Rachel Held Evans’ “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”

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.

Book Review: The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister

Growing up in evangelical churches, the most I knew about the liturgical year was the weird dates that were printed in the bulletin at my grandparents’ Lutheran church: “Third Sunday of Pentecost” and things like that. I’ve learned more as time has gone along, but when the opportunity arose to review this book, I figured it was a good chance to learn some more.

The Liturgical Year comes from an unabashedly Roman Catholic perspective. Written by a Catholic nun, there are times when its obviously Roman biases show through, but on the whole it provides an evenhanded perspective on the year that appears to address both the Catholic and Protestant views fairly well. (There is one chapter dedicated strictly to Marian observances, but it’s relegated to the end of the book, after the basic discussion of the year.)

The Liturgical Year is split into 35 short chapters that work their way through the year, starting with the observance of Advent and Christmas, taking several chapters to discuss Lent and Holy Week, and addressing the “Ordinary Times” that are present around those observances. In general the book is written in a more flowery tone than I expected – at times I felt it suffered from too many fluffy words and not enough meat. But as a primer on the hows and whys of the liturgical year, it served its purpose well enough.

Disclaimer: My copy of the book was provided for free by the folks at BookSneeze.com in return for my publishing a review.

Nick Flora & Film At Eleven – Great Escape

I met Nick Flora a few years back when he came along to play guitars with Andy Osenga at a little show in Omaha. They played Andy’s “When Will I Run” and every time Nick sang the line that Derek Webb sings on the CD, he held in front of his face a copy of a magazine that featured Derek on the cover. Cracked me up.

Anyhow, enjoyed meeting Nick that night, but didn’t really get a chance to hear much of his music. Earlier this week, though, I was able to download Nick’s latest, Great Escape, from Noisetrade. What a fantastic record. Nick has a good acoustic rock sort of sound – there are times he reminds me of Dave Matthews, other times of a cranked up Bon Iver, but mostly he finds his own unique sound, and makes it highly enjoyable.

I don’t know how long his record will be available on Noisetrade, but I highly recommend you go check it out. Click on the widget below and you can download the record by either paying what you want or recommending it to five friends. You won’t be sorry.

Book Review: The Echo Within by Robert Benson

There is a particular class of inspirational book these days that you can identify on the shelf without even looking at the content. First is the book’s size – usually no larger than 5 by 8 inches. Second is the cover art – typically a scenic vista or natural landscape, meant to soothe and inspire. I didn’t get a look at the cover art before I agreed to accept a free copy of The Echo Within from Waterbrook Press and review it on my blog, but as soon as I pulled it out of the envelope, I started to wonder. Is this gonna be another one of those fluffy inspirational books?

Robert Benson is the author of over a dozen books, all of which he describes on his website as being about one thing: “paying attention”. Says Benson:

I write about paying attention for the things that can point us to the Sacred in our lives. About the longings that we have for home and community and a sense of belonging. About practice and ritual and work and contemplation and the way that such things can be constant reminders of who we are and who we are to become.

And in this little volume, as you might guess from its title, Benson urges us to listen to “the echo within” – the little voice within ourselves that gives us some inclination of choices we should make, directions we should take, things we should believe. In the first chapter he describes it this way:

I am coming to believe that the small voice within me is an echo of the Voice that is still speaking the incarnate word that I am here to become, an echo of the Voice that spoke us all into being, an echo of the Voice that spoke all that is alive.

Sometimes we are hesitant to trust that small voice within us because we think it is just ourselves doing the talking… because we have heard a similar voice inside us say things that are hurtful and angry and hateful, to ourselves and about others.

We must learn to listen deeper and deeper, seeking out the true voice within us that echoes the Voice of the One Who made us…

The fact that the Voice that calls to us often sounds like our own is not something to be mistrusted or feared. It is a sign of how close God is to us.

Benson has some good insights in The Echo Within about recognizing the talents, inclinations, and desires that God has built into us – sometimes we do tend to make this whole “God’s leading” thing more difficult than it needs to be – but on the whole Benson strays just a little too far in the “listen to your inner voice” direction, with no balance of recognizing the Truth that is revealed to us in Scripture.

