A few years back, AJ Jacobs, a self-proclaimed “modern day American, lecturer, and human guinea pig,” decided to embark upon a year-long project of self-improvement involving living in strict accordance to the biblical laws and teachings. Having grown up Jewish, but in a secularly Jewish home in the same way that Olive Garden is an Italian Restaurant, he claims, he thought that diving headlong and head first into the Bible would be the best way to learn exactly what was in it, having not been taught what religion was all about growing up.
Several years later, Rachel Held Evans took on a very similar project, but for very different reasons. Evans was raised in the South, and in the church. She was very well read in the cultural milieus of the church and its lingo, and therefore was coming at this project with a bit more ammo in her spiritual belt, per se than Jacobs, who was raised as a secular Jew.
Over the course of her year-long journey, Evans tackles the weighty issues of head covering during prayer, female submission to males and women having authority over their male counterparts, the virtuous woman, the diligent homemaker, the frequently assumed biblical role of a woman as a wife, mother, and child bearer and not pastor, preacher, teacher, investment banker, farmer, doctor, lawyer, etc. And most importantly, she tries to address biblical selectivity when it comes to interpretation. She says, “despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this (in reference to biblical economics, sexuality, politics, and marriage, as the church and especially evangelicals in her opinion have a tendency to do) almost always involves selectivity.” (p. xix)
At the beginning of the project, she forms a “Biblical Woman’s Ten Commandments,” or a guide for daily living, which include the following:
1. Submit to thy husband’s will in all things
2. Devote thyself to the duties of the home
3. Thou shalt mother.
4. Thou shalt nurture a gentle and quiet spirit.
5. Dress modestly.
6. Cover thy head when in prayer.
7. Not cut thy hair.
8. Not teach in church.
9. Not gossip.
10. Not have authority over a man.
Admittedly, she struggles with following these rules literally, and recognizes the struggles of other women in the constraints of biblical literalism. “Its sad that so many strong, gifted, ‘feisty’ women have been led to believe that they are to shelve that whole side of their personality because it is not ‘gentle’ or ‘quiet’ enough. I see women who could change their little piece of the world for the better, or perhaps an even bigger piece of the world for the better, sitting on their hands in this posture of ‘gentleness.” (p. 7) Women, or so Evans begins to see, are bred to be mild, gentle, submissive and soft-spoken creatures in the Bible, but at the same time, fight for what they believe in in many instances. See the instances of Hagar, for example, who pleads with God to save her son when Ishmael is about to die in the woods after being cast out of Abraham’s home by Sarah. The women in the book of Judges as well, despite the massive amount of violence, brutalization and war, weren’t afraid to fight for their rights. In the face of these stories, Evans comes to the following conclusion:
“I don’t know for sure, but I think maybe God was trying to tell me that gentleness begins withs strength, quietness with security. A great tree is both moved and unmoved, for it changes with the seasons, but its roots keep it anchored in the ground. Mastering a gentle and quiet spirit didn’t mean changing my personality, just regaining control of it, growing strong enough to hold back and secure enough o soften…Far from connoting timidity or docility, gentleness is associated with integrity and self-control, particularly in the face of persecution.” (p. 16)
Perhaps being gentle isn’t a sign of weakness or submission to another, but rather a sign of strength, as Evans finds out in her first month of her project. To practice these qualities in light of the Bible is not to adopt a submission to another, but rather to gain self-control, and a respect for those for whom this character trait was the only choice. Evans makes the point that the biblical stories used to confine, restrain and make women submissive to men were designed for a society living 2000 or more years in the past, and therefore, have no bearings on the 21st century culture we try to impress them upon, try as we might. (That, obviously doesn’t prevent the conservative right from trying, and even succeeding with influencing women that their sole environ in life is as the property of their father until marriage, and then of their husband until death, child bearers, laundry-doers, meal-cookers, and house-cleaners, all without being properly compensated. Meanwhile, the Right isn’t stoning adulterers, nor are they forcing rapists to marry the men or women they rape, which is ALSO in the Bible…but that would be just a wrong reading of the scriptures, wouldn’t it?)
