Rachel Held Evans has exploded in popularity over the last two years. It seems every couple of weeks, one of her blog posts goes viral on Facebook. She’s now frequently a contributor to CNN and The Huffington Post. Obviously, her writing is connecting with a lot of people.
Then, I discovered her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. As soon as the book came to my attention, I realized that I had read some of her work before. At the same time, I also became very skeptical of her work.
To be fair, as the title says, I’ve only seen the book cover and read some of her blogs. I haven’t read the book. Based on the cover and her other writings, I don’t think I would enjoy at all. I can only imagine myself being extremely frustrated the entire read.
#1 – The Concept of the Book is Based on an Agnostic Jew’s Satirical Book
In 2007, five years before her book was published, A.J. Jacobs released a book called The Year of Living Biblically. The point of the book was not to show the wisdom portrayed in the Bible. The point wasn’t to show how living God’s way is the best way. The point of the book was to show how absurd it is to live biblically. This is not surprising, since it was written by an agnostic Jew. He wasn’t necessarily harsh with his book, but the silliness of being biblical was certainly exploited.
I haven’t done enough research to be able to absolutely confirm this was the source for her experiment, but it seems very unlikely she was unaware of his work or that no one at her publisher mentioned it to her.
- The titles of the books are remarkably similar.
- The themes of the books are remarkably similar.
- So, I really struggle with why a Christian would choose this as their template.
Clearly, she’s borrowing the tactics of an agnostic who wrote his book for purposes other than glorifying God. So, I struggle to understand how this is a good model for exploring biblical womanhood and how we should treat scripture. I know how it’s a good way to get attention and increase sales…It’s kind of funny…
…I don’t understand how this will promote the causes of Christianity.
Judge for yourself what he’s going after:
If your goal is to help women live the way Christ wanted them to live, is following an agnostic’s example the best way to do so?
#2 – I Don’t See the Value in Making Living Biblically Look Stupid
I think this is pretty straight forward, but what is the value of this book’s point? Once again, I am reviewing the book cover. Maybe the book takes things in a different direction (though given what I do know she certainly likes absurdly literal interpretations of things).
Sure, it’s fun to give an over the top literal interpretation of scripture, but I don’t see how that actually helps people live biblically in the correct sense. When you present an over the top caricature of the other side, that’s called a straw man. When you take their position and take it to the silliest extremes you can think of…once again straw man.
- I can see how it would cause people to question the validity of scripture.
- I can see how it would lead to doubt in some.
- I can see how it would confuse some people struggling with big issues.
You don’t build trust in scripture by getting people to doubt its validity. I’ve read snippets of the book and a number of reviews. She goes to great lengths to show how silly following the Bible literally is. I just don’t know that I see that as a noble goal.
Of my three critiques of the cover, I would say this one probably is the most likely to be shifted if I were to actually read the book. Which I am very open to you trying to convince me of the books value.
#3 – A Hermeneutic (Bible interpretation method) Based on Being Clever Rather than Biblical (or logical or fair)
The full title of the book is A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master.’ First off, let’s be clear, she found herself doing this experiment so that she could record her experience and write a book. That’s not really the same thing as someone attempting to live biblically for a year. That’s a person trying to find a way to “live biblically” in a way which would be amusing to those who read the book.
There’s an inherent problem with this approach. She isn’t trying to actually live out “Biblical Womanhood.” She’s trying to live “Biblically” in a way which is amusing to her readers. Those aren’t event remotely close to being the same thing. Remember the idea for the book came from an agnostic Jewish satirist.
Right off the bat, I noticed that she spent time sitting on her roof. When I read that, I immediately thought to myself, “Why?” Clearly, that statement is referencing a number of Proverbs which read:
I have looked these Proverbs up in 5 different translations. Each is constructed the same way, and with each, I’m not sure how this would lead a wife to sit on her roof. It seems very clear that it is the husband who should be sitting on the roof to avoid the quarrelsome wife. Sitting on the roof isn’t intended as a punishment for women. Maybe I’m reading these Proverbs wrong, but it seems pretty clear to me that these Proverbs are telling husbands that it’s better to sit on their roof than live with a quarrelsome wife.
Beyond that, clearly it’s a figure of speech. It’s not intended to actually instruct people to sit on the roof. Likewise, scripture isn’t intended to actually instruct wives to call their husbands “Master.” This is a way of interpreting the Bible which is clearly dishonest. She isn’t attempting to follow the Bible using a hermeneutic which anyone in history has ever used. She’s invented a hermeneutic which is flat out absurd. Sometimes that means taking Proverbs intended for husbands and applying them to wives, and other times that means creating absurdly literal interpretations of scripture.
It seems she values being clever over biblical integrity. It seems she values a sensational hermeneutic over an honest one. That seems to be counter to the actual point of the book. If you want to counter a certain way of interpreting scripture, you don’t create caricature of a straw man of that position. You simply portray that perspective and point out the flaws. She has chosen to simply portray things in an absurd fashion.
As a point of reference, here is someone who fully agrees with her on the premise of the book (which I would not), but disagrees with her methods. Here’s a quote from the opening paragraphs of his review:
It’s hard not to like Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Stylistically, she’s the anti-Chan of Christian writers. Her prose is lively, funny, self-deprecating, at times deeply insightful—as I indicated earlier this week.
No doubt, you’re now waiting for my Big But, and here it is: I don’t trust her.
It’s not that I can’t get behind the book’s premise: that the concept of what she calls “biblical womanhood” is a myth. It’s impractical; it’s highly selective; it disregards context; and it does violence to what the Bible actually says: because the Bible, a diverse collection of books, doesn’t present one model of what a woman should be.
Nothing about this premise bothers me. I didn’t grow up in a fundamentalist home. I believe in egalitarian marriage. I believe women should be ordained—obviously, I’m a United Methodist. And I went to a liberal mainline Protestant seminary where anyone espousing the very conservative views of womanhood that informed Evans’s Christian upbringing would be laughed off of campus.
My problem is with the way she attempts to prove the premise: by supposedly taking the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—as literally as possible for one year. Each month, she tackles a new theme related to the concept: domesticity, modesty, purity, submission, etc. The first problem is her understanding of what counts as literal. For example, as penance for, at times, being the “contentious wife” of Proverbs 21:9 (“It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.”), she literally sits on the rooftop of her house—one minute for each instance of contentious behavior. She said that some of her blog readers reminded her “about a million times that the Bible didn’t explicitly command contentious women to sit on the their roofs.” That’s putting it too mildly: she well knows that no one in the history of the world, much less the history of the Church, has ever prescribed this practice. Not only does the Bible not “explicitly command” the practice: it doesn’t even hint at it. It doesn’t imply it, even after the most careful, nuanced reading. No reasonable person would ever think, upon reading Proverbs 21:9, that sitting on a roof is a “biblical concept.” It’s a figure of speech.
Final Thoughts…and I have many!
In doing so, she appeals to an entire generation of slightly disenfranchised evangelicals looking for a version of Christianity slightly different than their parents.