‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 5

It is a cause of considerable rejoicing and relief to me finally to finish this ridiculously long review and conversation around the themes and issues raised by Rachel Held Evans’s book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Unfortunately, as she is currently in the process of a move, Rebecca was not able to join me on this part as she has for the previous ones. However, I gave her a clear idea of what I was going to say beforehand and she suggested certain additions. She might add her own thoughts at some later point.

Within this final (very, very) lengthy discussion, I take a step back from the particular claims of the book to focus more attention upon the way that we frame discourse on theological questions in general, the cultural framing of our conversations on the vocation of women. I comment at length upon feminist accounts of history, patriarchy, gendered vocations in Scripture, the nature of biblical society (answering points raised about such practices as the bride price, polygamy, and the domination of men), and the relationship between specific cultural forms of practice in Scripture and modern application of biblical principles. I comment on feminism’s roots, methods, and tendencies. I suggest some ways in which more comprehensive recasting of the debate could lead to a very different set of solutions to the genuine and pressing problem of women’s marginalization within society and the Church.

Much was left out of my account, even though I scrapped several pages’ worth of dense notes about the relationship between biblical gendered vocations and the natural capacities of the sexes and a number more on the subject of an alternative theory of patriarchy and rather awkwardly dodged many of the questions around these issues in my recorded discussion. I threw several hostages to fortune, and I can already think of glaring flaws (more will occur to me in the morning). I considered not posting any of this at all.

However, since the goal of these reviews and discussions has never been to provide a definitive treatment of the innumerable issues that are raised (I am definitely not sufficient for such a Herculean task and feel those insufficiencies keenly), but rather to steer the conversation in a more profitable, illuminating, and fruitful direction, one that will hopefully engage with concerns of all sides to some extent, without comfortably coming down on the side of any, it is not necessary to get everything right first time. While we have been highly critical of Rachel Held Evans’s approach, our fundamental purpose has also been to encourage the greater opening up of the question of Christian womanhood in contexts that are generally inclined to close questioning down on this subject.

Although we have tried to shut down certain cases completely, I hope that these reviews are not taken to ‘settle’ anything: ideally they should shake all of us up, as they identify ‘Christian womanhood’ as a question that is still largely awaiting its practical answer. Also, in sketching the sort of form that such a solution would have to take, they suggest that seismic social change, rather than individually prescribed commandments are what is required of us.

I would appreciate people’s interactions in the comments here, or elsewhere online. Rebecca and I would both like to see challenging, critical, constructive, and self-aware analysis and interaction with the issues that we have raised over the course of this series. Ideas need to prove their mettle and be sharpened through disputation and ideological sparring, so we both particularly welcome alternative viewpoints that are open to receptive but spirited disagreement here. Unfortunately, I probably won’t have time to respond to comments much or at all over the next week, but I will hopefully return to them at some later point.

Thank you all so much for the time and thought that you have given to listening to and engaging with these podcasts!

Listen here!

Listen to the other parts of the review here: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Audio, Bible, Controversies, Culture, My Reading, Reviews, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological, What I'm Reading. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to ‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 5

  1. Pingback: ‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 1 | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Pingback: ‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 2 | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. Pingback: ‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 3 | Alastair's Adversaria

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  5. Matthew Petersen says:

    Do you have sources for your thoughts on biblical gendered vocations and the natural capacities of the sexes–this relates to my own research in mathematics education relatively closely.


    • James Jordan’s detailed interpretation of Genesis in Trees and Thorns has been a very important influence on my thinking in the area of biblical vocations.

      My thoughts on natural capacities (probably not the clearest word to use, in retrospect) tend to focus primarily on sexually dimorphic bodies, how these relate to the process of procreation, and how this fact leads to asymmetric bodily symbolisms, in terms of which self-identity and societal sexual identities are forged. Although I have picked up one or two details, the majority of these thoughts are my own. These symbolisms are more or less fixed. However, secondary gender tendencies and capacities, often not unrelated to more primary differences, can vary widely within both of the sexes and there will often be considerable overlap between the two.

      The male body, for instance, has just one sexed organ, and only one primary sex act. It directs the body outwards and focuses male sexual identity on external performance. By contrast, women’s sexed bodies achieve their telos far more within and in direct and long term relationship with themselves (menstrual cycle, pregnancy, nursing, etc.). Women’s bodies orient them to a deep communion and connection of bodies that no man could experience in the same way.

