Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Year of Biblical Womanhood - Rachel Held Evans

Back when I joined Goodreads, I knew one of the biggest perks would be seeing what books my friends and family are reading.  Case in point: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans.  In January, I noticed that my sister-in-law had just finished this book and given it a four-star rating.  I immediately put it on my long list of books to read.

Despite having been a woman for years now, something about being a newlywed has heightened my interest in gender roles, their origins, and their validity.  It still amazes me when a friend thinks gender inequality in the workplace and on pay scales is a thing of the past or, as happened to me last week, someone tells me that it's my "job" to cook, because I am a woman.  Even though I explained to this kid that I cook because I enjoy it, not because of my gender, I still don't think he got it.  Gender issues are tough topics, especially within the church.  Men and women have a hard time understanding each other's perspectives before you add the implications of what Scripture says on the matter.  I think most of us avoid the topic in general conversation due to the controversy it can create.  When we do talk about it, as I did when taking a Scriptural Interpretations of Gender Issues course a few years back, few Christians can agree on the topic. 

Evans tackles the debate head on.  In the spirit of authors before her who have embarked on similar journeys (The Year of Living Biblically, Living Oprah, and many more), Held decided to uphold all aspects of womanhood described in the Bible for one year.  She choose to abide by standards in both the Old and New Testaments, focusing on a different aspect of the challenge each month.  

She began each chapter with a study into a woman in the Bible (Mary, Tamar, Sarah, etc.).  Over the course of her experiment, she blogged about the process and developed contacts around the world.  Particularly interesting, she became good friends with an Orthodox Jewish woman living in Israel who helped her understand the background and details behind many of the Old Testament passages.  

The book spoke to me on so many levels.  I did not agree with every conclusion that Evans came to, but she raised some interesting questions, a few that even my education at a Christian university had not sparked within me already.  I resonated strongly with Evans' background; just as I did, she grew up in a conservative Christian home and received her undergraduate education at a small Christian school.  When early on in the book she wrote, "In my world, women like Joyce Meyer were considered heretics for preaching from the pulpit in violation of the apostle Paul's restriction in 1 Timothy 2:12..., while conservative Mennonites were considered legalistic for covering their heads in compliance with his instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:5.", all I could think was, 'This was my world, too.'

"According to James Dobson, women [aren't] inferior to men, just created for different roles."  Here is classic response from conservative Christianity in regard to gender differences.  Evans spends a good deal of time investigating whether this statement is grounded in God's design or culture.  Some trace the submission of women back to the Garden of Eden.  Yet, Evans takes a fresh view of the events there in saying, "A passage [Creation] that might challenge readers to aspire to the love and mutuality of Paradise has instead been used for centuries to justify the perpetuation of the curse by forcing women into subordination...."  She certainly had no qualms about rocking the boat (albeit not just for the sake of disruption) in her book - and I loved it.

As expected, a good portion of her journey revolved around her relationship with her husband.  Marriage has maintained a prominent role in this discussion since it began.  For me, as a newlywed, exploration into marriage roles holds definite interest and application. Kevin and I have never specifically discussed whether we have a complimentary or egalitarian view of our relationship. Before our wedding, we agreed that we would approach life as a team. In a pinch, Kevin theoretically serves as team captain, but of the most part, we make decisions together. I saw a lot of similarities in Evans' relationship with her husband Dan and our marriage.  Most significantly, I loved this passage:
"When you find yourself running...a household together, tasks tend to get assigned based on efficiency rather than gender. And when you share a common don't care who brings home the bacon so long as it's enough to pay the Internet bill.  And when you realize that faith is not static, that it is a living and evolving thing, you look less for so-called "spiritual leaders" to tell you where to go, and more for spiritual companions with whom to travel the long journey.  And when you learn that marriage is a slow dance, not a tango, you worry less about who's taking the lead and instead settle into the subtle changes in each other's movements, the unforced rhythms of each other's body to life's music."
In my short experience with marriage thus far, this is what I have experienced.  No one is the "boss."  We both choose to love and make sacrifices and serve each other.  Maybe we are naive since we have not had to face any really big decisions yet in our marriage, but I believe we, as the Evans, have ended up in a mostly egalitarian marriage without even realizing it.  Submission is a mutual act of love which we choose to engage in, not an archaic servant-master relationship.  Just as Evans says, "I don't respect my husband because he is the man and I am the woman, and it's my 'place' to submit to him.  I respect Dan because he is a good person, and because he has made me a better person too."  This sums up perfectly how I feel about Kevin.

