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Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman

14 December 2012

Rachel Held Evans embarked on a one-year experiment to do as she was told by the Bible. She talks to Madeleine Davies


A woman's place? the author Rachel Held Evans ready for service

A woman's place? the author Rachel Held Evans ready for service

RACHEL HELD EVANS's latest book - A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a liberated woman found herself sitting on her roof, covering her head and calling her husband master - has been compared to "carrying a torch through a forest that hasn't seen rain for years".

Sure enough, she has set the (mainly American) Evangelical blogosphere ablaze.

Conceived in 2010, when Evans vowed to spend a year of her life "in pursuit of true biblical womanhood", the book documents her attempts to follow ten "biblical woman's commandments".

These included submitting to her husband's will, nurturing a gentle and quiet spirit, dressing modestly, and not teaching in church. She also observed practices such as remaining "ceremonially impure" for the duration of her monthly period, an endeavour that led to her camping in her garden in a tent.

In a nod to Proverbs 21.9, she did penance for being a "contentious woman" by sitting on the rooftop of her house for an hour and 29 minutes (one minute for every instance of gossiping, nagging, complaining, and "snarking").

The result is a funny, honest account of the author's struggles with scripture, sexism, and Martha Stewart's double-crusted apple pie.

"As I read the book, it became increasingly clear to me [that] God's word was on trial," the managing editor of Women of God Magazine, Trillia Newbell, wrote. "It was the court of Rachel 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."

Sarah Flashing, of the Center for Women of Faith in Culture, wrote: "Her fallacious methodology casts a shadow of mockery and ridicule on a movement of men and women who seek alignment with the character of God in all manner of living."

AS THE author of such reflections as "13 things that make me a lousy Evangelical" ("As a woman, I've been nursing a secret grudge against the Apostle Paul for about eight years"), Evans is accustomed to her fair share of online vitriol - some would even say that she invites it. Yet she confirms in her book that "Evangelicalism is like my religious mother-tongue."

"Lots of Evangelicals would really love for me to leave the community," she laughs down the phone from her home in Dayton, Tennessee. "Lately, with the release of the book, I've got quite a negative response from prominent Evangelicals. It's really frustrating, because I feel as though there is a lack of diversity - you're either for or against us.

"There is very little room for anyone to push for any kind of reform. I really feel committed to trying to preserve that diversity, despite calls for me to exit." Yet she also admits that, when she has "dipped her toe in other congregations", she has missed "that fire in the belly . . . the real passion for the gospel".

Evans has been frank about her struggles with scripture. Her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, is the tale of her journey away from fundamentalism towards a belief that her faith must evolve in order to survive in a post-modern context. In A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she argues that "the Bible's not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today," and holds a ceremony to honour "the victims of biblical misogyny", lighting a candle after reading the stories of Jephthah, Hagar, and Tagar.

In one passage that has particularly angered her critics, she cites Jesus's "selective literalism" in challenging the crowd to cast the first stone at the woman guilty of adultery. "It may serve as little comfort to those who have suffered abuse at the hand of Bible-wielding literalists, but the disturbing laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy lose just a bit of their potency when God himself breaks them," she wrote.

EVANS's conclusion is not a particularly groundbreaking one - "the Bible does not present us with a single model of biblical womanhood" - but her methodology has come under fire from theologians. She has been accused of misrepresenting complementarians (those who hold that men and women have different but complementary parts to play), and promoting the "dangerous" assertion that it is not possible to arrive at the correct meaning of a passage.

In a particularly stinging review, which concludes "I had hoped for better" (the equivalent of a parent's being "not angry, but disappointed"), Kathy Keller, the assistant director of communications for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, argues that Evans has muddied the water of an already murky debate about the Bible's teaching on womanhood by "pretending you did not know about the most basic rules of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation that have been agreed upon for centuries".

In her review she takes issue, for example, with Evans's attempts to practise Old Testament teachings - made obsolete by Jesus, Ms Keller argues - and accuses her of ignoring the intended meaning of texts "in order to inject your book with humour".

IN ONE chapter, Evans attempts to mimic the "wife of noble character" in Proverbs 31, by standing on the roadside at the edge of town with a "Dan is awesome" sign ("Her husband is respected at the city gate").

Evans has said that, "as someone who loves the Bible, who believes the Bible is inspired by God", she has found the accusation that she is mocking the Bible "hurtful and frustrating".

Her argument is that everyone has a hermeneutical bias. "I wanted to unpack, piece by piece, what we mean when we talk about 'biblical womanhood', she wrote in reply. "I wanted to do it in a funny, disarming way, that turned the laughter on myself as an imperfect interpreter rather than on the text itself."

In our conversation, Evans's enthusiasm for the Bible is obvious. She used to "hate" Proverbs 31, but "rediscovering that as a celebration of women, not as a job description, was a really encouraging and enlightening process for me," she says. "Now it is one of my favourites."

This turnaround came after speaking to a rabbi's wife from Israel, who explained that, in Jewish culture, Eshet Chayil, "noble woman", is a blessing given to women by their husband or friends.

The roots of A Year of Biblical Womanhood lie in Evans's conversations about complementarianism with friends and followers online - more than 300,000 people visit her award-winning blog each month to read posts such as "15 Reasons I Left Church", and "Ask a Gay Christian".

"A lot of folks are calling for a return to the 1950s housewife ideal," she says; but the younger generation is "naturally falling into egalitarian relationships with our spouses. . . [They are] starting to challenge and question what they are being told from the pulpit."

EVANS also had a clear emotional stake in her project. "Most women walk around with the sense that they are disappointing someone," she wrote. "This year, I imagined that Someone to be God."

Evans defines herself as a feminist (she refers to "the radical notion that women are people"), and, while she extracts plenty of comedy from her adventures, much of the force of the book comes from her obvious anger at the way in which the Bible has been used to oppress women.

In a chapter on submission, she referred to a passage in the book Created to Be His Help Meet, in which Debi Pearl advises a young mother routinely beaten by her husband to stop "blabbing about his sins", and win him back by showing more respect.

"Bible-wielding literalists" are given short shrift. "I will speak out against those who try to silence [women] with patriarchal readings of scripture that idolise the culture and context in which the Bible was written over the equality and freedom granted to each of us in Christ," she concludes at the end of the book.

Two weeks after we spoke, the General Synod voted against the Measure admitting women to the episcopate, prompting her to ponder, online, "what the apostle Junia would think of all of this".

"I know that votes like these can make Christian women feel like less-than, but I believe, deep in my bones, that things will get better for women in the Church," she wrote. It is a typically combative conclusion from a woman who, after 12 months of "looking for permission to lead . . . speak . . . find my identity in something other than my roles . . . to be myself . . . to be a woman", arrived at the "quiet and liberating certainty that I never had to ask for it".

A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a liberated woman found herself sitting on her roof, covering her head and calling her husband master by Rachel Held Evans is published by Thomas Nelson at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99 - Use code CT226 ); 978-1-59555-367-6.

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