Friday, December 26, 2014

But what does "biblical" mean?

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

In this memoir, Rachel Held Evans describes how she spent a year trying to live "biblically" as a woman. She tried to follow the Bible's instructions to women as "literally" as possible.

Evans is a little vague about why she did this. She notes that she has been accused of mocking God's Word, but doesn't respond to the criticism, except for saying that it made her doubt herself (p. 4). She seems to have undertaken the project as a way of demonstrating the foolishness of trying to follow the Bible exactly, and the inconsistency of those who try.

For example, the subtitle indicates how she called her husband "master". This comes from 1 Peter 3:5-6: " For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear."

Now, Evans has missed the point of the passage. Peter does not tell women to call their husbands "lord"; he tells them that they should have "the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit" (v. 4), and to follow the example of the "holy women of the past". He then mentions a specific instance from the life of Sarah (Genesis 18:12), and says that women should be daughters of Sarah, not necessarily in calling their husbands "lord", but in "doing what is right and not giving way to fear".

Has Evans missed the point intentionally? Is she saying that the word "biblical" has no meaning and that we all pick and choose what verses of the Bible we want to obey? Well, the entire book revolves around this slippery use of the word "biblical".

Two examples of this slippery usage will suffice. Evans writes to a Jewish friend to get advice about following the Old Testament food laws. She notes that she didn't want to follow the rabbinic tradition, "after all, this was my year of living biblically, not my year of living Talmudically" (p. 157). But then, on the very next page, she decides to stick to all the dietary laws found in the Old Testament, including "no mixing of meat and dairy". Well, that's not in the Old Testament; that is merely a Jewish tradition. Does Evans not realise this? It appears she is confused about what is in the Bible and what isn't.

A second example of the slippery use of the word "biblical" is in Evans' discussion of female victims in the Bible. She refers to them as "victims of biblical misogyny" (p. 47). Here the word "biblical" appears to mean "described in the Bible". But the Bible certainly isn't approving of the actions of rapists like Amnon. Evans says that women like the Levite's concubine of Judges 19 were "crushed at the hand of patriarchy" (p. 66). But there is nothing in the text to suggest that "patriarchy" is to blame; indeed, in this particular case the woman could better be described as a "victim of anarchy".

In this, and in many other places, Evans fails to grasp the difference between an indicative and an imperative. Just because the Bible describes a particular action or practice, it doesn't mean that Christians are to copy the action or follow the practice. So when Evans notes that "advocates of biblical patriarchy" do not appear to be "taking multiple wives" (p. 52), she is both misreading the Bible and misunderstanding her opponents. The Bible tells lots of stories of polygamy, and none of them present the practice as worthy of emulation. Almost always some trouble comes out of it. And even if we were to say that it was still allowed today, it doesn't follow that we should be doing it. You may believe, for example, that ("biblical") slavery could still be practised today, but it doesn't follow that to be "consistent" you should take some slaves yourself. 

It's this very issue of consistency that Evans seems to be exploring in this book, but she fails to demonstrate that anyone is being inconsistent. Time and again, she mentions various "opponents" (my word, not hers), but evidently has not grasped the reasons for or the implications of her opponents' views. Sometimes she makes totally unfounded accusations, such as saying that "those who seek to glorify biblical womanhood have forgotten the dark stories" (p. 66). Evans also fails to grasp the history of interpretation of the Old Testament throughout the history of the Christian Church. Mainstream Christianity has never said that we should adopt Old Testament practices completely. In this way, Evans is responding to a straw man.

Evans also lacks hermeneutical sensitivity: a number of times she engages in a "flat" reading of the text. Her statement that a man's "procreative prowess is listed by the writers of Scripture as one of his most worthy virtues" (p. 58) is an obvious misreading, while her comment that "Jesus showed little regard for the Levitical purity codes" (p. 169) fails to take into account that Jesus told the healed leper to go to the priest (Mark 1:44) in obedience to Leviticus 14.

Thus, throughout A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans misinterprets Scripture, in failing to properly understand and apply the Old Testament. She misunderstands the people to whom she is (presumably) responding, especially those in the "biblical womanhood" movement. And she misuses key words, such as "biblical" and "literal".

Evans explicitly identifies herself as feminist. I think it is also fair to describe her as "post-evangelical", though she doesn't use that phrase. Not only does Evans show a defective interpretation of Scripture, she also has a defective view of it. She talks about "how insufferable I found the apostle Paul's rambling prose" (p. 121). She rejects the unity of Scripture, referring to the Bible's "cacophony of voices" (p. 294). This leads her to reject a unified concept of what it means for anything to be "biblical".

It should be noted that there are some good exegetical insights in this book. I appreciated her description of the militaristic language of Proverbs 31 (p. 76), and her comment that "most of the Bible's instructions regarding modesty find their context in warning about materialism, not sexuality" (p. 128). It was also very encouraging to read how the project exposed her and her husband's prejudices, particularly in regards to conservative Christians (p. 130).

Evans is strongly egalitarian in regards to male-female relationships. She notes that she undertook this project "looking for permission" to lead and speak (p. 296). She concludes by affirming that her calling "is the same as that of any other follower of Jesus" (p. 295). And yet the entire project revolved around assuming (pretending? modelling?) a hierarchical marriage relationship (p. 302). Is that what Evans thought was biblical? Presumably not – the book seems to present a reductio ad absurdam argument. Evans is attempting to show that it's either (a) not really in the Bible, or (b) irrelevant for modern-day Christians.

Thus, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is almost wholly ironic. In this way, Evans is a clear example of what happens when evangelicals embrace postmodernism.

1 comment:

Christina A said...

It sounds as if it could have been a good book and it's unfortunate that it doesn't seem to live up to the title. You pose some interesting questions, however, and I enjoyed your thoughtful review.