Twelve months of biblical womanhood, full interview

[See the edited version of this article from Geez magazine here.]

In October Rachel Held Evans completed her ‘year of biblical womanhood.’

In this experiment, she attempted to follow biblical doctrine specific to women as closely as possible. This included referring to her husband as “master,” camping outside of her home during her period, refraining from gossip, and “caring for the poor.” Her upcoming book combines her experiences with her interviews with women about how they live according to their religious beliefs. Rachel Held Evans is a Christian blogger living in Tennessee.

Begin by describing why you decided on this project?

Well, growing up in evangelical culture, I always heard about the concept of biblical womanhood and for a long time it fascinated me. But no one could agree on what it meant. It means something different for everybody. For some people it means submitting to one’s husband, others say it is not taking leadership positions in church, others say it is covering one’s head when you pray or not taking jobs outside of the home. I was getting all these mixed signals. This was when I was in high school and college and making decision about life that really mattered. I wanted to please God and do what was right.

Then I’d been thinking about this as my views of biblical interpretation changed, and I thought, this is a really good time to explore the concept of biblical womanhood! This could be funny! What if I treated the subject the way A. J. Jacobs did his subject in The Year of Living Biblically … as a way of showing that we all pick and choose?

And there are all kinds of different biblical women, from Junia to Esther to Huldah to Jael, who drove tent spikes into the guy’s skull. I arrived at the conclusion that there is not a single way to be a biblical woman. I also hoped that by focusing on the Levitical purity lawns, by doing all of them, I might be able to help people cut themselves slack, because none of us are practicing biblical womanhood.

I also did interviews with women [over the past year], like an Orthodox Jewish lady from Israel who really helped me with questions about the Nidaah. I went to Amish country in March and spent time interviewing Amish ladies and Old Order Mennonite ladies. At that time I was focusing on modesty and clothing. I have done some research into Vision Forum, a very extreme patriarchal group, and I have interviewed a woman in a polygamist relationship, who was not Mormon, but evangelical, part of an organization called Biblical Families. There are so many different views of biblical womanhood.

Besides all of this, I did the project because I thought it is controversial enough to sell lots of copies, and because this is something I would want to read! I hope it’s something that will get people talking.

What were some of your reservations as you decided to do the project?

I was concerned for my poor husband, who has to go along with this. My main reservation was that it’s not just about me. I’d be dragging my family and my husband, my friends, into it too. Everyone close to me would be touched by this in some way. I made sure my husband knew just how involved it would be. It would sort of expose our personal life if the book was successful. That weighed on me a little bit. But once I had the proposal and knew what I’d be doing, I felt much more comfortable about jumping in. And Dan came willingly. He has been a huge help in making the project more interesting, helping get the word out.

And one other thing gave me pause… I spoke with Mary Kassian, who is big in the “complementarian movement”—so we really don’t agree at all. But she gave me the best advice. She said: you will get more hate and controversy for covering this subject than for anything. And it has been startling how emotionally charged this subject is. She really prepared me for that. It can get intense, especially if you are a woman talking about this. You can get a lot of hateful feedback. So I am thankful for her warning.

The reason it is so controversial is because so many women have made life decision based on what they see the Bible saying. If I see submission differently, it is threatening. The subject can’t not be personal. It has to do with your marriage. You can’t write about this in a way that’s not personal. It still weighs on my mind, sometimes. I have to be careful how I broach the subject.

Do you wonder if women in abusive relationships that have been justified biblically will see your project as flippant, or playing at domination relationships? In the end, you haven’t had to risk much compared with many other women living in submission to their husbands.

Well one thing I’m careful to do in the book is to address abuse. I interviewed Hillary McFarland, the author of Quivering Daughters, about some of the abuses that happened to her growing up in a patriarchal household. For a lot of women this is their story, the Bible being used to justify truly silencing them, their living a guilt-ridden existence. I can’t understand what that’s like. I can’t reproduce that. There are times I reached a point and said I can’t reproduce a particular experience in my book, such as polygamy. I never experienced being sold for a bride price. There are clearly boundaries I couldn’t cross.

The best I can do with things like that is to tell the story of women whose abuse has been justified biblically, so that people will be aware of it, to be totally honest about the misogynistic, troubling parts of the Bible. I spend quite a bit of time in one chapter going through some of the most horrific stories—like the story of the concubine who is dismembered in Judges, or the story of Hagar and Tamar, who was raped in David’s house. I took those stories and just told them. And in telling them, I make the point that we must acknowledge there is gray area. Evangelicals are afraid to acknowledge the way the Bible has been used to justify abuse.

Part of living biblically for me has been to challenge the use of the Bible as an adjective. People put “biblical” in front of everything: biblical politics, biblical parenting… and you just can’t do that. There is too much going into the interpretation.

You are right, I am definitely not taking real risks, but I can tell the story of people who risked a lot, and people like Hillary who have overcome that.

How would you describe your views on gender issues, would you call yourself a feminist?

Gosh, see that’s a tough one. I guess I prefer “egalitarian.” My audience is evangelical, and they see it as a very bad word, “feminist.” They see that as sort of anti-man, which of course I’m not. In one way, I guess I am feminist. I believe women can hold positions of leadership, for example, or be in the work force and use their gifts. But if you use that word in the wrong way, it can cause problems. I think that’s because feminism has been misunderstood, especially because a lot of evangelicals associate it with abortion. So “egalitarian” better communicates my position to my audience.

Of the biblical commandments to women that you chose to follow, what have been the most difficult commandments to keep?

