Rachel Held Evans is an evangelical Christian and feminist who decided to spend a year living out, to the letter, the Bible's requirements for women. The exercise, inspired in part by A.J. Jacobs's The Year of Living Biblically, taught her a lot about the sometimes contradictory ways the Bible talks about women, and about the many ways to live as what Proverbs 31 calls a "woman of valor." She also ran afoul of Christian bookstore chain LifeWay, which declined to carry her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, ostensibly because it contained the word "vagina." Evans talked to BuzzFeed Shift about her decision to leave the word in, and about her quest to make evangelical culture more accepting of female leaders.
You talk in the book about the assumptions you thought people might make about you, like when you were dressed with Bible-inspired modesty. What do you think are some of the most incorrect assumptions people make about evangelicals?
People assume all evangelicals are the same, particularly when it comes to political orientation, when really historically it's been pretty diverse. One reason I like being part of evangelical conversations is we're always debating something. My concern is when evangelicals start saying we need to rein in what it means to be evangelical. What I love is its diversity — there's still a lot of people who are part of that culture who don't vote Republican or hold certain theological perspectives.
What about assumptions evangelicals make about feminists?
One thing that always is interesting to me is when people say to me, "you're so friendly and warm." They think if you're a feminist you must always be angry. And people think I must have gone to school and studied feminism and went through women's studies courses, but I tell people I'm a feminist because of Jesus. He treated women with incredible respect.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the way the Bible talks about women?
One of the most interesting things to me was to compare stories of women from scripture with some of the instructions to women we find in scripture. Sometimes those are at odds — we have a woman like Deborah who is basically commander-in-chief of Israel, and you contrast that with the instruction for women to have a gentle and quiet spirit. That was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of doing the book, seeing you can be a woman of faith in a variety of ways.
In your book, you cite a lot of very prescriptive advice from Christian writers about how women should live. How do you go about living as a Christian woman without necessarily subscribing to all that?
I try to look to Jesus and how he interpreted scripture. When he was asked, "what's the most important part of the law," he said, "Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself." So I'll think, "how does this help me love God and love my neighbor?" That's how I try to make my decisions.
What's the response to your book been like from other Christians? From non-Christians?
I heard from one woman who said she had left Christianity and lost interest in the Bible because it was used to oppress women, but this book restored her interest in the Bible. But there's a lot of people who every Sunday from the pulpit urge women to practice Biblical womanhood without selectivity, and I did practice Biblical womanhood without selectivity, and they're upset about that.
Why do you think LifeWay wouldn't carry your book? Do you think it has to do with the word "vagina," or what the book says about women's equality?
I really don't know, and that's the honest truth. I had been warned that the word might be a problem, but we don't know that that's why.
Did you consider taking the word "vagina" out?
I was actually determined to take it out, but it was my readers who pressed me to keep it in. They said it was the right word, and they felt that maybe there was a double standard, because there are plenty of Christian books that include "penis" and "testicles," so why would "vagina" be a problem?
Have any of the habits you tried out for the book stuck with you now that you're done?
One month I focused on charity and justice, and that's forced us to take a new look at some of our habits as consumers. Now [my husband and I] try to be more equitable in our eating and our consuming habits, and we try to buy fair trade. And the month I focused on silence, I tried to look at the ways the Bible has been used to silence women. That gave me this real passion for advocating for gender equality in the Church, and that has stuck. But I also looked at the upside of silence. I came to appreciate and love contemplative prayer, and as someone who's not a morning person, I think silent breakfast is a brilliant idea.
What needs to change to bring more gender equality to the Church?
In evangelical churches, I would like to see women in leadership positions. The largest Protestant denomination in the US, Southern Baptists, discourages women from any leadership position, like being pastors. I think the Church would be better if it was using its full capacity.
Is it hard to be an evangelical woman when women still aren't treated equally?
When I was in high school, I gave testimony in front of my high school youth group. A guy came up to me afterward, and he said, "you did such a good job, it's too bad you're a girl." Because he knew my options would be limited. That stuck with me, and I've always fought against it. It's hard, but I think I have that reformer personality. I think women within evangelicalism will have to make the change.
You have a certain live-and-let-live attitude throughout the book, like when you talk about the many different ways a woman can express her faith. That kind of tolerance for other viewpoints and other ways of living seems in pretty short supply today, especially in political conversations. Any tips for reintroducing it?
One thing I learned throughout the year was you can find God's presence in any sphere. You can find it in the kitchen, the boardroom, the classroom, the assembly line. So who am I to say that because a woman pursues a different sort of career or lifestyle, she can't find God there? When it comes to vocation, what a woman does with her life, whether she has a family, whether she marries, I think the issue is not what we do, but how we do it. A woman can be a woman of valor in any capacity.