Though I am an avid reader of Rachel Held Evans’ blog and appreciate her perspective on gender issues, I must confess that I had given up the ‘fight’ as regards the equality and dignity of women, in home and in the church, and, for that matter, in the public sphere. Reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood has re-ignited a passion for women’s full flourishing.
As a college student, I fiercely defended both egalitarian marriage and women’s ordination. It seemed unfathomable to me that women could be relegated to submission and silence in view of what Jesus has done to empower us by the Holy Spirit. This view wasn’t entirely influenced by my pneumatology, which I am grateful to the Nazarene Church I attended in middle and high school for imbuing me with. It was also profoundly rooted in my social situatedness. I grew up in Northern California, certainly not a bastion of conservatism of any kind. I attended a church with a heavy emphasis on the work of the Spirit and with a history of ordaining women. I confess my view of women and their flourishing is also rooted in anger and ambiguity related to growing up in a largely single mother home. My father was – and is – not abusive, at least in the physical sense of the word. In any case, his less than stellar respect for and verbal treatment of my mother was in no wise motivated by his understanding of male headship, since he opposed religion and did not situate himself within the Christian tradition. My mother did an excellent job of raising my sister and I with very limited financial resources, a lack of social capital, and a disjuncture in academic training and past job experience. Indeed, a woman of valor! I don’t believe I was ever explicitly anti-male; rather, the environment in which I lived was filled with strong examples of strong women, which I celebrated, and so emphasized. I grew up in my formative teenage years without a father or male role model and without, ever, a brother.
As a result of these things, and perhaps, with a sense of my calling toward the Church and/or the Academy, I understandably defended women’s full participation in whatever spheres of life they find their vocation in. I was perhaps, at first, rather unsympathetic to female friends that wanted to become homemakers and homeschooling moms. I am happy to say that I have softened in this regard and indeed have deep respect for women who honor God in these spheres and find plenty to admire.
To complicate all of this, my mom became drawn into a conservative Mennonite community while I was in college and taking courses such as “Women in the Bible”. I composed a paper on the Biblical context of head coverings in an effort to prove to her how head coverings are culturally contextual, and not, ahem, biblical.
I was not sure when reading this book, what I would learn as I felt that I had exhausted this subject in previous study and conversation. However, I was pleasantly surprised with scholarship Rachel shared that I had not engaged with previously.
At the same time, she treats her subject matter and the people she interviews with profound respect and care. As someone who has lived in or near PA Dutch country, I especially enjoyed Rachel’s foray into the Amish world. I am always nervous when people come from outside, without a basic understanding of and care for the Amish community. I thought Rachel treated her Amish dialogue partners with much humanity and fairness, and it actually enriched my understanding of Amish views of ‘plainness’ and ‘honesty’.
This book also moved me profoundly. As Rachel recounts the ceremony she held for the ‘forgotten’ women of the Old Testament, I was struck by how many women are not ‘remembered’ either in and out of their suffering and in fact consigned to oblivion. Surely this was not our loving Creator’s intent, when He made male and female in His image and died to redeem what had been marred in the fall.
Held Evans’ chapter on the Proverbs 31, was, in a word, ‘liberating’. That eshet chayil is meant to be an unconditional blessing, and is routinely sung in Orthodox Jewish homes on the Sabbath from husband to wife, is a wonderful testament to the ‘warrior’ like nature of women and the diversity of literary expression in the Old Testament.
All this to say, I am grateful for what Rachel has contributed to the conversation on gender in the Church in her newest book. Her scholarship, humor, and grace are all evident in A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and I thus heartily recommend it.