Thursday, November 08, 2012

My interview with Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood


You have probably already heard something, positive or negative, about A Year of Biblical Womanhood the new book from Rachel Held Evans. I wrote an article for Out of Ur (the blog of Leadership Journal) about that, and during the course of gathering materials for my article, Rachel graciously agreed to speak with me. I thought you might enjoy reading the whole interview, since I only had room for a short quote in my article. 

MM: I had seen a few people write reviews of your book and I was in the middle of reading it and I thought, "These people did not read your book. They clearly did not read it." One of them was a secular one saying you were mocking the Bible and "doesn't she know A.J. Jacobs already did this?" And you specifically mention that in the book.

RHE: Yeah, and I've been talking about that. From day one I've been talking about how that was inspired from A.J. Jacobs.

MM: And then a conservative Christian blogger with a pretty big following tweeted something about how, "Even secular reviewers think Rachel is mocking the Bible" and all these people started retweeting it and I thought, "Come on, people, what is going on here?" So I sent a note to Out of Ur and asked them if they would like an article not completely about the book, but about how we make these decisions of who we're protecting and what's okay to talk about and which books should we read when it comes to the people who are following us.

RHE: Yeah, that's a great idea for an article.

MM: It doesn't really matter, right? Take Mark Driscoll'smarriage book, there's plenty of us who said "That's not going to be good" but we hadn't read it.

RHE: But I would like to say I did read it before I wrote my review. When you've experienced it you're more careful when it comes to other people's books to read it before you criticize. When I went through that with "Evolving in Monkeytown" I said, "Okay, Rachel, don't comment on books unless you've read them or at least given them a good, thorough skimming."

MM:I think that's an interesting thing, one, that we think we need to protect our people from something we may disagree with and two that people who haven't read it feel it's necessary to comment.

RHE: And I think with this book you really see how your initial prejudice, good or bad, is going to effect how you read the book or whether or not you decide to read the book. It's really funny too, because I'll read reviews and one will say, "This is a scripture-honoring book that makes me want to follow Jesus better" and then another review will say, "This book mocks the Bible" and you have to wonder how can two people reading the same thing come up with two such different interpretations of it? That's really interesting to me.


MM: Sounds like when two people read the Bible and come up with different interpretations.

RHE: A little bit. I think there's some prejudices going into the reading of the book, things that people are going to look for. It's not even limited to the sort of people who have read the book, it's just that what you want to read into it you often will. I have heard from some people who are conservative – much more conservative than I am when it comes to gender issues – who have said, "Oh, when I read the book it was like, 'Oh, this is not such a big deal, what people are saying it is.' I really enjoyed it, I laughed a lot and I appreciated your take on things even though I disagree." Maybe it's gotten blown a bit out of proportion in some circles.

MM: Yes.

RHE: I don't write with a very derisive tone. Especially with my books, I'm even more careful with my books than I am with my blog, to strike the right tone. I told my editor from day one, "I want you to work really close with me to make sure I hit the right tone. Anytime I veer into snarkiness or anything is unfair, let me know, and my editor is probably more conservative than I am and we worked really carefully to make sure we struck the right tone with the book. We did our due diligence on that, but you can't control what other people say or think.

MM: So, on that topic, can you share a little bit about when people say you are mocking the Bible in your book? What would be your response to that?

RHE: Absolutely not. I love the Bible. I have always loved the Bible and love the Bible even more now that this project is finished. I'm certainly not mocking the Bible. I'm playfully challenging the ways in which we tend to reduce the Bible to a list of rules and roles and I'm playfully challenging some interpretations of the Bible. Evangelicals have gotten a little bit sloppy with this word, "biblical" and when we want to support our position on something we just stick it in front of the other word. So, if I want people to vote like me I say, "Well, I support biblical politics" or "biblical policies." If I want to share my opinion on gender I say I support biblical manhood or biblical womanhood or biblical families. So this is a way to challenge that treatment of the Bible which I think is very reductive and very simplistic, and do it in a way that is funny and hopefully disarming.

MM: I saw at least one person, Rachel, who said that they didn't think you had been intentionally mocking the Bible, but they felt that the form you chose with the "let's live out every command we can find," that this form created an impression of mocking the Bible. What would you say to that?

RHE: You know, I can see where they're coming from and I'm sorry that they feel that way, but I think that it's better, actually, to have someone who really loves the Bible and submits to the authority of the Bible to do something like that rather than someone coming in from the outside. If we can't kind of laugh at our own interpretations, our own tendency to reduce the Bible to our own paradigms, if we can't laugh about that then we're in trouble. Really, if I'm laughing at anything it's this tendency to try and mold the Bible into our own image. And I think this is a fun way to do that. I think when people read the book they see, oh, if she's turning it on anyone it's herself, or the culture.  Certainly not the Bible itself.


MM: Another thing I've noticed is a lot of people who are reading this book and turning it into a book that's about egalitarian versus complementarian ways of looking at relationships between men and women. I didn't read your book that way. Is that what you intended? Or what do you think about people who are moving the book and saying, "This is the conversation this book is in the middle of"?

