Biblical womanhood. It's a phrase and a concept that doesn't sit well with many Christians, thanks to the way it's been held over women and used to dictate their life choices in recent decades. For a long time, those two words together made me bristle with irritation at the way they're used, at the things they're supposed to suggest. In the UK, Biblical womanhood isn't such a clearly defined set of choices, personality traits and opinions as it is in the US, where depending on what sort of church you go to it might mean long skirt-wearing, head-covering, contraception-eschewing, living under the 'authority' of a man at all times, or Martha Stewart-cooking, seasonal craft-making, "keeping sweet" and claiming that when it comes to clothes, "modest is hottest". Cultural and religious differences mean it'll probably never be like this here, unless we see some sort of Handmaid's Tale-inspired coup d'etat. But that doesn't mean we don't see the popular books about it stocked in our churches and some of the more popular ideas about it bandied about during women's events and Bible studies.
The long-awaited book about this nebulous concept from the often-controversial blogger Rachel Held Evans has been creating a bit of a storm since its publication. Evans knew this would happen because it started the moment she published a blog post announcing her Biblical Womanhood project. Over the past couple of years, she's gone from being a well-known blogger and writer to being notorious, with scores of fans, but also with critics lining up to label her evil, a heretic, bitter and ungracious, hysterical, out of line and someone who's making a mockery of scripture. Plenty have gone as far as to question whether she can actually be regarded as a Christian at all. The main reason for this, of course, is the fact that she writes with passion about women's issues from an egalitarian perspective, and dares to question conservative evangelical culture. And in a country where this has the ability to incite such angry debate, where the role of women within Christianity is such an issue that it's causing incredible damage in people's lives, that it's causing women to leave the church altogether - Evans's voice was never going to be welcomed by all.
The basic premise of the book is a playful sort of piece of performance art - explored through a series of experiments and conversations. Evans chooses 12 qualities of women mentioned in the Bible (gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valour, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence, and grace) and devotes one month to exploring each of them, setting herself goals and activities, and meeting women who espouse some of these qualities. Yes, she spends time sleeping in a tent because she's menstruating. Yes, she stops cutting her hair and wearing trousers. It's meant to be slightly hyperbolic because plenty of these things really are mentioned in the Bible, and because she wants us to find it funny. And it is - reading of her exploits with a computerised baby, her efforts to cook elaborate recipes, and she and husband Dan's attempts to get used to a marriage with defined "roles" and male headship is good fun.
But there's plenty to be serious about too. In her own words, Evans's goal was to challenge the idea that "Biblical womanhood" is a set of roles and rules. She set out to explore the stories of women in the Bible, look at the way different groups of Christians interpret "Biblical womanhood" today, and come to some of her own conclusions about what it meant for her personally, and for Christian women in general. She developed a close and wonderful friendship with an Orthodox Jewish woman. She talked to Amish women, spent time at a monastery, got the lowdown from a woman who grew up in the Christian Patriarchy movement, and visited a whole bunch of amazing women in Bolivia. It was from these conversations, with people who didn't share her religious traditions and culture, that Evans gained a lot of wisdom and insight, confronting plenty of negative stereotypes she'd previously held.
She was also able to confront several of her insecurities - mainly discomfort with the "Proverbs 31 wife" and the way she had felt - even from childhood, that she never would measure up to what this was supposed to represent, but also her anxieties about motherhood. The exploration into Proverbs 31 is one of the most profound in the book, as when Evans decides to "take back Proverbs 31", and delves into the concept of the woman of valour - eshet chayil - she realises that the woman is not praised for what she does, rather for how she does it. As a result she resolves to celebrate the lives and work of women who shine, and stop trying to be anyone but herself.
In exploring the qualities of the Biblical woman, Evans also has warnings for Christians and Christian culture - of teaching a view of beauty that amounts to "thou shalt not let thyself go", and for pastors tempted to teach prescriptively about "Biblical" sex in a way that goes into great detail. She comes to the conclusion that "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...is a myth". This is well illustrated by the fact that each chapter ends with a section focusing on a different woman whose story is told in the Bible. No uniformity is to be found in the tales of Esther and Deborah, Leah and Martha, Junia and the woman at the well.
To a UK reader, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is also an interesting glimpse into a culture far more bound by conservative Christian values - Evans writes of worship music playing in the background at the craft store, and having to drive for forty five minutes to buy wine to cook with, as "hard liquor" can't be purchased in her county. When she meets a female pastor, she learns of how the woman was called "a cancer in the church" and "a threat to Christianity" for preaching, with people leaving her church in protest and other local churches coming together to denounce her. It shows us that we are, perhaps, quite fortunate that there is less of one-size-fits-all approach here, but also that maybe there are perspectives we are missing in our discourse on the subject, and that we often don't consider what the situation is for women in other branches of the church.
So what of the criticism the book has received so far? A good number of Evans's more vocal opponents haven't actually read it, convinced as they are that it's full of heresy and mockery (she has politely suggested that they may wish to do so before commenting further). Many of them don't like the tone of her writing - but as Morgan Guyton said in a piece for HuffPost Religion (read it; it's good):
"The trouble is you can't be taken seriously in the world our generation inhabits if you get your undies in a bunch over sass and sarcasm."
Snark should not be the problem here. There's nothing wrong with putting a humorous spin on things. Evans predicted in the book itself that she would receive criticism from two camps - from conservatives calling her "dangerous" and an "extreme feminist", and from atheists, calling her "brainwashed" and wondering why she belongs to a patriarchal religion in the first place. From what I've seen this is fairly accurate. I've been disappointed by the unwillingness of people holding such views to actually engage with the purpose of the project - for the former, reviews have seemed to mainly consist of theological rebuttals of egalitarianism as if that's what's at stake here, and accusations that Evans has somehow "put God's word on trial". As Amy Lepine Peterson wrote in her review of the book:
"If Evans is putting anything on trial, it’s the notion that any human, herself included, can have the final word on what defines 'womanhood'."
As a Christian with great respect for the Bible, Evans had no intention of trashing the phrase "Biblical womanhood" or denigrating God. She talks about the way we all interpret scripture to find what we are looking for and challenges us in this respect. She finds a new reverence for contemplative practices and ritual. She's able to take a lot from the experiment. And she wants us to take something from our reading of it, too. Apparently this has already been happening - she's had correspondence from people who have told her it's made them want to start delving into their Bibles again, that it has finally brought them to a place of peace with the Proverbs 31 woman.
Eshet chayil, Rachel!
Further reading: "Biblical womanhood" and the illusion of clarity