For the person running weary and needing some quiet encouragement, The Echo Within might be a nice little volume to pick up. Read and consider it with discernment, though. That inner voice might be God, but then again, it might not be.

[The Echo Within can be purchased from Amazon.com.]

Book I Read: The Weapon by David Poyer

Normally I’d write up a whole 250-word review for a book I finished, but The Weapon by David Poyer just doesn’t inspire that sort of review. I’ve enjoyed Poyer’s other Dan Lenson novels but this one was really just okay. A middling, disjointed story at best. As big a fan as I was of Tom Clancy back in the 90’s, I should be the last to criticize authors for hanging on and writing a long series around a single character, but Poyer appears to be the next in a long line of authors that have burned out their series that way (see also: Tom Clancy, Dale Brown).

So, yeah, I read it, and was mildly entertained… but only mildly. It’s time for these authors to start writing some creative plots instead of just stringing us along for yet another novel featuring the same guy in similar situations. Bleh.

Book Review: The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music by Ben Ratliff

Normally when we think about musicians and “their music”, we think about the music that they write, perform, and record. But author Ben Ratliff (jazz critic for the New York Times) decided to ask a different question. What do these musicians listen to and find influential? What are they thinking and hearing as they listen to the music? So Ratliff met with a dozen or so noted jazz musicians, asked them what tracks they’d like to listen to, and then relates to us the experience and conversations of listening to the music with the musicians. The result is The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music. It turns out to be fascinating stuff.

Though I am a musician and fancy myself a fan (though not a hardcore aficionado) of jazz, it quickly became clear to me that the plane these guys think on is just incredibly high. It is fascinating in its own way, though, listening to serious jazz players talk about how they think about jazz. My favorite part of the book, though, was the reference list at the back, where Ratliff lists each recording that he listened to with each of the musicians. It has been a great input for my personal playlist… so much to explore.

If you’re a musician, like jazz, or just want to explore the minds of some great musicians, I’d recommend picking up The Jazz Ear. It’s a short read, but quite worth it.

[You can buy The Jazz Ear from Amazon.com.]

Book Review: Ender In Exile by Orson Scott Card

I’ve been a big fan of Orson Scott Card’s Ender series since I read it a few years ago. Ender’s Game is just brilliant storytelling, and Speaker for the Dead is equally good, perhaps even better themes and story woven through it. So when I saw Ender In Exile on the library shelf, it was a no-brainer to pick it up.

Ender In Exile is not a book you would want to pick up and read as a stand-alone story without having at least read Ender’s Game first. EIE takes place somewhere in between two of the final chapters of Ender’s Game, telling the story of the teenaged Ender Wiggin. Once he had defeated humanity’s mortal enemies and then had his reputation dragged through the mud in court martial, he then travels off to become the governor of a colony on another planet. A good bit of the story is told in the form of emails exchanged between Ender, his parents, his siblings Valentine and Peter, and Ender’s former military commander. Ender manipulates situations with seeming effortlessness, always nobly wanting the good and right thing.

EIE will be interesting to you if you’ve read and enjoyed the other books in the Ender series. If not, I’d probably stay away from it, and would recommend Ender’s Game instead as a good introduction to Card’s work. I think it’s time that OSC come up with a new story and series.

[You can purchase Ender’s Game and Ender In Exile from Amazon.com.]

Book Review: The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British by Sarah Lyall

Every culture has its quirks, but to really notice them and appreciate them you need to be able to look from the perspective of an outsider. When you can then write about those quirks with wit, humor, and insight, then you’re approaching what author Sarah Lyall has achieved with The Anglo Files. Lyall, a correspondent for the New York Times, was posted to Britain some ten years ago, married a Britisher, and now raises two children there in London whilst still writing for the Times.