Well, I broke some of them pretty willfully. There is one that says: “though shalt not teach in church.” I had an opportunity to come up to speak at a church in Virginia. I was going to get paid, which would help underwrite my trip to Amish country! So I said yes and spoke on a Sunday morning.

Also, at that time I was part of a tiny church plant in Dayton that failed, a whole other sad story. I was part of the founding group. I did quite a bit of leadership there, and was in charge of liturgy. That is the commandment I probably broke the most.

But the hardest commandment for me to keep was sort of superficial. It was “thou shalt not cut thy hair.” My hair is just very thick and grows out rather than down. There is hair everywhere, rodent sized balls of hair in the shower drain. So the first thing I will do on Oct 1 is go to the salon and cut my hair!

One commandment that draws a lot of attention involves covering my hair in prayer. I always have to have something on hand so I can do this. Evangelicals are famous for randomly saying, “Let’s pray.” So I am always fumbling around for a hat or scarf, and everyone notices.

Interestingly, the easiest commandment for me has probably been the one about submitting to my husband. My husband and I have always tried to practice mutual submission. The focus is on looking first to the good of the other person. So it has been rewarding, prioritizing my husband’s needs over mine. It is not so bad because I love my husband and I want to put his needs before mine, and he wants to do the same for me.

That’s interesting, because I found the fact you were calling your husband “master” to be one of the more disturbing parts of your experiment. To me, it seems as disturbing as a modern-day slave calling her captor “master” because that is what the Bible supposedly tells her to do. But if you and your husband have an egalitarian, mutually submissive relationship, it really isn’t the same as the experience of most women living in submission to their husbands, is it?

You’re absolutely right. I devote a chapter to the whole concept of submission. I talk about different interpretations of submission, different ways this is used. I talk about patriarchy, and the complementarian movement, and I quote the more extreme folks too, who say submission means you basically die to your own will completely and the husband makes all of your decisions. So I quote quite extensively from those I strongly disagree with, so people know how [the biblical commands about submission] are taken out of context. I don’t think the secular press knows how seriously these passages are taken, or how often they are used to perpetuate abuse.

On the other hand, there are people I disagree with, women I’ve spoken with, who hold to a hierarchical view of marriage. This is not how I live, but I believe a lot of those women have chosen their lives very willingly and with their eyes open. So it is very difficult to dismiss people who have a conservative view of marriage, to say they are brainwashed or asking for abuse. This is not true. You can’t paint everyone with a broad brush.

I do talk quite a bit of many ways submission is applied to relationships, the good, the bad and the ugly, and I contrast my relationship with my husband, which is very egalitarian. If we tried to practice being non-egalitarian, it just didn’t work, it just isn’t how we live. It was funny. During the period when I had to call my husband “master”, I hurt my back and ended up on the couch for three days, and the whole time he was waiting on me hand and foot! Trying to impose a hierarchical arrangement on a relationship where it doesn’t exist is just silly.

It is true that in three of the four passages that tell women to submit to their husbands, the word “likewise” or “in same way” is used about slaves submitting to masters. So you can’t say one is culturally specific and the other isn’t. It creates a great opportunity to talk about interpretations of scripture and about inconsistency. It really raises questions about culturally specific commandments. There are serious implications if you say certain things apply to everything and everyone and other passages were only for a specific place in time.

So the whole point of the project is not just to challenge what people think about women. The main thing is to challenge how we read and interpret the Bible. Many Evangelicals read the Bible as an unquestioned authority, without realizing how much interpretation goes into it. I want to challenge the whole notion of: “what it says is what it means.”

How do you think the Bible would have been different if women wrote more of it?

I don’t know if Deborah really wrote the song of Deborah, though I like to believe she did. She was a kind of warrior, but I think her song is interesting because it portrays woman as both the victors of war and the spoils of war. It praises Jael for violently taking things into own hands, so to speak, but it also, in a biting sort of way, talks about a mother waiting for her son to come back and him not returning. The mother wonders if maybe the men are just dividing up the women after the battle. I wonder if this is a subversive comment about how women are treated in war.

If we had more of that, more of the ways in which women are the victims of violence, maybe it would affect how we read those passages about war. Sometimes I wonder if women were often the victims of the decisions made by men who claimed that God had made [those decisions], to go into war and basically eliminate people groups. If women wrote more of the Bible, maybe we would have seen and heard more about the ugly realities of conquest and violence, and be less inclined to say that God sanctioned those actions.

Also, maybe we would know the names of more of the woman in the Bible, like the Samaritan woman at the well, or the concubine who was dismembered. In the story of Jephthah, he made a promise to God to sacrifice the first thing he saw emerge from his house after returning from battle, and it ended up being his only daughter, who he then killed. I learned that all the women of Israel would gather together to remember this daughter of Jephthah. Women told her story every year as part of a ceremony, in a way of mourning. And this is not something we do any more. In fact, as part of this project, I had a ceremony honoring her and other victims of biblical “texts of terrors”.

Do you see your project as satirical?

Yes, it is satirical in some places, and very serious, contemplative and thoughtful in others. It is a combination of a lot of things. I think a lot of people want to see just satire and it is not that, because I explore some very serious subjects you can’t satirize. There are rules that are funny and you just have to laugh about them. To be funny, I made Proverbs 31 into a to-do list. It was funny, but it was never meant to be a to-do list. It is poem exalting valorous women. It is poetry!

I tried to combine honest struggle with satire and stories of other people into a book that is funny at some points quite serious. That’s what the Bible is. It has highs and lows, stories and characters that are troubling. If you spend a year with the Bible, that is what you’re going to get. The Bible is just so many things. – Tricia Gates Brown

Issue 24

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 24, Winter 2011, The privilege issue.

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