A Year of Biblical Womanhood: A(nother) Review

Editor’s note:  My friend Jake Meador wrote this right around the same time I wrote my thoughts.  We don’t often post multiple entries on books, but Jake’s thoughts are worth considering and well stated. –MLA 

biblical womanhoodThere are two common literary tropes Rachel Held Evans is playing with in her latest book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. The more obvious and less fortunate of the two is the satirical reductio ad absurdum. Tired of hearing evangelicals speak about a narrow, moralistic brand of womanhood as “biblical,” Evans decided to show how unhelpful the label is by being completely “biblical” and following every scriptural admonition given to women. She’s wanting to use the complementarians own logic to undermine their unhelpful, confining ideas about gender. Indeed, that’s a large part of why she wrote the book in the first place according to her comments in the book’s introduction.

The trouble with a reductio is that for it to be effective, you need to be describing your opponent’s logic accurately. Otherwise, you’re running to absurd ends with a logic that isn’t valid. Ultimately, all you end up doing is setting fire to a straw man. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Evans did. The complementarian argument is much more complex than mindlessly repeating “1 Timothy 2,” over and over like a horde of young, restless, reformed zombies hungry for egalitarian brains. But you wouldn’t know that if your only exposure to complementarians is Evans’ book. This is unfortunate because the complementarian case is far better than “it’s biblical.”

Having come to complementarianism very reluctantly and over a long period of time, I’ve heard the argument for it given many times and in many different ways. Almost everyone I’ve spoken with mentions the Pauline texts on women, but hardly any one applies them in the flat, simplistic way implied by Evans’ reductio. I know there are people out there who still use the “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” line on these issues, but in my experience they are not nearly as prominent as they once were. More importantly, the major figureheads of the complementarian movement generally avoid this unfortunate and unhelpful line. What’s far more common is to find people trying to honestly wrestle with uncomfortable biblical texts in a way that assumes we are accountable to the text and bound by it as Christians. So we wrestle with issues like creation order and how that informs Paul’s argument for distinct gender-based roles. We also struggle to understand how issues of submission and self-sacrificing authority are central to understanding the Gospel. Most complementarians I know are not complementarian because the position is come by easily. In fact, most of us would say that we’d love to not be complementarian because it’d make our lives considerably easier. But after long, careful study of scripture (ironically, the very sort of study Evans’ endorses so enthusiastically in the book and on her blog), we’ve come to conclusions that can generally be associated with the label “complementarian.” Acting as if our position is adopted out of lazy assumptions and a lack of reflection about the word “biblical” simply isn’t honest.

Another point that is worth raising briefly: It should be a rule in Christian circles that when you argue against a theological view, you need to argue against the most capable, reasoned articulation of that view. If you’re looking to debunk complementarianism, don’t do it by telling us Debi Pearl is an abusive troll – we already knew that. Do it by taking on the careful exegetical arguments made by our most capable thinkers. That will earn a hearing. But misrepresenting our position and acting as if fringe extremists like Debi Pearl represent us is really dishonest and irresponsible. Having said all that, I’m happy to report that the reductio isn’t the sum total of the book. There’s far more going on here than just a poorly-constructed critique of complementarianism. It turns out that when Evans isn’t engaging in a polemic against complementarians, her book is actually quite good.

The second genre in play with the book has not been discussed nearly as much as the first, though I was pleased to see Carissa Smith mention it at Christ and Pop Culture. Evans is also writing what I’m going to call a transformative journal. The idea of a transformative journal is that the author adopts an utterly alien lifestyle for a defined length of time and then writes about the experience. This is an extremely well-established type of literature both in American literature and in Christian circles. In American lit, you can look at Thoreau’s Walden, Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Tracie McMillan’s Eating in America, or (most obviously) A.J. Jacobs Year of Living Biblically. In Christian circles, you could look at Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary or Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. This concept is huge in neo-monastic circles as well. Mark Scandrette, founding director of ReIMAGINE in San Francisco and author of Practicing the Way of Jesus, calls these practices “experiments in truth.” At ReIMAGINE, they once did an “experiment” in which members of the community gave away half of everything they owned in the spirit of obeying Christ’s admonition to the rich young ruler to “sell everything you have and come follow me.” They didn’t think that every Christian should sell half of all they own, but they did think that if riches could keep a wealthy young Jew in first century Palestine from the kingdom of God, then surely they could do the same to a 21st century American.

