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In Defense of Rachel Held Evans and A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Posted in Hermeneutics by Joseph Kelly on October 30, 2012

The internet is currently awash with praise and criticism of Rachel Held Evans’s recently published book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” One critical review has received considerable praise: Kathy Keller, wife of influential pastor Tim Keller, reviewed Evans’s book at The Gospel Coalition (TGC) website. While I have not read Evans’s book, I feel familiar enough with Evans’s project to address some shortcomings in this critical review.

Let me begin by saying that I appreciate the fact that TGC featured this review by Kathy Keller. In today’s culture of “legitimate rapes” and other such masculine nonsense faux pas, it is appropriate that a book so deeply interested in the place of women in the Bible and society be evaluated by a woman, especially considering the negative assessment of the book. I do not believe that men should avoid engaging the book critically, but I think TGC was wise in having a woman rather than a man provide an early analysis. Additionally, I believe Keller’s review is both respectful and genuine. [Update: Maybe I have been too generous here, but I really don’t want my criticisms to be about tone. I’m concerned with the content of the review.] My differences of opinion are strictly academic.

Keller criticizes Evans’s book on the basis that Evans did not respect “the most basic rules of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation that have been agreed upon for centuries.” Keller addresses what she believes to be four hermeneutical missteps by Evans, 1) the failure to appreciate the “tectonic shift that occurred when Jesus came” and observing otherwise “obsolete” sacrificial and ceremonial laws; 2) the failure to discern between narrative portrayals of human sin and prescriptive passages; 3) the failure to “look for the author’s intended meaning within a text’s historical context”; 4) the error of imposing one’s own agenda on Scripture to advance one’s own goals. I will address each of these in turn.

The Obsolete Parts

First, when Keller suggests that there are some parts of the Old Testament that Evans did not need to live by during her year of “biblical womanhood,” she adopts a rather naïve approach to the relationship between Old and New Testaments. Keller does not believe such an omission of Old Testament prescriptions constitutes the picking and choosing of which Evans is critical; rather, such an omission is based on “the most basic rule [of biblical interpretation]—agreed upon by all branches of Christianity—that Jesus’ coming made the Old Testament sacrificial system and ceremonial laws obsolete.”

The naïvete of this argument is in the assumption that one can speak of Israel’s “sacrificial system” and of “ceremonial laws” and clearly circumscribe in the Bible what is “obsolete” and what would be, by contrast, still in effect. The triad of ceremonial, civil, and moral laws, long abandoned within mainstream biblical scholarship, is increasingly suspect within Evangelical circles (see question 14, “Does Paul Distinguish Between the Moral, Ceremonial, and Civil Law?” in Tom Schreiner’s 40 Questions on Gospel and Law). Moreover, the assumption that laws are only normative as prescriptions directed to individuals is an approach that is challenged in Christopher J. H. Wright’s Old Testament Ethics and the People of God, the foremost example of an evangelical approach to Old Testament Ethics.

My point here is not to argue that Evans should have observed purity regulations from Leviticus (though I do believe there is significant value to this aspect of her project), nor am I suggesting that Schreiner and/or Wright would agree that Evans should have done so; rather, I am arguing that the recognition of these passages as “obsolete” is not an open a shut case based on a rule “agreed upon by all branches of Christianity.” To say, as Keller does, that some things are “fulfilled and therefore obsolete” is to espouse a not-uncontroversial interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20. One need only turn to “The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views” later published as “Five Views on Law and Gospel” in Zondervan’s successful Counterpoints series to see that Evans is a participant in an ongoing Evangelical dialogue.

I cannot speak for Evans, but I assume her refusal to pick and choose what she would and would not live out during her year of “biblical womanhood” was not based on a belief that there are no diachronic dimensions to the Bible’s prescriptions, that later passages cannot have an impact on how earlier passages are understood and applied. While it is clear enough based on a reading of the New Testament that there are new dimensions to the Christian life that depart from Judaism, these are not matters that are arrived at simply by observing “the most basic rules of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation that have been agreed upon for centuries.”

