In response to the “contemporary biblical womanhood movement” – largely organized around the proposition that “the only sphere in which a woman can truly bring glory to God is the home” – feminist and Evangelical Christian Rachel Held Evans set aside a year to explore and write about “biblical womanhood.” I wish she’d taken more time and done it right.
Rather than adopting the practices of any one group of women claiming to live biblically, Held Evans pulled bits and pieces of several faiths – including Orthodox Judaism – to create a series of fairly arbitrary projects and rules for herself. Though I found the random, self-conscious, and haphazard (she admits many of her efforts have a slapdash feel) nature of the experiment irksome, I must admit that this approach dovetails nicely with her ultimate conclusion: “For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We are all selective. . . . When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word [like womanhood] . . . we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t fit our tastes. . . . So after twelve months of ‘biblical womanhood,’ I’d arrived at the rather unconventional conclusion that there is no such thing. The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth.”
Structured around a month spent examining a particular value (like, “purity”), each chapter contains fascinating biblical anecdotes, far less interesting descriptions of the author’s process, and saccharine lessons learned (e.g., “[P]urity is found not in the body, but in the heart” and “In silence, it seemed, I had finally found my voice”). Sprinkled sparingly throughout the book are glimpses of the wit which must be what makes Held Evans such a popular blogger (my favorite: “Going into this project, I was determined to avoid the whole crumple-to-the-kitchen-floor-in-a-heap-of-sobs bit, as it’s getting a tad cliche, don’t you think? So I feel it’s important to note that I didn’t crumple to the kitchen floor in a heap of sobs; I just happened to be sitting on the kitchen floor when I started to cry.”). Perhaps if she hadn’t written the book while living it, her reflections would have been marked by greater ease and humor.
Held Evans does, however, accomplish one truly impressive feat. Thanks to her religious background and seemingly exhaustive research, she speaks the language of “the modern biblical womanhood movement” and in so doing manages to be quite critical of certain lifestyle choices without assuming an outsider’s uninformed, skeptical, condescending, and judgmental air: “Women should not have to pry equality from the grip of Christian men. It should be surrendered willingly, with the humanity and love of Jesus, or else we miss the once radical teaching that slaves and masters, parents and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor, healthy and sick, should ‘submit to one another’ (Ephesians 5:21).”
Overall, the book is interesting but not riveting. Amusing but not funny. Thought-provoking but not profound. I admire and appreciate Held Evans’s effort, but I can’t beat back the feeling that both the experiment and book could have been much more.