      Female identity is fairly grounded in the body, its appearance, its cycles, and its potentials. This fact alone means that a woman’s understanding of her femininity is often very much about her relationship with a body, a relationship that is mediated by the wider society. As it is the body that is more central, female identity will always have a tendency to be a lot more fraught with the danger of objectification. Female identity will also be a lot more immediate and insistent.

      The male body is primarily functional and not the same bearer of meaning that the female body is. Men don’t have anything like the same fraught relationship with their bodies. Thus, male identity is sought and found primarily in culturally supported forms of performance. Masculinity is something that you must prove to a far greater degree than femininity (which is more about being seen and internally felt, if anything). While women may experience themselves being constrained and limited by the fact that they are women, men experience a pressure to become a man. The sources of male identity impel the man to move beyond himself.

      As the telos of the male is fulfilled in external interaction, men will be particularly driven to external interaction more generally. Their sexed identity is more closely bound up with ‘demonstrating’ their masculinity through effective action and having that demonstration recognized and approved by others. As the telos of the woman’s body is realized within itself and is symbolically tied to communion, the source of identity is much closer to home and tends to involve internal connections to those around her. This, incidentally, probably makes it considerably harder for a woman psychologically to distance herself from conflict than it is for the typical man, whose sexed identity is one uncharacterized by communion.

      These different identities will tend to thrive in different sorts of groups. Men will have a particular need for recognition and empowering of agency, the desire for respect. Such groups will tend to be more competitive, agonistic, assertive, externally oriented, and shallow. Women will have a particular need for affirmation and reassurance of communion, a desire for love. Such groups will tend to be more cooperative, egalitarian, inclusive, affirming, internally oriented, and intimate. Of course, these are just general tendencies: there is much overlap in preferences here, even though the fundamental symbolism of bodies remains fairly fixed.

      My suspicion is that, in the area of Maths education, boys would thrive in a far more lively and disputational sort of context, where there is more of an emphasis upon thinking and acting independently, and the challenge to win approval instead of easy affirmation. By contrast, girls would more likely thrive in a more encouraging and affirming environment, where the expectations upon them are clearer, and disputation and challenge is kept to a minimum in the classroom. I would be interested to know whether this tallies with your research.

      • Matthew Petersen says:

        You should find a way to publish some of these thoughts so I can cite them. “As a friend of mine said on his blog…” just wouldn’t cut it in a journal article. 😛

      • If I published all of the odd thoughts that I have on disciplines and sub-disciplines utterly unrelated to my own, I would need several more lifetimes. :/

        It is fun to throw ideas out there for discussion and see whether anyone will pick them up, though. 🙂

  6. Matthew Petersen says:

    My suspicion is that, in the area of Maths educationActually, the reason the issue comes up is regarding equality: In a mathematics class room we are creating cultures, (see for instance, http://bit.ly/13VnyYJ and http://bit.ly/13X6xfR), and that raises all sorts questions about how to treat people from different cultures/of different genders equitably. Thus what is it to treat women equitably in mathematics education is (at least for me) an important question. The question I’m interested in (at least indirectly) is: As we train mathematician/engineer/etc. what sort of mathematical identities should we be attempting to create, and how are those specific identities gendered?

    Regarding your question (which isn’t all that far removed from my questions): The research I know seems to suggest the opposite, though I suspect the difficulty is in your analysis of [i]mathematics[/i], not in your analysis of gender. The best paper I know of (though there are lots of other ones I don’t know) is this one: http://bit.ly/XQbWlF by Jo Boaler that argues that female students do well when they are given open-ended questions that allow them to deeply work-through and understand the mathematics in question, and do poorly when they are asked to do more formulaic work; whereas the boys, at least relative to the girls, do well when they are able to have relatively simple, formulaic maths lessons, because they can then compete over how fast they get done; whereas the more open-ended instruction (at least relative to the women) can be frustrating for the boys.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.


    • I think that much would depend upon how such ‘open-ended questions’ are expected to be approached. If the method is through collaborative projects, coursework, or exploratory processes, for instance, the girls’ preference for them would be entirely expected. If open questions were to be approached in a disputational fashion, I would be very surprised if the girls would prefer it. The competitive and individual element of the boys’ preference – where there is a clear standard of external approval that they seek to compete to match, and they have the opportunity to stand out from the crowd – makes lots of sense. However, adding a disputational element would really, I suspect, help the boys to get a stronger conceptual grasp on the mathematical principles, as it would tie the independent and competitive drive to that goal.

