Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Recently, I read A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. I haven't read her previous book, which I imagine probably adds some context that I might have found helpful, but I don't feel it was a necessary thing.

I had just finished The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, and Rachel herself references A.J.'s book at the introduction of her own, that she received more than a few comments on her blog telling her her idea had "already been done". I went into her book concerned that it would be simply a copy of A.J.'s, but other than a few irrelevant bits of fun she had with the concept, there weren't honestly that many similarities beyond the bare skeleton idea of the book.

For one thing, A.J. came from a place of being an agnostic Jewish man, someone who didn't know one way or the other but was flippant about the possibility while still holding it open. For him, he is mostly discovering things he didn't really know about before in any capacity, so there's a newness to every word he reads.

Rachel Held Evans was raised in an evangelical family, and broke away from more conservative evangelical beliefs to be where she is now; a devout believer whose faith turns more towards loving her neighbor than judging whether or not they've done something wrong.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood has seen some scathing reviews in the Christian blogging world, the most startling of which I found said she 'asked too many questions', and argued that outside of questions that simply are affirmations of what the verses say, it's wrong to ask. It's wrong to think. Questions, this review stated, are part of an evil plan to drive you from God. I will link to this blog as soon as I can find the review again; when I read it, I was so startled that I clicked away almost immediately.

There is a saying about rabbis that I love, and it's that if 9 rabbis all agree on one point, it will be the duty of the tenth to disagree and make them argue and state their case, force them to look more closely at their interpretation.

The idea that asking questions is somehow a sin is part of what drove me out of the church in the first place, and I was shaken by finding this review saying the same thing. I found many reviews that did not favor the book (and as many that DID like it!), and most of those reviews pointed out some legitimate errors in her methodology, but many of them criticized points Rachel made that I thought were spot-on; the idea that what "Biblical Womanhood" is changes wildly depending on what century we're in, we pick and choose no matter how 'literal' we may claim to be. It's a part of being human.

However, this review citing the sin of asking too many questions did not drive me away.

This only encouraged me more to read Rachel Held Evans' book, because if she is a woman who both asks questions and also believes, then she's who I'm looking to learn about.

I think it is the duty of the faithful to ask, to educate themselves, to never stop learning. It is not the duty of the faithful to blind themselves and stuff their ears and hum 'I can't hear you' to anything outside the lines. How do you understand faith if you don't question it, look at it, hold it up to the light?

At least, that's how I've always felt about it.

Rachel Held Evans is a woman after my own heart, it turns out.

I loved her format quite a bit more than A.J. Jacobs'; she broke her ideas down into months, although some things held over from month to month, allowing her to focus her thoughts a little bit more. She bookends each chapter with a short chapter about strong women who appear within the Bible, from Mary herself (the mother of Christ as well as another small chapter on the Magdalene, that maligned disciple of Christ's always erroneously confused with a prostitute) to prophets, to Ruth, to the Other Woman in the Book of Esther, the strong women in the new church referenced in the Pauline letters, Queen Vashti who made Esther's heroism possible simply by having a mind of her own and refusing to be displayed like cattle at her husband's whim.

Some of her experiments, such as they were, were irrelevant or unnecessary to me; the one everyone seems to bring up is her time spent sitting on her roof. I didn't really see the point of it, but at the same time I did; the verse about the roof wasn't important, even sitting on the roof wasn't important, what was important was that the specter of the roof forced Rachel Held Evans to censor her words, actions, and thoughts so that she might be able to better fit this ideal of the perfect, soft-spoken, encouraging, thoughtful Biblical wife.

Which, of course, she fails to do. Because we all fail, in one way or another, and we fail at that because the Bible has an impossible amount of "you should's", some of which contradict one another. Later books in the New Testament may have admonished women to be silent, but Jesus himself had Martha's sister Mary sitting at his feet to learn right along with the (male) apostles. Jesus did not judge the adulteress but said rather that he who was without sin should cast the first stone; and the angry mob there to kill the woman found themselves dropping their stones un-thrown, one by one.

Jesus did not insist on the silence of women; that came later, from a man who was not the son of God. So why do we pretend that these ideas are concrete proclamations from someone Divine? The Pauline letters have always been somewhat of a mystery to me, in that manner. They have so much wisdom in them and at the same time clearly existed in a specific place and were written to a specific people; early Christians trying to differentiate themselves both from Jewish people and most definitely from the Romans whose behavior they loathed, and who oppressed them severely.

Just a thought, I guess. I am willing to take disagreement on this, but it's something that Rachel Held Evans hit on that also never made much sense to me, so if someone can explain why we take so much of what the Letters say as holy writ in stone, I would appreciate that. She looks heavily into the context of the Letters, which is something I really enjoyed.

Her time spent dressing 'modestly', which meant covering her hair, wearing always long skirts and shirts with elbow-or-long sleeves was fascinating to me. She talks a little bit about the fact that that method of dressing is wearing a sign that calls to who you are; like the Amish and the Mennonites with their very specific dress codes, it is a walking sign of what you believe. She notes the way strangers look at her differently than they did before. There is an inherent courage in dressing in a way that is a waving flag of faith, especially if it's in an area where that flag may not be welcomed. When we judge women who look 'frumpy', who wear head-coverings, we are committing our own act of deep unkindness by judging that these women would be unkind simply by their looks, their dress, the flag they wave. Rachel has a bit of an epiphany that she herself had given the modest women she saw the same looks she was getting now, and judging them without ever knowing who they were.

I liked the book overall; I liked that I was reading it from someone who had great faith alongside her questions, and whose questions have only helped her understand. I think it is our duty to question, and to hold too tightly to the tiny details misses entirely the importance of the big picture.

For someone willing to enjoy the humor inherent in some of what's in the Bible, this book will be enjoyable. If you're willing to have some fun with it, and ask some questions, and you want to learn more about important women in the Bible, read this! If you are not Christian, you probably won't enjoy the book as much as A.J.'s, because she comes from the very start into the experiment as someone with faith.

If you are Christian, and you sometimes ask questions, and you want to find someone else who can ask questions and laugh at herself for nitpicking the Bible while she simultaneously is criticizing others for nitpicking the Bible in a different way, then you'll enjoy this and I do think you should read it.

If you think it's impossible to ask questions without loss of faith or you think that anyone questioning will somehow lead to them becoming an atheist (I've read more than a couple atheist reviews of Rachel's book whose main qualm seemed to be that Rachel did not come out of this losing her religion, but rather strengthening it), then you may not want to read it.

But you might.

Because there isn't anything wrong with asking questions, especially not if you leads you back to the Book.

Which, to be frank, is basically what this whole blog is about.

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