RHE: It's less about gender roles and womanhood than it is about biblical interpretation. That's really what I wanted to talk about more than anything, even though I'm really passionate about gender equality in the church, that's a big thing for me and I'm really invested in that. But I knew I had to start from square one, so where are these discrepancies coming from? Why are women prevented from taking leadership in the church? Why are women discouraged from working outside the home? Where is this coming from? And it kept coming back to this idea of biblical womanhood, and so this is more about the Bible and how we read it, how we interpret it, how we apply it. That's what I wanted to talk about. I'm egalitarian myself, but the book is not so much a defense of egalitarianism or a deconstructing of complementarianism, it's more a questioning of how we use the word biblical and whether it's helpful in situations like these. How are we using the Bible, are we doing it justice or are we, in fact, molding it to fit our image?

MM: That's really good. I loved that about your book. I thought it came in and questioned our values as a culture and said "Are we reading that into the text?" I thought that was excellent.

RHE: And that's exactly what we keep seeing over and over again. A lot of these people are appealing to biblical womanhood but what they're talking about is more of a glorified pre-feminist 1950s American nuclear family. That sort of Industrial Revolution, Nuclear family. That's not really biblical culture, first of all, it doesn't really reflect the ancient Near Eastern cultural paradigm. It's also more of a proof text thing, let's find the verses from the Bible that support that model for a family and that model for relationships, and it's sort of put into the conversation without any context. I think that should trouble anyone who values the Bible and values women. This is my two cents in the conversation. It's not like I think it's a definitive end to that conversation. I'm really just trying to start a conversation about the way we talk about the Bible.

MM: I was telling someone about your book and they started resisting the idea that the Bible doesn't specifically push the nuclear family and I asked him, "When did we start using the term 'nuclear family'? Was that in the first century? When was that?" There's a reason we use that term.

RHE: Exactly. That's what I keep bumping up against and that's one of the reasons why I wanted to do this.  We don't really see that familial structure in the first century or in either the Old or New Testament. That doesn't mean it's not valuable or not worthy or you can't glorify God in that sort of marriage, it just means that maybe that's not the only way for women to be people of faith or a family of faith. You have to be careful.

MM: One more question for you. What would be the best examples you've had with this book of people judging it before they read it, pro or con? People who said it's a great book before they read it or they hated it before they read it.

RHE: Oh yeah. That's the thing, it happens both ways, so people haven't read it but they're defending it with their lives and I'm like, "Oh, you might want to read it first." I think a lot of people who haven't read it are thinking it's going to be this definitive statement for egalitarianism, when really it's not, it's mostly a collection of stories and sort of my path doing this. So I see that on the one hand, people thinking this is going to be the book to end all books on this topic, but I'm seeing it more as a conversation starter. On the other hand, I'm reading reviews of the book before it's edited. This is happening a year ago. My dad the other night told me he remembered being at his computer, looking over a review of my book, and then he looked over at me and I'm sitting at the dining room table with a pile of books working on the manuscript. He was reading a review of this book I hadn't even finished writing yet. It was mostly this idea that this book is going to make fun of the Bible. And I just really encourage people to give the book a chance and know my heart, and my heart is that I wrote this book because I love the Bible. It really is. That's why I wrote it and I hate seeing it reduced and I hate seeing it used against women and I hate seeing it treated so lightly, as if it says something really simplistic about womanhood when it doesn't. There are so many great stories of women from the Bible: Deborah, Ruth, Jael, Mary. I just think that all those stories need hearing before we say, "Oh, biblical womanhood is submitting to your husband and working from the home." It's just so much more complex than that and interesting and sometimes troubling and sometimes discouraging. We reduce the beauty and the texture of the Bible when we try to do a list of "here's what you can do, here's what you can't do." That's what I wanted to try to do. I think people who know me or who have followed my blog for a while know my heart on this, and folks who haven't had a chance to read it are just going on what they've heard, you know? My heart here is that I love the Bible and I want to do justice to it. That's why I spent a whole year immersing myself in this project and why I've tried to take care in how I present it to the media, but that can't always be helped the way people in the media write things.

MM: Yeah, you can't control that.

RHE: You can't control how other people spin it. That's okay. That's really okay.

MM: They're trying to make it as controversial or exciting as possible because that drives traffic or sales or whatever.

RHE: Exactly, exactly. Which is why the Vagina Gate thing took so on so much more life than I would have liked. But that's okay. Talking to the quote unquote secular media has actually been really fun. I've enjoyed talking to them. I've been a reporter, I know what it's like. I've even talked to people who have said, you know, this really has rekindled my interest in reading the Bible. You know, you wouldn't think Evangelicals would have a problem with that.

MM: No, not at all. I was actually really surprised when I got to the "Vagina Gate" section of the book. I was like, "Oh, that was it, huh?"

RHE: That was it. And now if you Google my name, vagina is the first thing that shows up.

MM: That's not common for Christian authors. But maybe you're ushering us into a new realm. Well, Rachel, thank you for your time. I really appreciate it.

RHE: Thank you!