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Controversy and Interpretation: A Review of *Biblical Womanhood*

November 5th, 2012 | 14 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Rachel Held Evans’ new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, presses evangelicals on the right spot.  But what she doesn’t do is as important as what she does, and therein lies a tale.

I’m going to skip the backstory, as intriguing as it is, and go straight to the substance.  Don’t thank me–it’s a long review.  That said, Rachel has written a book meant to demonstrate how people “pick and choose” their verses when reading the Bible.   As she puts it:

For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We are all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it. So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Are we reading with the prejudice of love or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed?

It’s “biblical” she’s worried about as an adjective, so she sets out to spend a year living as a “biblical woman.”  Again, I’ll quote:

Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This quest of mine required that I study every passage of Scripture that relates to women and learn how women around the world interpret and apply these passages to their lives. In addition, I would attempt to follow as many of the Bible’s teachings regarding women as possible in my day-to-day life, sometimes taking them to their literal extreme.

The results?  Well, if you really like earnest and authentic writing about a manufactured year, then this is the book for you.  I can’t wade through all the layers of meta at work in all this, honestly.  I’ve spent the past week trying to figure out what it means, culturally, that we’ve reached the point where we’re paying people to spend a year doing what amounts to performance art, so that they can write about our normal lives.  I’m still not sure, but that Mayan prophesy thing makes a lot of sense to me these days.

Still, there is much more good here than Rachel’s critics have allowed.  For instance, her defense of singleness needs a broad audience.  It had me cheering, but then these days any defense of singleness will.  What’s more, I was happy to see that she took down the deeply problematic idea that women owe men sex (even if she does reach Driscoll territory by tacitly sanctioning strip poles in the bedroom).  Her writing about her husband, Dan, is really quite lovely.  And this bit, well, it’s spot on:

The writers of ancient Scripture seemed to acknowledge what all women instinctively know— that our bodies change as we get older, as we bear children, when we get sick, and as we experience joy, pain, life, death, victory, heartache, and time. And frankly, the suggestion that men are too weak to handle these realities is as emasculating as it is unbiblical.

Precisely.  I have been stunned by the willingness of Christian men and women to consider plastic surgery as they age in order to stay up with the young folks.  It’s a scandal, I hate it, and I am thrilled that Rachel has said it.  I hope she says it again, louder and with even more passion.

I realize that right now you’re waiting for the “And yet.”  And it’s coming, I suppose.  But the fact that it feels inevitable makes me sad.  I don’t want to pass off my praise as cursory or simply prefatory.  The thing is, I mean it when I say there’s more good than her critics make room for.  In fact, while Rachel made the idea that women should be homemakers one of her central points of critique, I walked away impressed by how much work homemaking can be.  It’s not easy to make a place and then to keep it, and Rachel’s efforts and acknowledged failures made me all the more grateful for those women who do.


One other point of concord, actually, that sets up the critique.  I think Rachel has the right target in mind by challening our use of “biblical.”

Take the issue of women working outside the home.  The question of whether women are “permitted” actually presupposes a structure of the household that Rachel ably points out did not drop out of heaven.  Were the home the center of economic gravity for a city, the question would be meaningless.

And lo and behold, so it once was.  But I didn’t learn that from Rachel, but from Nancy Pearcy, who makes a similar point.  I wish, as a complementarian, that complementarians had a little more fear and trembling before enscribing current household realities with the authority of “biblical.”  In doing so, we potentially cut ourselves off from reimagining households and economics together, and how marriage might provide a more stable basis for both.  And now I’m going to stop, because I might start sounding like Wendell Berry.

That to say, Rachel wants to put the difficulty of interpreting the Bible before us, to remind us of how hard it is.  I remain uncertain of her view of the Bible’s authority—she says she loves it, and I believe her, but then I love Shakespeare and he’s not the rule for faith and practice.  But I continue to think that the question of interpretation that Rachel highlights needs to be disambiguated from the question of authority. Allow me to drag my own intellectual hero, Oliver O’Donovan, into all this:

Behind the crisis of authority there lurks a crisis of Biblical interpretation, which means that even those who proclaim their respect for the Bible still cannot decide how it should be used in moral discussion. How may we induce the waters of Shiloah to flow gently to quench the thirst of Zion? Could it be that if we are ready to pay disciplined attention to the logic and meaning of moral language, its nuances, its varieties of function, its modes of expression, its implications, we might at last succeed in building a channel? I leave the question with you.


