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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"A Year of Biblical Womanhood" (Rachel Held Evans)

TITLE: A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master"
AUTHOR: Rachel Held Evans
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (326 pages).

For 368 days, the author tries an experiment on herself, namely, to live as literally as possible, the role and the way a woman must behave, as according to the Holy Bible. She begins by setting the stage to explain to readers why she is irritated, albeit with wit and humour about her own growing up years of conservative Christianity. She challenges herself with this.

"What if I tried it all? What if I took 'biblical womanhood' literally?"

So she did. Using her own set of "Ten Commandments" for biblical womanhood, she sets out to be the biblical woman, such as a dutiful wife waking up early every morning, devoting herself to the household duties, dress modestly, covering her head in prayer, not cutting her hair, not teach in Church, not gossiping, and most importantly, submitting herself to her husband.

Beginning in the month of October 2010, she cultivates gentleness, biting her tongue from her usual verbal release of irritation at her husband's football interest in the middle of a frantic football season. She has to put up with bewilderment from friends, about her desire to be "different" from what she usually is, like strong-willed, independent, and assertive. She tries her hand at the "jar of contention" where she has to do penance when she has any contentious spirit in her.  This she does literally according to Proverbs 21:9, by sitting on the rooftop for all the contentious emotions in her. The focus for November is Domesticity, where she becomes an overnight housewife, describing huge chunks of her time in the kitchen. December is about obedience to her husband, submitting to him, even calling him 'master.' She begins January with a new resolution to be a woman of valor, to be the Proverbs 31 woman, albeit with some cynicism whether it is really possible in the first place. February marks a tough challenge for the author, as she focuses a lot on beauty, despite her admission that the Bible talks a lot more about sex than beauty. Nevertheless, she forces herself to give her husband a "Sex Anytime" coupon, in accordance to 1 Corinthians 7:4-5). She spends much of March 2011 with the Amish, learning modesty, and finally admitting that like wearing clothes, modesty is different for each woman. April is about purifying her body according to the Levitical laws on purity, eating kosher food, experiencing Sabbath, and even camping out for three days of "impurity." May is a month to think about parenting and motherhood, to be fruitful and multiple as according to Genesis 1:28. She reads, researches, writes, and goes on social media, even buying a toy baby online as a way to nurse her mothering nature. For June, the author forces herself to submit to her husband in "everything" according to Ephesians 5:22-24, with hilarious results. July is a month of justice, and caring for the poor and needy. The closing two months are months that the author begins to quieten down to silence and to grace.

My Thoughts

Like it or dislike it. Love it or loath it. Rachel Held Evans has given a treat by comparing the ancient and the modern, contrasting the literal and the figurative, and commenting on her own way of interpreting the Bible, amid adopting a as-literal-as-possible lifestyle. She seems to have accomplished several of these literal exercises in letter but not exactly in spirit. The truth is, she is very much antagonized by groups that places hierarchy above equality, complementarianism over egalitarianism, and more particularly, literal over genre. She begins with very clear objective to pursue the goal of being the most "biblical woman" as possible at the start of each month. Unfortunately, she often ends on a critical note, describing more about her own views over and above what the biblical writers are saying at that time. The research and applications she does are also selective, not only on the Bible passages, but also on how, when, where, and who to practise them on. She admits the importance of selecting the most appropriate English Bible translation.  There is a lot of pick-and-choose that Evans does. She justifies this by saying that opponents do the same as well. 

Contrary to what some reviewers may say about this book, I find this book a hearty look at Bible interpretation. It is a lived out version of what it means when we apply the Bible as-is, without paying too much attention to the differences between the ancient and the modern contexts. Inspired by AJ Jacobs's book "The Year of Living Biblically,"  irked by the complementarian's views of the roles of manhood and womanhood represented by the CBMW association, "Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood," encouraged by egalitarians such as Scot McKnight, John Stackhouse, and other theologians taking a view of "Discovering Biblical Equality," Rachel Held Evans unleashes her unabashed support for egalitarianism.  It is a humourous attempt to show readers, especially those hyper-literal interpreters, that the Bible is not meant to be taken out of context from their ancient times. Literal reading of the Bible does sounds weird, even ridiculous. Reading like a journal, the author offers some objectives at the beginning of each chapter, describes her ongoing struggles about the very things she disagrees with, and makes her own insights about what it means to interpret the Bible in our modern contexts.

How do I read this book? Certainly, it is not to be treated as a theological treatise. Neither is it something that scholars need to take it too literally. It is also not a book to argue for or against either complementarianism or egalitarianism. It is more of an attempt by the author to combat the use of biblical injunctions to make women submit to men. It speaks out against any imposition of hierarchical obedience that is based on gender. More importantly, it reminds readers that the Bible is to be read in its original contexts and to be applied wisely in our modern contexts. Just because we follow the Bible literally does not mean we are biblical. Likewise, just because we do not follow the Bible literally does not mean we are not obeying the Bible. For me, the way to use this book is as a reminder that times have changed. At times, I do feel that the author ridicules more rather than reverence the biblical texts.

We need wisdom to know how to contextualize ancient texts with modern contexts. We need grace to understand the nuances of culture. We need a light-heated spirit not to be overly critical of any one view, but to see the differences each view brings out. The more open we are, the more we learn to appreciate the scope of Christian living and biblical applications. That said, the Bible does carry a serious message, even though we are clumsy in our application of it. While this book does bring out more laughter than spiritual enlightenment, it is a good reminder that living biblically is not something easily practiced, literal or otherwise. This is because we cannot do so on our own strength. We need one another. More importantly, we need God's help.

I highly recommend this book for anyone concerned with Bible interpretation and Christian living.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Thomas-Nelson / HarperCollins and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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