Conversations about gender issues are all over the place in our culture right now. From Beyoncé bringing the house (and lights) down at the Super Bowl with an all female show, to pastors screaming from the pulpit on the loss of true masculinity (whatever that is), to the challenging of roles for men and women both in the church and in the home, issues of gender are everywhere. Throw in issues like gay marriage and female pastors and there is no denying that these issues will be a defining factor in the modern era.
Rachel Held Evans often takes on these issues on her blog which I have followed for a couple of years now. So when she announced her “Year of Biblical Womanhood” project, I was very excited to see how it would play out. Needless to say, the book delivers on many levels that are relatable to both men and women. As expected, she dives into this project with gusto and it yields no shortage of hilarious stories: stories about crying on the kitchen floor when a pie turned into disaster on Thanksgiving, or about sleeping in a tent in the front yard at the start of her period while her husband slept with a hatchet and a walkie-talkie in case she was attacked by a bear or wandering hobo.
She also describes her encounters with an Orthodox Jewish wife from Israel, a monetary in Alabama, an Amish family in Pennsylvania, a Quaker church service, as well as celebrating a number of Jewish holidays and customs designed to bring the practitioner closer with our Creator and connect us with those who have come before.
One of the most impressive things about Evans’ approach to this project is how honestly she approaches the scriptures. Throughout the book she weaves stories from the Bible that are at the same time touching and horrifying. She does not shy away from texts in which women are raped and murdered by their male companions and even creates a ceremony to honor women who have fallen victim to the abuses of male power both in scripture and in our modern culture. I appreciate that she doesn’t just explain these texts away. In fact, she never truly gets comfortable with them. Instead, Evans lets these texts horrify and disturb both her and her reader, all the while searching for God in such dark places. And as it turns out, she finds him in a variety of places she never expected.
From a privileged white man, raised in Texas evangelical culture (although I have been rebelling against if for some time now), what jumped out to me the most was Evan’s handling of the now infamous Proverbs 31 poem. I had always heard that passage interpreted as a measuring stick by which to make sure your love interest measured up to the standards of a “Biblical Woman.” Evans crushes that interpretation like a penny on a train track. Through her interview with Ahava, her Jewish friend from Israel, Evans learns that in ancient (and even modern) Judaism, Proverbs 31 is a celebration of women and is often recited by husbands in the company of other friends and family members. Evans concludes, “Eshet chayil is at its core a blessing – one that was never meant to be earned, but to be given.” (88)
May I be honest for a moment? I suck at this. I have a temper. I can be moody and depressed. I snap at those close to me, especially my wife, because I feel they are safe. I lash out in my own insecurity and tear down rather than build up. I say I want to fight for equality for women but I can still be controlling and manipulative at my worst. And my wife stays by my side. She encourages when I need encouragement, she corrects when I need correction, and she loves unconditionally, even when it hurts to the soul to love me. To this I say, “ESHET CHAYIL!” It still feels a bit weird coming off my lips but that is just from a lack of practice.
This book stirs something deep in my soul. Something I have not felt in years. I learned stories about women of valor from the scriptures and our world: women who are fighting the horrors of starvation and sex trafficking, misogyny and domestic violence. Women who I can only hope to be half as brave as in my own life. This book taught me how to wrestle with the scriptures and to still love them. This book taught me to find God in everything I do whether it is cleaning the kitchen or listening to the stories of tired mothers in Bolivia. This book taught me to listen to how others experience God even if it is fundamentally different than how I experience our creator. Most of all though, this book taught me to celebrate my wife in ways I never have before, all the while to shout “Eshet Chayil” and to celebrate her unconditionally from now until the world is once again made whole.
Allan Thompson and his wife, Patty live in Fort Worth, Texas where they own and operate their own multimedia production company, One:Eight Productions. The two use new media to tell stories of God’s transforming grace across the globe and are interested in a variety of issues from gender equality to human trafficking and have told stories in Vietnam, Africa and all around Texas.