    • The other question for me in some of these areas is where we arrive at a point where we must say that the ‘culture’ must be determined by its effectiveness in achieving the objects of the discipline. While one of the initial primary ends of the ‘culture’, especially in earlier levels of education is to include all parties and raise their level of knowledge, I believe that the ends of such ‘cultures’ gradually shift away from that end as one matures in one’s education, to the point when the end of the ‘culture’ is almost entirely determined by the ends internal to the discipline itself.

      Without a clear concept of what those ends internal to the discipline might look like, or whether they take a particular form, I don’t think that we are in a good position to determine the sort of direction that the pedagogical ends of the culture should be moving people. Are mere repetitive problems training people in the best way to lean into the study of maths in the long term? I really doubt that they are. They serve a temporary end but don’t yet relate so closely with the internal ends of the discipline and its effective advance.

      These issues also come into especial focus in contexts where thought has typically been advanced primarily through robust and challenging disputation, but where such disputation is threatening or decidedly non-appealing to many, in a manner that particularly excludes certain types of persons or personalities. To what extent can we risk compromising the primary end of a discipline for the sake of inclusiveness? You could make similar comments about government, for instance, where the concerns surrounding the issue of inclusiveness may be even more pronounced.

  7. Matthew Petersen says:

    The html formatting didn’t come out well in that comment. The first sentence is a quote from your comment.

  8. @Alastair

    While this is indeed a wildly overlong podcast, it is in fact superb. I have learned a tremendous amount from going right through it. Things may never be the same again! Thanks.

    I realize I sometimes sound like a struck record on this topic, but… if you want to know precisely what a church and society look like with marriage and families at the centre; built around distinct roles of men and women, and consequently a very high valuation of the roles of wife and mother – then you can see the whole thing worked-out in detail in the Mormon church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), esepcially as it functions in Utah, Idaho and the Mountain West heartlands.

    Until I listened to this podcast I did not understand how this had been achieved, but I think I understand better now how the Mormon way of life is a consequence of (pretty much) exactly the kind of basic assumption of sex roles and functions that you advocate, and reasoning out from this assumption.

    (Plus, of course, this is instantiated in Mormon Theology where although salvation remains individual, the highest levels of ‘exaltation’ within that salvation are linked to marriage and famiies) – however, the way of life apparently preceded the detailed revelations and formal theological description which now justifies the way of life – Joseph Smith’s definitive King Follet Discourse came right at the end of his brief life.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Bruce! I am really pleased that you found the talk helpful.

      I would be interested to find out more about what the Mormon model is like and how it functions, especially from the perspective of women within it. The relationship between Church and marriage/family is one area where, from my limited apprehension of Mormon theology, I would disagree with them. Marriage and the family are temporary and won’t exist in the same form in the new heavens and new earth. Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 22:23-33 (Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40) stands against the Mormon idea of celestial marriage, I think.

      However, where Mormons are correct is in regarding marriage and family as related to the state of the new heavens and the new earth. Marriage is the realization of the telos of the sexes as created in God’s image in the current creation order. Marriage is that which fulfils the meaning of our sexuality. Our sexuality is a sign pointing to marriage. However, one day the meaning of marriage itself will be fulfilled. Marriage is a sign pointing to the fulfilment of one flesh communion in the new heavens and the new earth. The Church is a reality-filled sign and promise of this future order.

      When the new heavens and the new earth arrive, the meaning and telos of the present age will be ‘fulfilled’, but filled full to the degree that the categories of this age burst, no longer being sufficient to hold the glory of what God has in store for us. So the passing of marriage won’t be a negation of the present created order, but its being eclipsed by a reality far more glorious, that it could never more than point towards.

  9. AJ says:

    I’m eager to hear your review, but man – it’s soo long, I just can’t swing it. In short, did you like the book?

    • Haha! I can’t disagree. 🙂

      Tl;dr version: I didn’t like the book, but the issues that it highlights are incredibly important ones, and we need to have a serious conversation about them.

  10. e says:

    Some interesting thougths; a request for clarification: you write, “While women may experience themselves being constrained and limited by the fact that they are women, men experience a pressure to become a man. The sources of male identity impel the man to move beyond himself.”

    Does this change if we accept the standard of measuring womanhood in many cultures: a female (or girl) *becomes* a woman when she bears children?

