Rachel Held Evans - "A Year of Biblical Womanhood"
11:04AM Jul 9, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Rachel Held Evans
Today we're very glad to be speaking with Rachel Held Evans widely recognized columnist, blogger and author. Rachel is the author of The New York Times bestseller, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on a Roof, Covering her Head and Calling her Husband Master, from Thomas Nelson 2012. The book tells the story of Rachel's journey and vowing to take all of the Bible's instructions for women as literally as possible for one full year. Rachel is also the author of evolving in monkey town how a girl who knew all the answers learned to ask the questions from Zondervan in 2010. Rachel, we are so glad to be speaking with you today.
Oh, thank you so much for having me.
Rachel, first of all, would you be willing to share a little about the backstory for your book a year of biblical womanhood? What was the inspiration for this project?
Sure. Well, you know, growing up in the evangelical Christian culture, I always heard about biblical womanhood and how I was as a woman, I was expected to model biblical womanhood and practice biblical womanhood. But, you know, as I looked into it, nobody could seem to agree on exactly what biblical womanhood was. And everybody had a sort of different opinion about what that meant. And some passages of Scripture were taken quite literally and other passages of Scripture like women wearing head coverings, for example, were not considered part of biblical womanhood. But and so I wanted to explore this idea of biblical womanhood for myself. And so I took a page from AJ Jacobs, who wrote the year of living biblically and I decided to try and do this as a woman and practice all of the Bible's instructions for women as literally as possible, sometimes taking them to their very most literal extreme, having a little fun with them to this to ask them questions about what we mean when we talk about the vehicle. womanhood or biblical manhood, and to explore the fact that no one is truly practicing biblical womanhood all the way that all of us are doing some level of selection and some level of picking and choosing. We're all selective in our interpretation, and application of Scripture. So the more interesting question to me is, so why do we pick and choose the way that we do? What makes this passage apply, but this one not in? And what are the interpretive processes involved in that, so I've always loved the Bible. And this was a way to sort of humorously challenge the idea that the Bible presents a single blueprint for how to be a woman of faith, that the Bible presents a single prescription for how to be a woman. And so I really enjoyed it. It was well, most of the time I enjoyed it. Well, actually, maybe I enjoyed parts of it, but following all the Bible's instructions, Are women from Genesis all the way to revelation was not? Not as easy as it might sound?
Rachel, what a delicious project you embarked on? Did your friends and family tried to talk you out of this?
A few times, yes. And then they found out that I'd be celebrating all of the Jewish holidays, which means lots of food and feasting. That warmed them to the idea. I did end up cooking a lot and hosting a lot of parties and feasts. And so they kind of ended up enjoying that element of it. But it wasn't. A lot of people just assumed that my husband would just relish the idea, but it was challenging for him to, you know, there were parts of the project that that were hard for him as well. So we were very happy when the year was that we had a celebration. Oh my
No, that sounds that sounds amazing. Did he have friends who perhaps had a critical eye? Did they sort of try to talk you out of trying to keep these old testament mandates? Did anybody push the card and say, well, that's an old test. In the passage, maybe that's not something for a Christian to live out. How did you work through the divide between Old and New Testament passages?
