Last year is when I first heard about a strange project : a Tennessee blogger was embarking on a one-year commitment to live out the biblical directives aimed at women as an effort to demonstrate “biblical womanhood.” The result is Rachel Held Evans’ new book, A Year of Biblical
Womanhood : How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master. ( I love long titles! Seriously, I do!)
Rachel’s book is a record of different antics she submitted herself to as she took the words of the Bible literally. Passages like Proverbs 31 where the virtuous woman is described as being the ultimate domestic goddess who manages her household with the skill of Martha Stewart is one example. Rachel determined that to try to emulate the Proverbs 31 woman she would need to brush up on her domestic skills. Armed with a Martha Stewart cookbook, she set out to learn how to cook meals that were far above her repertoire. This may sound silly, but every good Christian woman knows that homemaking and kitchen talent is codified in the collective conscious of the faithful. Rachel notes this by quoting contributing writer, Dorothy Patterson from the guide on traditional roles, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
(Patterson) concludes from these two passages that “keeping the house is God’s assignment to the wife – even down to changing the sheets, doing the laundry, and scrubbing the floors.” Ambitions that might lead a woman to work outside the home, says Patterson, constitute the kind of “evil desires” that lead directly to sin. — A Year of Biblical Womanhood
It is this worldview that Rachel determined to challenge, and rather than stop with a few well-written blog posts, she thought of a creative way to really get her point across while at the same time brushing up on her cooking skills, a bonus according to husband Dan.
Biblical Womanhood, as I call this book to keep it short and simple, is a smart and humorous journey of a curious writer who chooses to wrestle out one of the most polarizing issues in the American church today : the role of women. Early in the book, Rachel describes her Southern upbringing in a churched family that was not rigid about traditional roles. She mentions her mom a few times throughout the book. “The only people who enjoy potlucks are men. Women do all the work,” says her mom writes Rachel.
These glimpses of Rachel’s growing up years and later her college years gives context to how the church shaped her perspective on the debate of women and roles and leadership and also to why this is such an important issue to Rachel. She is a champion for women’s equality.
The book is funny. Rachel has some great one liner’s peppered throughout the book, sort of reminding me of humor writer, Erma Bombeck Rachel’s humor is incisive, yet not sharp. Like this quip:
We evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like it’s Martin Luther’s middle name.
Biblical Womanhood is a fast read. All throughout the storytelling and surprise zingers, Rachel shares her reflections about the stereotypical Christian woman. She dismantles it, bit by frilly bit, showing that underneath the rules and roles and presumptions about Bible commands, that there is no one-size fits all biblical woman template. For some readers, this is not a rush of revelation. But for a Tennessee blogger finding her way through the jungle of rhetoric as the war on women wages within (and outside) the church, Rachel does many women a great service by showcasing how absurd it is for all women (let alone any woman!) to try to live up to an ideal that we were never meant to live up to in the first place. This is a powerhouse of a book written with candor, humor and just the right amount of theology to keep it from getting bogged down. I happily recommend it.
I was able to catch Rachel before her whirlwind promotion of her book kicked in. Here is a short email interview she kindly agreed to. Be sure to check out details at the end of the interview of how you can win a free copy of her book. We have three to give away!
Me: At the end of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, you write that you were looking for a story when you embarked on your project and the story you found was a deep desire for permission to be a woman. A Year of Biblical Womanhood project helped free you from needing permission to be a woman and to Just Be. What were some key moments that led to this realization?
Rachel : One of the most liberating parts of the experiment for me was rediscovering the stories of celebrated women from Scripture — and not just the ones we hear about growing up in Sunday school, but women like Deborah, Huldah, Jael, Miriam, Vashti, Ruth, Esther, Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Junia, Priscilla, Tabitha and Phoebe. What I found was that each of these women honored God in a different way, that they showed incredible bravery and faith that transcended their culture, their circumstances, and their status as women in a patriarchal world.
Christian women are often told that their lives should look like carbon copies of the woman celebrated in Proverbs 31, and too often, the focus is on the elements of that acrostic poem that feature the domestic accomplishments of an upper-class ancient Near Eastern wife (keeping the home, providing food for the family, weaving from dawn until dark). But that misses the point of the text entirely! Proverbs 31 is not a to-list describing what a woman is supposed to get done in a given day; it’s a poem celebrating what a woman has already accomplished! It’s meant to honor a woman’s daily acts of valor, which is why the poem begins, “a woman of valor who can find?” (The Hebrew is eshet chayil — woman of valor).