    • Thanks for the comment. It probably calls for clarification. I could have worded my point better.

      We do talk about a female ‘becoming a woman’, but when we do it tends to be about something happening to her body, whether puberty or pregnancy. For a male, while his body may figure in the picture (as that which makes the actions possible), ‘becoming a man’ comes through action and the recognition and approval of those actions by mature male peers. For a female, while her actions may figure in the picture (for instance, in getting into a relationship and having sex), becoming a woman is primarily focused upon something that happens to or in her body.

      Men have a particularly fraught relationship with the way that their agency is practised and perceived as a result of the fact that it is the primary site of their gendered identity. Male insecurities are particularly located in this area and their masculinity is much more constantly in question as a result (I imagine that this must seem odd and perhaps rather silly from a female perspective, as femininity doesn’t continually have to be ‘proven’). Women’s femininity is far less clearly ‘in question’ in most cultures as it is more of a given, not being contingent upon their actions. However, female insecurities are more likely to be located in relation to their bodies and, as the body is the primary site of their gendered identity, they are at risk of objectification in a way that men aren’t.

  11. debhurn says:

    Only just saw all these reviews… flicked thru the comments, way way way too many and too long, but I get the gist. It all makes me feel sad and turned off. I wish there was a one-liner to cut thru all the opinion-making. Maybe just this: “Women are people too”. Just people.

    • Deb, I am sorry that the comments make you feel this way. I can only speak for myself here, but I can assure you that I can and do strongly agree with that statement. The concern of these reviews – which are really a very lengthy interaction with Rachel Held Evans’ recent Year of Biblical Womanhood – is to engage with an important conversation surrounding the subjects of womanhood as it functions within the biblical text and the vocations of Christian women within the Church and world today.

      Recognizing that both men and women are people, with immensely more in common in most respects than they have differences (gender needn’t be a direct factor in many activities or areas of life, because we are always much, much more than our genders), while true enough, doesn’t address a lot of key questions. In particular, it fails to tackle the significance of the male and female-ness of humanity, which at once names the most fundamental natural human difference and the most fundamental natural relationship. This difference and relationship is given particular importance within the scriptures, which is something that Christians need to be engaging with as a guide in our thinking. Having acknowledged that we are all people, what exactly are we to say about sex and gender?

      Understanding gender relationships has become even more complicated in the contemporary world, as the prevailing anthropologies and practices of modernity that focus on the unsexed individual in an unmediated relationship with the state and economic order leave us with impoverished conceptual categories for expressing male-female relationships between trite affirmations of and demands for ‘equality’. As the primary vocation of the human has come to be seen in terms of work, career advancement, and self-expression and the rights-assuring state gradually assumes the former duties of the household, pressing all who wish to realize themselves into the service of the ends of an ever-burgeoning capitalist economy, sex and gender become a conundrum as the realms where they attain their greatest meaning have been marginalized by the state, the modern economy, and a contraceptive culture, rendering the family and its life often little more than a sentimental reservation of shared consumption.

      There are clear and important differences between men and women, and one of the purposes of this whole series was to think through some of the ways we can move beyond the prevailing suppression of gender difference and sexual dimorphism and championing of the maximalization of individual autonomy to one in which all persons – male or female – learn the benefits of interdependence and men and women can thrive in differentiated concert with each other, rather than in opposition or detachment. In particular, such a move could make possible a rediscovery of the centrality of the primary realms of male-female relations, realms that have consistently been marginalized or suppressed as affirmation of equal personhood is presumed to entail ever more general interchangeability, enabling a challenge to our cultural idolatry of work and consumerism in the process.

      This isn’t about a final word, but about a conversation. Any position expressed should be prepared to face tough cross-questioning, no matter what its source. I am quite happy to defend my positions, but my purpose is not to put an end to debate, but to push back against some viewpoints that aren’t questioned enough, to suggest ways to reframe the debate, to propose some alternative perspectives, and to gesture towards some possible directions in which these conversations can best proceed. Hopefully everyone’s thinking will be sharpened in the process: we tend to learn and hone viewpoints best through such challenging conversations. Your participation in such a conversation would be very welcome (although, I am sure that you will understand if my other blogging commitments will restrict the amount that I can participate right now).

