As soon as I saw A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans on the library shelf, I knew two things. I was going to feel compelled to read it, and I was going to be seriously annoyed by it. I was right on both counts.
A self-described liberated woman and popular blogger with ties to the evangelical Christian culture (she lives in the Bible Belt - beyond that, I'm not sure), Evans got a sweetheart book deal from Thomas Nelson: interpret the Bible's commands to women literally for a year and write about it. Now, I've been blogging for a few years and I like the blogs that have interesting challenges: cook every recipe in Julia Child's cookbook; make a different quilt block or knitted afghan square every day; tell your family's story in pictures throughout the year. There have been some enjoyable books and even movies that have resulted. I'm still waiting for the book deal that combines my unique perspective on knitting, quilting, special needs parenting, and Latin instruction for the 21st century. It's probably a niche market and I'm not holding my breath. But whatever. If you can turn your personal blogging challenge into a book deal, my attitude is, "Nice work if you can get it."
But some of the free-spirited zaniness that might be appropriate in a blog challenge almost seems to become a stunt for the purpose of this book-length project, and if you add that to the sacredness of the text she is examining, it becomes, if not offensive, at least irritating, for those of us who do indeed believe that text is sacred. Maybe it's when she makes herself sit on the roof of her house in penance for her "contentious" words. Or when she pitches a tent in her yard during that time of the month. Or spends a month calling her husband "master" - taking as her example not the biblical Sarah, but I Dream of Jeannie. I've often said I'll tolerate any amount of heresy as long as it's well-written, and Evans certainly has a nice approachable prose style, but the fact that she has an axe to grind sucks some of the air out of her breezy style, for me.
The underlying premise of this book supports an "egalitarian" vs. "complementarian" view of the role of women in the Bible. That much is fairly obvious, although I personally think the real issue is the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. It's a key issue in Christian culture and one that sooner or later will become a hot button for just about everyone. Evans is at her best when she leaves off the gimmicks at the end of each chapter and delves into the lives of various women of the Bible using honest exegesis with no snark attached. You may or may not agree with her conclusions, but she is clearly a fellow-Christian and deserves the benefit of assuming her intentions are good. But then, combating the teaching that women should be silent and not teach in the church, she becomes rather flippant: just throw a head covering on and say you're prophesying, is her advice.
Evans interviews an interesting assortment of traditionalist women; a practicing Amish woman and another who has left that tradition; a Christian polygamist (her husband met another woman but didn't feel right divorcing her, so decided God was calling him to a life of polygamy); an orthodox Jewish woman. I feel her treatment of conservative evangelical Protestant women was sketchy to nonexistent, almost as if she was more comfortable setting up straw women from the fringes of Christian culture rather than engaging with a real live woman who disagreed with her. I didn't find her disrespectful of traditions she disagreed with, but she kept them at arm's distance while pretending to take the Bible literally. So, I guess I question her intellectual honesty.
Some petty things I wondered about as I was reading it: why would you choose Martha Stewart as your arbiter of all things Proverbs 31? Why a battery-operated baby Think-it-Over to teach a 30-year-old woman about parenting, rather than volunteer time spent comforting real babies or helping real moms? Why does buying fair trade organic coffee and chocolate make you a champion of the poor, and did you ever really eat guinea pig, or was that just a catchy chapter title? And come on, it's not really that impossibly beyond you to sew and knit. Some of us even do it for fun.