It is always fun to review what appears to be a controversial book. Though I am not sure why exactly A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans is so controversial. In the “evangelical Christian” world there are a diversity of views on gender roles. Some, called complementarians, see women as called to submit to men based on a reading of specific Bible passages. This submission takes different forms, but what unites it is a view that the man is the head of the household, the decision-maker, the leader. Also, men lead the church and in the church women ought to be silent, which varies in meaning but mostly means they cannot teach men. Others, called egalitarians, see men and women as called to equality and mutual submission. Egalitarians also have their Bible passages.
In the end, Rachel’s book could be seen as just an argument for egalitarianism. Her arguments and Biblical interpretation are not really that different from someone like Scot McKnight who argues for egalitarianism in his book The Blue Parakeet.
Rachel just happens to surround her arguments with a fun experiment: what if she lived out all the rules for women in the Bible for one year? This sort of thing was first done a few years back by A.J. Jacobs in his book The Year of Living Biblically. Evans makes no claim to complete originality, she has read Jacobs book. The point of her experiment is to expose the fact that all Christians pick and choose. Very few complementarians urge women to be completely silent in church or to pray with head coverings on, which is Rachel’s point. In doing this, they are picking and choosing which verses to obey.
I began reading this book after many reviews, both positive or negative, were in. I had skimmed a few but not really read them, because I wanted to come at the book without many presumptions. As I read, I noted that if a person does not like this book they either have no sense of humor or no heart. This book is funny! It cannot be critiqued as an academic paper one would hand in at grad school (I actually saw one reviewer criticize scholars who liked this book with the line, “if one of their students handed this in…”). Rachel’s book is entertaining, rather then giving a dry academic tome she surrounds her argument with her life experience. On that alone, it is a good read.
Others have claimed that Rachel is mocking the Bible. Come on! I am at a loss for how anyone can read this book and see that. Her heart shines through, she is clearly someone who grew up in a Christian culture, faced all sorts of challenges to what she has taught, but on the other side continues to cherish and learn from the Bible. Rachel’s experiment is a search for truth and she certainly grew through it as a person and follower of Christ.
So this book is entertaining and encouraging. But it also has the theological argument for egalitarianism. Rachel succeeds in something that I imagine would be very difficult: writing a book that at the same time makes you laugh, moves your heart and makes you think. She manages to show the problem with using “biblical” as an adjective, such as in the phrase, “biblical womanhood.” There is no such thing, as the bible presents a diverse picture. Those who want to recreate biblical womanhood in the world today really do not want much of what the Bible actually teaches about women. Again, in bringing the Bible to bear on our life today, every person picks and chooses.
One flaw in the book is that Rachel does not sufficiently show the differences between various proponents of “biblical womanhood.” She quotes a variety of people, lumping them all together. But there is diversity on both sides. Rachel has actually addressed this on her blog in a very helpful way, if anyone cares to look it up.
I feel like too much of this review has mentioned what other reviews have said. So I’ll just end it by saying, this is a fantastic book. As I read, I thought of my 18 month old daughter. I often wonder what kind of world she is going to grow up in. What kind of woman is she going to be? Will she be a follower of Jesus? I think this is the sort of book I would want to hand my daughter someday because I think it would help young women struggling in their faith. Perhaps the most valuable part of the book is the few pages at the end of each chapter when Rachel introduces us to some awesome Biblical woman. I would also want my daughter to read it for the chapter on women worldwide and the fight for justice. I’d want my daughter to read this book so that she could learn that being a strong biblical woman means joining Jesus Christ in the great mission to restore creation. What that looks like may be different for every woman and I pray my daughter figures out what it looks like for her.
I’ll give the last word to Rachel, reminding us of the calling to all men and women who follow Christ:
“Among the women praised in Scripture are warriors, widows, slaves, sister wives, apostles, teachers, concubines, queens, foreigners, prostitutes, prophets, mothers, and martyrs. What makes these women’s stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal, but that, regardless of the culture or context in which they found themselves, they lived their lives with valor. They lived their lives with faith. As much as we may long for the simplicity of a single definition of “biblical womanhood,” there is no one right way to be a woman, no mold into which we must each cram ourselves— not if Deborah, Ruth, Rachel, Tamar, Vashti, Esther, Priscilla, Mary Magdalene, and Tabitha have anything to say about it….And I believe that my calling, as a Christian, is the same as that of any other follower of Jesus. My calling is to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. Jesus himself said that the rest of Scripture can be rendered down into these two commands. If love was Jesus’ definition of “biblical,” then perhaps it should be mine” (p. 295-297)