Rachel Evans’s new book and the “literal sense” of scripture

Rachel Held Evans, sitting on the roof while failing to make her book's point.
Rachel Held Evans, sitting on the roof and failing to make her book’s point.

It’s hard not to like Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Stylistically, she’s the anti-Chan of Christian writers. Her prose is lively, funny, self-deprecating, at times deeply insightful—as I indicated earlier this week.

No doubt, you’re now waiting for my Big But, and here it is: I don’t trust her.

It’s not that I can’t get behind the book’s premise: that the concept of what she calls “biblical womanhood” is a myth. It’s impractical; it’s highly selective; it disregards context; and it does violence to what the Bible actually says: because the Bible, a diverse collection of books, doesn’t present one model of what a woman should be.

Nothing about this premise bothers me. I didn’t grow up in a fundamentalist home. I believe in egalitarian marriage. I believe women should be ordained—obviously, I’m a United Methodist. And I went to a liberal mainline Protestant seminary where anyone espousing the very conservative views of womanhood that informed Evans’s Christian upbringing would be laughed off of campus.

My problem is with the way she attempts to prove the premise: by supposedly taking the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—as literally as possible for one year. Each month, she tackles a new theme related to the concept: domesticity, modesty, purity, submission, etc. The first problem is her understanding of what counts as literal. For example, as penance for, at times, being the “contentious wife” of Proverbs 21:9 (“It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.”), she literally sits on the rooftop of her house—one minute for each instance of contentious behavior.

She said that some of her blog readers reminded her “about a million times that the Bible didn’t explicitly command contentious women to sit on the their roofs.”[1] That’s putting it too mildly: she well knows that no one in the history of the world, much less the history of the Church, has ever prescribed this practice. Not only does the Bible not “explicitly command” the practice: it doesn’t even hint at it. It doesn’t imply it, even after the most careful, nuanced reading. No reasonable person would ever think, upon reading Proverbs 21:9, that sitting on a roof is a “biblical concept.” It’s a figure of speech.

And what’s her point anyway? Does she imagine that living with a contentious spouse—wife or husband—isn’t an unpleasant experience? I agree that we should apply the proverb to contentious husbands as well—and, by all means, I’m sure that sexism and patriarchy factor into the proverb writer’s words. But it’s not as if Proverbs has nothing to say about a man’s behavior, either.

So Evans is overreaching a bit. No big deal. Except it is sort of a big deal in the book. Heck, there she is on the cover of the book, sitting on the roof!

If Evans were reading this, she would accuse me of missing the point: Whether or not the Bible says to do this, this is just the sort of thing that we ought to do if we’re going to “take the Bible literally.” And why don’t the Bible-thumpers do this, too—since they’re all about prohibiting women from preaching in church? Logically, what’s the difference?

The difference is that this isn’t even close to what it means to take the Bible literally. The “literal sense” of scripture—by all means the Church’s primary way of reading the Bible—doesn’t imply that we flatten every metaphor, every figure of speech, every instance of poetic license in order to make it literally or historically true. The literal sense of scripture means that we take scripture the way the Bible writer intended it to be taken. We take it at face value.

In the case of Proberbs 21, the writer was employing a figure of speech, and he meant for us to take it that way. Similarly, we understand that Jesus’ parables don’t describe actual historical events, or they do so only incidentally. Farmers will occasionally sow seeds on rocky ground and among the thorns, after all. A Samaritan might have helped an injured Jew on the side of a road at some point in history.

What bothers me most about the sitting-on-the-rooftop chapter is that it’s part of a larger pattern of misrepresenting, intentionally or not, the Bible and Christian practice. Another example: In an exercise on obeying her husband, she found 1 Peter 3:1-6, which includes the words from v. 6, “Sarah accepted Abraham’s authority when she called him master.” Because Evans “wanted to try and take this passage as literally as possible”[2] she decided to start calling her husband “master.”

As before, this isn’t even the literal meaning of the verse. It’s literally a directive for wives to submit to their husbands (which, based on everything else we know from the New Testament, is mutual). Why does this matter? Because she’s supposed to be making the point that we arbitrarily “pick and choose” what to take literally and what not to take literally. Except in this case, it isn’t arbitrary; she’s just confused.

She makes the same mistake when it comes to the “Proverbs 31 Woman” and Paul’s so-called “command” for women to grow their hair long.

In doing so, she trivializes legitimate disagreements that Christians have about interpreting scripture. The literal sense of scripture matters. In the literal sense, after all, Paul says that women should remain silent in church and cover their heads. I interpret those verses literally. In doing so, however, as a responsible Bible reader, I have to ask further questions: What situation in this particular church is prompting Paul to say these words? Does he intend for these words to be general rule for all Christians for all times and places, or is he directing these words to a certain group of women at a certain time? If we made his words here into a general rule, would it contradict what Paul says elsewhere?

But Evans knows this already! Later, in the chapter on submission, she does a nice job interpreting some of these controversial Pauline passages with exegetical care and nuance. True, Paul has often been misunderstood, she writes, but here’s what he’s really saying.

I have a hard time squaring what she writes in the submission chapter with her complaint, early in the book, about “theologians from the apostle Paul to Martin Luther” forcing women into subordinate roles, while “noting somewhat begrudgingly that women are nonetheless necessary for procreation.”[3]
I’ve read this passage from the Introduction a dozen times. She’s not saying that some Christians misuse Paul to do this—I would agree with that. She’s saying this is what Paul himself does.

I’ll leave it to Luther scholars to defend their guy, but Paul neither said nor implied any such thing! On the contrary: Paul was anything but a woman-hater, as I’ll be happy to tell you about this Sunday!

1. Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 17.

2. Ibid., 55.

3. Ibid., xxvi.

3 thoughts on “Rachel Evans’s new book and the “literal sense” of scripture”

    1. You bet! I’ve talked to a couple of people who say I fail to appreciate just how harmful and prevalent the strain of fundamentalism against which Evans is reacting is. Maybe so. I’ll try to sympathize. But my criticism remains.

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