Thursday, November 1, 2012

Women of Valor: Finding each other

A Review of Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Before I finished college, but after I had decided to answer the call to professional ordained ministry, I wanted to find one last internship. This one would not be about getting ahead or securing a future job, but instead would be one that represented my values – ironically, the same motivation that led me to ministry.

I spent five months as an intern at the National Organization for Women in the spring of 1998. It was one of the most formative experiences of my college career. While there were many highlights, the most pivotal low point and educational moment came when the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinski scandal broke just weeks after I started in January. I was beyond impressed with the ways that NOW leadership were able to speak on this issue recognizing both that the President had been a fierce advocate for women’s rights on the one hand, and such a creep on the other.

As my time ended at NOW, word spread that I intended to go to seminary after college. I will never forget being in the NOW conference room, and having Patricia Ireland (the president at the time) turn to me and tell me I needed to come back to teach them how Christians were so good at organizing people. I think she meant that in a very nice way, but the undertones in most comments I received made me feel as though I was betraying a feminist ideal by going to work in a notoriously patriarchal business.

Raised in an unashamedly progressive urban mainline congregation, to me feminism and faith were good friends, which is why it always struck me as unfortunate that many of my feminist friends were unwilling to or uncomfortable engaging in conversations on faith and scripture. “I just hate Paul,” I was told. Yes, indeed, an even more complicated man than Bill Clinton.
When I first started reading Rachel Held Evans’s blog about a year ago, I was struck again and again by the stories of women who suffered under the theology and biblical interpretation of their evangelical traditions. In my mind I echoed the multiple comments posted on her blog inviting these neglected/ignored/criticized women to come over and join the mainline church. I have to admit I was taken aback when the response was, “I could never be comfortable in the mainline church…I enjoy a good Bible Study too much.” Clearly we had a long way to go to better understand each other’s faith and experience of church.

So here we are, this strange “group” of women…progressive mainline women, criticized by popular feminists for participating in an inherently patriarchal tradition, and progressive evangelical women, criticized by their churches for being too uppity. Surely there must be a way of finding common ground.
It is possible that Rachel’s new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master" might be that common ground.

In this memoir, Rachel spends a year intentionally living out much of what the Bible and conservative tradition teaches about women. In reaction to the Biblical Womanhood movement (something I had never even heard of) Rachel turns on its head the idea that the Bible has a prescription for what a biblical woman should be.
Some have made a big deal over her literal reading of many parts of the Bible for the sake of understanding specific traditions: covering the head, not cutting the hair, submitting to one’s husband. The book is much more than that. It is 12 months of Rachel immersed in scripture, mind, body and spirit, with the goal of understanding how a woman lives within the complicated biblical tradition.

What I valued in this book was its capacity to create a new awareness in me that women who come from two very different places theologically can land in the same place, wrestling with the very same questions:
·         How do we understand and live with the most violent and tragic stories of women in scripture without losing our connection to the Bible as an authoritative and holy book?

·         What does it mean when you look around at your life in your 30’s and realize that despite your best intentions you have fallen into some pretty traditional gender roles in your marriage?

·         How do we “deal” with parts of scripture (such as the writings of Paul) that seem direct and definitive about the role of women in the community without dismissing all of the Bible as a quirky ancient document too steeped in its culture to be meaningful to modern women?

·         How do we faithfully use the lessons of the Bible to help us have more open and thoughtful conversations about the many choices that divide us as women in our post modern context: how we raise our children (if we decide to have them) and what it means to work inside and outside the home?

·         Finally, how do we as Western women work in faithful, purposeful and empowering ways for justice for women around the world.
Mainline or Evangelical, women of faith are wrestling with these questions and are called to be in conversation together about them.

Here is Rachel’s reflection as she reached the end of the project:
“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.

Far too many church leaders have glossed over these stories and attempted to define womanhood by a list of rigid roles. But roles are not fixed. They are not static. Roles come and go; they shift and they change. They are relative to our culture and subject to changing circumstances. It is not our roles that define us, but our character.” (p. 295)
Rachel returns again and again to the 31st chapter of the Book of Proverbs, a lengthy passage often referred to as “the capable wife.” Throughout the book she works to redefine that description as a Woman of Valor. While often read as a guide to becoming the ultimate housewife, entrepreneur, philanthropist and mother, Rachel points out that this is instead a “heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a warrior.” (p. 75)

It has been quite some time - almost since college and my days working at NOW - since I have felt the need to be a warrior on women’s issues, though that tendency still rests within me, especially as I continue to better understand the struggles of faithful progressive women in the evangelical tradition.
It is my hope that the days are not far off when we will find helpful and meaningful ways to wage the battle together. I am thankful to Rachel for all that she shared in this book to help get us started on that journey.

How have you experienced the role of women in your Christian tradition? How do you react to the Bible’s teaching on women and women’s roles?


  1. But are we reading contemporary biblical scholarship along with reading our Bibles? Try "The Authentic Letters of Paul" by Dewey, Hoover, McGaughy and Schmidt for an insightful interpretation of Paul's authentic letters.

    1. Ellen, I am not exactly sure what your question is in reference to. Are you asking if in her book Rachel uses both a close read of the text for her self alongside contemporary Biblical scholarship - she does, as do I in my study of these issues with men and women in my congregation. Thanks for the book suggestion.