Tuesday, 4 September 2012
Calling and role: What it really means to be a woman of valor (A review of Rachel Held Evans’ #BiblicalWomanhood book)
A woman of valor, who can find?
When you hear the words ‘Proverbs 31 woman,’ do you roll your eyes?
I used to. I still do, a little.
I think of all the ways I don’t measure up. I think of my faults and failures. Mostly, I think of striving, of trying harder to get somewhere I know I’ll never reach. And aren’t we women so good at expectations and ideals?
Is this the way it’s supposed to be?
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What are we doing to each other, as women? In my efforts to defend some of the most difficult choices I’ve made as a mother, I’ve devalued others’ decisions. In my insecurity about my identity as a woman, I’m not gracious toward women who see their role differently. In my uncertainty about what it means to be myself, I have judged how other women see themselves.
In this culture battle, we draw lines and take up our weapons. So often, those weapons look like truth. Sometimes, we even use scripture.
Women should be silent. Wives should submit to their husbands. Women shouldn’t have authority over men.
And then there’s the Proverbs 31 woman, who makes us all look like losers.
It’s like that neighbor or friend or celebrity that you love to hate, because she has it all together and is picture-perfect wherever she goes. She is so much and by comparison, you feel not enough. She is so liked/pure/amazing/popular, so it, and you feel so not. Her abundance just reminds you of your lack.
You know, by comparison. (poisonous words if I ever knew them.)
“I guess we’re all a little afraid that if God’s presence is here, it cannot be there.”
-Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, p. 37
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Rachel Held Evans helped me see the Proverbs 31 woman differently. In her recently released book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she playfully holds up a measuring stick to her own life, but the intent isn’t comparison or striving to be better, whatever that means. The point is to show that none of us can claim that we’re living “more biblically” than her sister, because there are a thousand ways to interpret what “living biblically” means.
Does it mean covering our heads? Not gossiping? Being silent? Letting our husbands rule over us? Prophesying? Considering ourselves “unclean” during our periods?
Throughout the book, Rachel tries on various traditions and roles, combing through scripture to find instructions that speak to how a woman should conduct her life. At times playful (when she calls her husband “Master”), others serious (when she details the role of child slavery in chocolate production), Rachel is always deeply respectful of the traditions she explores and the women from whom she learns, both ancient and present-day.
I enjoyed the entire book, but I wanted to shout “Amen!” during the last chapter (September: Grace). Here, she really gets down to answering the Big Questions, like what is the bible, and what are we supposed to do with it? In keeping with the honest, humble, bridge-building voice she’s crafted on her blog, Rachel here calls all of us — whichever side of the table we’re on — to a better way.
“I’d learned to love the Bible again — for what it is, not what I want it to be. The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual… when we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word (like manhood, womanhood, politics, economics, marriage, and even equality) [sidenote: that one stung], we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t fit our tastes.
… More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.”
-page 293, sidenote mine
Then, this, in some of the best paragraphs of the entire book:
“We are all selective in our reading of Scripture, and so the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Are we reading with the prejudice of love or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed?
If you are looking for verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to liberate and honor women, you will find them. … If you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it.
… This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does it say? but what am I looking for?”
-pages 293-295, emphasis mine
I would say, and I think Rachel would agree, that we need to look for Jesus. Always, in every case, wherever we are and whatever we’re reading, look for Jesus. If the scripture/reading/action/words make sense with who Jesus was and what he said, then we’re on the right track. And if we’re really reading about Jesus, if we’re really taking his words to heart, I have found that he is still full of surprises, even when I think I’m going the right way.
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Rachel also gives us this gem:
“Far too many church leaders have glossed over [stories of strong and inspiring women in scripture] and attempted to define womanhood by a list of rigid roles. But roles are not fixed. They are not static. Roles come and go; they shift and they change. They are relative to our culture and subject to changing circumstances. It’s not our roles that define us; it’s our character.
A calling, on the other hand, when rooted deep in the soil of one’s soul, transcends roles. And I believe that my calling, as a Christian, is the same as that of any other follower of Jesus. My calling is to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. Jesus himself said that the rest of Scripture can be rendered down to these two commands. If love was Jesus’ definition of “biblical,” then perhaps it should be mine.”
-p. 294, emphasis mine
Along with the revelation that Proverbs 31 was never meant to be a set of ideals to live up to, but rather a blessing — a way to honor the women in your life — the discussion of role vs. calling left me feeling lighter.
I don’t need to define my worth according to my ideal of a “good mother.” I don’t need to see my children, my home, my career, even my marriage, as the roles that define who I am. God has a calling on my life that includes, but also transcends, them all. For all of us, that means we are to love. For me, I think my calling also includes writing and art, and maybe hospitality. For each of my sisters, it will be something different.
But A Year of Biblical Womanhood confirmed my growing suspicions that we need all kinds of women in this world. And while it validated much of what I already thought, it also taught me new things and sometimes I felt gently admonished to respect ALL women — even those with whom I disagree.
Because that’s what love looks like.
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