"Could the Bible really only have one thing to say about something so complex and layered and beautiful and nuanced as womanhood?"
That was the question Rachel Held Evans asked at the start of her talk in the auditorium lobby at STORY, where a bunch of us had gathered between sessions, sitting cross-legged on the floor, absolutely giddy, like we were middle-schoolers and she, a friend's cool older sister, about to reveal to us all kinds of secrets about being a woman, probably about boys and bad words and getting your special time of the month and S-E-X. It was the question that had pushed her to write "A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on her Roof, Covering her Head and Calling her Husband Master."
Writing the book meant an attempt to follow all the Bible's instructions for women as literally as possible, and not just the ones Christians usually extol about domesticity and motherhood and a "gentle and quiet spirit," but also the ones we generally dismiss, like covering our heads during prayer and calling our husbands "master" and, uh... camping out in a tent once a month. In the end, Evans said, she concluded the most important command for women isn't homemaking or motherhood, but the one Jesus simply called the most important: "Love the LORD your God with all you heart, all your soul and all your mind." And then "love your neighbor as yourself."
Christians generally hold out the woman described in Proverbs 31 -- praised as eshet chayil, a woman of valor -- as the paradigm of biblical womanhood: she who gets up while it is still dark and watches over the affairs of her household and brings respect to her husband at the city gate, whose children arise and call her blessed. She who is "basically a Pinterest page come to life," Evans said. But Ruth also is called eshet chayil, and that is "before she is married, before she has children, while she is still dirt poor." Clearly, those things aren't prerequisites. They aren't what make you a woman of valor, or even a "biblical woman."
That's the problem when you turn a poem into a job description, the Bible into a blueprint: It's meant to be a conversation starter, not a conversation ender, Evans said. That's why we have Bible studies and debates and 2 a.m. dorm room discussions. And as creatives, she said, it's our job to invite people into that conversation.
"God wants us to live and to create with valor," she said.
This was maybe 75 percent of the reason I went to STORY: To hear Evans speak. The fact I also got an advance reader's copy of "A Year of Biblical Womanhood" (which comes out Oct. 30)? That, along with all the other books that came home with me in my merlot-colored box of treasures, officially made the conference my vision of heaven.
That, and the fact I was invited into the conversation.
And I don't just mean I was invited in the words of the speakers to listen and read and interact with the text or their words later by myself. I mean people I admire tremendously -- people like Evans and Ed and K.T. and Sonny and Elora and Darrell and Danielle and Bethany and too many others to name -- actually invited me to share a meal with them. They actually put skin on Jesus and loved me the way I intellectually believe He does, but very rarely act as if I do, which is to say not because of anything I brought to that table. Not because of anything I've done. It was communion, to borrow a phrase from another STORY speaker. And it messed me up, the same way this kind of encounter with Jesus must have messed up all those biblical women Evans lists in her book, all the Marys and Martha and the Samaritan woman at the well.
In the week that has followed, I have been completely overwhelmed by the goodness of God. And His completely mind-blowing grace. I'm still trying to process it all, like everybody else, but I don't think grace is something I can make sense of. I've tried that for the past 20-odd years. I've tried to earn it, too, having grown up Lutheran and with all the guilt and the productivity-driven Protestant work ethic that accompanies that. I think that's why it's so important that we live and create with valor, that we invite others in the conversation.
Here are all the words, the images and the music that left me speechless at STORY, all Storified in one place. Read all my posts about STORY here.
Photo credit: Rachel Held Evans on Facebook.