory? That as we peer into His Word and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we will honor Him in our own way, and that is beautiful, even if it doesn’t look the same as someone else’s journey.
So back to the book. Rachel decided to take a year of her life and live out different aspects of “Biblical Womanhood.” Some of her tasks are a little extreme or far-fetched while others really challenged her to explore different issues and make some changes in her own life. She also highlighted common beliefs or messages many Christian women hear and challenged them, debunking some in the process. From cultivating a friendship with an Jewish woman who lives out her orthodox faith wholeheartedly to caring for a home-economic computer baby, Rachel dives in and thoroughly explores and lives out aspects of Biblical Womanhood. She also educates the reader on how women were treated in the Old Testament and throughout church history. Martin Luther had some pretty inflammatory statements about women, you Lutherans might want to prepare yourselves! One of my favorite parts of the book was when she explored the esteemed Proverbs 31 woman. That instead of it being a list of expectations or ideals women should try to live up to, it was written as a blessing that Jewish men sang to the important women in their lives. It was meant to honor “women of valor,” and in Rachel’s words, to be a “You Go Girl!” The spirit of that chapter of Scripture is now seen in a beautiful and new light to me.
While cooking strikes me as an essentially creative act, cleaning seems little more than an exercise in decay management, enough to trigger an existential crisis each time the ring around the toilet bowl reappears. Now, don’t get me wrong; I like things to be clean. It’s not as though Dan & I ‘live in squalor,’ as my mom likes to say. But each time the laundry basket starts to overflow or the fridge gets crowded w/ old leftovers, I put up a fight. And when I’m not in the mood for a fight, I just sit around and feel guilty about it. In a matter of days, The Martha Stewart Homekeeping Handbook had turned this little complex of mine into full-blown neurosis….As it turns out, until I started this experiment, pretty much everything on Martha’s “clean every day” list I did about once a week, pretty much everything on Martha’s “clean every month” list I did about once a year, and pretty much everything on Martha’s “clean every season” list I’d never done in my life. That’s right, folks; I’d never vacuumed our refrigerator grille and coil. We lived in squalor after all (27). I actually vacuumed my refrigerator grill this week after learning about it from this book—and being near said grill while cleaning our hardwood floors. It’ll likely be the only time I do this in my lifetime.
I get the sense that many in the contemporary biblical womanhood movement feel that the tasks associated with homemaking have been so marginalized in our culture that it’s up to them to restore the sacredness of keeping the home. This is a noble goal indeed, and one around which all people of faith can rally. But in our efforts to celebrate and affirm God’s presence in the home, we should be wary of elevating the vocation of homemaking above all others by insinuating that for women, God’s presence is somehow restricted to that sphere. If God is the God of all pots & pans, then He is also the God of all shovels and computers and paints and assembly lines and executive offices and classrooms. Peace and joy belong not to the woman who finds the right vocation, but to the woman who finds God in any vocation, who looks for the divine around every corner. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously put it: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it & pluck blackberries.” Faith’s not about finding the right bush. It’s about taking off your shoes (30).
I looked into this, and sure enough, in Jewish culture it is not the women who memorize Proverbs 31, but the men. Husbands commit each line of the poem to memory, so they can recite it to their wives at the Sabbath meal, usually in a song. “Eshet chayil” is at its core a blessing—one that was never meant to be earned, but to be given, unconditionally…It’s like their version of “you go girl!”…According to Ahava, the woman described in Proverbs 31 is not some ideal that exists out there; she is present in each one of us when we do even the smallest things w/ valor (88-90).
“I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah.”
Sometimes our actions shape our beliefs, rather than the other way around, and I think this is especially true when it comes to raising families. We tend to take whatever’s worked in our particular set of circumstances (big family, small family, attachment parenting, Ezzo, homeschool, public school), and project that upon everyone else in the world as the ideal. We do this, I think, to protect ourselves, to quiet those pesky insecurities that follow us through life, nipping at our heels. To declare that your way is the only way effectively eliminates any fear that you might be wrong, or at least pushes it below the surface for a time. Things get hairer when parenting philosophies and religion mix, and the folks dishing out the parenting advice are convinced that God is on their side. From contraception, to spanking, to family size, to decision of a mother to work or stay at home, there is perhaps no arena in which women of faith are more subjected to the expectations of “biblical womanhood” than in their capacity to bear and raise children (177-178).
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. In an attempt to simplify, we try to force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated and at times troubling holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says (294).
The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth. Among the women praised in Scripture are warriors, widows, slaves, sister wives, apostles, teachers, concubines, queens, foreigners, prostitutes, prophets, mothers, and martyrs. What makes these women’s stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal, but that, regardless of the culture or context in which they found themselves, they lived their lives with valor. They lived their lives with faith. 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, no mold into which we must each cram ourselves—not if Deborah, Ruth, Rachel, Tamar, Vashti, Esther, Priscilla, Mary Magdalene, and Tabitha have anything to say about it (295).
So what was I looking for when I started this project? I think, at the surface, I was looking for a good story. And I certainly found one. But further down, in the deeper recesses of my heart and mind, I think I was looking for permission—permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself, permission to be a woman. What a surprise to reach the end of the year w/ a quiet & liberating certainty that I never had to ask for it. It had already been given (296).
This book left me wanting to learn more by diving into the Bible deeper and by continuing to wrestle with how I live out my faith. It also left me thinking and pondering long after I had read the last page….that’s what a good book will do! As I’ve continued to mull over what I read in this book, I’ve found myself thinking that I’d love to have my daughter read it when she’s old enough. Not because I want her to believe the exact same things Rachel Held Evans does (which I tend to agree with), but because the author does a good job showing how to critically think and wrestle with issues in the Scriptures. I want my daughter to know why she believes what she does and to wrestle with some of the difficult verses found in Scripture. Rachel provides a great example of how to do just that!
Buy this book on Amazon using this link: Biblical Womanhood on Amazon. When I checked recently you could get copies of it, used, as cheap as $2.50 plus shipping!