I’m not sure how long the manilla package sat in the bin beside my desk. It was postmarked September 14th. I noticed the package yesterday a few days after I had written a blog post speculating about the postmodern language barrier that may have caused Al Mohler’s misunderstanding of Rachel Held Evans’ new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Inside the package was the book that had served as the excuse for my tangential theorizing. I opened it and dove in yesterday, heart-sick about all the online gloating I had encountered over Kathy Keller’s “hard-hitting” review of Rachel’s book (Kathy is the wife of famous reformed pastor and author Tim Keller who has been a huge theological influence on me). What is clear from the way that Keller framed her critique is that she decided ahead of time to interpret everything about the book as an attack on her own beliefs. She must have kept her arms folded pretty tightly to defend herself against the disarming self-deprecating genuineness that oozed out of the story of a year that a Southern Christian woman took to learn about Judaism, the Amish, contemplative prayer, babies, Martha Stewart-style homemaking, and a whole lot of Bible. Perhaps Keller was using Rachel’s book as a point of departure for building her own brand like I did with my silly theorizing. Having read the book, I realize how ridiculous my speculation was. Rachel is not a postmodern hipster like me; she’s way too earnest. The main problem with what Kathy Keller and I both tried to do is this: Biblical Womanhood is too much of a story to be treated like an argument.
It’s the playfulness of this book that made me enjoy it, and I don’t usually go for books about gimmicks, year-long experiments, and that sort of thing. Each month, she had a different female virtue to embody and a different mix of silly and genuine challenges she would tackle in order to cultivate this virtue. In October, when the virtue was gentleness, Rachel had grown fascinated by the “contentious woman” who haunted the book of Proverbs, which says in verse 21:9, “It is better to live in a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman.” So Rachel came up with a goofy way of embodying this verse. Does the Bible actually instruct contentious women to sit on a corner of their roof as penance for being contentious? Of course not! But why should that stop someone from doing something epic and ridiculous like sitting on their roof for an hour and twenty-nine minutes as penance for all the snarky things they said from that month?
I’m not sure why Kathy Keller felt the need to criticize Rachel for having fun with the practices she chose to implement (“In choosing what passages you would take as models for your behavior, you chose narrative passages rather than prescriptive ones”). Rachel was not trying to make fun of the Bible by sitting on her roof; she was being playful in the same way that high school Young Life leaders are playful. Though there were some elements of farce, like calling her husband “Master” in an “I Dream of Jeannie” voice during the month on obedience, every month was a sincere spiritual journey that didn’t at all come across like Rachel was trying to belittle anyone. She really embraced the challenge of learning how to cook, sew, and clean the house. She interviewed and spent time with women who embraced more conservative gender roles such as the Amish and even a Christian polygamist wife. One of my favorite moments was when she discovered that the Amish lady she was visiting actually used a hula hoop to keep in shape even while wearing her ankle length dress.
One of the interesting twists that the book took was the degree to which it became an exploration of Judaism. Rachel befriended an Israeli Orthodox Jew named Ahava during January when she was exploring the nature of the Proverbs 31 woman whose name eshet chayil Rachel prefers to translate “woman of valor” rather than “wife of noble character” (wife and woman are the same word in Hebrew). Rachel’s friendship with Ahava becomes a narrative thread throughout the book. Ahava coaches Rachel through such things as preparing a Passover seder meal, the niddah (monthly time when Orthodox Jewish women must avoid contact with their husbands), and finally the rituals around Rosh Hashanah with which Rachel concludes her yearlong journey. Rachel also learns that the way Jewish culture uses the eshet chayil of Proverbs 31 is less about telling wives how to behave and more about teaching men to appreciate what their wives are already doing. Ahava shares with Rachel that her husband sings the words of Proverbs 31 to her every week at the Shabbat table.
Incredibly, Kathy Keller completely dismisses the fruitfulness of Rachel’s exploration of Judaism, writing “all Christians have known that observing the ‘clean laws’ of the Old Testament is no longer incumbent on them,” again revealing her unshakeable commitment to the presumption that Rachel’s purpose is to discredit the Bible. Rachel didn’t make a Passover seder to showcase the unreasonable expectations of a Biblical woman. Just because we don’t have to make challah bread since Jesus died for our sins, why shouldn’t we do it if it tastes yummy and provides us with a meaningful learning experience?
