Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Snap: Rachel Evans' "A Year of Biblical Womanhood"

I'll start with some caveats that will choke off a few complaints from the start from those who may not know me: My theology regarding men and women is fully egalitarian, and I am all for contextual study of the Bible; in fact, my record of this was clear before Rachel Evans even knew what a blog was.

Now the hammer: This book would have been better titled, A Year of Extrabiblical Victimhood, because it's nothing more than Evans childishly acting out some of the most extreme fundamentalist views she can find as a cheap stunt that's rather typical of the crowd that thinks someone like Brian McLaren actually has something worthwhile to say.

Evans doesn't have much worthwhile to say, either. Scholars with a calm, reasoned attitude should be writing books like these, not emotional wrecks like Evans who turn on the waterworks every time a yak sneezes in Siberia. Like many who were raised essentially fundamentalist, Evans has rebelled by swinging the pendulum as far as she can in the other direction, which in this case means having all the spine and assuredness of a tapioca pudding, and then thinking something is wrong with those who don't. To wit:

"[My mother and] father both loved the Bible, but they seemed to know instinctively that rules that left people guilt-ridden, exhausted, and confused were not really from God." [xviii]  

"Instinctively"? How about factually? Let me fix that for the academic neophyte in Evans: "Guilt" as a social concept didn't exist in the agonistic world of the Bible; "exhausted and confused" is a personal problem that not everyone shares. But as is typical of the emergent crowd, Evans assumes the weaknesses and shortcomings she and a few other manifest are a mandate for universal change, which is why they never bother with rational argument. How about an even more precise title for this book? Erma Bombeck on Depressants Does the Bible the Fundamentalist Way. That just about covers it.

I won't belabor the point, but I should back up my characterization of Evans with her own words:

Speaking of reading positive and negative comments on her blog: "scrolling through the comments sent my confidence lurching up and down so violently I felt seasick." [4]

"Apparently snark makes up a large percentage of my sense of humor, and I'm kind of a whiner." [9] (On the same page, she incorrectly places the Jewish concept of lashon hara into the New Testament, which was an issue I covered in the E-Block.)

"I hated that people I didn't even know had such a powerful effect on me and that a single comment from 'Anon1' or 'MilwaukeeDad' could keep me up at night." [14]

"...when I'm not in the mood for a fight, I just sit around and feel guilty about it." [27]

"When confronted with a long and varied to-do list, I react more like a squirrel in the path of a car, frantically darting one direction and then another without actually getting anywhere besides the backside of a tire." [85]

Whew. I'm glad my beloved Mrs H is just the opposite on all of these. Now that's a real woman. And I haven't even indicated the part of the book where Evans sits crying on her kitchen floor over not being able to prepare something correctly. How nice that someone this flipped-out is writing a book that millions will take as sound advice, and is also making asinine anti-intellectual statements like these:

"...I can only regard with suspicion those who claim the Bible never troubles them. I can only assume this means they haven't actually read it." [51] 

Better yet: Some of us aren’t troubled by it precisely because we have read it -- in a serious, scholarly, contextual way. Not that Evans would care, as this even more oblivious statement indicates, regarding those who deal in the texts with scholarship and apologetics: "These are useful insights, I suppose, but sometimes I wish these apologists wouldn't be in such a hurry to explain these troubling texts way, that they would allow themselves to be bothered by them now and then." [53]

Yes, apparently, Evans is a bit of a whiner.

No thanks, though. Instead of following Evans into a round of the Hand Wring Polka, which leads into zero solutions and does nothing but waste valuable time, I'll go for explanations -- and I'll do it just as fast as is needed to get that explanation done properly, thanks, and not slow down just so whiners like Evans can feel better about their own insecurities.

I would be remiss if I didn't note that Evans' own attempts at scholarship sometimes come out smelling like last year's landfill contribution. Not always, but when it misses, it misses bad. She points to John 8:3-11 and remarks that in that instance, "fulfilling the law meant letting it go." [54] That's not what happened here, for a couple of reasons. One is that the law was always didactic; it was never to be read with the fundamentalist literalism Evans still retains. The other is that the Romans held capital power, which means that the whole episode was another Caesar's coin test -- not an instance of Jesus "letting it go" on the law. 

