Before Easter this year, Rachel Held Evans camped out for the weekend in a purple tent she had set up in her Tennessee yard. For nine days after this adventure, she abstained from sex and even from touching her husband. She stayed home from church, and toted around a stadium seat cushion to avoid sitting directly on chairs outside her home. Evans’ goal was to obey the Bible’s commandments for menstruating women in Leviticus Chapters 15 to 18, a passage that takes a lot of shalls and shall nots to make a simple point: Women on their periods are untouchable.
Evans is not a Biblical literalist, and even fundamentalist Christians no longer hew to the Old Testament’s specific laws for daily life. (That’s kind of the point of the New Testament.) But she is an earnest evangelical, with a serious influence within the insular world of conservative Christianity. Her Easter weekend in the tent was part of a project called “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” in which she is following all the Bible’s instructions for women as precisely as possible for 12 months. The secular Jewish writer A.J. Jacobs attempted a similar feat with his 2007 best-seller The Year of Living Biblically, but Jacobs is a humorist and commentator, not a believer. (Slate’s own David Plotz, another secular Jewish writer, blogged the Bible and wrote a book about the experience.) Conversely, Evans’ intended audience doesn’t think the Bible is a kooky ancient document—they believe it is the living, inerrant word of God and arrange their lives according to their interpretation of it. Evans gives her stunt focus by narrowing it to Biblical instructions for women.
Evans maintains an eponymous blog that draws thousands of highly engaged evangelical readers. She launched the site in 2008 to promote her first book, a sensitively written memoir that wrestled with faith and fundamentalism, and it now draws between 4,000 and 5,000 page views on a typical day, and significantly more when she pokes at a controversial topic. Christian publisher Thomas Nelson has purchased her book about the womanhood project, which will likely be in stores late next year. She’s one of the rare prominent evangelical women who isn’t primarily interested in parenthood; her blog takes on thorny theological questions, gender issues, and the future of the church. Evans speaks at Christian universities and conferences all over the country, and her writing frequently draws (mostly) respectful responses from prominent figures including Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., the powerful president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The Bible includes hundreds of rules for women, both explicit and implied, Old Testament and New. Women should dress modestly (1 Peter), submit to their husbands (Ephesians), and remove themselves from their communities while menstruating (Leviticus). The project is often funny—growing her hair out all year, as suggested in 1 Corinthians, has clearly been driving Evans crazy—but it has a point: All Christians pick and choose the parts of the Bible that suit them. The believers who emphasize the verse in which Paul says, “Women should remain silent in the churches,” tend to dismiss the verse just a few chapters away in which he writes that “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” as culturally specific. As Evans points out, it’s “Biblical” for a man to take multiple wives, or for a father to sell his daughter to pay off debts. When the term “Biblical” can mean anything, it means nothing. If Christians can acknowledge this, they may treat each other more lovingly and conduct themselves with more humility.
Is she accomplishing her goal? There’s evidence that Evans is poised to wield real influence within this community, even when she makes them bristle. Her evangelical bona fides stretch back before her career as a pot-stirrer. As “the only teenager on the planet who enjoyed guilt-based purity lessons more than the adults giving them,” she was quoted in Christianity Today extolling her school’s federally funded abstinence program. She graduated from Bryan College, a small Christian institution in Dayton, Tenn., where her father is a professor of Christian thought and Biblical studies; the college’s website lists his areas of expertise as including “spiritual warfare” and “Christian worldview.” Evans still lives in Dayton with her husband, who she met in college and married six months after graduation. And she still describes herself as an evangelical, one who believes in the “diversity and beauty of the Bible.”
But she’s increasingly using her platform to challenge other evangelical leaders, especially those who have branded themselves as cool and sensitive—she’s not aiming for easy targets like Pat Robertson. In July, she rightly called out prominent hipster pastor Mark Driscoll as a homophobic bully, launching a widespread conversation online and in the evangelical media. (World Magazine accused her of libel, but Driscoll admitted he’d been flippant.) Last month she caused another public kerfuffle by challenging best-selling author Donald Miller for writing that women are not the primary characters in their own “love stories”—in other words, that a woman’s role is to chastely wait for a godly Prince Charming, the one in charge of “writing” the story of her life. Miller eventually deleted and apologized for the offending blog post. Evans is a vocal advocate of increasing the ranks of women within church leadership—another seriously controversial subject within a group that is in constant terror of being feminized. Though she doesn’t like the word feminist because the term is so loaded within her community, she’s a staunch egalitarian in a world in which there’s an ongoing debate over whether husbands are the masters of their wives.
Evans has been writing about the womanhood project on her blog, but outside her own supportive commenters, the project has received criticism already. A piece on the website of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the leading proponent of “complementarian”—anti-egalitarian—gender roles in the church, accused her of a “mocking” attitude. Others have tut-tutted over her interpretation method, and called the project “dangerous.” Evans told me a lot of people misunderstand her aims. “They fear that I’ll make the Bible and those who love it look stupid, which would be hard because I read the Bible and love the Bible.”
Her strongest critics within the church are conservatives who should be most sympathetic to the project’s strictures: those who claim to follow the Bible literally themselves. “It’s revealing that when I say, ‘I’m going to actually do it,’ they react,” she said ruefully. “It goes to show at some level there’s a fear of exposing what it means to follow the Bible literally.” Evans is speaking to the church, but she’s not preaching to the choir. And by doing that, she’s helping her readers follow another Biblical instruction, this one from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”