A Year of Biblical Womanhood
Rachel Held Evans | Review by: Kathy Keller
Rachel Held Evans. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.”
Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.
Rachel Held Evans had at least two stated goals for writing A Year of Biblical Womanhood, according to the promotional material accompanying my advance review copy. Under “Why She Wrote the Book,” Evans says:
I’ve long been frustrated by the inconsistencies with which “biblical womanhood” is taught and applied in my evangelical Christian community. So . . . I set out to follow all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year to show that no woman, no matter how devout, is actually practicing biblical womanhood all the way. My hope is that the book will generate some laughs, as well as a fresh, honest dialogue about . . . biblical interpretation. (emphasis mine)
Evans wants to show that everyone who tries to follow biblical norms does so selectively—“cherry picking” some parts and passing over others. She also says she wants to open a fresh, honest dialogue about biblical interpretation, that is, how to do it rightly and well. Rachel, I tried twice to get in touch with you when you were in New York City on the talk shows but wasn’t able to connect. So here’s what I would have said if we could have gotten the chance to open that dialogue.
[Editor's Note: Michael Travers is Professor of English and Associate Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness at Southeastern. He is author of Encountering God in the Psalms (Kregel, 2003) and co-author (with Richard D. Patterson) of Face to Face With God: Human Images of God in the Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2008). As a disciple of Christ and good literature, and teacher on both at Southeastern, we asked him to write on the topic of reading literature for Christian formation.]
Why should Christians bother reading literature at all? Because reading literature humanizes us—in the best sense of the word. Literature helps us realize the image of God in us in ways that we cannot afford to miss. Consider….
Literature exercises and develops our emotions and imaginations. People write about what they experience and how they respond emotionally and imaginatively to their experiences. As we read good imaginative literature, we begin to see our own experiences and emotions in the larger human context. Which emotions are healthy, which not? Which emotions ought we to cultivate, which should we put to death? In literature, we can see the expressions and consequences of human emotions in real-life situations and can be encouraged or take warning accordingly. It is the same with our imaginations. Reading literature gives us what Kevin Vanhoozer calls “the power of synoptic vision”: through our imaginations responding to the imaginative writings of others, we see the important issues in life, not just the urgent and immediate circumstances around us. Imagination allows us to see the universal and timeless human issues and truths in the particular experiences of the characters in the book we are reading.
Literature speaks to the human condition in which we all find ourselves all the time. As humans, we all share the same human condition. No matter our gender, race, or nationality, we all struggle with sin, experience the emotions of love and hate, give expression to our strongest desires, and we all long for something that this world cannot satisfy—in the end, God. Literature connects us with others who have given effective expression to our common humanity and longings and, while we may not agree with a writer’s worldview, he or she illuminates our common condition in ways that can help us understand our situation better and relate to others outside of our immediate community. In Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective, Leland Ryken helpfully suggests that literature “clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks.” Likewise, with C. S. Lewis, a Christian can think of literature as one form of “pre-evangelism”: a means to help people ask the important questions—the eternal questions—and which gives us an opportunity to speak the gospel into their lives.
Literature expands us. Reading imaginative literature takes us outside of our own immediate situation. We get to meet other people from other places—even from other times—that we would otherwise never meet. When we read a novel, we don’t just follow a plot line; we become acquainted with more people—some friends, some not so much friends—who hone our humanity. We get to look in on other cultures—oriental as well as occidental, contemporary as well as ancient—and in its turn that experience helps us not to be blinded to the realities of our own culture and time. Again, C. S. Lewis is helpful here. What he says in An Experiment in Criticism is worth quoting at some length: “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own….” He continues, “in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here [i.e. in reading great literature], as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” Think a bit about that!
Literature can help us glorify God in our lives. Humans are “wordish creatures.” Only we, of all God’s creatures, use sounds and graphics symbolically to communicate what is not immediately present to our five senses. Only we imagine and create what is not essential to our immediate needs. Only we can appreciate beauty, truth and goodness in their own rights. God made us wordish creatures, and he communicated the gospel to us in words. Even Jesus Christ is given the epithet, “Word made flesh,” and only He communicates the Father to us sinful people. Because literature is a wordish medium, it is in some senses the form of artistic expression that allows us to get closest to our Creator. After all, we are all part of that great Story, and our stories fit into the larger Story. And you can’t tell a story without words.
Why read literature? How can you not? It’s part of our heritage as humans. But we must cultivate it if we are not to lose it again and revert to an earlier age or place where the Word and the word were both darkened. Make your words flesh that the Word made flesh might be glorified.
 Leland Ryken, Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 34.
 C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 137.
 Ibid., 141.
 Bradley Green, The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life (Crossway, 2010), 104.
by Desiring God Staff | August 30, 2007
In his Touchstone article about evangelicals and literature, Donald Williams looks at the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and how her Catholic faith made her art possible. The question he wants to answer by considering O’Connor is why there are no evangelical writers who are recognized for their similarly high literary quality. Here is one of the reasons that he notes:
[T]he popular Evangelical subculture seems … addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through the “Christian bookstore” will show. Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a Scripture verse tacked under them.
