Rachel Held Evans’s forthcoming book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, is more than a run-of-the-mill memoir of a year of doing something. While following some of the tenants of that now well-tread path, Held Evans submits a daring work of satire that takes a candid and heartfelt look at the cultural construct of “biblical womanhood” in post-World War II American evangelicalism.
Held Evans’s work stays away from being a chronicle of funny moments with a few shots across the bow of the complementarian versus egalitarian debate. Surely, Held Evans’s latest book will ruffle the feathers of those in the “biblical womanhood” camp, but this will just be a book to add to the long list of grievances that the complementarians already have against her.
More than being funny, witty and very entertaining, the biggest praise I can give for this book is that it does not sink down into the quagmire of the ruckus blog debates that are perpetually hatched on the subject, especially on Held Evans’s blog. The book does not seek to solidify the antagonist nature of blog conversations, but instead does what a book should do: it elucidates a thesis—“The Bible does not present us with a single model of biblical womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth” (294)—while establishing the thesis on more than a few attention-grabbing sound bites. That is what blogging is for, and Held Evans, unlike many authors coming out of the blogging world, seems to know the difference between a book and a blog.
Now to the book itself. Held Evans does an excellent job tying in the lessons she has learned during each month with the different activities she does during the month. Much like Don Miller’s memoirs, the flow between life and lessons learned does not feel forced or contrived, as if the memoirist put the cart before the horse and designed “life” in order to produce certain “lessons.” Nor do the lessons feel forced. A good bit of why I react this way to this particular memoir is the inclusion of Held Evans’s husband’s thoughts from month to month. These journal entries add an alternative perspective to the work and add to the believability of the work—with the husband responding it does not feel like all of Held Evans’s zany ideas and shenanigans happened inside a box.
Not wanting to give too much away, Held Evans takes on her goals with zeal most of the time, and when she flounders she notes it (there are several self-deprecating references to crying in the fetal position). Yet, while the book is entertaining and light-hearted most of the time, Held Evans strikes a clear tone when it comes to the debate within American evangelicalism over women’s roles and “biblical womanhood”:
Among the women praised in Scripture are warriors, widows, slaves, sister wives, apostles, teachers concubines, queens, foreigners, prostitutes, prophets, mothers, and martyrs. What makes these women’s stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal, but that, regardless of the culture or context in which they found themselves, they lived their lives with valor . . .
Far too many church leaders have glossed over these stories and attempted to define womanhood by a list of rigid roles. But roles are not fixed. They are not static. Roles come and go; they shift and change. They are relative to our culture and subject to changing circumstances. (294)
At this point, Held Evans is just solidifying her stance in the whole debate, and this view certainly doesn’t deal the complementarian position any death blows. But she does add an important twist to the debate by juxtaposing the Christian calling/vocation of women with what are their culturally constructed roles: “A calling, on the other hand, when rooted deep in the soil of one’s soul, transcends roles” (294). I think this view of calling transcending roles is very promising and could potentially offer some middle ground in the whole roles debate (one can hope, right?). The calling of women in the Scriptures certainly offers a better rubric to measure women by than the always shifting roles that women played in the Scriptures.
In the end, this whole satire of “biblical womanhood” that Held Evans lives out over the course of a year is a riff off of the Old Testament prophets mode of living out their prophecies: Hosea marrying a prostitute, Jeremiah buying a piece of land, etc. Held Evans, in a brilliant twist, uses this prophetic stance to make a bold call to empower women within the church by turning the debate on its head and making a prophetic statement of her own, and one that I hope many women will follow:
So my advice to women is this: If a man ever tries to use the Bible as a weapon against you to keep you from speaking the truth, just throw on a head covering and tell him you’re prophesying instead. [Speaking to women:] To those who will not accept us as preachers, we will have to become prophets. (280)
I have made it a habit to pray over my daughter that she would be able to prophesy like Mary one day, and live out the dream of a world where the hungry are filled and the poor are satisfied. I can only hope that my daughter will speak the truth with the pith and valor which Held Evans calls women to use in living out their own callings.
Book releases October 30, 2012. Pre-order with the Buy Now Link below.Buy Now