What of Rachel’s solution? I’m tempted to say it might be worse than the disease she identifies.   For instance, she says that she takes some texts to the “literal extreme.”  I know what she’s getting at here—because I’ve read the book—but still find myself frustrated.  Her “extremes” suffer from the problem of not being literal at all.  The literal reading of a text isn’t whatever happens to come to mind when your eyes cross the page.  It’s the meaning of the text set within the genre.  One can read a metaphor literally, but that just means reading it…as a metaphor.  To do otherwise to it is simply to read it badly or not read it at all.

In that way, her use of these terms actually sets evangelicals back a long ways.  Seven or eight years ago, evangelicals—led by Kevin Vanhoozer—spent all sorts of time working out what they meant by Scripture and how to do theological interpretation.  Most of that conversation went on outside the context of the gender debates.  And what happens at the theological level doesn’t always make it to the churches.  But it’s as though none of that went on for Rachel’s project, which gives the book an almost exclusively critical feel.

What’s more, I understand her worry that we are smashing texts together to find a unity when one isn’t apparent.  Biblical exegetes have warned against that for years, so it’s not exactly new.  And frankly, her point about all looking for something in the text and wanting to find it there is a basic hermeneutical problem, too.  I’m not so sure she’s commending eisegeses so much as arguing for what the church fathers would have called a “rule of faith” for biblical interpretation.  Augustine thought texts had to conform to charity, after all, which I take her to be (unintentionally) echoing when she says:

Are we reading with the prejudice of love or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed?

My problem, though, is that the “prejudice of love” can end up being sentimentalized to the point of unhelpfulness and that it leaves the how of our “picking and choosing” arbitrary and capricious.  The language of “pick and choose” even points in that direction, which is precisely why folks like me are going to resist it.  She makes biblical arguments throughout the text—but are those arguments for a biblical position or are they merely about the Bible?  It’s hard to say, really, since once Rachel’s deconstructive work is done whether we can say “biblical” at all anymore.  And it really matters, because it is possible that we would adopt a biblical nihilism that allows the “prejudices of love” to be determined by our experience, primarily, which we then read back into the text.

Which is to say, even if we do read our experience back into the text, the question is whether we should—or whether in doing so, our reading into is challenged and corrected by the text itself. At what point, in other words, is the standard of finding love and justice determined and decided by the text itself?  Rachel points to the double-commandment to love God and neighbor, and that was Augustine’s move too.  But Augustine thought love needed ordering if it’s to be any good, and Scripture was at every point a correction on us for doing so.  But I think all this is ambiguous in Rachel’s book, which is why interpreters have come away with the impression she’s hollowed out the Bible despite her protestations to the contrary.


This is the longest review ever, but let me make two more points.

First, for someone who has staged a “Rally to Restore Unity,” this is clearly not a book that is intended to pursue that.  And that strikes me as tragic, for a lot of different reasons.  I think Rachel Marie Stone’s point about Rachel’s conservative critics not practicing a charitable reading of the book is probably right.  But that’s a buzzsaw that destroys everything in its path, and Rachel’s own project shows very little hermeneutical sympathy with the targets of her critique.

She didn’t set out on her journey attempting to find out what her intellectual foes thought, or why they thought it.  She set out from the conclusion that they were wrong and then read their texts accordingly.  I mean, after she notes that Proverbs 31 is recorded by King Lemuel “as an oracle his mother taught him,” she comments that this “totally upset my plan to cast the Proverbs 31 woman as an unrealistic archetype of the misogynistic imagination.”  That may be sarcasm, and I might have missed it.  I was born in Canada, which means I don’t do sarcasm.  But it sure seems like she set out on her reading with her conclusions predetermined, which isn’t exactly modeling the sort of hermeneutical sympathy that we might admire.

I’ll go one step further down this road.  Rachel tends to lump “patriarchalists” together, such that John Piper is treated as equivalent to the Vision Forum.  I realize distinctions don’t sell well, but I am also aware—having read a number of feminists and feminist theologians—that painting intellectual movements with a broad brush can be a way of unfairly marginalizing people we might otherwise be impelled to listen to.  And feminists have resisted having that done to them for years (I noted, for the record, that I described feminism with an overly broad brush in my own treatment on the subject).  If I was to put Mary Daly and Rachel Held Evans next to each other and go on about “feminists” and what they think, you might think that I’m being uncharitable to one or both.  It may be the case that John Piper and the Vision Forum have more in common than it seems (though I am skeptical), but from reading Rachel’s book no one will be able to tell.  And we all wonder why the Reformed community is so frustrated by how they’ve been treated?