The idea of a transformative journal is that you can understand a person or a belief better if you, as the saying goes, walk a mile in their shoes. And on this count, Evans’ book is a smashing success. Some of her chapter-end reflections on the various virtues or qualities she studied are absolutely fantastic. For example, there’s this excerpt from the end of her chapter on domesticity: “Maybe it was my definition of ‘perfect’ that had changed. Somewhere between the chicken soup and the butter-bleeding pie, I’d made peace with the God of pots and pans–not because God wanted to meet me in the kitchen, but because he wanted to meet me everywhere, in all things, big or small. Knowing that God both inhabits and transcends our daily vocations, no matter how glorious or mundane, should be enough to unite all women of faith and end that nasty cycle of judgment we get caught in these days.” That message is absolutely excellent and, I dare say, is a message that millions of women (and men, for that matter) desperately need to hear. Her reflections on purity, modesty, and Proverbs 31 are also very good and helpful.

The Proverbs 31 chapter deserves special mention. Evans comes to Proverbs 31 as many evangelical women do: They see it as the biblical equivalent to the cover girl on Cosmo. It represents the totally unrealistic, unobtainable standard that is, nevertheless, the standard by which they are judged. Evans turns that reading on its head, encouraging readers to see Proverbs 31 as less of a church lady-style browbeating and more as an affirmation of women pursuing the hard work of pursuing their vocations in ways that honor God and promote his work in the world. The Hebrew phrase eschet chayil, roughly translated as “woman of valor,” becomes a recurrent theme in the book and has also become a regular feature of her blog, where Evans and her readers tell the story of the many women of valor they have known. The affirmation in a phrase like eschet chayil is something that everyone needs to hear, but I think it probably has a special weight with evangelical women who often are made to carry two very heavy burdens: the expectations of American popular culture and of evangelical Christianity. For the woman trying to raise children, support and love her husband, do good work in whatever field she pursues, maintain a certain level of physical appearance (lest she be accused by certain pastors of “letting herself go”), and be sufficiently involved in her local community, I imagine eschet chayil! is an incredibly encouraging and much-needed declaration.

One of the big questions with transformative journals is “so what did your experience teach you?” Evans has a good answer for that question, offered in the form of several resolutions she shares at the end of the book. Here again her conclusions are very sound and helpful. They include the following: Eat more ethically, identify and praise women of valor, embrace the prospect of motherhood, nurture the contemplative impulse, make room for ritual remembrance, champion women leaders in the church, honor Dan (her husband), and keep loving, studying, and struggling with the Bible. Any evangelical Christian should be able to affirm that list and support and encourage Evans in her attempts to honor it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a personal note here, which is that one of the women Evans has personally helped is my fellow Lincoln-based writer, Michelle Derusha. Michelle has, in turn, been a great help to me with my questions about the writing life. So I am a direct beneficiary of Evans’ project.

My reason for writing about the two genres that define the book is relatively simple: This is a good book with some significant flaws. And it’s a book that needs a wide reading in evangelical circles. Hermeneutical missteps aside (though they are significant), Evans’ book is offering evangelicals a way of speaking about gender and sexuality that clearly resonates with many people. And this is an area where we can stand to learn a good deal about such issues. We live in a nation where hardcore pornography is a $2 billion a year business, where young women are crushed under unobtainable body image standards set by women who don’t even exist. Additionally, hook-up culture is a fact of life in much of the nation, a fact that I can’t help think is connected to another fact of life: the ubiquity of rape. According to many groups, one in four American women will have survived rape or attempted rape by the time they graduate college (or reach an equivalent age). There’s another disturbing statistic I came across several years ago that said roughly 40 percent of women in the Greek system will survive rape or attempted rape during their collegiate careers. In short, as a nation we are experiencing a crisis of sexual ethics.

To a sex addled nation like the United States, a Christian understanding of sexuality and gender should be received as a beacon of hope, wholeness, and joy. But often it isn’t seen that way. Say what you will about the accuracy of Barna’s statistics (I tend to think of Barna as the unskewedpolls.com of evangelicalism, but that’s me), I think most of us have anecdotal experience of hearing someone speak very critically of Christian sexual ethics. For whatever reason, the larger culture isn’t buying what we’re selling. And while I think we’d err to follow every step of Evans’ approach (I’m still a complementarian, remember), I do think her emphasis on mutuality between men and women and her desire to see and praise women of valor are two very healthy developments that evangelicals would do well to adopt en masse. For these reasons, I want to see her book receive a broad reading from American evangelicals, even if her reductio critique of complementarianism fails badly. This book’s strengths offer us the sort of concepts that should be rallying points for complementarians and egalitarians alike as we seek to articulate a robust understanding of sex and gender that reflects the wholeness and joy of the Christian Gospel.

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  • http://thereforeiambic.blogspot.com/ Elena Johnston

    Good thoughts.