Isn’t scripture a sticky and weird thing, the conclusion becomes, and utterly a difficult thing to pin down as completely possible to follow literally. Evans does the project justice in my opinion, even camping out on her front lawn for the entirety of her monthly period in order to maintain ritual impurity (which is a biblical mandate for women so as to not spread ritual impurity to others in their household…). She emphasizes the fact that for Christians, Christ came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and so therefore, each and every little, teeny tiny legalistic rule and regulation isn’t necessary to follow, but to take notice of in the grand scheme of things, because at some point in time, it was significant and oppressive to the women who were held back by it. However, these laws were written for the people, living AT THAT TIME, not in our time, and therefore, it is impossible to expect that these laws would hold any grounding in our own time. It is impossible to expect a woman to cover her head in worship or prayer, since that holds no contextual or cultural grounding in modern religious contexts, apart from in Islam and Judaism. NOT Christianity.
Evans received much criticism from the conservative entourage, mostly women shockingly, who believed her perspective (on both sides of the fence) was blasphemous. “A young mother’s place is in the home, keeping it, guarding it, watching over those entrusted to her. To do otherwise will surely cause the Word of God to be blasphemed. Even if you could disobey God and it not produce visible ill consequences, it would only prove that God is long-suffering…but the judgment will assuredly come.” (p. 23) Perspectives such as this were viewed as “Christian feminism,” although this type of feminism must be equated with “Mormon feminism,” which is akin to encouraging Mormon women to submit to their husbands, refuse to participate in temple worship, and be perfectly ok with a lack of equality at all times. If God is the God of the pots and pans, He is also the God of the plows, the construction workers and the doctors and lawyers. God is everywhere, and will support women regardless of the vocation they are called to, in or out of the household. “Peace and joy belong not to the woman who finds the right vocation, but to the woman who finds God in any vocation, who looks for the divine around every corner.” (p. 30) It isn’t about finding God in a particular vocation for Evans – i.e. at home, as a mother, wife, etc. – but about looking for God in every aspect of life’s existence, and being joyful about it.
I recently had a conversation with a dear friend about the premise of this book, and her reception of it was, to say the least, less than open or eager to hear about a book tackling the issues of biblical womanhood. Granted, one never knows what triggers this might evoke in a person, but to be so closed to the topic was surprising. Words like, “subjugation” were used, without even bothering to listen to the full description of the project. The church gets that type of reputation more frequently than not, and while for many centuries the church did place an emphasis on male leadership and roles over and above the rights, roles and voices of women, it is few and far between that women are placed in roles identical to those of 12th and 13th century female figures.
What is most important to remember is the following, and Evans emphasizes this on numerous instances: there is a difference between Church and church. The church of God (not to be mistaken with the denomination, please do not mistake this for the conservative, evangelical denomination that does not allow for the participation of women in worship…) is not run by man, but is governed by God, and therefore cannot be controlled or dictated by anything that man does. The role of women is to do just as God desires, and God will put women where He desires them, whether it be in the home or in the pulpit, and everywhere in between. “Church” on the other hand, is dictated by humans, and is always subject to make huge, monumental interpretation mistakes, including putting women in places where they are in lesser roles underneath men for absolutely no reason whatsoever. The human run church is where the responsibility lies for the so-called subjugation of women, not God’s kingdom, and it is our responsibility as God’s people to stop placing the blame on God. God is not responsible for placing women below and under men – that is humanity, both men AND women’s fault.
So let us all take responsibility, as the church, to bind our wounds, and try to hear out both sides, understand the cultural differences present between the various communities and understand that we were all created in the image of the same grace-giving, love-extending God, who was willing to come into human form for our sins. It really is that simple.
It is us who make it more complicated than that.
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