As an evangelical Christian, Rachel Held Evans often heard about the importance of practicing "biblical womanhood," but she didn't quite know what that meant. Everyone she asked seemed to have a different definition.
Evans decided to embark on a quest to figure out how to be a woman by the Bible's standards. For one year, she has followed every rule in the Old and New Testaments. Her project will end next Saturday.
Throughout the year, she kept a blog about the experience; it's going to be made into a book that will be published in 2012.
One of Evans' tasks was to submit to her husband, Dan. The need for women to submit to their husbands is repeated multiple times in the letters of Paul and Peter, she tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.
"That was a challenge because my husband and I have a very egalitarian relationship," Evans says, "so it was kind of weird trying to impose a hierarchy onto that relationship."
Evans made a flow chart that had an arrow pointing from God to her husband and down to her; she posted it on their refrigerator.
"We tried to stick by that, and it would be little things like if I wanted to watch one movie from Netflix, but he wanted another one, we would defer to his," she says.
In Proverbs 31, a husband is praised at the city gates. Evans attempted to do the equivalent by standing outside the "Welcome to Dayton" sign in Tennessee with a poster board that read, "Dan is Awesome."
"People thought I'd lost a bet," she says.
Evans says she'd hated Proverbs 31 for years "because in the evangelical culture, it's lifted up as sort of like the model for all women everywhere, and it talks about a woman who sews from morning till night and provides food for her family and clothing."
Her perspective shifted, however, after talking to a friend about the Jewish culture's interpretation of the passage. Her friend said men were the ones who memorized the passage as a way of praising women — her friend's husband sings it to his wife at every Sabbath meal.
"That whole passage got turned around for me when I started looking at it from a more Jewish perspective and seeing it less as something that God expects all women to do and more as a way of praising what women have already accomplished," she says.
Also as part of her project, Evans spent all year growing out her hair.
"Basically, Paul says that it is a woman's glory to have long hair, which basically, I'm guessing, he wouldn't have said that if he'd met me because my hair just doesn't really look good long. It's really frizzy and poufy, and right now it is just absolutely out of control," she says. "The first thing I'm going to do on Oct. 1 when the project is over is schedule a hair appointment."
With the project drawing to a close, Evans hasn't uncovered a singular way to practice biblical womanhood.
"We're all selective in how we interpret and apply the Bible to our lives — even evangelical Christians, whether they like to admit it or not," she says. "So what I have found is that any time you think you have found a sort of blueprint or standard for biblical womanhood, a woman in scripture comes along and is praised for breaking it."
GUY RAZ, host: You remember that book about the guy who decided to live a year of his life according to the rules of the Bible? Well, Rachel Held Evans decided to do the same thing except with two major differences: one, she would follow every rule in the Old and New Testaments that pertain to women; and second, it wasn't going to be a social experiment. Rachel Held Evans is an evangelical Christian and a prominent blogger on Christian issues. And she wanted to explore what it actually means to be a woman and a believer.
RACHEL HELD EVANS: So what I did was I've combed through every passage I could find in Scripture that had anything to say at all about women, and I basically decided to divide my year into 12 virtues, one for each month.
RAZ: There are some things that are in the Bible that might seem a little weird to us today like sleeping in a tent during your menstrual cycle. Where does it say that in the Bible?
EVANS: Right. Well, it doesn't actually say that women slept in tents.
RAZ: Oh, I got you.
EVANS: And some people believe that they did, but there's no concrete biblical instructions about sleeping in a tent.
RAZ: Did you sleep in a red tent?
EVANS: I slept in a purple tent.
RAZ: Oh, OK.
EVANS: It was as close as I could find.
RAZ: So it's in Leviticus, right? What does Leviticus actually say?
EVANS: Yes, it is. Leviticus 15. Well, what it boils down to is that a woman is considered ceremonially impure for 12 days surrounding her period. And so for those 12 days, you're not allowed to touch a man in any way, including your husband. So that means, obviously, no sex. But on top of that, that means no handshakes, no pats on the back, no hugs, nothing, for 12 days. And it also says that anything she sits on will be considered unclean. So what I did was I carried around a stadium seat to sit on, you know, like what you bring to football games to make sure I didn't sit on anything and make it unclean.
EVANS: So, yeah, that took care of that.
RAZ: OK. In Ephesians, right, it says that women must submit to their husbands.
EVANS: Well, yeah. That's actually repeated several times in the Letters of Paul and of Peter, and it says different things at different times. So it basically says, wives, submit to your husbands as unto the Lord. Wives, be submissive to your husbands, that sort of thing. So...
RAZ: So what did you do?
EVANS: Well, that was a challenge because my husband and I have a very egalitarian relationship, so it was kind of weird trying to impose a hierarchy on to that relationship where there didn't used to be one. So I made a flowchart that had a picture of, like, God from the creation of Adam and then an arrow that went down to Dan and then an arrow that went down to me. And I stuck it on the refrigerator. And we tried to stick by that. And it would be little things like if I wanted to watch one movie from Netflix, but he wanted another one, we would defer to his.
RAZ: They used to watch a lot of Netflix back in the ancient times, by the way.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: I read that in Proverbs 31, there's a point where a woman is praised because she actually is supposed to praise her husband at the gates of a city.
EVANS: Right. And so what I did was I made a poster board that said, Dan is awesome. And I sit it outside the Welcome to Dayton sign outside my hometown.
RAZ: Dayton, Tennessee.
EVANS: Dayton, Tennessee. People thought I'd lost a bet. So - but the one thing I would like - about Proverbs 31, this is a really interesting passage. It's a poem. It's an acrostic poem. And for years, I really hated this passage because in the evangelical culture, it's lifted up as sort of like the model for all women everywhere, and it talks about a woman who sews from morning till night and provides food for her family and clothing.
And, you know, you go into Christian bookstores and there's all these books about how to be the Proverbs 31 wife in 31 days, and they've got flowers all over them and everything. But when I talked with my Jewish friend about what this passage means in the Jewish culture, she said, oh. In our culture, women don't memorize this passage. Men memorize it. And they say it as a way of praising the women in their lives.
And so her husband actually sings it to her at every Sabbath meal. And she said, it doesn't matter how much I've accomplished that week. It's just a way of him celebrating what I've already done.
RAZ: One of the things that you did all year long was to grow your hair out. That is from Corinthians. What does it say in Corinthians?
EVANS: Basically, Paul says that it is a woman's glory to have long hair. He wouldn't have said that if he had met me because my hair, it's sort of eating my face. I look like a character from Willow, somebody getting eaten by a character from Willow.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
EVANS: It's just - it's scary. So the first thing I'm going to do on October 1st when the project is over is schedule a hair appointment.
RAZ: You're almost done with the project, just a couple of days left. And this was about biblical womanhood. What does that idea mean to you now?
EVANS: We're all selective in how we interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. Even evangelical Christians, whether they like to admit it or not, are selective when they interpret and apply the Bible to their lives. So what I found is that anytime you think you have found a sort of blueprint or standard for biblical womanhood, a woman in Scripture comes along and is praised for breaking it. So for me, there is no single way to practice biblical womanhood.
RAZ: That's writer Rachel Held Evans. Her yearlong quest for biblical womanhood ends next weekend. It'll be the subject of her next book, which will be published in 2012. Rachel Held Evans, thank you so much.
EVANS: Thank you. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.