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Carolyn Custis James

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Raising a Ruckus Over Biblical Womanhood

Posted: 11/06/2012 11:51 am

It may take a village to raise a child. But it only takes one bold out-of-the box woman asking honest questions and sitting on her roof to raise a ruckus.

Rachel Held Evans did exactly that when she "vowed to spend one year of [her] life in pursuit of true biblical womanhood" and then, of course, to blog voraciously and ultimately write a book about her experiment, "A Year of Biblical Womanhood." Who knew her experiment would prompt the rise of "Vaginagate," the banning of her book from LifeWay Christian Bookstores, or the kinds of name calling and disdain coming at her from fellow Christians? Who knew the ruckus would go viral and draw so much media attention including, but hardly limited to The Huffington Post, Christianity Today, The Daily Beast, NPR, NBC's "Today Show" and "The View."

It's every publicist's dream!

Before saying anything about the book, I want to give a shout out to Rachel's husband Dan, who backed her all the way, despite the fact that the whole thing (excepting the home cooked meals) made him uncomfortable. After all, he never bargained for a wife who would call him "Master," or camp out on the front lawn during her period, or let her hair get "big." When the year was up and she suggested thinking of things for which to be thankful, Dan's first words expressed his relief that the experiment had ended. Let me take this opportunity to recommend Dan for sainthood.

The book itself is a pleasure to read. Rachel is a compelling writer and an insightful thinker. She delivers on her guarantee that "you will laugh out loud at least once while reading." For me, it happened more than once. But do not be lulled into thinking her purpose is merely to entertain. In this case, humor is not an end in itself, but an effective vehicle for placing serious but well-worn issues on the table in a fresh new way.

Rachel's project highlights two complex issues facing today's Christian church. The first concerns women -- specifically, what is the Bible's message for women regarding how we are to live as women in ways that are pleasing to God? The second is hermeneutics: how we understand, interpret, and apply the ancient text of the Bible to our lives today.

Questions Rachel is raising about women are not theoretical, nor is she simply asking for herself. Countless women are struggling with messages coming from the church that define appropriate behavior, roles, and parameters for ministry that pertain to the "biblical" woman. Women are facing these questions in their daily personal choices.

In some segments of the church the expression "biblical womanhood" is used to define women almost exclusively in terms of marriage and motherhood which are often regarded as "a woman's highest calling." Throw in the adjective "biblical," and the specific assertions linked to that word carry enormous freight for any woman who cares about what God asks of her. Rachel speaks for a host of Christian women of all ages whose lives don't and won't fit the church's status quo and who are searching earnestly for answers, leaving the church in growing numbers, or resolving never to darken a church door. So the stakes are high both in what Rachel communicates and also in how the church responds.

Rachel set out to put those "biblical" conclusions to the test literally every command in the Bible that addresses women. This raises all kinds of questions.

How do we take the Bible's ancient writings and apply them to our lives in 21st century America -- a world vastly different from the world inhabited by the writers and original readers? How do we make sense of the message coming to us from the church that stresses certain texts addressed to women (e.g., silence and submission), minimizes others (e.g., women prophesying, teaching and leading both women and men) and marginalizes biblical narratives of strong godly women? Women like Deborah, Ruth, Abigail, Esther, the Marys of Nazareth, Bethany and Magdela, etc., persistently and boldly color outside the lines and are held up as examples which the Apostle Paul tells us are "meant for our instruction."

Such questions ultimately point to hermeneutics. The challenge of "correctly handling the word of truth" has always been a serious issue among Christians -- never more so than when someone points out inconsistencies, weaknesses, or just the plain unworkability of interpretations. For example, if being a biblical woman means being a wife and mother, then does that mean that countless women who are single or childless are somehow less than biblical?

It's an easy dodge (not to mention a huge missed opportunity) when critics discredit Rachel and shove her work aside by accusing her of "mocking the Bible" or "using a faulty hermeneutic," instead of thoughtfully engaging the issues she is raising.

Some challenge her inclusion of Old Testament texts and Jewish traditions as passé in the New Testament era. But as recent as the 16th century, none other than John Calvin employed the Old Testament regulation that compelled a single woman who had been raped to marry her rapist, so long as her father approved. And shouldn't we be alarmed by the dangerous trajectory of some interpretations of submission and male headship when it opens the door for tolerance of some levels of domestic abuse? Case in point: a founder and leading spokesman for the Complementarian movement counsels (here) that if a woman's husband is "hurting her" to endure "verbal abuse for a season" and "being smacked one night" before going to the church for help. No mention of calling the police. Shouldn't we be asking serious questions? Isn't it the better part of wisdom to investigate concerns that Rachel is raising, rather than discrediting her for "feminist influences"?

Besides, does any critic imagine that by discrediting one book, they've shielded readers from all the others books that they might read? Criticism has its place. But don't we also need to weigh and respectfully engage the issues and demonstrate to a watching world (oh yes, they're watching!) the kind of grace we're supposed to be offering one another? What if our goal was to deal honestly with such crucial issues and in the process help readers become better thinkers?

Any thinking person who reads Rachel's book (or her blogs for that matter) knows it's no secret that she has honestly wrestled with the Bible, as anyone should do who reads the Bible honestly. But instead of throwing the Bible out, her commitment to Scripture has intensified. If you doubt it, read her post, "I love the Bible."

Any thinking person who reads Rachel's book knows that while she is engaging Scripture, she is also an eager learner. Her research, experiences and encounters with others have left her a changed person. She has grown through the process, distilling deep lessons and extracting life-lessons from what she learned.

Any thinking person who reads Rachel's book has observed solid evidence of a strong, vibrant marriage at work and a woman who deeply respects her husband. One of the surprising results of Rachel's project is that among the takeaways for her is a renewed resolve to honor Saint Dan.

This is a fierce and fearless book.

It is fierce because, despite the lightheartedness, Rachel knows the stakes are high and cares passionately about how she lives as a follower of Jesus! Failing to encounter the Bible anew with today's questions and to face honestly the disconnect between what we are being told the Bible is saying and what we encounter in real life, sells us short and leaves us living small lives. It also causes our Christian brothers to look for less in their Christian sisters in the home, the church and the workplace.

It is fearless because Rachel dares to announce to an oblivious Western church: "The emperor has no clothes!" She calls us to engage in honest conversation about problems that impact us all. At its core, "A Year of Biblical Womanhood" asserts that although the contemporary world has moved beyond the patriarchal culture in which the Bible was written, God's Word is still meaningful and still speaks wisdom for today -- proving its relevance and richness again to each new generation.

Read the book. Ponder the issues. Engage the conversation!

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