Oh, right. Well, and one thing I made clear was that this was a year of biblical womanhood, not Christian womanhood, or it was looking at the entire scripture, because that's the language that we tend to use around womanhood. So I, you know, made it pretty clear that I wanted to look at the whole thing. And, you know, I consulted with a lot of Jewish folks, when I had gotten to Old Testament texts with which I was a little bit less familiar. I got some help from Jewish women who were practicing many of them. They're Orthodox Jews are still practicing some of those Old Testament passages. In Leviticus, there's a lot of rules and stipulations around how a woman is to behave during her menstrual cycle. So I had never practiced that before. So I called up and interviewed and got some help from some Orthodox Jews. ladies who helped me do that. But I was pretty clear from the beginning that this was about biblical womanhood, not just about Christian womanhood and that I wanted to look at the whole text. And I mean, most Christians still apply elements of Old Testament scripture today as well like the 10 commandments, for example. So, you know that, you know, I try not to make too hard dichotomy between Old Testament and New because when we look at Jesus Christ, we know that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law. Jesus said, I didn't come to abolish the law, I came to fulfill it. So when we look at Jesus Christ, we see what the law was always intended to sort of do and what scriptures meant to point us to Jesus is sort of the definition of what is biblical. So I'd work that into the book and I explained that that's my, as a Christian, my hermeneutic is Christ centered. But as I was doing the project, I wanted to try and do things from the Old Testament as well estimate and
those who read your blog Rachel held Evans died Come will know that you write this text in your signature style. This this is bleeding your style all over it. It's quick witted, it's tongue in cheek. It's very ironic. What is the message that you hope to communicate to your reader?
Yeah, well, I, I wanted to use humor because you know that the topic of biblical womanhood and when we start talking about women and women's roles, it tends to get a little heated. And obviously, it's an inherently personal topic. You can't write about this without it being personal people have made important life decisions based around their concept of biblical womanhood. So I use humor as a way of broaching a really difficult and very real topic. nearly always turning the humor on myself and my, my misadventures and trying to do this project, not you know, making fun of Scripture or anything like that. So I wanted to use humor as a way to broach this topic because I think it's a really important one Because I see women trying desperately to conform themselves into this, this idea of biblical womanhood and sometimes they, they really lose themselves in trying to live up to this, this standard, this impossible standard. Sometimes, you know, it turns into just biblical womanhood becomes this list of rules and roles that women are trying so hard to live up to. So I wanted to challenge the idea that the Bible presents us with a single prescription for how to be women of faith that the Bible presents us with this limited list of acceptable rules and roles and that being a woman and a follower of Jesus means sticking to those rules and roles. I wanted to challenge the legalism of that and, and and show women how much freedom we have in Christ to follow Jesus as ourselves as the women. God made us To be that, you know that, that we can be women of valor women of faith, no matter our circumstances in life, no matter what vocation we find ourselves in that it's not about finding the right job, or finding the right role. It's about bringing faith and loving Jesus and honoring scripture in that role. So that's what I was trying to do. And, and I've been encouraged by the response. I've heard from women who felt that the book was really freeing that they've always wanted to honor God and honor Scripture with what they do. But they felt that that meant just sticking to a list of rules and roles. And I hope that the book helped free us from that notion that biblical womanhood is about just sticking to a blueprint, that it's about much more than that. It's about honoring God loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves, no matter what vocation, we find. yourself No matter, our socio economic status, no matter, our marital status. That way we can honor God in however, whatever role we've been called to
tell, that's really wonderful, Rachel, I'm very much a novice at this sort of thing. But it seems to me that one of the reasons why these conversations get so heated, oftentimes, is because not even so much because of the, the specifics of the not even so much because of the specifics of the advice that's being given necessarily, but sort of the the offense that's taken when somebody thinks that that you can go back to some other source ie the Bible or some other source and tell somebody else how to run their relationships. What would be your comment in that? how can how can we talk about these things in a way that might be more peace seeking, and and where we have an opportunity to really sort of digest the ancient wisdom of the Scriptures and and communicate that to our communities? How can we do that in a non offensive way?