It is true that there are some very disturbing truths that Rachel has to name. In her chapter on beauty, she talks about how the erotic love poetry in the Song of Songs has been used by fundamentalist pastors to instill anxiety about body image into brides at their weddings: “It is your responsibility to delight your husband throughout all stages of life so that he has no reason to stray.” It’s a pretty astounding feat to turn the delightful Song of Songs into a source of oppression. Similarly, Rachel talks about the disturbing Quiverfull movement that the 19 kid Reality TV Duggar family is a part of, which promotes having gigantic families through a warped interpretation of a psalm as a Biblical prescription for family planning. As Rachel says, “Poems were never meant to be forced into commands” (112), which pretty well summarizes the way that so many parts of the Bible have been abused by those who need to turn the whole thing into an “owner’s manual.”
To her credit, Kathy Keller talked about the importance of not conflating “description” and “prescription” in Biblical hermeneutics. She writes, “I agree with much of what you say in your book regarding the ways in which either poor biblical interpretation or patriarchal customs have sinfully oppressed women.” If we presume that Keller is not engaging in a disingenuous rhetoric construction and take this statement at face value, we can be confident that Keller will share her thoughts on these matters with Gospel Coalition members like Mark Driscoll about how they should approach preaching and writing books on texts like the Song of Songs.
Truth be told, Rachel’s book is not just a story; there is a little bit of argument about how to interpret the Bible. It comes mostly at the end. Rachel quotes Peter Rolllins: “In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naive attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of love” (294). Basically Rollins is calling out the modernist folly of pretending to read the Bible without an agenda. Everyone has an agenda; feigned “objectivity” is the agenda of privilege. Rachel asks whether we should read the Bible “with the prejudice of love” or “with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest, and greed” (295).
Kathy Keller responds to this with a very presumptuous and uncharitable indictment: “If you say, ‘Parts of the Bible express love, and other parts express power interests,’ you’ve clearly gotten your standard and definition of love from outside the Bible—specifically, from contemporary sensibilities—and these are your ultimate authority and norm.” Beyond the breathtaking unfairness of leveling such a strong accusation with so little supporting evidence, the palpable irony here is that Rachel, without naming (or perhaps realizing) it, has articulated the hermeneutical principle of the spiritual godfather of the Reformation, Augustine, who says in his opus De Doctrina Christiana: “If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them” (De Doctrina 1:36:40). Augustine is calling upon us to do precisely what Rachel tells us to do: read the Bible with the prejudice of love. This is similar to the hermeneutical standard of the famous 18th century British evangelical John Wesley who said, “No scripture can mean that God is not love or that his mercy is not over all his works.”
Neither Peter Rollins nor Rachel invented the hermeneutical standard of charity. It has been the core of what Biblical interpreters throughout the last two millennia have called the “analogy of faith”: using the most explicit passages from the Bible as the interpretive lenses for the less explicit ones. The reason that building up the twin love of God and neighbor has been at the top of the hermeneutical pyramid for Augustine, Wesley, and so many other Christians throughout the centuries is because Jesus said that “all the law and all the prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40). No other sentence in the Bible presents itself so explicitly as the basis for reading everything else.
Scripture is not a perspicuous, self-interpreting document. It is a recent modernist innovation to think that anyone is capable of reading the Bible “without an agenda,” which is how people subconsciously import their own self-serving worldly “standards and definitions” into their Biblical hermeneutics, the most prominent today being the idolatry of the mythical Eisenhower era nuclear family, whose archetypal Pleasantville housewife has no connection whatsoever to how Deborah, Ruth, Esther, Mary Magdalene, or any other Biblical woman who actually lived. The way that we attribute to the Bible completely un-Biblical affirmations about womanhood and marriage based on very recent, self-validating middle-class sensibilities is by convincing ourselves to read the Bible with the populist, ahistorical hermeneutical approach of Biblical literalism, which gives us permission to dismiss the need to read the Bible in conversation with its interpreters throughout the ages or with any consideration of its original historical context. And then we let our independent megachurch pastors, who operate outside the discipline of any magisterial authority, come up with the Biblical interpretation that will play the best with their target audiences. What’s utterly comical is the way that what so many Christians today call “conservative Biblical values” are really a market-driven reinvention of the Bible in the image of contemporary suburban sensibilities.
It would take a very determinedly unsympathetic reader to conclude that Rachel’s yearlong experiment living out her own playful, genuinely curious version of Biblical womanhood was reducible to some kind of mockery or lampoon. She learned a lot; she grew a lot. She came to understand a positive way of reframing each of the stereotypical female virtues that she had considered oppressive at the beginning. Moreover, Rachel models for us how to be a God-wrestler, which is the approach to the Bible we are supposed to follow if Israel is indeed the name of God’s people. We can’t just let our systematic theologians and megachurch pastors tell us what the Bible says if we believe in the priesthood of all behaviors. In Phillis Trible’s Texts of Terror, she said that she refused to let go of the Bible until it gave her a blessing. I’m glad that Rachel wouldn’t let go of the Bible, because what it gave her was a blessing to me.