So, I’ve been reading Rachel Held Evans’ book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It’s funny, interesting and thought-provoking. Wanting to understand what the Bible really says about women, Rachel set out to spend a year trying to live out all the Bible’s instructions to women as literally as possible. There are lots of comedy moments from this; she camped out in her front yard during her period, called her husband “master” and stood by the sign welcoming people to her town holding her own sign which said, “Dan is awesome” (because, you know, you’ve got to praise your husband at the city gates). But it also leads to a lot of deep thinking about the roles and expectations surrounding women in modern Christian culture.
One thing I’ve found very interesting, is that this book gives me a sort of nostalgic feeling for the religious environment in which I grew up. I guess I come from a pretty similar background to Rachel: a Southern, conservative, mainstream, evangelical church. (Though I think her church culture was probably more conservative than mine.) For twenty years of my life that was all I knew; the Christian community that I grew up in completely dictated my world view. Then I moved to England. You would have thought that leaving a charismatic, evangelical church in the United States to come to a charismatic, evangelical church in the UK wouldn’t involve too big a transition. But you would be wrong. I was very surprised to find that British Christians in many cases held very different views to American Christians. The doctrine and basic tenants of the faith were the same, but people’s stance on all sorts of side issues such as politics, drinking, standards of dress, standards of language, etc… were very, very different. These were issues that I had always believed were as black and white as doctrinal issues, however, living in a different culture opened my eyes to how very cultural many of our beliefs really are. We really are shaped by our culture to a huge extent.
One result of the cultural upheaval I experienced as an immigrant, is that I consider myself to be a pretty open-minded person when it comes to interpreting the Bible. I’m becoming ever more liberal as I grow older (is that the opposite of how it’s supposed to work?). There are certainly hard, fast truths that are indisputable. But outside of what’s summarised in, say, the Nicene Creed, there is a whole lot of grey. Fifteen years ago, I had some pretty strong opinions about those grey areas, and I may have been quite worried about the eternal destination of people whose opinions differed from my own. I thought the Bible was pretty clear cut and straightforward. But today, I think that each of us is on our own personal journey with God. There is room within our faith to ask questions, to struggle and to wrestle with the big issues that arise from a careful reading of the Bible, which I no longer believe is really very clear cut or straightforward. And as Christians we may not always come to the same conclusions about the many confusing, grey areas, but that’s perfectly ok.
I am enjoying A Year of Biblical Womanhood because Rachel Held Evans isn’t afraid to wrestle with these big issues too. She looks at and attempts to interpret the Bible in light of it’s historic and cultural context. And she doesn’t shy away from examining the dark, brutal and perplexing stories that we tend to gloss over in Sunday School.
The chapter that I’ve found most encouraging so far, takes a closer look at the “Wife of Noble Character” from Proverbs 31. I’m guessing most Christian women have read through this chapter at some point and come out feeling like they can never measure up to this mythical woman who seems to do it all. Mr Mallon and I often have a little giggle about the time that, feeling inspired to be more like the Proverbs 31 woman, I declared my intention to “rise before the dawn to provide him with food” as described in Proverbs 31:15. He never takes lunch to work, and has the unhealthy habit of eating nothing all day and then coming home and gorging. To stop this trend, I decided I would wake up early and pack him a lunch. I think I did this once, possibly twice although that’s probably wishful thinking. It’s safe to say that if Proverbs 31 were a tick list of things you must accomplish to be a good woman and wife, I would fail miserably. (Although, I do think that waking up several times a night to feed a hungry baby for a cumulative total of 4 years may now go some way towards ticking the “rise before the dawn to provide your family with food” box.)
However, Mrs. Evans comes to my rescue in this book. She discovers in her research that in the Jewish culture it is the men who memorise these verses in order to sing them to their wives at the Sabbath meal in front of the family to celebrate and honour her. Far from being a to do list for women, this poem is meant to be an unconditional celebration of all that wives and mothers and women in general do for their families. Eshet chayil – a woman of valor – is meant to be a blessing, not the curse that is often becomes when we use it to make ourselves feel that we can never measure up to an impossible standard. I think this is fabulous, and I’m planning to use this to celebrate with and encourage my friends whenever the opportunity presents itself. You wake up every hour in the night to feed your hungry baby – go you! Woman of valor! You cleaned away the poo that your toddler spread all over their cot and the bedroom walls – woman of valor! You made a scrummy cake – woman of valor! You just ran your first 10k – woman of valor!
I reckon we all need a bit more encouragement in our lives. Let’s remember to celebrate one another and our little, everyday victories.