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Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Summary: A personable, good-humored example of the liberal-theist cherry-picking ethic.

I recently wrote about the evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans and whether her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, can undo Christianity’s entrenched ideals of patriarchy. I still don’t think that’s likely, but I’ve read the book now, so I’d like to offer some more thoughts.

Evans lives in Tennessee and describes herself as an evangelical Christian, but as evangelicals go, she’s hardly typical. She belongs to the endangered subset who are egalitarian and politically progressive: “I vote for Democrats, believe in evolution, and am longer convinced that everyone different from me goes to hell” [p.xviii]. But for this book, she went to the opposite end of the spectrum: she found all the verses in the Bible that pertain to women, and spent an entire year trying to follow them as literally as possible.

Each month, she focuses on one virtue espoused by advocates of “biblical womanhood”: modesty, purity, domesticity, obedience, and so on. She spends a weekend at a Catholic monastery whose monks have taken a vow of silence, tries to sew her own clothes and to cook every recipe in a Martha Stewart cookbook (with decidedly mixed results), practices modesty by wearing long skirts and covering her head, and sleeps in a tent outside during her menstrual period. For the chapter on submission, she vows to obey her husband’s every order, even calling him “master” for a week. (To his credit, he’s creeped out by this, saying dryly, “This seems like it should be a turn-on, but it’s not” [p.55]).

For the most part, each chapter follows a predictable pattern: Time and again, she’ll try to follow a verse aimed at women, and finds it frustrating, demeaning, humilating, or misery-inducing. (Understandably so!) Finally, she concludes that God must not have meant for the verse to be followed in that way, and that the better interpretation is a metaphorical one that robs it of its force. She says this explicitly in her closing summation, that people get out of the Bible whatever they’re looking for:

We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it… If you are looking for Bible verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to liberate and honor women, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. [p.296]

I don’t disagree with this, as such. The Bible is such a vast, sprawling and contradictory book, incorporating so many different viewpoints, that you can find support in it for almost any set of rules you choose. But it does beg the question: Why, then, do you have any special reverence for the Bible? If your morality comes from your own conscience, which tells you which rules to accept and which to reject – and this is clearly true in Evans’ case – then there should be nothing unique about the Bible. That approach would work just as well with any book, be it the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, or the Communist Manifesto.

On the other hand, if you believe that the Bible is divinely inspired in some sense that isn’t true of other books – and since she calls herself a Christian, that seems like a reasonable assumption – then you ought to believe there’s at least a possibility that its rules should be followed even when they go against the judgments of your own conscience.

There’s one more obvious argument which Evans never addresses: If the Bible has both good parts and bad parts – if you can find both verses that support slavery and verses that oppose slavery, verses that teach peace and others that advocate genocide – doesn’t that make the Bible, overall, a bad book to choose as your moral guide? Wouldn’t a good book contain consistently good advice, not just bits of good advice that have to be cherry-picked out of verses about war, slavery and forcing rape victims to marry their rapists?

The closest Evans comes to addressing this is saying that parts of the Bible are “troubling” [p.53], and that she thinks Christians should spend less time trying to come up with apologetics to excuse them. She calls attention to the cruelty of the Jewish purity laws which forbid even women who’ve just given birth from hugging a loved one [p.153]. She even holds a mini-ceremony to remember the women of the Bible, like Jephthah’s daughter, who suffered and lost their lives in gruesome ways [p.65]. Again, I don’t disagree with this, but it’s intellectually inconsistent to acknowledge the immorality of these verses but avoid drawing any conclusions about the overall goodness of the Bible from them.

The book’s conclusion is that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all single model of “biblical womanhood”, and that the Bible has different advice for women in various situations and stations in life. Fair enough, but it doesn’t come to terms with the fact that most of those biblically-endorsed models treat women in a demeaning, unequal way. (That year of biblical womanhood notably didn’t include polygamy!) If you care about social justice and women’s equality – and Evans clearly does, since there’s a whole chapter devoted to it – a Christian worldview will always mean you’re working at cross-purposes with yourself.

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