There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Thursday, 4 July 2013

On Rachel Held Evans' "A Year of Biblical Womanhood"

"If a woman was pastor of our church, I wouldn't go," my grandma declares over Sabbath-evening supper. "I'd stay at home for church."

"Then you'd be leading the service," I tease. "You'd have to get a man to read aloud to obey Paul."

"You know what that passage really means don't you?" Aunty L asks and proceeds to give the traditional Adventist interpretation of how in those days men and women sat in separate sections of the synagogue and services were being disrupted by women shouting questions to their husbands. Nobody acknowledges the irony as we put that injunction of Paul's firmly in its cultural context, but go on to declare we know that Doug Bachelor will present the "Biblical view" to the SDA ordination committee. (The "Biblical view" being that since no female priests served in the tabernacle, no woman should be ordained to gospel ministry today. To my knowledge none of the men ordained at camp-meeting last year were descendents of Aaron, or of the tribe of Levi.)

When I was 16 I went to a conservative Adventist "family camp" that emphasized character building and family issues. The year before the speakers had taught what I later learned is an aspect of Christian Patriarchy - girls shouldn't hold jobs outside of the home. This year I covertly watched a family whose "patriarch" had decreed that the women of the family could not go to church during their periods. They were obviously fanatical. (Although three years before I might have agreed with them on the "Thou shalt only wear long skirts and dresses" addition to the Decalogue.*) I provide these anecdotes to show that in a conservative Adventist family, I grew up in a culture - like the larger Evangelical culture - very concerned with "Biblical womanhood", but filled with disparate interpretations and practices.

It is these baffling varieties of "Biblical womanhood" and the attitudes and assumptions that led to their formation that Held Evans' takes apart in her best seller. It's a hilariously funny book and her experiments in following various texts - from camping in a tent during her period to mothering a battery-operated baby - have laid her open to charges of mockery and attempting to destroy Christianity. However, like all good comedy, the book is gravely serious: the "burdens, grevious to be born" laid on women through unbending expectations, the theologies that foster abuse (i.e. Miachel and Debi Pearl's teachings), and the poverty experienced by women worldwide.

The book demonstrates that we all - fundamentalists and progressives, complementarians and egalitarians, alike - need to learn that God's dealings with humankind represent principles more often than rules. Any good Bible students knows the pronouncements and stories of the Old Testament condemning intermarriage between Hebrews and the heathen. But God isn't confined - He holds up the courage of foreigners Ruth and Rahab, and makes them part of the line of Christ. Or there's the fact that according to the Levitical code, the woman with the issue of blood was not allowed to touch Jesus, but He praised her counter-culture act of faith.

Held Evans also points out imperfect translations of Greek and Hebrew words that have influenced traditional understandings for centuries. For example, the Greek word kosmios translated as modest in 1Tim 2, is translated more perfectly as self-controlled when pertaining to the qualities of a bishop in the following chapter.

This leads me to why I'm a little afraid sometimes to speak my doubts on difficult scripture passages. I'm a Protestsant; I grew up on Luther's "Except I am persuaded by the testimony of scripture or by plain reason..." I don't want to take the Bible lightly, or to be seen as doing so. However, in that reformation statement is the twin of Sola Scriptura: The priesthood of all believers. From Luther pointing Zwingle to his HOC EST MEUM CORPUS on the tablecloth, to my suspicions of the centring prayer practises Held Evans - like many progressives - advocates, disagreement has not only been rife, but necessary. These disagreements, these "Where in the world did she get that idea?" moments as I read this book sent me flipping through my Bible. I'd consider that an indication of a book being worth reading.

Sometimes in the Bible's countless difficult texts we forget the unequivocal "The greatest of these is love." That's why Held Evans' chapter on her trip to Bolivia with World Vision was my favorite. In it she introduces us to Elena, living in a remote mountain village, sunk from poverty into indigence by her husband's disabling stroke. Yet, in conditions that would make most of us beg for aid, she has given aid. She shares with her adopted daughter, Arminda, her 'mite' - quite literally a dwelling with the pigs.

In conclusion, I will continue to question and agonize over scriptural interpretation, gender roles, and cultural responsibility. I trust Rachel Held Evans will too. (Although she was in contact with a practicing Jewish woman throughout her experiment, she may want to look into concerns about appropriation of Jewish language and customs before she continues celebrating festivals and blowing shofars in her home.) Yet despite differences and questions, I will continue to champion with her the healing truths that reach out to all - women, men, conservatives, liberals, Mary Magdalenes and Simons - as described in Held Evans' words:

What I love about the ministry of Jesus is that he identified the poor as blessed and the rich as needy... and then he went and ministered to them both. This, I think, is the difference between charity and justice. Justice means moving beyond the dichotomy between those who need and those who supply and confronting the frightening and beautiful reality that we desperately need one another.
 That's what I love about the Kingdom: For the poor there is food. For the rich, there is joy. For all of us, there is grace. 

* I still wear long skirts and dresses to church and camp-meeting. But now it's largely because they hide the hair on my legs, rather than because it makes me more holy.

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