There are several reasons why I decided to read and review Rachel Held Evans’ forthcoming book A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master" (Thomas Nelson; October 30, 2012).
I certainly am not writing this review out of any sense of convenience and comfort. Here’s why I did:
First, as a Christian woman who adheres to Reformed doctrine, I believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, written by men, inspired by God, infallible in all that it teaches, sufficient for all of life and doctrine, and the very words of God, words from God. And this new book from Evans is a recent example of how this essential truth is lost.
Second, I write this review because I have something of a relational history with the author. I have had the pleasure of corresponding with her over emails and have enjoyed our brief interactions.
Third, and even more centrally, I write this review out of a love for my fellow sisters in the church who are trying to walk with integrity as women, as I am, before God.
Finally, I write this review out of a love for the lost who are searching for answers about God and the Bible and will read this book and sadly be misled.
Before I begin the review, let me say that I find this book to be most troubling because of Evans’ handling of Scripture. As much as I hoped to be pleasantly surprised, as I read my heart became heavy. And yet, for all its weaknesses, this book is sure to draw a lot of attention in the coming weeks.
Evans embarked on a yearlong mission to explore the Scripture references to women, following and practicing what they say as literally as possible. Her adventures take her through various Jewish traditions, she interviews polygamists, she camps outside, she spends the night in a monastery.
Each month, for one year, she tackled a new challenge or virtue such as gentleness, domesticity, obedience, and submission. At the end of each chapter, she features a specific woman in the Bible writing out a historical profile and her thoughts.
She interviews a wide range of people from a variety of faiths and traditions. Her book does not draw from purely an evangelical, or even distinctly Christian, perspective. Many of her rituals are from the Jewish tradition, and she quotes several Rabbis.
As I read the book, it became increasingly clear to me of one theme: God’s word was on trial. It was the court of Rachel Held Evans. She was the prosecution, judge, and jury. The verdict was out. And with authority and confidence, she would have the final word on womanhood.
Evans makes it clear that although she holds the Bible in high esteem as a historical document, she would warn us to be careful in attempting to use it as a guide for living out the Christian faith. A few quotes explain her stance.
Despite what some may claim, the Bible’s not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today. (48)
I kept digging, and as it turns out, Peter and Paul were putting a Christian spin on what their readers would have immediately recognized as the popular Greco-Roman “household codes.” (216)
Evans also quotes Sharyn Dowd saying, “The apostles advocated this system not because God had revealed it as the divine will for Christian homes, but because it was the only stable and respectable system anyone knew about. It was the best the culture had to offer” (217).
The Bible is a sacred collection of letters and laws, poetry and proverbs, philosophy and prophecies, written and assembled over thousands of years in cultures and contexts very different from our own, that tells the complex, ever-unfolding story of God’s interaction with humanity. (293)
And you see it most clearly in Evans' conclusion.
For those who count the Bible as sacred, the question when interpreting and applying the Bible to our lives is not, will we pick and choose? But rather how will we pick and choose? We are all selective in our reading of Scripture, and so the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Are we reading with the prejudice of love or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? (295)
This is why 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.” (295)
Throughout A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans works to prove that the Bible is not without error and therefore cannot be applied literally — and in some cases cannot be trusted (as we see by the implications of Paul’s and Peter’s motives, she says, to keep their culture in the Scriptures). Furthermore, the Scriptures are called sacred but never inspired by God, never the very words of God.
This notion is applied to every text, except in the chapter on justice where she unequivocally determines that God got it right: “Justice is one of the most consistent and clear teachings of Scripture, and traditionally, a crucial function of the Church” (228).
Evans selects various Old Testament laws regarding women and discusses the horror of such laws, yet she never rises to the place where the purpose of these laws are made sense of. And yet she never introduces the redemptive history of Scripture. This point could take up an entire lengthy blog post of its own. Evans will not allow redemptive history into her courtroom.
This is not to say that Evans is a poor writer. She’s talented, engaging, funny, and at times I found myself wrapped in her story, pretending to grip a walkie-talkie for her as she described sleeping alone in her tent in the front yard during her monthly cycle (see Leviticus 15:19–33). While the living-biblically-for-a-year theme is not original to her, she wrote this book quite creatively.
But while the book is engaging, her methods and her conclusions on womanhood are confusing at best. And this is largely because she selectively decides which Scriptures apply to women and which ones do not. She spoke with men and women from a full range of backgrounds and faiths and then attempted to apply them to evangelical Bible-believing Christianity. The majority of her quotes and references from complementarians aim to show complementarianism as foolish and dated. Strangely she more often cites authors with a more traditionalist orientation (and less truly complementarian) and only one or two of the more biblical moderates.
What’s At Stake
Evans claims to be caught between conservative and liberal theology. She believes in the physical resurrection of Christ, and she believes in evolution. But in seeking to bridge conservative and liberal theology in this book, she invests so much time explaining what she does not believe, that readers will be left wondering exactly what she does believe.
Part of this comes down to widely differing worldviews. To understand womanhood, Evans blends Eastern practices and mysticism, with a few selected Scripture quotes. For me to properly understand biblical womanhood, I can only finally return to God’s sufficient word, which is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). Our worldviews split over whether the Bible is inerrant and sufficient. And when the Bible is determined to be insufficient to guide our faith and life, or to define womanhood according to God’s design, the temptation is to run to various methods, various faiths, and to synchronize selected doctrines — which is precisely what Evans does in this book.
Through this book it seems Evans is trying to “reach” women like me, who take the Bible seriously and believe God is honored through his design for complementary roles in marriage and the church. But I fear she will actually have the greatest impact on those who are already sympathetic to her undermining of the truthfulness and sufficiency and relevance of the Bible, those who are already suspicious of Christianity, and who are already prone to deny that God has designed a special and beautiful role for women in marriage. This is a book that will reinforce the views of non-Christian men and women who seek validation for thinking Christians are foolish for following the Bible closely.
In this book Evans is trying to build a bridge, but I wonder if it is not rather a comfortable bridge for shaky evangelicals to find their way into theological liberalism. This book is not ultimately about manhood and womanhood, headship and submission, or the complementarian and egalitarian debate. At its root this book questions the validity of the Bible. And denying the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture is a denial that will ultimately erode the gospel of our Savior.
For this reason, along with many others, and with a very heavy heart, I cannot celebrate the upcoming release of this book.
Related resources on biblical womanhood —
- John Piper, book, What’s the Difference: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible (2008)
- John Piper and Wayne Grudem, book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (2006)
- John Ensor, book, Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart (2007)
- John Piper, conference message, "The Ultimate Meaning of True Womanhood" (2008)
- Wendy Alsup, blog series, "My Journey to Gospel-Centered Womanhood" (2011), part 1, part 2, part 3.