Rachel Held Evans is a prolific American blogger. Her latest book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, charts her controversial project to follow as many of the Bible’s mandates for women as possible over the course of a year, which results in covering her head to pray, calling her husband ‘master’ and turning Proverbs 31 into a to-do list. Ruth Garner and Lucinda Borkett-Jones spoke to her about the project.
Why did you do it?
Growing up in the Bible Belt in the US, I always heard about biblical womanhood, but nobody could really agree on what it meant. I saw it being misused to keep women in their place and prevent women from taking leadership. I took a page from A J Jacobs, who wrote The Year of Living Biblically, and decided to try a year of biblical womanhood; to explore the idea and to make the point that none of us are practicing biblical womanhood 100%.
I wanted to start a conversation about what we mean when we talk about biblical womanhood. I also wanted to help women who felt like they were always falling short of that ideal, to feel like they’re valuable and worthy just as they are.
How would you describe the book’s tone?
It’s meant to be playful, funny, and self-depreciating. And disarming – because I thought if I come at this from a humorous angle that would probably be the best way to change the conversation, and bring up some difficult topics in a way that people enjoy. Obviously I turned the joke on myself, not the Bible. It’s me trying to do all of these things that’s funny, not the material itself. Although sometimes the Bible’s quite funny, I don’t know why people have a problem with that.
Why did you choose to follow Jewish practices (from the Old Testament) rather than a New Testament form of ‘biblical womanhood’?
I’ve taken a little bit of flak for that. But I really felt that when people were talking about ‘biblical womanhood’ and they were appealing to passages in the Old Testament and passages in the New Testament and that was a selective interpretation. I wanted to try to go about this without any selectivity, so no distinction between Old and New Testament. Just to show how impossible that is and how nobody’s really actually doing that.
Certainly as a Christian in my everyday life, I believe that the Old Testament was fulfilled in Christ. It doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant though, it just means that we have to keep that in mind. Because that’s the irony, people talk about how the Old Testament doesn’t matter anymore, and then they come up with entire books about how all women should be ‘Proverbs 31 women’, or they fight to death to keep the 10 commandments in public buildings.
Did you ever just want to give up?
Pretty much every time I looked in the mirror! Because, you know the apostle Paul said it is a woman’s glory to have long hair, but I don’t think he would have written that if he had seen what happened to me after about 6 months without a haircut!
Also those levitical purity codes. It was really hard to go 12 days without touching anyone; I never realised just quite how dependent I was on human touch to feel connected, to my husband and to the people in my life. Plus it was awkward; it was like everybody in town knew I was on my period.
A big part of this project focussed on your role as a wife – has it changed your marriage at all?
We definitely went right back to normal! If anything, it made us more thankful for how our relationship was. We’re really proud of ourselves as ‘Team Dan and Rachel’, so we were glad when the year was over that we didn’t have to pretend to have a more hierarchical relationship.
Why are you in favour of an egalitarian marriage?
I think the one thing is that, for us at least, it just works so much better, and we’re so much happier. It feels more natural to function as a team of equal partners, and to divide tasks based on practicality rather than gender.
Secondly, I think when I look to Christ, and the example of Christ, I don’t see a big emphasis on maintaining rigid hierarchies. Quite the opposite. And so when Paul says that we should have the same attitude towards one another as Christ had, and that he humbled himself to the point of death on the cross, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. That’s a pretty profound statement about laying down any position of power in order to serve one another.
It seems more practical, and also more Christ-like to me to both have a servant attitude toward one another.
How have you dealt with the response from the Christian right?
It’s always hard when people criticise it seemingly without really engaging it. What I’ve been most disappointed about is it seems like folks are retreating to this ‘Well, she hates the Bible’ response, when that’s not what I was intending to communicate.
I can’t entirely blame them, because ‘biblical womanhood’ has been used so often to explain a complementarian position, and I’m kind of going after that phrase. So I shouldn’t be surprised that they’re a little frustrated. It’s kind of a branding thing for them, and I’m hoping to deconstruct it and talk about it and rethink it.
In an open letter, Kathy Keller suggests you have ‘muddied the waters of biblical interpretation’ – how would you respond?
I think what muddies the waters more is when we appeal to biblical womanhood as if it’s a very simplistic thing, when really we’re all bringing a different set of assumptions to the text when we read it.
She seems to think there’s a really simple way to interpret the Bible and I’ve just confused it. But it’s never been that simple to me. Why is one passage emphasised as part of biblical womanhood while another is not? Even within the New Testament, why is Acts 2 not a part of biblical womanhood, but 1 Timothy 2 is? I think those are questions worth asking. Maybe it does muddy the waters a little bit; maybe it does shake it up and cause us to rethink things.
Is the Bible inherently patriarchal?
I think it was written in a patriarchal culture. But when we look to Jesus we see a high esteem for women. It was a woman that he first appeared to after the resurrection. He had female disciples, and at a time when women were essentially forbidden from studying under rabbis he had Mary of Bethany sitting at his feet learning from him. In the early church, we have Junia as an apostle and Priscilla as a teacher. When we look to Christ as our example I just don’t see a big emphasis on gender hierarchy. I think passages from the epistles have been lifted out of their context to try and reinforce hierarchies that I don’t know are universal.
The Bible was written in a culture when it was assumed that women were essentially property. So when we look at the submission passages in the letters, we have to look at how these are different than the surrounding culture, not how are they the same. They are different in that they actually charge husbands to love their wives, and they charge masters to remember that they have a master in heaven. It’s actually radically progressive for the time.
How did the project develop your faith?
I’d always sort of feared what the Bible said about women. There were passages that troubled me and I didn’t know what to make of them. By immersing myself in this idea of biblical womanhood for an entire year, it really helped me work through a lot of those questions and doubts.
Coming out of the year, I feel more passionate about advocating for gender equality in the Church, and I feel like I understand myself better as a woman. And I truly, truly feel like my love for the Bible only increased after this, which I wasn’t entirely sure would happen, so it’s been a great experience.
Do you have one final thing you’d like to say to women in the Church?
You can be a ‘woman of valour’ in whatever circumstances you find yourself in. I love that Ruth was called as a woman of valour. The phrase is ‘eshet chayil’ and it’s taken straight out of Proverbs 31. Most people think of Proverbs 31 as a passage celebrating a domestic goddess, and feel ‘if I’m not a domestic goddess I’m not really a good woman’. But Ruth is called a woman of valour before she gets married, before she had children to rise up and call her blessed and before she’s rich enough to be exchanging fine linens with the merchants.
It’s not about finding the right job, or having enough children, or finding a spouse, in order to please God; it’s about your heart and the attitude you bring to your circumstances. It’s about your faith, and living life with valour and bravery and following Christ; loving God, and loving your neighbour.
A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Thomas Nelson) is out now. To find out more about Rachel visit her blog.