In The Anglo Files we get Lyall’s thoughts on the oddities of British culture – there are chapters on drinking, hedgehogs, social classes and the nobility, cricket, and the propensity to apologize for everything. She’s not afraid to tell stories on herself, either. And those stories prove insightful; they’re not the clueless-American-rube-bumbles-around-Europe stories, they’re the urbane-American-married-to-a-Britisher-still-baffled-by-Europe stories, which are really more fun. I myself have never been to Britain, but have long been intrigued with our brethren across the pond, so I very much enjoyed Lyall’s insights into them.

Oh, and did I mention the humor? I was good-naturedly amused throughout the book, but one line in particular had me laughing out loud: she describes an inferior washing machine as having a spin cycle that took so long it should’ve been called a Ring Cycle. That’s worth at least a couple of chuckles, folks.

All in all, a fun book. Definitely worth the read.

[The Anglo Files is available at Amazon.com.]

Book Review: Jesus and the Victory of God by N. T. Wright

I should say this up front: the idea that I’m going to be able to intelligently “review” Wright’s massive Jesus and the Victory of God in a 250-word blog post is ridiculous at best, and insane at worst. But I’m posting individual reviews for each book I finish this year, so here goes.

I first became familiar with N. T. Wright through some of his shorter books: What Saint Paul Really Said, Simply Christian, and, of course, Surprised by Hope. Somewhere along the way I found out that he has written a three-volume set specifically about Jesus, and so I requested one of the volumes for Christmas back a year ago. (Why I requested Volume Two of a three volume set is beyond me… but I did.)

Sure, there have been a million books written about Jesus. So why does Wright’s stand out? Wright takes the angle of exploring what I’ll call the “historical” Jesus. What was Jesus, the man, thinking? What were his goals? How did the things he said fit into the theological and political scene of first-century Palestine? Wright answers these questions brilliantly, with clarity and insight.

As just a small example, Wright at one point asks this question: Did Jesus know that he was the Son of God? Certainly we affirm that Jesus was fully man and fully God, but how did Jesus the man know that he was God? Wright gives by way of answer this analogy: Jesus knew he was the Son of God in the same way a musician knows they are a musician. They have the skills and abilities of a musician, and something deep within them says ‘I simply must make this music’. As such, a person knows they are a musician. Similarly, Jesus knew he had the skills and abilities of the Messiah, and had the internal calling. It may not be a perfect analogy, but it certainly provides opportunity to stop and think.

Jesus and the Victory of God deals with Jesus’ life and teaching, leading right up to his death. Wright then devotes the entire third volume in his series to the Resurrection. (I got that book for Christmas this year.) Jesus and the Victory of God isn’t a simple read – it’s more like a college-level scholarly text. But if you’re willing to make the effort to dig through it, it will reward you with insight into the life and purposes of Jesus.

Definitely recommended. [You can buy Jesus and the Victory of God from amazon.com.]

Book Review: The Philosopher’s Apprentice by James Morrow

I picked up The Philosopher’s Apprentice on a whim from the library. And what a whim. The flyleaf gave a thumbnail description of a philosophy doctoral student who takes a job becoming the tutor for a teenage girl who was in an accident and lost her sense of morality. OK, sounds interesting as far as that goes. But that’s just the beginning of the story.

The Philosopher’s Apprentice is really a story in three acts. Act One: doctoral student tutors teenager on remote Caribbean island. Finds out there is more to the island than he was led to believe, including two sisters of his student, a bunch of genetic engineering, and talking iguana. I know it sounds like a tripped-out dream, but it’s just hard to give a lot more detail without spoiling major points of the plot.

Act Two: philosophy tutor watches from a distance as his former student, suddenly fabulously wealthy, takes his teachings on morality to unbelievable ends.

Act Three: tutor and student end up together again and have to deal with the fallout from the rest of the world as it reacts to the student’s programs.

The Philosopher’s Apprentice is at times quite humorous, at times quite serious, and dances along the line between fiction and fantasy without quite ever deciding where to land. It was a fun read, provoking some interesting thoughts along the way. Worth picking up if you get the chance.

[You can buy The Philosopher’s Apprentice at Amazon.com – on sale cheap right now!]