Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

For those of you wondering why I’m posting this when I’m supposed to be working on my Jeremiah essay, the answer is this: the essay made me cry two times on Friday, which happened to be the day that Rachel Held Evans’ book arrived at our place, and I don’t think that was a coincidence. I did leave the book on the bench for a good few hours (even for a while after Moses had gone to bed and I continued to work on my essay – I feel I should point this out), which was the most impressive display of self-control I’ve managed to perform in a very long time. But by 8:30pm on Friday I decided I’d earned at least the opening chapters of this book, and then I couldn’t help staying up to finish it last night. (While we’re on this subject, here’s a tip for those of you who may one day find yourselves considering choosing an essay question on Jeremiah: DON’T. The questions on Psalms and Proverbs may look boring, but they probably won’t make you cry. Twice. You’re welcome.)

I discovered Rachel Held Evans’ blog one day while looking at a blog my husband occasionally checks in on. Hans (the blogger) had listed a stack of links along with little comments, and one of them said this: “Rachel Held Evans is spending the next year trying to live as a biblical woman. This infuriated me!” Of course, the words ‘biblical woman’ are like a magnet to me, so I immediately clicked on the link and arrived at Evans’ blog prepared to be likewise infuriated. Instead, the more I read, the more I realised that I agreed completely with everything she was saying, and that Hans’ anger obviously sprang from his complementarian beliefs and quite possibly a misunderstanding of the purpose of Evans project. I’ve since followed her blog weekly; I’ve returned to his once.

I love this story, because I see in it the kindness of God, who has faithfully and repeatedly provided just the right voices to speak into my life at just the right moments – I discovered Rachel’s site in the midst of my reading on the topic of what the Bible says about women, and her blog and those who read it have offered encouragement and community at many times when I’ve felt isolated and discouraged and very much like giving up entirely. And this story also reminds me of God’s quirkiness in getting the job done – I’m pretty sure Hans never intended for any readers to devotedly follow Evans’ blog as a result of his link.

I didn’t know quite what to expect from The Year of Biblical Womanhood. After following Rachel’s blog for over a year, I wasn’t sure how much would seem fresh and how much would overlap with posts I’d already read; I was pleasantly surprised to find it sat very much at the fresh end of the spectrum. Of course, this book is a little like A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, except that where Jacobs repeatedly stopped frustratingly short of grace in his book, Evans* splashes it liberally throughout hers. It’s also a little like Eat Pray Love in that it’s a well-written, honest and thoroughly enjoyable journey alongside someone who’s seeking big answers to difficult questions. But where Elizabeth Gilbert’s desire was to find God, Evans’ was to look into what womanhood in the Bible really looks like in order to challenge the too-common belief that ‘biblical womanhood’ is a simple, one-size-fits-all formula for every Christian woman. As Evans asks at the beginning of her book, “do all the women of Scripture fit into this same mold? Must I?”

The book’s split into chapters based on Evans’ focus for each month of the year (modesty, fertility and silence, among others), interspersed with portraits of women in the Bible and short excerpts from Dan’s (Evans husband) journal. The tone of the book is not ranty or mocking; instead Evans approaches each task and interview with warmth and humility and an openness to learn. She camps out in a tent during her period, talks to a wife in a polygamous marriage, works her way through Martha Stewart’s cooking and cleaning books, thinks through modesty with an Amish woman, and spends a couple of days with a battery-operated “baby” (designed to discourage teenagers from having sex!) to get a taste of motherhood. Her stories are often funny and sometimes heart-breaking, and there is wisdom sprinkled throughout the pages that I’m sure even my ultra-conservative, silent-with-head-covered grandmother couldn’t help but “Amen!” to. Looking at the story of Mary and Martha (Martha, who busies herself in the kitchen while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet), Evans writes (on pages 36-37):
Caring for the poor, resting on the Sabbath, showing hospitality and keeping the home – these are important things that can lead us to God, but God is not contained in them. The gentle Rabbi reminds us that few things really matter and only one thing is necessary. Mary found it outside the bounds of her expected duties as a woman, and no amount of criticism and questioning could take it away from her. Martha found it in the gentle reminder to slow down, let go, and be careful of challenging another woman’s choices, for you never know when she may be sitting at the feet of God.
There are many similar pause-and-praise-inducing moments in the book.

On a side note, I love the Evans example of an egalitarian marriage. Theyre on the same team, working with and for each other: mutual respect, mutual submission, mutual love. It’s a nice glimpse into a good marriage, and Rachel gained an imaginary high-five (one of many) for this.

I’ll be reflecting on the lessons within A Year of Biblical Womanhood  for a long time to come, and will re-read it as soon as I start to forget them. Where most teaching on biblical womanhood leaves me feeling hopelessly deficient and wrong-shaped, this book has left me celebrating the fact that God created me female, and that my sex is not a limitation but a blessing. May many, many women be spurred on to live valorous lives for Jesus because of this beautiful book.


* ‘Evans’ sounds so impersonal, but I’m going to stick with it to acknowledge the fact that even though I feel like she’s my big sister, she has absolutely no idea that I exist.


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