Lifeway won’t carry it. The Gospel Coalition hosted a severely critical review written by the wife of one of Reformed Evangelicalism’s big-name pastors. Since its release, reviews have been popping up across the internet ranging from gushing to highly critical. It seems that author Rachel Held Evans has become a polarizing figure amongst the evangelical crowd. So, rather than just picking my way through all the online reviews of her new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, trying to figure out what to think, I decided to read it and form my own opinions. And I’m glad I did.
Let me put my cards on the table to start: I’m rooting for Rachel, whether it’s on her blog, with her new book, or in whatever else she decides to do. We are of a similar age and come from similar conservative fundamentalist backgrounds. We seem to have gone through similar journeys over the past decade as we have each realized that there is more space within Christianity than was in the strict boxes of our youth. She’s also an engaging writer who, when she is on form, is one of the most readable bloggers I follow. (And I follow 514 feeds at the moment.) So, I jumped into the book expecting an enjoyable read. And it was enjoyable.
Rachel’s book details her year of living out principles and instructions that the Bible directs to women. She didn’t make any attempt to interpret or contextualize them – rather, she intentionally took them as literally as possible, which meant she was holding a sign praising her husband at the town welcome sign (“praising her husband at the city gate”), keeping her head covered, and sleeping in a tent outside the house during her monthly period.
Richard Beck has described Rachel’s book as “hermenutical performance art”, and I think he has a point. And this is one of the difficulties I have with the book. While her year is fun to read about, and while it does help illustrate her point that everyone, including the typical evangelicals, make significant interpretive decisions about which texts to take literally and which to contextualize or dismiss as obsolete cultural artifacts, I’m still just uncomfortable with the fact that we’re encouraging this sort of performance art in order to get an engaging book. While within the book Rachel seems to take the Scriptures seriously, the performance art part of it treads dangerously near the line of being flippant and disrespectful to them. (I’m not saying she crossed that line… but the line is definitely in sight.)
But aside from all the fish-out-of-water stories of Rachel learning to cook, visiting a monastery, hosting sewing parties, and learning from the Amish, are Rachel’s hermenutical arguments compelling? In other words, is there a decent point to all of these shenanigans? In some ways, yes, there is.
Rachel is doing well when she follows in Scot McKnight’s footsteps with her arguments for an egalitarian position on women’s roles in the church. (While I wasn’t personally completely convinced by McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet and Junia Is Not Alone, he does have a coherent, defensible position.) She doesn’t plow any new ground, but she at least outlines the basic hermenutic position that gets you to egalitarianism.
I developed more significant concerns, though, when Rachel attempted to define an alternative hermenutic in her final chapter. Let me quote a bit:
… there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does it say? but what am I looking for? I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm. So what was I looking for when I started this project? I think, at the surface, I was looking for a good story. And I certainly found one. But further down, in the deeper recesses of my heart and mind, I think I was looking for permission—permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself, permission to be a woman. What a surprise to reach the end of the year with the quiet and liberating certainty that I never had to ask for it. It had already been given.
Now, that doesn’t sound much like respecting and following the text within your hermenutic framework. What it instead sounds like is a claim that the Bible will back you up in whatever you’re “looking for” – thus exalting yourself over the text. That’s a problem. While we can have a productive discussion about which hermenutical principles are appropriate to apply to Scripture, saying that we need to just ask what we’re looking for, and that then we’ll find it, is post-modern mushiness of a high order.
I’m saddened that that final hermenutic point had to spoil what was otherwise an entertaining and thoughtful book. I would like to be able to point people to Rachel’s book, even if I didn’t agree with all of its conclusions, as a fair and well-reasoned book. But that last chapter gives me pause.
I’m rooting for Rachel. I hope she continues to explore and wrestle with her faith. I hope she keeps writing about it. Rachel says early in her book that the phrase “It has to get messy before it gets clean” is a philosophy “that pretty much sums up every meaningful experience of my life”. I hope that her post-modern messiness eventually cleans up with the understanding that Scripture might not always be saying what we want it to, and that then we have to decide whether we’ll submit to it or not.
In the end, there’s peace in not being the final authority on things. I’m not entirely sure that my sister Rachel has found that peace yet, but I’m praying that she does.