Rachel Held Evans: What is biblical womanhood, really?
Spending an intense year studying what the Bible had to say about women led the author of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” to confront her worst fears about Scripture -- and to draw closer to God.
November 6, 2012 | Rachel Held Evans didn’t chronicle her yearlong attempt to follow the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible just to have more conversations about gender roles and women in the church, she said.
The popular Christian blogger and author said she also wrote her second book to encourage Christians to have “better and more honest and engaging conversations about the Bible.”
“A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’” was released Oct. 30 and already has sparked lots of chatter. Evans recently appeared on the “Today” show, and a slew of publications, from Slate to The Huffington Post, ran stories about her project to live out the instructions for women in the Bible as literally as possible. This included not cutting her hair, covering her head when she prayed and calling her husband “master.”
And Christianity Today named her one of “50 Women You Should Know,” based on a survey of Christian leaders asked “which Christian women are most profoundly shaping the evangelical church and North American society.”
Evans, a graduate of Bryan College who is also the author of “Evolving in Monkey Town,” spoke to Cherry Crayton for Faith & Leadership about “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” why people leave the church and her vision of the church in postmodern America. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What are you trying to accomplish with “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”?
I’m trying to start a conversation about what we mean when we say we’re biblical. You’ll hear people say, “Women should stay home and not go to work, because I believe in biblical womanhood.” Or, “A man should not be a stay-at-home dad, because this isn’t biblical manhood.” People use this as a weapon, as a way of saying there is only one lifestyle, and that bothers me.
What bothers me even more is that it’s watering down Scripture and being reductive about the Bible. The Bible can’t be crammed into an adjective. And what I’m trying to do in a humorous and disarming way is to broach the subject of what is biblical womanhood, really?
We would like to think it’s a list of what to do and what not to do, but it’s not. It’s a lot more complicated than that. And part of honoring the Bible is acknowledging that. The Bible doesn’t have just one thing to say about how to be a woman of faith, and it doesn’t prescribe a single lifestyle. So trying to lead people into a more healthy appreciation of the Bible -- that’s what I’m trying to do, because that’s what it did for me.
Q: How so?
Spending this intense year with the Bible, and on a topic that I really struggled with before -- what does the Bible say about women? -- I think I’ve faced my very worst fears about the Bible and what it says and what it means to me. Doing that was really, really healthy in the end.
It made me feel like I kind of repaired my relationship with the Bible. My relationship with it was severed, and I was struggling with that. Immersing yourself in the Bible and seeing what it says about women -- you would think that would be an onset of a faith crisis, but for me, confronting those fears head-on brought me into a new space with the Bible that I hadn’t been in before.
I’m still struggling with it, but I’m comfortable with the struggle. I’m comfortable to be honest about that and to engage with it and to study it and learn more about it and ask people about it and to hear more stories and to read more. It’s just these endless stories and these endless interpretations. But all of that does bring me into a better relationship with God and with my community.
Q: What did you learn during your “year of biblical womanhood”?
Ahava, an Orthodox Jew whom I interviewed for the book and whom I became friends with, re-explained Proverbs 31. This is the passage that describes the ideal woman. I’ve always struggled with this passage, because I felt, “Oh my gosh, here we go again with this idea that real women are domestic goddesses,” and I never felt particularly gifted in that.
I asked Ahava, “How does your community interpret this passage? Is it a source of an inferiority complex among women in your culture like it is in mine?” She said, “Oh, no. We don’t see it that way at all. Proverbs 31 is not a to-do list. For us, it’s a song of praise.”
When you look at, in the Hebrew, the line that carries it through -- “a woman of noble character” -- what it really means in the Hebrew is “eshet chayil,” “a woman of valor.” Ahava told me that in her culture, women will actually say “Eshet chayil!” to one another as support and praise. It’s their version of “You go, girl!”
That’s such an empowering blessing -- and in the Jewish community, it’s seen as a blessing, not as this ideal you are supposed to live up to. It’s not something earned; it’s something that’s given. And it’s not restricted to the domestic sphere; it’s for anything. So being a woman of valor isn’t about what you do; it’s about how you do it. And that’s why all the women in Scripture who are praised -- none of them look exactly the same.
That’s really neat, because that means that we don’t have to be carbon copies of one another to be women of faith and women of valor. We just have to do our thing, and do it with bravery and with faith.
We don’t have to interpret the Bible literally for it to be meaningful and powerful and to draw us closer to God.