The amount of controversy kicked up by Rachel Held Evans never fails to amaze me. She says stuff I disagree with, stuff I agree with, and a lot of stuff in between that just represents …. ideas. Not brilliant or heretical or life-altering. Occasionally perceptive, deep, and moving.
So it was with when I sat down to read one of her more famous books. After noticing how the mere mention of RHE turns many of my (otherwise nice, kind, normal) male Christian friends into raging assholes, I started reading more of her works in an attempt to make sense of what kept happening on my Facebook feed.
A Year of Biblical Womanhood punches all the buttons of someone who wants to hate RHE’s books: She’s happy to pick and choose theological and religious experiences in her pursuit of living for a year like a “biblical woman.” She rejects several standard, beloved Evangelical positions. The whole book is written as if it should be a Big Deal… when it really isn’t. But hey, I remember being 30 and uncertain and searching.
On the other hand, RHE always turns up (IMO) ideas I find worthy of contemplation. Several moments of her yearlong experiment in living through loosely defined ‘biblical womanhood’ resulted in moving passages in the book. I nodded along and underlined sentences and starred words which encapsulated some of the same critiques I launch at the “evangelical establishment” – though usually only for the tiny audience of my husband. Baptizing patriarchy and calling it holy through years of tradition and cultural syncretism is bad, even if challenging the status quo makes people uncomfortable.
Her ceremony to honor the female victims of the “Texts of Terror” is a good example of what makes her so infuriating to Evangelical men and endearing to me — a section both controversial and very touching. Rachel and her friend met in a modernized vigil similar to the commemoration of the Jephthah’s daughter mentioned in Judges 11:39-40 but lost in history. They lit candles in honor of the women who lived (and often died) in horrific circumstances, preserved for all time an eternity as “stories” in the Biblical text: Jephthah’s daughter. Tamar. The Levite’s concubine cut into pieces.
It pisses off Evangelicals to label as “texts of terror” the Old Testament accounts of brutal rape, murder, or mutilation of women. But RHE has a point: By normalizing these stories (or simply ignoring them – when’s the last time you heard a sermon from Judges 19?), we never force ourselves to come face-to-face with the difficult questions presented in the narratives of Scripture. Our world is seriously fucked up. Evil is really really really evil. Saying “it’s not so bad! God can make it good!” doesn’t make the evil less evil. But it’s way easier to ignore this than acknowledge it.
Or take Proverbs 31. A simple search for “Proverbs 31 woman” on Amazon brings up 100 pages of title results. To say it in emoji: O.O
This text is so revered as the sine qua non pattern of perfect womanhood, most of us won’t even speak out loud how deeply this text shames us: The Proverbs 31 Woman, as archetype, is unattainable. Within the Evangelical Christianity of my upbringing, this woman may be prized as far above rubies, but the daily failure of any of us to live up to the standard makes it hard to smile through the Mother’s Day sermons. “She shall be praised,” yes, but the rest of us women live with the consequences.
RHE brought to light the fact that, within Judaism, Proverbs 31 is a blessing, not a command. How ironic. The “woman of valor” (eschet chayil) uses her gifts to bless her household, and within Judaism, it is the husband who memorizes this passage, that he may quote it for his wife in acknowledgment and gratitude. Reading that section on Proverbs 31 in A Year of Biblical Womanhood released the passage from its status as oppressive overlord and gave me eyes to see instead beauty and grace. “Women of valor” exist everywhere in my life and they should be praised!
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The conversation on “biblical womanhood” revolves around three fights: 1) equality vs submission within marriage; 3) women’s roles in the church, especially relating to the pastorate; 3) modesty.
I appreciate RHE even when I disagree with her exegesis, hermeneutics, or conclusions because she reminds me that those fights are not as cut and dried as we insist on making them.
Good people – men and women with whom I will share the New Jerusalem – do not agree whether women can be pastors or whether the pursuit of egalitarian marriage is misguided or what makes something ‘modest.’ And when our response to an opposing viewpoint is to label it as dangerous liberal heresy and refuse to engage in the ideas or even acknowledge the writer herself as having a legitimate voice at the table, we fall into a blindness of our own making.
RHE is a signpost for the changes in 21st Century American Christianity. A Millennial, she speaks for many who simply do not operate under the older “rules,” especially the tinge of Modernism that shaped the Christianity I grew up in. For postmodern Christians, story trumps propositions. Community triumphs over sectarianism and denominational divisions. Significance means seeing the Gospel heal the world in both tangible and spiritual realms, not ‘being right.’ Faith anchors in a living relationship with The Word (Christ).
Obviously many of my male theological friends disapprove (if Facebook is an accurate thermometer), but I happen to think the young’uns are headed in a better direction.
This particular book of RHE’s will not move any mountains, and in some ways it’s as much an experiment to provide content for her blog/book than anything else. But others – like Faith Unraveled – are absolutely worth your time to read.
And I am glad that Rachel Held Evans (alongside many articular women) is writing, speaking, and provoking responses in the Church. We need her – and many more like her.