I’m writing this amongst stacks of papers, research, and a ticking clock and pile of work at my day job. My coffee has grown cold and was replaced by a mug of Earl Grey tea about half an hour ago, which is itself growing cold. I’m busy.
Reading Rachel Held Evans’ newest book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I was relieved to find a woman busier than I, figuring out how to make a Proverbs 31 life work amongst all the normal trappings of a modern American woman’s life. The honesty with which Evans confronts the burden of simply existing as a woman in today’s church is refreshing and poignant.
And yet, in many ways, I both identify and do not identify with her story. You see, though I’m only a few years younger than Evans, I am far removed from her experience. Indeed, my ability to imitate Biblical Womanhood is short-circuited by the fact that I have no one to be in a complementarian relationship with. I have no husband to praise at the city gates, no man to call Master, and I don’t live with my parents any longer (though I’m fairly sure it would creep out my egalitarian minded father if I started calling him Master).
I am not the audience of Evans' book – which is not her fault and is no detriment to the book itself. There are still things I could glean from her words – the discussions of how women were expected to be everything to everyone at all times during the Proverbs 31 chapter struck me like a knife. Single or married, every woman raised in the evangelical church can identify with that sentiment.
As a single woman with a career of my own, financially independent of my parents and living 450 miles away from any family, I am the literalist complementarian’s nightmare. Add in being far too the left politically, willingly and happily childfree, educated well beyond most of the men in my dating pool, and (shockingly!) self-identified as feminist, and you have a recipe for disaster when presented with complementarianism. So much has been axiomatic in my life for so long that many of the tasks in Rachel’s book seemed antiquated and outdated…though not surprisingly so.
And I suppose that’s the point. Though Evans' experiment was an extreme example, many of the elements of womanhood she was expected to emulate are things I could easily identify as things I was taught growing up and norms that I run up against now. The gentle and quiet spirit, the multi-tasking to get everything done, being modest in both clothing and attitude, and being told it’s my duty to have children. While I may not be Evans' audience as a person already breaking the mold of womanhood, reading the book buoyed my spirits in that woman in the church are seeking ways to break out of the mold too.
Numerous criticisms have been levied against the book –as a mockery of Scripture, as gimmicky, as irreverent – and if you go into the book with that hostile mindset, you may find those things. But that is simply the worldview you bring to the text, not evidenced in the text itself – which, ironically, is the exact same accusation many have leveled on Evans herself.
If you approach the text with the understanding that this is one woman’s spiritual, one woman’s experience within the world, then you come away with a completely different result. Sure, I’m delving into reader response theory here, but I think it’s necessary. The book must be approached as it is – a story of the hardships women face, an examination of where “following Scripture to the letter” can lead, and a treatise what being a “woman” means.
This book is not for those who have already made up their minds. This book is not for the ones who think they have all the answers. This book is not even a point-by-point breakdown of complementarianism and why it is a broken system. This book is for the questioning, for the women in between, for the ones feeling more judged by God and scripture than buoyed and loved. This book – and Evans' journey – do not provide exact, pat answers to the numerous theological questions that a literal complementarianism raises. Instead, it tells us that questions are okay. Wrestling is okay. The Scripture can take it. God can take it. Being everything to everyone is not a burden you have to carry.
And for that, it is worth your time.
Note: I received an Advance Reader's Copy of this book but was not in any way compensated for this review.