  12. debhurn says:

    Frankly, Alastair, I think there are other more worthy things to have ‘conversations’ about. I don’t know who you think your conversation partners will be… other men who think the same way?… and what good it will do to go down this path. This would not be just an exchange of ‘viewpoints’ to challenge or sharpen thinking… but a hurtful and harmful indulgence of one party’s sensibilities at the expense of the other’s. As someone who was painfully and shamefully ex-communicated at 47 yrs of age from my lifetime church for my views on women (as expressed on a website), I have a great deal of cynicism and suspicion about the insecurity that drives this fixation on rules by gender. After the inevitable years of activism following — the hot discussion forums, the earnest publications, the exhausting correspondence — I just want to move on and discuss theology with ‘people’… and I don’t care what bits they have got, as long as they view and treat women as ‘people’ too. If they frame their world by gender, “colour by numbers”, well I move on, sometimes with regret (in your case noting an excellent series on the Exodus, my passion), but determined to escape anyone who is prescriptive to women.

    • Once again, Deb, I am sorry that you feel this way. Much of the point of these podcasts was to engage in extensive charitable but critical conversation with a voice – the voice of Rachel Held Evans in her wildly popular book – that wasn’t from a man who thought the same way. In all except for this final podcast, for the reason mentioned in the post above, I was discussing the book in conversation with a woman, Rebecca Wagner (who is doing a PhD in history in Cambridge on a topic related to American evangelicalism, so well-qualified to speak to many of the issues here).

      As I see it, the problem here is that if we just invoke ‘sensibilities’, we will shut down important and necessary conversations about the meaning and application of Scripture, about the shape of modern society, and about the best ways to move towards a more equitable and healthy future. All persons need to be represented in these conversations – which were never just about women anyway – but no voice should be spared from testing criticism on the basis of their sensibilities. If you listened to the podcasts, I think that you would see that neither of the major sides in these debates is left unchallenged and that Rachel’s book receives a very close and generally very charitable reading.

      Reading your comments here, I can’t help but feel that you are coming at me with a host of presumptions based upon your prior personal experience, which make it hard for you to read anything that I write or hear anything I say with rather a lot of prejudice intruding. While this is understandable, given your experience, I hardly think that it affords me a fair or a charitable reading. You remark upon your appreciation of my series on the Exodus. Thank you. However, surely if you believe that I am a close and careful reader of texts in that area, someone who isn’t merely mindlessly parroting conventional positions, but is open and attentive to new possibilities, isn’t there a distinct possibility that I bring those same traits to my engagement with Rachel Held Evans’ book and to this debate?

      Gender is hardly the only thing that frames our world. However, it is one very important thing that frames our world, a fact that I think that most parties agree upon, which is why debates on the subject are given so much importance by all parties. More importantly, coming at this subject as a theologian, the Scriptures really have rather a lot to say about gender and quite highly developed positions on the matter. The implications of our views on gender can be quite far reaching in terms of belief, practice, and reading of the Scriptures. It is also a very live topic, so I make no apologies for discussing it. It is just one of many, many subjects that I write about here. It is hardly a fixation. Those who know me better will be aware that my main reason for getting involved in this particular debate had to do with the fact that I was extremely disappointed with most of what was being said by all sides and felt a need to push the conversation in different directions.

      Anyone who knows me will know that I have gone out of my way to engage in conversation with women from a range of different perspectives on these issues. I want to have my views sharpened and to engage extensively, charitably, and attentively with contrary viewpoints. I also believe that we all bear a responsibility to the honest treatment of the biblical texts and that our right to a vocal opinion is very much contingent upon our preparedness to expose our convictions to the most rigorous of questioning and challenge. This is why I am dismayed by appeals to ‘sensibilities’ to avoid conversations on subjects of rather great theological moment.

      I think that you will also find that in discussing theology and other matters, I endeavour to treat everyone, irrespective of their sex, background, convictions, or level of agreement with me, fairly, charitably, and with equal dignity. The fact that you will avoid everything that I write (which you yourself admit has merit) merely on the basis of my honestly held position on one issue, suggests to me that I am not the one with the problem with totalizing framing here. Isn’t it possible to have illuminating interactions with people who disagree with us?

  13. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2012-2013 | Alastair's Adversaria

  14. Laura says:

    Ive learned a great deal from your articles Alastair but have especially learned alot from the gracious and thoughtful way you respond to all comments on your blog, even the deliberately antagonistic ones. Thank you. I hope you will one day come to australia to speak!

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