By Kristin Rudolph
“The Bible doesn’t give us a blueprint,” said Rachel Held Evans to a group of about sixty students and adults gathered in a classroom at the College of William and Mary Sunday, February 10th. “Instead, the Bible gives us history and traditions, and stories and proverbs and poetry, well mostly stories. And stories don’t fit very well into a blueprint,” she explained. “The fact that it’s not a blueprint; that’s what brings us into community with one another.”
Evans, a self-described “evangelical” blogger and writer with a rapidly growing following was invited to speak at W&M by the college’s Wesley Foundation, a campus ministry sponsored by the United Methodist Church. She also preached Sunday morning across the street at Williamsburg United Methodist Church. During her two days in Williamsburg, the Dayton, TN based writer recounted her “year of biblical womanhood,” in which she claimed to “follow all the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible” to answer the question: “Is there really just one right way to be a woman of faith?” and to prove a hermeneutical point. The project resulted in her recent book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.”
Growing Up Conservative Evangelical
The 31 year old writer related her experience growing up in a conservative evangelical church that “forbade” women from positions of authority based on scripture, and how she has “since evolved in [her] thinking on how to interpret those passages.” Describing “womanhood” or anything else as “biblical” is problematic because interpretation is complicated by various factors, including cultural context of scripture, said Evans. She pointed to the contradictory definitions of “biblical womanhood” given by the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and the egalitarian Christians for Biblical Equality as evidence of this difficulty.
Growing up evangelical she observed “No one could seem to agree on exactly what ‘biblical womanhood’ was.” Frustration about overuse of “biblical” as an adjective prompted the writer to prove Christians are “inherently selective” in choosing passages to support their “biblical,” and thus authoritative position on “loaded” topics, particularly womanhood.
Becoming June Cleaver
According to Evans, evangelical attempts to define “biblical womanhood” “arose as a reaction to second wave feminism” and are a nostalgic “call to return to the good old days … when the man went to work and the woman stayed home.” To these Christians, biblical womanhood is “epitomized by Ward and June Cleaver, and so [books about biblical womanhood] will emphasize passages of scripture that emphasize domesticity and motherhood.” Further, she asserted complementarians have created a narrow “mold” into which all women must fit “based on stereotypes … [that] glorified the post industrial revolution nuclear family.”
“Contrary to popular belief, the Bible doesn’t really have that much to say about domesticity, but those passages get a lot of air time so I decided to try and brush up on my domestic skills,” Evans explained. Relating her attempts to fit in the domestic “mold,” she showed a photo of her first homemade Thanksgiving turkey and told a story of her failed apple pie.
After her “biblical” year of excessive attention to cooking and cleaning, doing penance for “contentious words” on her rooftop, calling her husband “master” for a week, caring for a computerized doll for a few days, and myriad other projects and interviews, Evans determined there is no such thing as “biblical womanhood.” At least not distinct from “biblical manhood.”
“True biblical womanhood, biblical personhood is loving the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself.” Following Jesus Christ’s example is the closest we can get to a “definition of ‘biblical,’” she claimed.
When Christians describe something as “biblical,” Evans said, they “[suggest] that the Bible has a single position on a certain topic.” She elaborated: “Technically speaking, it’s ‘biblical’ for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, it’s biblical for her to be required to marry her rapist … Why are some passages of scripture considered ‘biblical’ while others are not?”
To further prove her point, Evans described her visit with a “biblical” polygamist family she found through “BiblicalFamilies.org.” She mentioned her interviews with others who take a “biblical” approach to life including an Orthodox Jew, Amish, and Quakers. Notably, Evans did not address a historic Christian understanding of femininity and masculinity that predates and informs the modern complementarian movement she disparages.
The Bible, she said, is meant to be a “conversation starter not a conversation ender,” because God wants us to be in relationship with Him and each other to “struggle through” difficult texts. Evans declared she emerged from her year “wrestling” with scripture “loving the Bible more than I’ve ever loved it before.”
When asked why she still calls herself evangelical, Evans answered: “I love evangelicalism and I want so badly to see it evolve … and I think it is. I’m very optimistic.” One reason “It’s so important to address gender issues, is that they do have justice implications down the road … in how our LGBT brothers and sisters are treated.” With this cause in mind, she urged evangelicals to move beyond “gender essentialism,” the belief that men and women are created with inherent masculine and feminine natures.
In a relaxed talk the following evening, Evans spoke on “Doubting Well,” to a group of about 40. She read a selection from her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town describing her faith crisis that began in college. After growing up believing faith in Christ is essential for eternal life, Evans said her thinking “evolved” and she “No longer [has] this sense of despair for people” who don’t know the Gospel.
In time she “learned to live with doubts and questions” and decided God may even want to “use doubts” to keep us humble, give our faith “more meaning,” and foster a “childlike faith.” Accounting for her faith despite doubts, the writer said: “This is the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about … there’s something so compelling about Jesus.”
According to Evans, doubt is not just a personal struggle, but something to be embraced by the Church. “The Church is certainly in an identity crisis right now … Evangelicals are sort of like fighting to the death … They’re losing the culture wars,” she said. Consequently, “Christianity’s going to look a lot different in the next ten, twenty, 100, 200 years … There’s a lot of people talking about [doubt] right now and I think that’s part of the catalyst for all this happening,” Evans asserted.
Churches in her hometown of Dayton, TN, which she described as “an epicenter for fundamentalism,” have not embraced this change. It is difficult to find a church home in Dayton as a liberal Christian, Evans said, explaining that “The P.C. USA [Presbyterian Church USA] church in town died, the Episcopal church actually died in town. They didn’t have enough folks coming … There’s not a single gay affirming church in town.”
Although Evans did not define “biblical womanhood” in any real sense, she showcased clearly her approach to scripture, which deviates dramatically from that of evangelical tradition. It seems unlikely that most evangelicals, who have historically emphasized the authority of scripture, will follow her call to evolve into communities of questioning and doubt.
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[02/20/13 3:50 PM: Editors note: Kristin Rudolph has posted a response, which appeared yesterday. The full text is available on our blog.]