That's one major blunder; another is the assumption that Jephthah's daughter was actually killed.  [63] It would also never occur to Evans that the reason she is not named in the text is because publicly naming a woman at that time was usually a way to put her on "front street" and not naming her was usually (not always) a way to honor her.

On the other hand, I'll give credit where it is due. The explanations are not all off the mark; Evans has an unusually good grasp on ritual purity [150], and her explanation of 1 Tim. 2's "women must not be in authority," while not as complete as I would like, at least goes in the right direction. But it appears such instances are more luck than work; though Evans professes to consult experts and commentaries, that apparently means, "just a couple until I get an answer I like and don't feel like looking more." 

In terms of the Biblical experience Evans professed to follow, I'll speak here as one who wrote a feature for CRI on this genre, including the original by A. J. Jacobs. Jacobs at least was honest. Evans is not. As I said, the title of this book ought to be revised, because Evans doesn't actually live "Biblical womanhood," she lives what she reckons to be "fundamentalist womanhood" -- even when she admits at the end of chapters that she doesn't believe that fundamentalists are interpreting the text correctly, and comes up with a different reading (most of which, if far too simplified, are at least closer to correct). If Evans were being honest, why not either a) live the actual Biblical standard she finds in the text, or b) admit that the whole project was just a way to mock fundamentalists in the typical passive-aggressive emergent style?

That's the main reason this book is getting a hard panning here, in spite of my fundamental agreement with several (not all) exegetical aspects of it. Evans has an honesty problem that would sink a fleet of Civil War ironsides. (I'm not the only one to claim this; see link below, for what it may be worth, by one of the women Evans consulted with for the project). Another reason is that Evans is just as narrow-minded and naive as the fundamentalists she makes fun of. For example, I'm in general agreement with the principles behind "fair trade" purchasing, but it reflects an astounding naivete to suppose that by buying only "fair trade" coffee and chocolate, Evans thinks she is actually doing anything lasting or significant about the problems concerned. It's just a gesture that makes her and other emergent types get that warm fuzzy they crave, but at the end of the day, they drive home in a vehicle that depends significantly on consumption of gasoline that releases carbon into the air and enables (directly or indirectly) hostile Muslims regimes that persecute Christians and oppress women, and also funds oil companies that foul the environment. And that's just one of dozens of things the market bears that renders Evans as guilty as those she smugly, self-righteously, and passive-aggressively condemns. While she's out buying some fair trade chocolate, Evans should stop by Texas (walk there, please, don't use gas) and spit on the ground, so she can she feel just awesome about the fact that she did a little something to stop that drought. Sorry folks -- if there's a solution to things like underpaid Third World farmers and child laborers, the scale of action will have to be supersized well beyond scrabbling around looking for that free trade label (and likely using a lot more gas to find it).

Naive hypocrisy, yep, that's also an emergent's stock in trade. Commenting on the wrangling of fundamentalists over the exact range of duties women are permitted under 1 Tim. 2:12, Evans says this is done, "all while thirty thousand children die every day from preventable disease." [255] How right you are, Rachel. Instead they should be blogging about it, and writing books about it (which could result in the deforestation of acres of trees; or maybe put money in the pockets of book company executives who will later spend it on porn; or just possibly distract someone from buying a self-help book that will get them off drugs)? Please.  Evans can keep that ticket on the guilt train for her own ride. (In case anyone didn't notice, the two goals are hardly mutually exclusive, and there are more than a few fundies out there contributing to ministries that can do that sort of job well.)

In sum, this book is a stunt, and a very clumsy one at that. It's time for publishers to up the ante a bit and publish more serious literature by authors who can be responsible with their material.

In this case, another Left Behind novel would be a step in the right direction.


Our ministry partner Nick Peters has also posted a review.


  1. Excellent review. As somewhat of an egalitarian myself, Evans is one of the crowd I feel gets attention she's really not worthy of. Her writing, for me at least, more often than not comes across as shrill, and as you rightly point out 'smugly' self righteous.

  2. But, it's apparently OK to smugly, self-righteously, and AGGRESSIVELY condemn people for allegedly smugly, self-righteously, and passive-aggressively condemning people. Good to know.

  3. Yep. Sure glad I didn't do that. Watch yourself for it, though.