What’s interesting is that the biblical heroine Ruth too is identified as a “woman of valor” (eshet chayil). And she is identified as such before is married, before she has children, and before she had a pot to pee in. In fact, you could argue that Ruth had the opposite lifestyle of the Proverbs 31 woman, since she was poor, widowed, and childless….and yet she too is identified as a “woman of valor.”
So as my exploration of these women went on, I began to see that being a woman of valor isn’t about what you do, but how you do it. It’s not about squeezing into a mold or a particular lifestyle; it’s about living your life with character and bravery. It’s about living your life as the woman God created you to be.
Me: In your intro and throughout your book, you refer to your mom who provided you with a Christian upbringing. All the stories about your childhood suggest that though the messaging of idealized biblical womanhood was absorbed in church and reinforced in college, this was not the case in your home. Did you have conversations at home with your mother or sister about these things during your growing up years? What about now? What did your mom think of your biblical womanhood project ?
Rachel: My mom is awesome. She never really fit into the perceived mold of the Southern Christian woman, and I love her for that! (She used to complain about how men were the only ones who enjoyed church potlucks because the women were always stuck doing all the work.) So I think I got a lot of my…chutzpah…from her, and I’m grateful. She and my dad have shown unwavering support for me, even when my passion for gender equality in the Church has set me at odds with evangelical leaders who are respected in their circles. Same goes for my sister, who, even though she is younger than me, I look up to as a model of valor and grace. We Held women have always been opinionated and strong, and we’ve always surrounded ourselves with men who aren’t intimidated by that. So I think gender equality has happened naturally in our homes. The trick is seeing it played out in the church.
Me: Your book is somewhat memoiresque concerning your marriage. Your husband Dan is featured a lot in the book including excerpts from his journal during the time of your womanhood project. In some ways, your book is as much about marriage as it is about a woman’s identity. Did you intend this or is that where the writing took you?
Rachel: We knew from the beginning that the project would turn a spotlight on our marriage, and we were a little nervous about that at first. But what the project did, in the end, was remind us of how happy we are functioning as a team of equal partners rather than as a hierarchy. When I took some of those “submission” passages literally and out of context (as complementarians tend to do), Dan was just as uncomfortable as I was imposing a gender-based hierarchy onto our marriage, believe me. At one point he “ordered” me to stop submitting! So we both emerged from the project more appreciative of our relationships, and happy to get back to normal and just be ourselves. Imposing hierarchy onto a partnership is disorienting and unnecessary, and I ache or all the couples who feel like they have to do that because someone told them that the Bible requires it.
Me: Every writer I know harbors hopes and fears for the books they write. What are some of the hopes and fear you have for this book?
Rachel: I hope that A Year of Biblical Womanhood will make people laugh. It includes a bunch of funny stories (and pictures!) from my adventures in following all the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year…so I hope it entertains! I also hope that it helps liberate women from this idea that there’s just one right way to be a woman of faith, that “biblical womanhood” means keeping the home and submitting to men.
My fear, of course, is that it will be misunderstood. I think every writer worries about that. I fear that people will judge it without reading it, that they will think I’m making fun of the Bible, when nothing could be further from the truth. I took on this project precisely because I love the Bible, and I was tired of seeing it reduced to a list of rules and roles when it came to something as important and beautiful as womanhood.
Many thanks to Rachel for offering my blog readers some insights into her book. For more info about A Year of Biblical Womanhood check out Rachel’s blog, and if you don’t already subscribe to it, Do It !!
Here’s what you need to do to try to score one of these copies:
- Leave a comment Tell me what you think of this idea of “biblical womanhood.”
- Subscribe to this blog If you aren’t already subscribed here’s a LINK to make that easy for you. Be sure you’re subscribed to the blog and not just my newsletter. Only subscribed readers are eligible to win.
I will choose three commentors based entirely on my subjective powers. Get your comment posted by Thursday, 12:00pm PST time. Click here to convert your time. Winners announced in Friday’s post. I will email winners for your mailing addresses to forward to the publisher.
Super excited. This is the first time I’ve offered a book giveaway. I look forward to your comments. Who knew biblical womanhood could be such a hot topic?
Here’s the LINK to see the winners!