October 31, 2012
Reviewing the Reviews of "The Year of Biblical Womanhood"
Before leaders recommend or condemn Rachel Held Evans's book, they should at least read it.
As leaders, we're often asked our judgment on books, especially as a book grows in readership or controversy. Unfortunately, sometimes we share opinions before forming thoughts on the topic. You probably recall the enormous number of reviews of Rob Bell's "Love Wins" that flooded the Internet before his book released, based purely on a few minutes of preview video. Likewise, I heard a lot of opinions about Mark and Grace Driscoll's "Real Marriage" long before the book hit the shelves.
The latest controversial book in Christian circles is Rachel Held Evans's "The Year of Biblical Womanhood" in which Evans explores what the Bible says about womanhood by living out a variety of explicit commands in scripture, including things like wearing a head covering, calling her husband master, and following the Old Testament purity laws during her period.
I asked Evans when the first review for her book came in, and she said, "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." So, the first negative review for the book came before the book was written. I believe the motivation in reviews like this is protecting others from harmful ideas. I also believe it's being done poorly.
For instance, an influential Christian on Twitter tweeted a link and said, "Secular review of Rachel Held Evans: she took the Bible and made a mockery of the whole thing." This secular reviewer had not read the book. I found a one star review on Amazon that was merely a link to someone else's review. Another blogger wrote, "Do not acknowledge Rachel Held Evans. Do not pollute your mind with her teachings." But has she read the book? No.
Here are five practical reasons that we as leaders must make informed decisions about the books we recommend rather than making a call based on instinct or someone else's reviews:
One, we are in danger of undermining our own authority. If we tell people not to read a book because it's a theological danger, and they read it and discover we're incorrect, we're crying wolf. Why should our people trust us when we point out actual theological danger?
Two, reviews by others, even generally trustworthy sources, can make the wrong call. For instance, the review of "A Year of Biblical Womanhood" by Trillia Newbell on the "Desiring God" website skews the book by taking quotes out of context. Newbell says that Evans, "makes it clear that although she holds the Bible in high esteem as a historical document, she would warn us to be careful in attempting to use it as a guide for living out the Christian faith." She uses this quote from the book to back up her conclusion, "Despite what some may claim, the Bible’s not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today. (48)"
Newbell says that Evans is making a point here that the Bible should not be used as a guide for our lives. But let's look at the next sentence Evans writes, after the one quoted by Newbell. "The text predates our Western construct of the nuclear family and presents us with a familial culture closer to that of a third-world country (or a TLC reality show) than that of Ward and June Cleaver. In ancient Israel, 'biblical womanhood' looked different from woman to woman, depending on her status. (48)" Evans's point is that scripture does not purely hold up the "nuclear family" as the only biblical family structure. In fact, Newbell's review takes multiple quotes out of context to make her own point. That's not to say that "Desiring God" or Trillia Newbell shouldn't be trusted, or that they aren't usually good sources, but in this case they got it wrong. We leaders who might rely on that review to inform our opinion would be, sadly, misinformed.
Three, like my mom would say, if you don’t try things you don't know when you're missing out. If, for instance, I decided not to read an author because they believed in evolution, seemed squishy when it came to universalism and talked about masturbation in the text, I would miss out on reading C.S. Lewis. The places Lewis brings clarity and insight outweighs those places we disagree.
Four, we are in danger of spreading ignorance. As leaders we have influence. A mistake on our part in either suggesting or denouncing a book we have not read can be spread and magnified. This is a responsibility we should take seriously.
Lastly, the best way to protect our people from dangerous ideas or books is not to prevent them from interacting with them, but to teach them to interact with them well. We can do this by allowing someone in our church to read the book and report back to us if we don’t have time to read it ourselves, making sure they read carefully and well. We can start book clubs in which we all share our opinions, thoughts and questions as we go along. We should encourage our followers to read broadly (for instance, if you're talking about providence, read R.C. Sproul's "What is Reformed Theology?" as well as Jack Cottrell's "What the Bible Says About God the Ruler" and "God of the Possible" by Greg Boyd). Let's read with our Bibles and our minds open. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The man who fears no truth has nothing to fear from lies."
For my part, I found Evans's book to be a refreshing look at what it means to be a godly woman, and I thought she handled the word of God with respect and care. If anything, her message seemed to be that we should use more care in defining what is biblical, not less. It's a book I would gladly hand to any Christian woman I know. I found it delightful, respectful of scripture and the community of faith, and focused on moving people toward Christ.
But don’t take my word for it. You should read it yourself.