She did it!
Rachel Held Evans has created quite a stir in the good old USA with her new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. So many well known voices in the evangelical world have chimed in already.
When I was just a young lad, pop singer Helen Reddy came out with the song, “I am Woman.” It became an anthem for liberating women in the West.
Rachel’s approach in this book, her humor, her depth, her unique and provocative way of stirring the pot, her extraordinary writing power, her transparency, her knowledge of hermeneutical issues—will serve as a liberating voice for women in “biblical” communities.
She is gifted. She is a thinker. She is a lover of the Bible. She is a woman.
Rachel stirs the hornet’s nest for men and women who follow Jesus: A woman’s highest calling is not a call to be a wife, nor is it to be a mother, but it is to follow Christ.
Forty-one years after Helen Reddy’s song, the subtitle to Rachel’s book is, “How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband, ‘Master’” (boldness my choice).
What does Biblical Womanhood look like?
I feel like I am one of the last persons to review the book. Obviously, that’s not true. Since I was a committed complementarian for at least 25 years of Christian journey, I was eagerly looking forward to her book. She delivered. She does it with grace, humor, and soulful transparency.
But make no mistake.
She does it with an agenda.
Now, Rachel is quite honest about her agenda. She lays her cards on the table. This is what makes her voice so powerful to men and women who, let’s say, have a difficult time admitting that their interpretation of the Bible is powerfully shaded by their interpretative background and assumptions.
And that’s precisely her purpose in writing the book. In her words, “The goal was to hold up a mirror to our interpretive biases to show just how reductive and misleading the phrase ‘biblical womanhood’ can be.”That phrase came out of the Reformed tradition expressed in what is called, “The Danvers Statement.”
Much has already been made out of Rachel’s insightful observation about how we approach the Bible: “interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We are all selective.”
It’s very important we understand her. This is not an evangelical falling into fatalism regarding interpretation; this is evangelical realism. Another way of putting it: this is not for Rachel where the conversation about the Bible ends. This is where it begins.
That’s the intelligent conclusion of not someone who is skeptical of the Bible but someone who loves the Bible. That’s her cards on the table. If you know her through her blog, you know her deep struggle as a woman who has grown (in years and maturity) in the Faith and her wrestling with the Bible.
If you don’t think Rachel falls under the evangelical realist label about picking and choosing you need to become better acquainted with the challenge for evangelicals as they approach Scripture. Christian Smith’s, The Bible Made Impossible and David Fitch’s, The End of Evangelicalism are a good place to start.
So she wonders at the beginning what if she took “biblical womanhood” literally? What would it do? She chose twelve different virtues—one for each month.
I cracked up laughing in some places. In other spots, I smiled.
I got to know her husband, Dan. Rachel gives us an inside peek to their marital journey.
Reactions to Rachel’s Biblical Womanhood.
I’ve been eager to read the responses to her book. They’ve been all over the map. This is where you see that Rachel has hit a nerve. For me, one of the most surprising reviews came from Kathy Keller. Even though we have our differences I respect Timothy Keller. I read their book on The Meaning of Marriage. Although I disagreed with some of the stuff in there, I respected them.
I thought Kathy’s reaction to Rachel’s book was exactly that—reactive. I was disappointed. I don’t think that Kathy engaged Rachel at the hermeneutical level that was in the making between the two of them.
Kathy, a solid complementarian. Rachel, a solid egalitarian. This should have been a hermeneuetical engagement that would have been on display. These two women have become powerful voices for their approaches to women and the Bible.
But I felt Kathy chose to paint Rachel in a way which was unfair to Rachel’s solid depth and intentional communication. My first reaction to Kathy’s review was, “She missed a huge opportunity to engage.”
Matthew Lee Anderson, another complementarian, came closer to what I expecting from Kathy.
For my money, his review is one of the best reviews out there from a complementarian perspective. He fills in a lot of nuances missed by Kathy.
I would put Jen Pollock Michel’s review posted in CT’s Her.meneutics blog for women as just as reactive as Kathy’s. I thought she missed some clearly stated points and did not engage Rachel at a hermeneutical depth.
If you did not read Rachel Marie Stone’s “Hermeneutics of Love” then take the time and immerse yourself into that brilliant post.
Peter Enns is another good review to ponder.
Also the ever provocative Richard Beck.
There have been scores of other reviews some of them very good.
Bold Boundaries for Expanding Womanhood
I see Rachel daringly expanding bold boundaries for women. In Rachel’s book, I am reminded of the observation Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff wtote in her book, Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism:
The women saints of the Middle Ages were transgressors, rule-breakers, flouters of boundaries, and yet they were also saints. Of course, in a way all saints are transgressors, in the sense that a saint lives by excess, lives in a beyond where ordinary measure does not hold; all saints, by their lives stretch the boundaries of what we have conceived of as human possibility, and their zeal in breaking through conventional limitations can be both attractive and repellent, pointlessly mad, and unshakeably sane at the same time.
Rachel may get a few points taken off for targeting the likes of Debi Pearl. But she knows Pearl is not a caricature. Rachel knows there is not an extreme drop-off between Pearl and Kathy Keller. Instead she is aware of the many different “biblical” shades of what womanhood is supposed to look like in between the two.
Is there something substantive for a woman beyond the biblical images of whore and wife? What are the boundaries for a woman who loves the Bible and its sacred power and authority? Is it the highest calling of a woman to be a submissive wife? Mother? Or is a woman’s highest calling to follow Christ?
My cards on the table: yes, I too, have an agenda. I’ve come to see that one of the highest callings for a woman is friendship. For centuries under patriarchy, as many have noted, “Friendship has been a male preserve” (Joan Chittister).
I will never forget when I first started to develop friendships with women outside of marriage, I encountered the June Cleaver biblical objection. It was supposed to be settled once and for all. Wives were supposed to “stay-at-home.” In this biblical interpretation that meant I could never be close friends with someone else’s wife.
My experience in growing friendships with women made me go back and begin to question what was a biblical given—during the June Cleaver generation. But then I too, like Rachel discovered, recognized that there are so many personal influences that help shape the way each of us pick and choose Bible themes and verses.
This does not mean evangelical fatalism. For some it may. But for others it means going back to the Scriptures and wrestling with the meaning with others and in community. I see male-female friendship (for those who are married and those who are not) as an expression of deep reconciliation between the sexes.
Anna Peterson writes, "At its best, friendship is a microcosm both of desirable human community and of the utopia of eternal life. It is indeed both an experience of blessedness here and now and a path to larger blessings, a 'school of love'...some friendships offer a hint of the “already” of the reign of God, the ideal form for which human life is ultimately intended" (Everyday Ethics and Social Change).
Rachel’s book humorously but powerfully compels us to go back to the Scriptures. To ask questions about what the reign of God looks like in women and in men who relate to them in the contemporary world.