Yeah, yeah. Well, I think, Well, I think it starts by among Christians, where we might disagree about how to interpret and apply some of these texts, we give one another the benefit of the doubt. And, you know, folks who maybe have a much more strict interpretation, some of these texts or doober literal, you know, if if they would not accuse me of not being the Bible seriously, I cannot accuse them of hating women or wanting to keep women down. Like if we could just give one another the benefit of the doubt, as we're discussing these texts, I think that would be a great, great step. And I think it would be a light to the world if people can see us disagreeing over the interpretation and application of Scripture, but doing it with love, and with a little bit of humor. And I mean, I have no problem with a, you know, a debate and an even an intense debate. But let's not write each other off or kick each other out of our faith communities based on interpretation of some relatively calm complex texts when you look at the Apostle Paul's writings about women and head coverings, for example, that's some pretty sticky and very complicated argumentation he uses about head coverings, you know. So let's admit that this is this can be kind of complicated and that it's not always clear exactly what Scripture is trying to teach us the lips, engage conversations around that with grace, with love with patience with one another, instead of accusing one another of not taking the Bible seriously when we just simply disagree on how to interpret and apply it. I think that would be a great first step when it comes to conversations around biblical womanhood and biblical anything for that matter.
No, I really appreciate that. Rachel. Rachel, what do you think isn't in fact possible today to read and accept the Bible literally? Or is this really an impossible aspiration for those who live in the modern world? What's your opinion?
Well, I think what we have to look at is what A text is intended to be interpreted literally, or what we have to start with is understanding the genre of each text. And I think sometimes what happens is we impose some of our own cultural and ideological biases onto texts and expecting that they conform to sort of our modern Western worldview in which only that which is historic or scientific is taken seriously. And I don't know that the texts we project that onto were, or many of them, I'm not sure that they were ever intended to be interpreted that way. So, having tried to practice biblical womanhood, ooh, we're literally following everything to the letter. I can assure you that nobody's practicing biblical womanhood literally all the way. A lot of the people who might take the passage about women not teaching and having authority over man, don't take the head covering passage. Literally or they do and they don't take another passage about greeting one another with a kiss literally, even though that's one of the most common instructions in Scripture in the New Testament is that Christians greet one another with a brotherly and sisterly kiss. I we don't really see that going down and a lot of our churches and so we I think it's the question isn't who's taking the Bible literally and who's not? I think the question is, why do we take these parts literally not these other parts? And that's a worthy question to ask, because that reveals sort of our guiding hermeneutic. And it's an important question to ask and we're all a little bit selective. And that doesn't necessarily mean that we're all careless and that selectivity is not as simple as picking and choosing it's a lot of us are very, we're deliberate and thoughtful about why we select certain passages to apply more literally than others. But I like to have conversations around why that is why The passage interpreted this way and was passage interpreted that way. And what might that reveal? If we read it with humility? What might that reveal about some of our biases? Senator, you have to let scripture read you a little bit. You know, why is it that I'm very quick to say that? Well, Jesus couldn't possibly mean everything he said in the Sermon on the Mount, I can tell you why that is. It's because it's really, really hard. It's really hard to practice what Jesus taught on the Sermon on the mountain. So I personally would really love it if those were just suggestions. But looking at it in its context that I'm not sure I could I had the luxury of deciding that. So I think we all have to approach Scripture with humility, with open hearts and open minds, and a willingness to admit that we're bringing some biases to this text and that, that how we pick and choose what parts of Scripture we take literally might reveal something about those biases. It's worth looking at
recently. Thank you. Getting at one of the pressing questions of our day. And that is, many of us sort of have this quote, cultural card that will keep up our sleeve when interpreting the Scripture. And so when we find something that's sort of out of the bounds of what we can imagine ourselves doing or living out in our communities, we drop that cultural card and say, well, that must be something cultural. That doesn't apply to me. Then, of course, the question, this massive question behind that as bagged, and that is, well, who gets to decide what's cultural? Did your did your experience, give you any wisdom or insight into that question? How can a community sort of decide because because I think you're right, none of us have this sort of systematic scientific reading of Scripture. It's all interpreted. So how does a community take a wise approach to this? How do we know which texts we can live out literally, and which ones maybe we could say, well, this is an ancient Jewish culture that doesn't apply to the modern Christian. How do we do that?
