Full disclosure: as an Evangelical Christian (Seventh-day Adventist, to be precise), I began reading this book with certain expectations and a knowledge of the discourse. I’ve heard all the “good Christian girls keep their knees together” lectures, the “good wife stays at home while her husband earns the money” lectures and the “God’s little princess” rhetoric that makes me sick. My parents, as Conservative as they are, raised me to be independent, well-educated, and resourceful. I grew up believing I would go to college, but not sure if I’d get married–and that was okay. As it turns out, I did marry. I found a man who was a-ok with me keeping my last name, who shared my religion and most of my expressions of that religion, who supports my career goals as I support his, and believes (like I do) that gender is not restricted by highly dependent on the person’s skills, talents, and preference. So, as I read about Rachel Held Evans’ struggle to define herself as a biblical woman amidst contrasting and often harsh conversations and ideals about “biblical womanhood,” I finally felt that I met someone who really understood me–an ardent Christian and an ardent feminist, trapped in the same body.
Ms. Evans has received a lot of media attention for her book, with two equally dissenting voices: Conservative Christians who suspect that she’s making fun of Christianity (she’s not–and if they’d read the book, they’d be fully immersed into her deep love and respect for the Bible); and secular a-religious/atheist individuals who think she’s naively advocating patriarchy (again, she’s not, and her relationship with her husband is one of the clearest indicators). At face value, she seems to be copycatting A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, but she ultimately has a different quest–she wants to question her role as a Christian woman and examine biblical womanhood from a variety of perspectives. She undertakes a study of verses and stories and tackles a facet or concept of biblical womanhood each month of the year (one month, her project is purity, and she sleeps in a tent during her period and carries a cushion with her to avoid making chairs in the house impure, for example) in order to see how womanhood was viewed by God’s people in the Old/New Testaments, and how we interpret it today.
This is not a from-the-old-Hebrew kind of deep analysis you expect from a theologian. And for ordinary readers of the Bible like me, that’s okay. Ms. Evans is a witty, conversational writer who is open about her quirks as a human. Her quest for a better understanding of the Bible, along with her passion for understanding her fellow women was one of the best aspects of the book. There’s a passage where she describes mourning women who were terrorized in the Bible–raped, killed, abused, mistreated at the hands of patriarchy. That’s the sort of discourse that is missing in so many faith communities, and one that she invokes, without being cynical or too flippant.
I think my favorite part of the book, however, is when Ms. Evans reminds us that it’s okay not to have all the answers about the Bible, and it’s okay if some stories or passages trouble us or make us uncomfortable. The Bible is a complex text, and while our faith comforts and sustains us, we can’t–and shouldn’t–explain away some contradictory or troubling things. Because to do so would undermine the complexity of the Bible.
If you, like me, are a Christian and curious about this book, then you must read it. Now. I learned a lot about myself, and I gained perspective from the Bible, and grew to respect it even if I can’t answer every question I might have. If you aren’t a believer, I would still recommend it, but you may not have the same kind of cultural context that I did. But that’s okay; your perspective may be different, and that is informative for someone like me, as well.