Narrative vs. Prescription

Second, I find Keller’s insistence that Evans is guilty of choosing to follow narrative passages rather than prescriptive ones problematic. From what I have seen, Evans did not avoid observing biblical prescriptions, so I am somewhat confused by the criticism. Moreover, Keller’s preference for prescription over narration implies that narrative cannot function prescriptively or normatively. Here, Keller might consult the work of Gordon Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Biblical Story Ethically. Wenham does an excellent job of exposing a vulnerable area in Old Testament ethics, the role of narrative in developing the ethical norms of the Old Testament, and his work has since met with much enthusiasm from both mainstream and evangelical scholars.

I do not mean, by this criticism, to suggest that biblical narrative does not offer a realistic portrait of the “relentlessly sinful behavior” of humans and particularly the Israelites; Keller is right about this. But Wenham shows that this is not the only function of biblical narrative, that there are also normative dimensions to which careful readers might attend. Perhaps the way in which Evans derived notions of “biblical womanhood” from biblical narrative could be critiqued, but the fact that she did this represents a proper understanding of the normative role of biblical narrative.

Authorial Intent

Third, Keller is critical of Evans for failing to observe “the author’s intended meaning within a text’s historical context.” Initially, she cites examples of ways in which Evans applied biblical pictures of womanhood that do not have an immediate analog in our contemporary society. As Evans says herself, “praising my husband at the city gate, growing out my hair, sitting on my roof, covering my head, etc., [these are] activities that are clearly meant to be hyperbolic and provocative.” In other words, the author’s intended meaning—and by author I mean Evans—concerns the challenge of finding a contemporary analog to an otherwise foreign historical situation. Where such analogs are difficult to come by, literal interpretation demonstrates the foreignness of “biblical womanhood.”

But Keller puts more emphasis on Evans’s use of Titus 1:12 when addressing this point, and I think it particularly important to point out a problem with the criticism here, which I quote in full.

A much more serious example of ignoring context is found where you write, “We tend to ignore the embarrassing bits [of the Bible], like when Paul tells Titus, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’” (259). However, what Titus 1:12 actually says is, “Even one of their own prophets has said,‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’” (emphasis mine). Paul is citing what the Cretans say about themselves, quoting Epimenides of Knossos. In context the statement makes sense. (See Gordon Fee’s commentary on this passage.) Taking it out of context, however, makes it look like a racist statement. Why would you do that?

Note that Keller admits the statement, out of context, looks “racist.” But the context that Keller suggests is missing does not mitigate the racist tones within the quotation. The Cretans are still a people group whom the speaker (both Epimenides and Paul) indiscriminately attributes morally inferior characteristics. Paul goes so far in verse 13 to assert that the statement is true. While it is true that Evans neglected to mention that Paul did not originally pen those words, this is irrelevant to her point. He endorsed a statement that is by contemporary standards a racist remark. We can debate about the merits of projecting modern notions of fair speech on the past and the appropriateness of Paul’s language in his own setting (no doubt some might want to argue “legitimate racism”), but Evans is not guilty here of ignoring context that has any impact on her larger point.

Subjectivity

Fourth and finally, Keller argues that the basis upon which Evans does her picking and choosing what she will follow is too subjective. She says,

So “love” is the reason you will reject some parts of the Bible and embrace others? But where do you get your definition of love if not from the Bible itself? And if you say, “Parts of the Bible express love, and other parts express power interests,” you’ve clearly gotten your standard and definition of love from outside the Bible—specifically, from contemporary sensibilities—and these are your ultimate authority and norm.

While I can respect where this concern is coming from, I don’t believe this criticism is as “biblically” sound as Keller might think it is. Would Keller apply this same criticism to Abraham when he bargains with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah? “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice” (Gen 18:25 ESV slightly altered). One can ask the question of Abraham, “Where does he get his definition of justice if not from God?” The fact is, Abraham knows something of justice that does not emerge from Abraham’s understanding of God’s actions in this story. This does not mean that Abraham’s knowledge of justice is divorced from divine realities, as the rest of the story suggests. My point is to highlight Abraham’s ability to challenge God’s actions in this particular part of the story against the rubric of “justice,” independently derived.

