Rachel Held Evans grew up in Dayton, Tenn., the heart of the Bible Belt and site in 1925 of the Scopes Trial, the famous prosecution of John Scopes for teaching evolution in a public school. William Jennings Bryan argued for the prosecution, and a college was eventually named after him in Dayton. Evans’ first book, Evolving in Monkey Town (Zondervan, 2010), recounted her journey through doubt back to faith. The book was re-released by Zondervan in April as Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions. But when Evans recently sat down with a PW reporter, she had another topic on her mind.
Evans has long had an issue with the typical evangelical Christian interpretation of Proverbs 31. She believes that paean of biblical womanhood has reduced generations of Christian women to shame, despair, and fatigue. But instead of trying to fight the ideal of proper womanhood set forth in the Bible—at least as interpreted by some men--Evans decided to roll with it.
The result was A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” (Thomas Nelson, 2012). Another in a line of recent accounts by authors testing themselves against biblical and religious injunctions--such as Walking the Bible and Flunking Sainthood—the book recounted Evans’ year spent living out Old and New Testament passages about proper female behavior, from camping out during her menstrual period to preparing healthy meals, from letting her hair grow to learning to sew.
Her conclusions challenged ideals treasured by some evangelicals, and response to the book and to her popular blog continues to be passionate, both positive and negative, harsh criticism alongside applause and thanks. “I’ve learned to have thick skin and a tender heart,” Evans said. “If we close off that part of us that can be hurt, we close off empathy and sympathy. But I pick controversial topics, so I can’t expect everyone to like it.”
“I was trying to tackle gender roles and the interpretation of what the Bible says in respect to womanhood,” Evans said. She addressed the topic at the Festival of Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids, Mich., in April, where she was one of the keynote speakers. “By turning the joke on myself, I was able to get the conversation started in a different way.”
“Evangelicals love to throw around the word ‘biblical,’ putting it in front of words like ‘womanhood,’ “ Evans told PW. “But that tends to reduce interpretations to position papers. I wanted to challenge and explore what the Bible really says.” She included in A Year of Biblical Womanhood the entire text of Proverbs 31, the final chapter in a book of the Bible that is filled with maxims and advice. Proverbs 31’s author describes everything a “biblical” woman does and should do to make her home run smoothly, her husband honor her, and her children love her.
Evans learned from an orthodox Jewish friend that in the Jewish culture men memorize Proverbs 31 and sing it as a song of praise to all women. But, said Evans, “Christians turned it into a to-do list. I used to hate Proverbs 31, but now that I know more it’s one of my favorites.”
Certain Bible passages—the books of Ephesians and Timothy among them—are often used to prevent women from participating in church leadership; becoming pastors; and teaching men in church, seminary, and even undergraduate and el-hi school settings. Evans took those on in A Year of Biblical Womanhood. “The Apostle Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were using these parts of Scripture to prevent certain people from preaching the gospel,” she said.
“Sometimes I feel exhausted by it all—the pressure to create, to give, to produce. It’s exhausting especially when what I do causes criticism,” Evans said. She has taken the summer off from speaking and traveling to complete her third book, tentatively titled Searching for Sunday, which uses the seven sacraments of the Christianity as a framework for her discourse on what true faith looks like. It will be published by Thomas Nelson later this year.