Why you should read Rachel Held Evans and then keep reading

WARNING: This post is not funny or amusing. But, hey, the semester hasn’t begun yet so I figure I have another day or two before I have to put on my entertainer hat!

In an earlier post I mentioned Rachel Held Evans’ 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.” As she takes the Bible seriously demonstrating the vastly different contexts shaping the lives of biblical writers and those of contemporary Americans, Evans shows the difficulties in applying various texts to marriage relationships today. And yet, for what it’s worth, Evans goes to remarkable lengths to tap into the spirit of the Bible’s relational laws such as displaying her “Dan is Awesome” sign on the outskirts of her small southern town as her attempt to praise her husband at the city gates, or her extended culinary efforts designed to address her role as wife and thus the preparer of her husband’s fare.

Choosing an attribute of assumed biblical womanhood for each month—like gentleness, domesticity, modesty, beauty, etc.,–Evans explores their practical applications. In August, for example, she takes up the challenge of being silent in church based upon the injunctions in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. During this time period not only does she refuse to speak in churches or similar venues (something she regularly does), she also explores the positive side of silence by undertaking a retreat at a nearby monastery.

Additionally, for each attribute Evans examines its biblical underpinning. So, as she was diligently being quiet in church, Evans also studied why the epistles contain instructions regarding women and silence. To this end and to the ire of scores of complementarians who have taken issue with Evans, she points out a couple of key aspects about our reading of New Testament letters.

First, the authors of such letters probably never intended them to be read as applicable outside of their original contexts since they really are one-half of a first-century conversation and second we seem to have a pretty good knack for adopting some instructions (such as silencing women) while disregarding others (men should pray with their hands lifted).

This kind of careful analysis where she writes that “instructions once delivered for the purpose of avoiding needless offense are now invoked in ways that needlessly offend” results in Evans’ work being rejected by just the people who need to be liberated from their biblical idolatry. In a review by Trullia Newbell posted on John Piper’s blog—a well-known complementarian—the author admits her unbending approach to scripture—committed to Reformed theology and inerrancy—thereby resulting in a dismissal of Evan’s more contextually-driven understanding of the inspired text. Newbell’s a priori claims means she cannot hear the genuine questions and complexities Evan’s clearly articulates.

For those forgoing Evan’s book for this reason they will miss what could be a liberating message for them.

On the other hand, I’d like to suggest in some ways Evans’ analysis does not go far enough and as such unwittingly reinforces the false notion (one she, too, rejects) that there is within the biblical text a presumed model of biblical womanhood.

Where does she fall short?

Most of the problematic passages that appear to support patriarchal preference as God-ordained are found in what are called the pastoral epistles. Many Evangelical leaders refuse to admit that contrary to early church tradition, the apostle Paul almost certainly did not write these New Testament letters including 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. By her silence on this matter, Evans promotes this false assumption of Pauline authorship.

Why does this matter?

An admission of anonymous authorship does not mean that we do not need to take these texts seriously, but it does enable us to see how the developing nature of the early church in adapting to its culture and to its need for self-preservation willingly seceded the radical visions of Jesus and Paul as it moved away from egalitarian practices embracing instead a patriarchal hierarchy evident in the household codes of Roman society.

When we begin with how Jesus interacted with women as portrayed in the gospels and move toward seeing Paul embrace this egalitarian vision as he worked side-by-side with women such as Junia and Lydia then we realize the extent of the contraction when such actions begin to be negated by claims that women should be silent; should be submissive; should be relegated to household duties.

Second, there are places where Evans’ contextual work is not complete resulting in a continuation of misappropriated contemporary application. One place to see this oversight is in her chapter on purity. Going to great length to imitate the Old Testament purity laws, Evans separated herself from Dan, her husband, and others during her menstruation. Instead of withdrawing from society for the prescribed days, she camped out in a tent and carried a pad to use whenever she sat down. Yet, she concludes her chapter on purity with the New Testament story where Jesus transgresses Jewish purity laws by touching a bleeding woman and healing a little girl.

Still, Evans does not explain why Jesus ignored these stipulations. In her failure to dig deeper, to see that Jesus not only transgressed these laws he disrupted the entire notion of purity laws precisely because they were being used to separate people, to support the well-connected and elites while subjugating the poor and economically disadvantaged, she does little to disrupt the continuing notion that women are somehow supposed to be pure, although maybe without sitting on their respective roofs.

Jesus jettisoned the entire purity system with its focus on presumed holiness replacing it with an ethic of compassion, a willingness to treat all people with respect and justice. Evangelicals in their personal readings of Jesus fail to see this action as political and instead maintain a focus on purity that is almost entirely concentrated on female sexuality. For Evans to overlook this important observation is to perpetuate the problems inherent in the purity system.

Despite these and other oversights, Evans book is well worth reading. Some say that if you have agitated those on the right and those on the left, then you probably have done something right. If this is the case, Evans has surely accomplished her goal even though I’m afraid despite her demonstrations pointing out the absurdity of “biblical womanhood,” she has nevertheless reinforced the assumption.