What Evans is doing with love in not dissimilar to what Abraham does with justice. In some respects, love is a category that Evans arrives at independently of the Bible, but it is also a category that is molded and shaped by the Bible. This is what students learn in seminary as the hermeneutical spiral, and it is not a controversial concept. We come to the Bible with a way of pre-understanding its contents, and this naturally colors the way we read it. And yet, careful readers and students of the Bible will find that their presuppositions are shaped by their engagement with the Bible even as their presuppositions shape the Bible in an ever repeating process. Evans is simply being forthright about her presuppositions, and they are good ones to have for someone who identifies herself as a follower of Christ.  Jesus says that the law and prophets (read Old Testament) depend upon two commands, the love of God and neighbor. I find this the most difficult criticism to understand. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate hermeneutical lens through which to read and understand the Old Testament as a Christian.

Conclusion

With all due respect to Keller, I suspect that Evans has written something much less problematic from a hermeneutical perspective. This isn’t to say there are not areas where Keller might critically engage Evans’s interpretation and application of the Bible, but I do not think that Keller has done well to suggest Evans’s book is in error of basic and fundamental principles of biblical interpretation. It is naive, and I think this is a cop-out, an easy way of dismissing an all too uncomfortable discussion among Evangelicals that needs to be had.

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9 Responses

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  1. Caleb Gates said, on November 1, 2012 at 10:11 am

    I appreciate your thoughts here, Joseph. But I think your case would be more compelling if you had waited to post about this until you read Rachel Held Evans book yourself.

    • Joseph Kelly said, on November 1, 2012 at 10:46 am

      Reading the book and having an opinion comes with its own drawbacks. I’m more pointing out the errors in Keller’s criticism than the merits of Evans’s project and book. If I were to actually have an opinion about how well Evans’s did or did not interpret the Bible, it would be the basis some would use to discredit my criticism of Keller. At the end of the day, there were problematic issues in Keller’s review that did not require me to read Evans’s book and form an opinion about it to comment.

  2. Val said, on November 1, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Thanks joseph. I am just beginning to realize I had the view of early Christians and temple sacrifices all wrong, now I am in a sort of wilderness of “what on earth do I know anymore”. This was helpful. Like the point about Abraham (and Moses bargains with God too) bargaining/arguing with God over mass destruction.

  3. Morgan Guyton said, on November 1, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    This is my response to Kathy’s review after I read Rachel’s book. It’s not as academic. It’s more on the level of why do you have a problem with a girl who made challah bread because she thought it would be cool even if she doesn’t have to make it every year because Jesus died for her sins. http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/biblicalwomanhood-what-kathy-keller-missed/

    You might also appreciate a piece I wrote for Reformation Day on the way that Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana promotes the same hermeneutical standard that Rachel describes as a “prejudice of love” with which she reads the Bible: http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/reformation-day-restoring-augustines-hermeneutic/

  4. […] One instance, which appears to creep its head up every once in a while, is this notion that Jesus’ death brought an end to the ceremonial portions of the Jewish Law. In fact this is one point of criticism leveled against Evans by Kathy Keller (She has already drawn the attention of some — see, Joseph Ryan Kelly’s blog): […]

  5. Dorothy said, on November 3, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    I tend to agree with many of Keller’s criticisms – A personal narrative cannot be criticized when approached as such (making it largely “for entertainment purposes only”) but one has to reconsider the theological ( and idealogical) validity of viewing this particular narrative as instructional and/or prescriptive. There are some serious flaws here – That being said I have not read the book in its entirety but much like any contemporary biblical literature that does not utilize the bible both contextually and in it’s entirety it risks becoming labeled as personal idealogy. In short – perhaps all of the noise is for naught – maybe Rachel Evans just tried something cool that change her mindset about some things and wanted to share?

    • Joseph Kelly said, on November 5, 2012 at 11:40 am

      I’m not entirely sure what you are saying Dorothy, particularly the sentence “A personal narrative cannot be criticized . . .” Does this relate at all to my criticisms of Kellers faulty understanding of hermeneutics, or is this about RHE’s book?

      • Dorothy said, on November 5, 2012 at 4:24 pm

        My apologies Joseph – I was sent this link by a third party and asked my thoughts on what appears to be controversy over RHE’s book. I should have responded directly to Pastor Mixon – I was under the impression this was the open forum. It was actually not intended to be a commentary on either, simply one woman’s humble opinion.

  6. The Weekly Controversy « Insomniac memos said, on November 6, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    […] Joseph Kelly defends Held. […]


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