By Morgan Guyton, Special Contributor…
A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’
Rachel Held Evans
Thomas Nelson, 2012
Paperback, 352 pages
As an evangelical Christian growing up in the Deep South, Rachel Held Evans was surrounded by the concept of “biblical womanhood.” Over the last 30 years of culture wars, this term has been used by evangelicals as a foil for second wave feminism. At one biblical womanhood conference that Ms. Evans attended, one of the main speakers held up 1950s sitcom heroine June Cleaver as the exemplar of biblical womanhood.
Having always been a girl who asked too many questions, Ms. Evans decided to spend nearly a year, October 2010 to September 2011, exploring “biblical womanhood,” living out and examining a mixture of the actual practices of the Bible’s women along with some of the modern-day evangelical stereotypes.
The result of Ms. Evans’ journey is the book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which combines accessible, engaging storytelling with thoughtful Bible study and exploration of a variety of Christian and Jewish cultural traditions.
It’s the playfulness of this book that I most enjoyed. Each month, Ms. Evans embodied a different female virtue, and would attempt to cultivate this virtue by tackling a mix of silly and genuine challenges. In October, when the virtue was gentleness, she grew fascinated by the “contentious woman” who haunts the book of Proverbs, which says in verse 21:9, “It is better to live in a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman.” So Ms. Evans came up with a goofy way of embodying this verse: She put coins in a jar to keep track of her contentiousness and then spent an hour and 29 minutes sitting on her roof as penance.
Some of what Ms. Evans did was a bit satirical, such as calling her husband “Master” in an I Dream of Jeannie voice during a month when she explored the virtue of obedience. But every month was also a sincere spiritual journey in which she wrestled and ultimately came to peace with a feminine virtue that she had initially found oppressive. She went to a social refinement consultant, learned how to sew, cooked her way through a Martha Stewart cookbook, and visited an Amish lady who to her surprise had a hula hoop in her kitchen that she used to get in shape even while wearing her ankle length dress.
One of the interesting twists that the book takes is the degree to which it becomes an exploration of Judaism. Ms. Evans befriends an Israeli Orthodox Jew named Ahava while exploring the nature of the Proverbs 31 woman, a popular exemplar for biblical womanhood in the evangelical world. Ms. Evans’ friendship with Ahava becomes a narrative thread throughout the book. Ahava coached her through such things as preparing a Passover Seder meal, the niddah (monthly time of uncleanness when Orthodox Jewish women avoid contact with their husbands) and finally the rituals around Rosh Hashanah with which Ms. Evans concludes her yearlong journey. Ms. Evans also learned that Jewish culture uses the Proverbs 31 woman less to tell women how to behave and more to teach men to appreciate what their wives are already doing. Ahava shared that her husband sings the words of Proverbs 31 to her every week at the Shabbat table.
Ms. Evans’ book also has some tough realities to share. In her chapter on beauty, she talks about how the erotic love poetry in the Song of Songs was used by one fundamentalist pastor to tell a bride at her wedding of her responsibility not to get fat so that her husband would have to find sexual gratification elsewhere. She also covers the Quiverfull movement, which believes that Christians are commanded to have large families, based on a questionable interpretation of Psalm 127. As Ms. Evans says, “Poems were never meant to be forced into commands,” which is a common abuse of the biblical text by people who have tried to make the whole thing into an “owner’s manual.”
In many ways, Ms. Evans’ book is a case study in how to embody what we Methodists call the Wesleyan quadrilateral, the means of studying the Bible in conjunction with Christian tradition, human reason and everyday life experience that we affirm in our Book of Discipline. Ms. Evans calls for Christians to read the Bible “with the prejudice of love” rather than “the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest, and greed,” which is precisely the basis for biblical interpretation that Methodist founder John Wesley insisted upon in his groundbreaking sermon, “Free Grace.” There he declared: “No scripture can mean that God is not love or that his mercy is not over all his works.”
Though the world that Ms. Evans comes from may seem strange to some of us in a denomination where women have been ordained for ministry over 50 years, I still think her book would be an excellent Bible study resource for both women and men who are interested in confronting tough questions about how women are treated in Scripture. Ms. Evans proves that we can love the Bible and fully respect its canonical authority without denigrating the equal worth and giftedness of women for all aspects of Christian discipleship and ministry.
The Rev. Guyton is associate pastor of Burke UMC in Burke, Va. He blogs at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com.