Evangelistic fiction and paintings with Bible verses are obviously pragmatic. But the pragmatism that hinders evangelical art can be more subtle, too. One of the less obvious ways that our artistic utilitarianism shows itself is the impulse to reduce art to propositions about art. This is the only way that many people know how to interact with art—or at least the only way they trust. If we can say what a story means, for instance, and we’ve summed up this meaning in a statement about truth that we agree with, then we think it’s a good story—good art. And if a story resists summary or does not distill into a statement we believe, then we have no use for it—it’s bad art.
Flannery O’Connor contradicts this take on art in her book of essays Mystery and Manners. She writes:
Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself, the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction. (73)
A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in a story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. (96)
O’Connor is concerned that many people treat art as valuable only for its propositional “meaning.” If we read fiction or poetry and we look for “the point” instead of immersing ourselves in the experience, we ruin our faculty for truly enjoying it. We will see or read or listen to great art and only think of it as a cipher to be broken. The pleasure of the art will be replaced by the pleasure of “figuring it out.” Sure, there is sometimes deciphering to be done, but that is not the point of a story or a poem.
Here is O’Connor’s exhortation:
I realize that a certain amount of this what-is-the-significance has to go on, but I think something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students, the story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment….
Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it’s equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already. (108)
Fiction and poetry provide authors a unique way to glorify Christ that more overtly intellectual genres, like theology, simply can’t. These genres that aim directly for the heart and soul—rather than aiming at the heart through the mind—do not argue for belief, they show what it looks like and make you feel it. Theology, devotionals, and other books in the “Christian Living” section of the bookstore talk about belief explicitly. Their goal is to explain truth as clearly as possible. Fiction and poetry, on the other hand, tell the truth, but tell it slant. They offer an author a way to give his beliefs flesh and blood by enacting them in the confusion of the real world. In fiction, belief is not what you look at, but what you look through.
The question remains whether Flannery O’Connor succeeded in living up to the standard she set for Christian writers, but the standard itself is a worthy goal:
Now none of this is to say that when you write a story, you are supposed to forget or give up on any moral position that you hold. Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing. (91)
In 1892, deafblind author Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism after a short story of hers, named “The Frost King,” was identified as being extremely similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” An investigation followed, as did a tribunal in which she was eventually acquitted. Amazingly, Keller was just 12 years of age at the time.
St. Patrick’s Day, ’03
I must steal half a moment from my work to say how glad I am to have your book, and how highly I value it, both for its own sake and as a remembrance of an affectionate friendship which has subsisted between us for nine years without a break, and without a single act of violence that I can call to mind. I suppose there is nothing like it in heaven; and not likely to be, until we get there and show off. I often think of it with longing, and how they’ll say, “There they come—sit down in front!” I am practicing with a tin halo. You do the same. I was at Henry Roger’s last night, and of course we talked of you. He is not at all well;—you will not like to hear that; but like you and me, he is just as lovely as ever.
I am charmed with your book—enchanted. You are a wonderful creature, the most wonderful in the world—you and your other half together—Miss Sullivan, I mean, for it took the pair of you to make a complete and perfect whole. How she stands out in her letters! her brilliancy, penetration, originality, wisdom, character, and the fine literary competencies of her pen—they are all there.
Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men—but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite—that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.
Then why don’t we unwittingly reproduce the phrasing of a story, as well as the story itself? It can hardly happen—to the extent of fifty words except in the case of a child; its memory-tablet is not lumbered with impressions, and the actual language can have graving-room there, and preserve the language a year or two, but a grown person’s memory-tablet is a palimpsest, with hardly a bare space upon which to engrave a phrase. It must be a very rare thing that a whole page gets so sharply printed on a man’s mind, by a single reading, that it will stay long enough to turn up some time or other to be mistaken by him for his own. No doubt we are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and now imagined to be our own, but that is about the most we can do. In 1866 I read Dr. Holmes’s poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my “Innocents Abroad” with. Then years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass—no, not he; he was not a collection of decayed human turnips, like your “Plagiarism Court;” and so when I said, “I know now where I stole it, but whom did you steal it from,” he said, “I don’t remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anyone who had.”
To think of those solemn donkeys breaking a little child’s heart with their ignorant rubbish about plagiarism! I couldn’t sleep for blaspheming about it last night. Why, their whole lives, their whole histories, all their learning, all their thoughts, all their opinions were one solid rock of plagiarism, and they didn’t know it and never suspected it. A gang of dull and hoary pirates piously setting themselves the task of disciplining and purifying a kitten that they think they’ve caught filching a chop! Oh, dam—
But you finish it, dear, I am running short of vocabulary today.
Every lovingly your friend