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.
Q: What would you hope Christian institutional leaders would take away from your book?
I’d like to see a more serious engagement with all of the text, not just the parts that make for good sermons on Sundays or that fall into a pre-feminist ideal, but even the parts that make us uncomfortable.
I think sometimes we avoid those, but I think we’re meant to struggle through those. There is always something to be learned in the conversations that surround the Bible, and I think we can learn a lot from our Jewish brothers and sisters on how they engage with and wrestle with the text.
Just be willing to engage and be willing to wrestle with those passages with parishioners who might be troubled by them -- that is what I would like to see. If we don’t create a church culture where people are allowed to question and to wrestle, then they leave.
And everybody is talking about young people and about how the church is hemorrhaging, and this is across the board -- mainline, conservative evangelical -- everybody is losing young people. I think part of the problem is that we’re not creating environments in churches where people are allowed to struggle with their doubts and to talk about them and to work through them. People are not given the creative space to work through their questions and doubts.
Q: How do you create that space in a church?
More space for art and creativity, which I think is important for young people. Stories and art allow us to work through our questions and our doubts. Really, I wish I knew how to do it, but I don’t, because we tried and failed.
Q: What did you learn from having to close a church you and your husband helped start after about a year?
That you should have denominational backing! The great thing is that when we dissolved, everybody loved each other and was happy with each other. They weren’t happy that we dissolved, but there wasn’t conflict. It was just that we couldn’t make it work, and the pastor who was leading us needed to take another job to provide for his family. We weren’t bringing in enough money.
Failure isn’t always bad. Sometimes we have to fail at things in order to grow. And maybe it wasn’t even a failure, because I’m still connected to people who were part of that community, and some great things happened as a result of that community.
One thing I think we did right was that we didn’t just have a sermon with people listening. The pastor would talk, and then we would all talk back to him and have a discussion. My pastor was somebody who would say, “I don’t know” -- just like my dad.
Most people, I think, want people who are willing to say, “This is something I’m wrestling through.” I’d really love to see that more from pastors -- a little more honesty, to be willing to say, “I don’t really know what this passage means” or, “This passage troubles me.” It means a lot to me when a pastor says that, because then I’m like, “Oh, OK. We’re all in this together. And maybe we’ll figure it out together.”
Q: You mentioned your dad, and you’ve written that your parents created a space where it was OK to question and work through doubt. What did they do?
When I was a child, I had severe asthma, and I had a really bad night where I was scratching so hard that I was bleeding; I had rashes all over my body. I said, “Why is this happening? Why did God let this happen to me?” And my dad, who studied theology and went to seminary, said, “I don’t know, but I do know that God loves you.” And he said that to me often: “I don’t know why, but I know that God loves you.” Those are two very affirming things to say to somebody, because it creates security but also space.
I think the willingness to say “I don’t know” when we don’t know is a sign of wisdom and humility. Sometimes we do know, but sometimes we don’t, and it’s better to be honest about that.
Q: What are some churches you’ve seen that you think have created this space for security?
One community is led by Nadia Bolz-Weber [founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints]. I love her, and what they are doing there in their community is great. They foster creativity, communicate with one another and leave space for differences and for questions.
Another community I enjoyed visiting was in San Diego, the Missiongathering Christian Church. They seem to be doing a great job of combining progressivism with compassion and that “fire in the belly” that comes with evangelism. They’re a progressive, open, inclusive, loving community, and their worship and the way they talk reminds me of evangelism. They were passionate about what they did and were able to articulate it.
Kathy Escobar also has created a cool little community. It’s in the suburbs, so it’s not what you would think of at first as being missional, but it is. It does a great job of talking about and creating a safe environment for conversation. She talks a lot about “downward mobility.”
Q: How do you feel about the future of the church?
I’m optimistic, mostly because I trust that Christ will preserve it. I see so much good and so many faithful people doing such good work. I’m especially encouraged by what I have seen in evangelical communities. There has been a shift. It has been a slow, hard-fought shift, but a shift. And women are beginning to gain more leadership. I think that’s good for the church -- when both men and women are leading.
So I’m very hopeful. I have to be. I don’t always feel optimistic. Sometimes I know it in my head, but I don’t feel it in my heart. When I'm struggling with it, though, I do trust that God is faithful and that he'll preserve the church.