Well, it is finished. Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, that is. It took me approximately one week to (finally!) finish the book and have time to share my thoughts on it, but that is on top of working full-time plus mentoring two executive board members of a sorority during officer transitions, so you could definitely finish it more quickly. This review contains spoilers, so if you’d like to read it yourself before encountering my commentary, feel free to stop here, bookmark this page, and return in a few days once you’ve finished the book.
YBW is a journal of the experiences of a theology-focused young woman, Rachel, as she digs deeper into what the Bible says about women. Rachel is remarkably honest about why she began this journey, noting that she wanted to write a “good story” and that she wanted to write another book before taking on the challenge of motherhood as she approaches age 30. Reviewers have criticized Rachel for having impure or profit-based motivations when writing the book, but I find her own discussions to be much more honest than anything others have written about this. She explains that her book publisher thought this would be a good idea, and I’ve read bits and pieces from interviews and blog posts that this wasn’t the first format she had in mind when embarking on this journey. Either way, Rachel is an over-sharer almost to a fault, telling us almost too much about why and how this “Project” started. She wants to dig in to the passages that are an integral part of her upbringing and faith, have fun, and write an interesting book about the process.
The book is divided into twelve chapters, each containing a “virtue” or “characteristic” sometimes considered part of a good Biblical woman. I note good Biblical woman here because, as Rachel points out, there are quite a few characteristics of women [or men, for that matter] found inside the Bible that none of us should emulate. Just because something is in the Bible does not mean that it is presented as an example which must be followed in every context and culture.
Rachel’s selections for subjects during the project aren’t all perfect. She has been criticized by American evangelicals for choosing to participate in some biblical customs that “everyone knows” are not actually part of a modern American theological evangelical understanding of the Bible. But attacking the approach of one facet of one denomination’s teachings about the roles of women isn’t the goal of the project, so these criticisms appear to be missing the point. Instead of attacking evangelicalism, Rachel examines bits and pieces from different faith teachings to try to understand better what the Bible is really saying to Rachel as she struggles to understand it and apply it in the best way she can. She seeks out and follows Jewish traditions, meets with members of the Amish community and Friends from within the Quaker community; she reaches out to fringe groups and looks back with fondness and (sometimes) bewilderment at some of the evangelical teachings she was exposed to as a child. Her experience can be a bit contrived at times, and sometimes the activities she completes feel overly gimmicky. Even so, the responses that Rachel provides to the different pieces of her project are always honest and mostly interesting.
Instead of pulling out just a few highlights, I’ve chosen a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book. I’ve made this decision because too many reviewers have jumped to conclusions about the book without encountering the experience or explaining why the book was great or disappointing, and because leaving out any piece of Rachel’s transition might render it less effective. It’s also a lot easier for me, and I’m guessing a lot of you won’t read the book in its entirety. If this method becomes overly long or boring to you, please just skip down to the bolded quotation below, one of my favorite pieces of the book, and read it two or three times to make sure you are really getting the message. That alone is enough to show the value, and the courage, of Rachel’s journey.
Gentleness: This was perhaps my favorite chapter of the book, and what kept me going through a few chapters of gimmicks and Martha Stewart-inspired failures. Rachel encounters gentleness and studies its origins, noting that the Bible teaches gentleness as a characteristic of all Christians, not just the female ones. Gentleness is the result of a combination of integrity and self-control in the face of persecution, she learns, and makes our wild hearts useful and fruitful for God. The same word for gentleness is used to describe a wild horse that had been tamed and could now be ridden. Still fast, but with purpose and control.
Domesticity: My notes on this chapter were “This is kind of stupid.” For me, Martha Stewart doesn’t really have a place in a book about Biblical womanhood. Also, I’m great at making pies but not as great at loving others or sacrificing or being gentle, so I couldn’t identify with this line of thinking.
Obedience: This chapter begins slow but ends with a beautiful moment that I would recommend to begin a women’s retreat or a sisterhood weekend. Rachel and a friend take an evening to retell the dark stories of abuse [read: rape, murder, incest, torture] of women in the Bible, and light candles to remember these women and their place in our faith story.
Valor: Rachel’s chapter on Proverbs 31 begins feeling a little false – I mean, when you take on so many tasks at once everyone knows that you are going to fail, so pretending like you don’t already know that too isn’t very convincing. Rachel’s message and her experiences could have been woven together seamlessly, but the set-up was a little too long for the subject at hand. However, Rachel’s explanation of the Jewish tradition of using the Proverbs 31 passages as a blessing instead of an impossible measuring stick is beautiful. Eshet Chayil, women of the church. Live your lives with valor.
Beauty: This chapter focuses on how evangelicals are weird and have messed up expectations about sexuality. And I agree, evangelicals are weird and have messed up expectations about sexuality – both before and after marriage. Rachel gets a little overly personal for my Southern Sensibilities here but a quote from her last few lines stands alone and is important enough to share: If Christians have learned anything from our rocky two-thousand-year theological history, it’s that we make the most beautiful things ugly when we try to systematize mystery.
Modesty: Wow, this chapter should be read by every youth pastor and every father of young girls everywhere. It is moving and funny and not overly serious. Rachel studies the use of “modesty” in the scripture and explains that modesty is a warning against materialism, not sexuality, and that we seem to have missed the message here. Which, to be honest, kind of reinforces that point about evangelicals being weird and messed up in this department, doesn’t it? I want to print this on every church bulletin in America.
“. . . [T]rue modesty has little to do with clothing or jewelry or makeup. The virtue that is celebrated in Scripture is so elusive we struggle to find words to capture its spirit — humility, self-control, plainness, tznuit, Gelassenheit. And so we codify. We legislate. We pull little girls to the front of the class and slap rulers against their bare legs and try to measure modesty in inches. Then we grow so attached to our rules that they long outlive their purpose, and the next thing we know, we’re adding leaves to our tables and cutting the ends off our roasts. We cling to the letter because the spirit is so much harder to master.”
Purity: This chapter is about menstruation so basically it just made me feel awkward. But, when Rachel describes how lonely she felt and then projects that loneliness on the lifetime of the untouchable hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5, it is a really nice moment.
Fertility: “No role is too confining or too grand for a woman of valor.” The rest was weird.
Submission: Rachel’s discussion of the Greco-Roman household codes and Jesus’s pattern of turning hierarchy on its head is interesting. But just that. No goosebumps.
Justice: Rachel spends some time here discussing the perils and torture faced by women in Bolivia today, and those in other places around the world. Here we see how man’s misuse of “submission” can withhold justice from the women of the world, and also how women can change the worlds in which they live. How really, we all need each other.
Silence: Rachel visits a monastery in Alabama [wait, what?! I know, how unexpected] and a Quaker meeting and engages with a dialogue on Silence that is really getting back to the heart of the matter. She explains the context surrounding sentences from Paul’s letters that are often used to silence women in church and in the home, and she finds her voice to advocate for the women who are silenced while also finding a quiet place for God to speak to her. This is really wonderfully done here.
Grace: This is more of a summary chapter, and the pieces of the book come together well. Rachel concludes that there is no such thing as Biblical womanhood, in the check-the-box, don’t-do-this sort of way. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for Biblical womanhood. Instead, each of us encounter different circumstances and situations in which we must choose, as women of God, to live with faith and act with valor.
In encountering these passages, making new friends, and writing her book, Rachel has found that a deep, careful look at the scriptures – even the silly ones – has liberated her and called her to speak out for righteousness and to use her gifts with valor. Personally, I can’t think of a better use of a godly woman’s time.