Yeah, well, I mean, I think it starts with Just understanding the intended audience of each text understanding that, I think it was john Walton who said that the Bible is written for us, but not to us. That every text, you know, the epistles, for example, the epistles are letters. And as letters they had an intended audience. And that intended audience was, for example, you know, ancient Greco Roman culture and folks in this, you know, Ephesians church or the Corinthian church, and each of those churches had their own very unique issues that the apostles were trying to address and to take care of you see, large portions of the pastoral epistles preoccupied with how are we going to manage the influx of widows who have come into the church from many of them from Ephesians coats, and so you know, you have these churches that are overwhelmed with women and that kind of said, some light on why the Apostle Paul might have said, women don't see the authority over men. But in other contexts we see Paul talking about women who were teaching and leading he refers to Priscilla who is teaching other apostles. He refers to Phoebe who is the deacon, he refers to all over the place to his co workers, and women who were teaching and leading in the church. So we know what we have to do is we have to look at the broader picture. So we know, for example, that the Apostle Paul did not forbid all women from teaching and leading in the church, because he often refers to women teaching and leading in the church, often by name. So then, when we look at one specific instruction to a specific church, one has to say, well, maybe this doesn't apply to all women everywhere for all time. So I think when we get into these tricky situations, we have to look at the whole of Scripture and see, is this sort of does this read as an exception to the rule or does this seem to be the rule Throughout, and that can be a starting point. And then ultimately, of course, as Christians we look to Jesus Christ to help us interpret scripture. And and we look to the life into the teachings of Jesus as the culmination of all that scripture is meant to be in that peace of fulfillment truly of Scripture. So, at the end of the day, it all boils down to when Jesus was asked by an expert on scripture by a Bible whiz, what's the most important element of the law? What does it mean to be biblical? Jesus says, Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor is yourself all the law and all the prophets hang on those two commands. So when in doubt, the question we ask is, does this help me love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind and strength? And does it help me love my neighbor as myself because that's the point. That's what it needs to be biblical. If we're using Jesus Christ as our
hermeneutical guide. That's really beautiful. Thank you for that. Rachel, can I ask you a sticky question? And let me ask you a question. Just please share with us your opinion here you have a very wide reader base. And I know that you're very active in responding to your readers on your blog. So we were just really value your opinion here. It seems that the dividing Question of the day among Christians is the question of sexuality, whether that's in the gay and lesbian community, and what should the Christian response to that community be? or other other forms of that sexual question? Just keep cropping up everywhere in angelical circles? And in your opinion, what is it that lies at the heart of the current divide between Christians over questions of sexuality?
Right, right. I mean, if I knew I knew how to solve this man, I would be great. I think, I think we see divide here because oftentimes, a disagreement around something like gay marriage gets treated as a defining or a line in the sand. And, and folks who might disagree over that or have more nuanced positions on that tend to just get written off and kind of kicked out of the Christian community. I think what's frustrating for me and for a lot of people in my generation is that the sexuality thing has become so important, it's become the most important thing. And we saw this with the World Vision situation where people were willing to drop their child sponsorships over the fishy they were willing to, to basically hold an an aid organization hostage until it conformed to particular view of sexuality. And that to me shows that we've got our priorities out of whack that that we're willing to let people go hungry Rather, rather than abide differences over sexuality, I think there's a divide because Christians have become so preoccupied with issues around sexuality, that it's happened to the at the expense of other issues that are important and that we should be talked about. That doesn't mean that I think we should not talk about sexuality or that it shouldn't be important. Sexuality is important. But when we're letting disagreements over that, between good faithful Christian people, divided to the point that we won't even fellowship with one another, something is out of lack. And it seems to me that the issue of homosexuality has become sort of this new line in the sand, where one's position on that issue will determine for a lot of people whether or not they'll fellowship with you. And I think that that misses the mark there. I think that good Christian people can disagree about this. Because sexuality is very complex. There's a lot of different layers. You have Look at there's a lot of different angles. And we're talking about human beings here, not just issues. So it's a very complicated and we have to acknowledge how complex human sexuality is, and how we can't whittle it down to a few rules. That that is more complex than that. And we certainly shouldn't be, you know, bidding one another farewell over issues related to sexuality. I think that I think we've become far too preoccupied with that, when that's the case. I think there's a divide just because because I think there are Christians who think that that how one views homosexuality is a indicator of Orthodoxy or something, and I think that that might be unfair. I think that that, that some of us are kind of pushing against that.
