More Than Just a Good Story: Rachel Held Evans and Her Year of Biblical Womanhood

What if I tried it all?  What if I took “biblical womanhood” literally? – Rachel Held Evans

Let me be clear about one thing.  I’ve not been trained in apologetics, exegesis, or hermeneutics.  In fact, I’m not even completely sure of the differences between them.  Therefore, I knew when I first thought about writing a review of A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master,” that I’d be approaching it from a somewhat different angle than the Christian bloggers, critics and authors who have taken her to task or lauded her, depending on their backgrounds and current beliefs.  I went in largely out of curiosity – and an expectation of entertainment.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans

Author/blogger Rachel Held Evans is a woman who’s been troubled by faith, as every Christian should be at some point in their lives.  Her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, describes “her own spiritual journey from certainty, through doubt, to faith.”  In this second work, she tackles an aspect of Christianity that has puzzled, bedeviled and frustrated generations of women (and some men) and given rise to raging, sometimes even ugly debate:  the “biblical” role of women.

I first became acquainted with Rachel through her blog and was immediately caught by her intelligent, articulate style, spending several lunch hours catching up on old posts.  While we disagree on a few theological points, I respect her research, commitment, and sometimes courage, for her opinions are not always popular and the Internet not always kind.  And when she announced the book that would emerge from a year-long project, I knew it would be a must-read.

That project was Rachel’s “year of biblical womanhood,” from 2010 to 2011, in which she did her valiant best to follow “as many of the Bible’s teachings regarding woman as possible in my day-to-day life, sometimes taking them to their literal extreme.”  Christians occasionally accuse each other of “salad bar religion,” in which they pick and choose which commandments or injunctions to follow, and one of Rachel’s reasons for embarking on her journey was to point that out we all do this.  The project included everything from growing out her hair (undoubtedly the one factor that would have prevented me from ever trying such a thing myself) to making her own clothes to submitting to her husband, Dan – and, in one of the funniest parts of the book, “remaining ceremonially impure” throughout her menstrual cycle.  With refreshing frankness she shares her missteps and failures as well as successes, aided along the way by an Amish woman, the wife of an Orothodox rabbi, a computerized baby, a community of Benedictine monks in Alabama, and, of course, a stack of books (one of which proved so infuriating she threw it across the room a total of seven times).  While her approach unquestionably has a tongue-in-cheek aspect, and some critics have labeled it a gimmick, there can be little doubt to a discerning reader that her heart was sincere.

Rachel's book“Despite what some may claim,” she says in the chapter on Obedience, “the Bible’s not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today.  In ancient Israel, ‘biblical womanhood’ looked different from woman to woman, depending on her status.”

It still does.

Not surprisingly, Rachel’s biblical year took a toll on pretty much every part of her life, even though she embarked on it with Dan’s full support.  Public reaction upon publication was another matter.  “As it turns out, not everyone likes the idea of following the Bible literally for a year,” she notes in what can only be described as an understatement.  One avowed atheist described it as “Yet another example of the dangers of religion and the idiocy of those who subscribe to it,” while some evangelicals labeled it “An embarrassment” and “A mockery of God and Scripture.”  Others called it “a compelling story told brilliantly” and an “unexpected, laugh-out-loud then turn the page and tear up, enjoyable and poignant read.”  Dan Evans called it “a good story to tell grandchildren someday.”

A Year of Biblical Womanhood is not a perfect book.  There is the occasional omission, the occasional bias.  But it is an honest, searching, informative, humorous, moving book.  And the depth of reaction to it indicates to me that, if nothing else, it asks questions that need to be asked.  One I had before I’d even reached the end was why Christians feel the need to slap the “biblical” label on manhood or womanhood (not to mention other things, some of which didn’t even exist in those days), performing at times hermeneutical gymnastics to confine the sexes within a corral of written rules, rather than simply focusing on how best to emulate the man at the root of their faith.

* * * * *

How about you?  Have you read A Year of Biblical Womanhood?  Would you undertake such a project yourself?  If so, why?  What does “biblical womanhood” mean to you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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