    A bit of context on the reductio element: Rachel is writing from the South. Everything’s different in the South. Southern egalitarianism is quite possibly more patriarchal than California complementarianism.

    In California, you can afford to brush off the extremists, but not all of us are so fortunate. =/

    • http://twitter.com/sometimesalight hannah anderson

      The geographical differences are a valid point, but doesn’t it necessarily limit your audience if you shape your argument in reference to your particular experience? The funny thing about YBW for me was that I totally knew where she was coming from–I knew exactly the extremes of comp thinking that she has personally faced. But I’ve also had a chance to live outside of the southern evangelical context which broadened my understanding of both comp and egal positions (and a lot of other things as well!) Evans is an extremely articulate, savvy woman but I felt like she limits herself by focusing so narrowly on her own context as a standard. Maybe among her peer set in TN, Debi Pearl is a serious problem–but if you are attempting to write for a broader audience (including secular readers), this approach doesn’t necessarily undercut Pearl as much as it marginalizes your own argument.

      • http://thereforeiambic.blogspot.com/ Elena Johnston

        John Piper’s most recent sermon was on the topic of complementarianism…. and it’s all right there. The idea that being sufficiently masculine or feminine is a prerequisite to displaying the image of God.

        Piper himself shies away from getting too particular about what it means to be a true woman, but he endorses teachers such as Mary Kassian and Nancy Leigh DeMoss, who teach women to find their identity as beautiful homemakers.

        If you listen to these teachings in California, it generally just provides a nice little corrective against the excesses of secular feminism. But if you actually try to live it out–like Southern women do–silliness ensues.

        All this to say that I’m not terribly familiar with Debi Pearl, but I recognized everything Rachel Held Evans was talking about, having listened to John Piper and Mary Kassian in a Southern cultural context.

        • http://twitter.com/sometimesalight hannah anderson

          To me, the crazy thing about Piper is that he has the insight to recognize that his southern upbringing influenced his understanding of race but he hasn’t yet seen how it may have affected his view of gender. I consider myself a mod-soft comp but even I can see how southern culture has shaped a certain aspect of the conversation.

          Having said that, it’s somewhat problematic to me to identify Piper and even CBMW as the spokespeople for a conservative reading of gender–within evangelicalism they undoubtedly are, but there are plenty of other streams of Christian thought (Orthodox and Catholic for example) that would embrace conservative reading of certain texts. You don’t have to deal with these approaches if your book will only be an “in house” debate within evangelicalism, but once you market it to a secular audience, it’s essential that you give an accurate rendering of the width and breadth of opposing views. A.J. Jacobs book does this really well, but this is where I think RHE miss-stepped; by engaging only her own context and forming her process and argumentation in response to that, she severely limited the legitimacy of her critique.

          • http://thereforeiambic.blogspot.com/ Elena Johnston

            Fair enough. =)

  • MVH

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    I think that your review (especially the paragraph that concludes your thoughts on her reductio ad absurdum approach) actually echoes the point of Rachel’s book – that when we read the Bible and try to apply it to our lives, we all interpret and struggle on our way to making conclusions. So, the point with which I came away from her book is mainly that there is no such thing as a neutral hermeneutic. You read Genesis, Pauline epistles, etc., and engage in an interpretive process and come out as a complementarian. Rachel reads the same things, also engages with an interpretive process, and comes out as an egalitarian. In some senses the conclusions of that process are secondary to this point. Yes, she also uses the book to try and make a case for an egalitarian perspective, but in some senses that’s a secondary point. The point, which you echo, is that you both engage in that interpretive process; one really can’t operate with a paradigm where they simply say “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Her goal isn’t to say that complementarians are lazy, non-reflective interpreters of the Bible, but the exact opposite. And that some complementarians do not acknowledge that they actually engage in that process. They use the word “biblical” as an adjective and assume that their conclusions (on gender roles) are simply the result of a straightforward reading of the text. And I think the diversity of “complementarian” positions out there – take, for instance, the differences in Vision Forum vs. CBMW, both of which would say that theirs is the “Biblical” position – drive home the point that we all interpret. The tongue-in-cheek exercise in reductio ad absurdum, tries to make exactly that point by trying (and failing) to not interpret.

  • Maranatha John

    Reminds of a book that follows a similar context, “Daughter You Can Make It” by Dag Heward-Mills. It’s phenomenal! It debunks every culture instilled by the present day Christian chauvinist, and places every woman in her place in God’s eyes. It’s a fantastic read for any and every woman out there

  • Bensonian

    Jake: I’ve read nearly all of your book reviews; they’re all quite good but this one is exceptionally good. Kudos!