I agree with many of the sentiments Rachel and really appreciate your willingness to engage that sticky question and let me gently still press push on that. Just a little bit. You say that many Christians are preoccupied with the question. I certainly agree with you. And yet I think the question of sexuality is not limited to the Christian community, probably ever since the sexual revolution for the last two generations, our culture generally has been highly sexualized. And so Christians aren't the only one drawing lines in the sand. If you take this or that position on this or that sexual issue, then then that will have social ramifications for you. Certainly Christians are not the only ones playing that that stubborn game. Do you have any wisdom there? Where can one appeal to find neutral ground? Or is there neutral ground in our culture today?
You know, I think Christians are called to do better than that. You know, I mean, I think Yeah, the culture certainly preoccupied with sex and we have a very sexualized culture and then that's obviously a problem and I think actually Christians can rally and speak into that with a lot of truth in wisdom and grace if, if we weren't so busy arguing with one another about issues of sexualities. I think there's a lot that we can do as Christians working together to fight like sex trafficking and to affirm and celebrate women not just for their bodies, but for their character and to speak into some of the problems we see in our culture about how women are treated as objects. I mean, Christians can agree on that stuff. And Christians can talk about that stuff and offer some grace and some wisdom to the world on those issues. But unfortunately, we tend to be so mired down in our own debates that, that we can't even fellowship with one another to address issues of sexuality that we tend to agree on. Sexuality is very complicated, and it's very important and it's very personal. So, of course, this is going to be something that we debate and disagree on. And I'm not against debate. I think debate can be healthy, and debate can be good. But when we do it at the expense of loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbor as our We've missed the mark. And I think that what we saw happen with World Vision was missing the mark. It was prioritizing the debate around sexuality over loving our neighbors as ourselves. And it was a mess. And it was horrible for our witness as Christians, it was an embarrassed. So I think when we make debates about sexuality take over to the extent that we have compromised our ability to love our neighbors as ourselves. I think it's gone too far.
Very much. Appreciate that. Rachel. Rachel, if I can close our time with one last question, and we've been asking all of our interviewees this question. The question is this, despite the tremendous variety in the expressions of Christianity that we see around the world, what is it that gives the church for essential unity?
Yeah, I would. I mean, I think of Jesus I think it's a it's a shared experience with Jesus which when you look at how Jesus is interacted with the people he encountered. None of those interactions were exactly the same. And so, you know, none of our interactions with Jesus, none of our experiences are exactly the same. But what unifies us is that call, we hear that call from Jesus Christ. And, you know, I'm a doubter. I'm somebody who struggles with a lot of doubt. And I was asked, actually, in another radio interview, not long ago, the interviewer asked me, you know, you seem like a smart girl, it was an atheist. He said, Well, why on earth? Are you still a Christian? And, and, you know, I talked about Jesus a little bit and went round and round around. But finally I came around to the point where I said, You know, I might be wrong about this whole thing. I really might I get that I get that faith is a risk at some level. But the story of Jesus is just a story I'm willing to risk being wrong about I, there's something about Jesus, and I think it's that shared relationship and with Christ and that shared call that unifies all of us, from Roman Catholics to Pentecostals to war. orthodox to evangelicals that's it's that call that we hear from Christ. Yeah and that the experience of communion with Him.
It's been our pleasure to be speaking with Rachel held Evans widely recognized columnist, blogger and author and author of the recent book, a year of biblical womanhood, how a liberated woman found herself sitting on a roof covering her head and calling her husband Master. Thank you so much, Rachel, for joining us today. Oh, it's an absolute pleasure. Thank you.