Another huge issue addressed in the book is motherhood.  If following the stereotypes laid out for her, a Christian girl gets married and starts having children as soon as possible.  The first part of that plan was easy for me.  I have always wanted to get married.  Kids, on the other hand....  Well, Evans puts it well when she writes, "Somehow I'd known from the age of ten, with a cool and uncanny certainty, that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and yet I've never known with the same intensity that I wanted to be a mother."  I have not had the clarity of a specific profession, but I know I have never felt the same calling to motherhood that my sister or some of my friends do.  I love kids.  They are wonderful.  Will we have them one day?  Most likely.  But do I feel like they are or will be my purpose in life?  Absolutely not.  Evans hit the nail on the head by expressing exactly what I have always felt: "As a Christian, my highest calling is not motherhood; my highest calling is to follow Christ.  And following Christ is something a woman can do whether she is married, or single, rich or poor, sick or healthy, childless or Michelle Duggar."  Being a mother is not now and will never by my first priority.  Being a Christian is my first priority...and then being a wife...and then, maybe someday, being a mother.  

The Christian community continues to exalt marriage and motherhood as the culmination of femininity, as though there is nothing else to be achieved.  Don't get me wrong.  I think both roles are incredible blessings and God is honored when they are done well.  Still, as a young professional, I have long had goals outside of the home and would love to see those encouraged within the body of Christ as well.  Evans astutely notices that churches pour out love and gifts for brides or new mothers, but there are never showers for a single woman who has bought her own home or "a celebration dinner for a woman who passed the bar or graduated from medical school."  In fairness, however, we don't do those things for men either.

During one month of her experiment, Evans focused on the topic of justice, "one of the most consistent and clear teachings of Scripture, and traditionally, a crucial function of the Church."  As many of us know, there are millions around the world who face horrific lives simply because they are women.  "Women ages fifteen to forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined."  That is an incredible thought.  And yet....what are we doing about it?  Evans suggests that a key tenant of being a woman is to join with our sisters in bondage and help them.  This part of the book served as a great reminder for me that I want to do more on this front - starting with praying for the women around the world who do not even have the opportunity to worry about the ramifications of choosing a career over motherhood.  

Evans' perspective, research, and execution impressed me.  As I said, I do not agree with every conclusion she came to, but I think she came to far more positive, thoughtful conclusions than shaky ones.  As a similarly opinionated woman, I appreciated her perspective on classic challenges such as a woman's demeanor.  In her experience, she learned that 
"Mastering a gentle and quiet spirit didn't mean changing [her] personality, just regaining control of it, growing strong enough to hold back and secure enough to soften."  What a powerful thought.  We as women should be confident in who God made us, but willing to be shaped by Him to more closely resemble His likeness.  Having the wisdom to know when to speak and the strength to wait until that moment speaks more about character than any opinion ever could.

Ultimately, each woman approaches Biblical womanhood differently.  Some find it easier to "cling to the letter [of the law] because the spirit is so much harder to master."  Yet, the spirit of our obedience and spiritual walk is just as important.  Being a Biblical woman does not mean conforming to a cultural identity, whether modern or ancient.  A Biblical woman continually strives to be more like Christ in whatever role she plays.

I may open Pandora's box by even asking this, but what are your opinions on Biblical womanhood?  Why do you feel the way you do?

Pages: 256
Date Completed: May 18, 2013

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