All that to say, it saddens me that Rachel approached this subject as she did, in part because these are such weighty issues for all evangelicals to wrestle with and I worry that her approach has taken us backward on them, rather than forward.   These questions deserve the care and labor that comes with making distinctions, weighing arguments, and reading very closely.  I realize none of that sells well.  It’s boring, which is very near to death.  But it seems obvious that this sort of project is liable to easy misinterpretation, and Rachel’s hope of retreating into “irony” and protestations seems totally tone deaf.  It feels–and I am happy to be wrong–as though her desire to provide levity has crossed into the flippant.  (I was struck by how she included “deal with a crisis of faith” in a brief list of otherwise disconnected chores, as though such a profound moment could be one thing among many.)  Rachel’s readers can blame the critics for not getting the irony—and I may have missed it too.  If anyone’s still reading, I’m sure they’ll happily point it out.  But at what point does knowing that a way of approaching an issue has a likelihood of causing a major controversy actually make the author culpable?  Given the state of the evangelical world, this book is the equivalent of carrying a torch through a forest that hasn’t seen rain in years.  The odds of a fire are somewhere in the neighborhood of one.

Still, a word to those who I find myself in agreement with, my friends in the conservative evangelical world.  The responsibility to pursue unity is on us all, and when I read the reviews it strikes me that the first and clearest impulse has been to make the boundaries of interpretation clear first and foremost.  I understand the reasons why, I think, and the pastoral sense of responsibility to hold firm to sound doctrine and challenge those who seem to undercut it.  I write at a blog named Mere Orthodoxy, after all, which I’m pretty sure makes me anathema to most people my age.

But such a duty should be conducted, I think, with something of a heavy heart and sorrow at the tragedy of a divided church.  And maybe it could be done the day after a book comes out, or two days after, or three.  It seems unfair to accuse writers of creating controversy in order to grab attention, a charge that I’ve seen here and there, when our most prominent outlets seem quick to press publish on their rebuttals.  I understand the responsibility to respond and the freedom because these are public matters.  But when such responses happen quickly as quickly as this one did, they only fuel the controversy.  And that is something that I am increasingly wary of.


I really have gone on too long.  It’s late, and I am tired.  Which means I have officially reached “rant” mode.  But I really will be done with this:  I am increasingly saddened by the state of our Christian discourse online, including my own involvement in it.

I’m no Roman history expert, but I take it that it was their love of entertainment that led them to the Coliseum.  It’s a bloodthirsty idol, entertainment, for it knows no boundaries nor respects no persons.  Over the past two years, Christians have engaged in a variety of controversies—which they have been doing for a long time, but which seem to be coming and going with a greater rapidity while being discussed at a significantly more shallow level.  I think of Rob Bell’s book, Jesus>Religion, Mark Driscoll’s book, the Wilson dustup, and now this conflaguration.  And there are, I think, others I am forgetting.

In each, the form of arguments have rarely been commendable and the level of discourse ennobling.  We have increasingly, it seems to me, been taken by these controversies and fought for pageviews in the midst of them.  And that has meant mostly fighting each other, clashing verbal swords and letting the digital blood flow in the streets.  I know well that there is a time to disagree and to draw lines.  And I also know that when the controversy is upon us, the drumbeats of war always beat the loudest, and it is usually in such moments that we should speak of peace.  Perhaps we would all do well to wield our intellectual swords with a good deal more care.

Eight years ago, I thought that blogging held promise for the church to improve its dialogue and help minds think more Christianly.  I now wonder whether that is true, or whether the intrinsically shallow nature actually induces an entertainment-oriented mindset that prefers the action of a controversy to silence or to the boring, mundane work of saying the same old thing.  I see the tendency toward degrading speech in myself and have watched it come to the fore over the past year.  And I am not at all certain it should continue, either in me or in the rest of this small corner of the internet.   Because if evangelicalism continues to be a movement that lives on controversy, then it is certain that it will someday die by it.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.