Volume > Issue > Briefly: January-February 2012

January-February 2012

A Year of Biblical Womanhood

By Rachel Held Evans

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Pages: 321

Price: $15.99

Review Author: Erin O'Luanaigh

Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood is a spin-off, female version of A.J. Jacobs’s Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. The obvious controversy entailed in Jacobs’s effort landed the Esquire editor and novelist’s 2008 book on The New York Times best­seller list, and the outlandish nature of the gimmick is also Evans’s critical selling point. Biblical Womanhood traces Eve’s side of the deal, and the author predictably balks at misogyny and other pitfalls of biblical literalism. She adamantly sets herself apart from true “Biblical Womanhood” adherents with repeated assurances that she is a good feminist — all while wearing a head-covering and keeping house.

Yet it’s not just the gender switch but the difference in perspective that gives Evans’s book an advantage over Jacobs’s. His experiment was meant to be a stretch. The self-described agnostic calls his upbringing “officially Jewish, but Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant.” Evans, on the other hand, is a popular evangelical blogger and author, well acquainted with the biblical-literalist movements in many Protestant denominations. The book’s finest moments come when she delves into heavy criticism, unafraid to call out the ideological mistakes of her largely conservative brethren.

Evans begins her experiment by compiling a lengthy list of rules for biblical womanhood, drawn from every helpful hint, restriction, and real-life example from Tobit to Ecclesias­tes to Revelation. She doesn’t tackle every precept at once, but divvies them up into 12 chapters, headed by a monthly virtue and to-do list. Starting in October with “gentleness,” she strives to “cultivate a gentle and quiet spirit, even during football games,” take an etiquette lesson, and do penance “on the rooftop for acts of contention.” Evans gives a biblical justification for each item, recounts her pains to follow them, and ends with a profile of a biblical figure who best represents the monthly theme. The formula is occasionally tire­some, but ideas and opinions from real members of biblical-literalist subcultures provide jolts of energy.

The best installments are the most controversial: December’s chapter on obedience and February’s on beauty. The latter focuses on an apparent evangelical obsession with the preservation of male virtue via the maintenance of feminine wiles. Here, Evans’s intimacy with Protestant culture proves invaluable. She unveils an entire industry driven by chauvinism and female guilt that remains largely hidden to outsiders, but which is spoon-fed to evangelical women from childhood. Evans claims to have long felt “enormous pressure from the church to meet certain expectations regarding sex and beauty.” Pastors regularly enjoin upon god-fearing wives to submit to their husbands at all times in the bedroom — despite disinclination, depression, or pain. They cite the Song of Songs as biblical evidence for a woman’s duty to keep herself available and attractive, lest she be responsible for her husband’s adultery. And this opinion isn’t held only by men. Prominent evangelical authors Martha Pearce and Debi Pearl tout similar messages, which Evans boils down to: “Stay beautiful, or your husband might leave you…and if he does, it’s partially your fault.” She quotes Dorothy Patterson, leader of the Biblical Womanhood movement, whose book Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood names the wife of 17th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards as the highest example of a “godly woman.” Why? Because “she stayed attractive, and fifteen years later she was still able to entrance men much younger than she.” Patterson and a bevy of like-minded evangelicals imply that a woman’s eternal fate rests on her ability to maintain the sexual shelf life of a Mrs. Robinson. Evans will have none of it. She reminds her readers that “nowhere does [the Bible] teach that outer beauty reflects inner beauty.” It’s a virtuous wife — not a bathing beauty — whose worth is far above rubies.

Evans’s exploration of obedience finds her grappling with ancient Israeli laws. Readers are reminded that neither the Old nor the New Testaments ever condemn polygamy. She tracks down a group of evan­gelicals whose belief in the biblical authenticity of plural marriage is found at BiblicalFamilies.org, and cites organizations that take seriously the right of fathers and husbands to “own” the female members of their families. Sarah Schlissel of the Chal­cedon Foundation writes of a “lawful change in ownership” when a woman enters the marital state, as she ceases to be the property of her father and becomes the property of her husband. Similarly, the Vision Forum, a leader in the “biblical patriarchy movement,” promotes the 26 “Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy,” which include exhortations that unmarried women must remain under the authority of their fathers, married women must work from the home, and girls be “typically discouraged from attending college.”

Evans points out that modern-day polygamists and biblical literalists don’t appear to insist that rape victims marry their rapists, as stipulated in Deuteronomy 22, or admit a hankering to stone adulterous women on the town green. So she rightly asks, Why not? Is this not true biblical authenticity? Where does one draw the line?

Even biblical heroines trespassed at one time or other against the Ten Commandments or stepped outside the confines of Old Testament law to produce heirs or dupe tyrants, Evans argues. And often­times Christ “fulfilled” the law through defiance or reversal — especially with regard to women. By washing the feet of His disciples, He humbled himself to the station of a female slave. He dined with prostitutes and admitted women as His closest confidants. So which parts of the Old and New Testaments should a good Christian ignore, and which parts should one accept? Ultimately, Evans runs up against the familiar Protestant lack-of-authority roadblock. Her own arguments against biblical literalism can’t hold water if she herself uses no framework for interpretation higher than her own reason.

Evans asks the right questions and often provides answers compatible with a Catholic viewpoint. She hints that sola scriptura is impossible, emphasizes the fundamental mystery that shrouds the word of God, and cautions against viewing the Bible as a book with a single, coherent message. Still, a latent antagonism toward Catholicism peeks out from behind her efforts at tolerance. Her December profile on Mary begins with the assurance that she “has much to teach us,” and cautiously approves of a renewed Protestant interest in the Mother of God. But in the next breath, Evans deems Orthodox and Catholic veneration of Mary to be “all a bit much” and later alludes to Mary’s status as a “demigoddess.” She fails to mention that the Blessed Virgin is both the most perfect example of biblical womanhood — and the most ignored in the Protestant tradition.

Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization

By Ralph Martin

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 336

Price: $24

Review Author: Stephen J. Kovacs

The Year of Faith inaugurated by the Holy Father this past October is an occasion to re-examine the documents of the Second Vatican Council and to renew the Church’s missionary efforts around the world. In the decades since the Council, its 16 documents have undergone considerable scrutiny and interpretation, oftentimes at the hands of those who fail to think with the mind of the Church, causing much confusion among Catholics at all levels in the Church. In Will Many Be Saved? Dr. Ralph Martin examines section 16 of the Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Lumen Gentium (LG16), which addresses the issue of the salvation of those who have never been evangelized. This is among the most misinterpreted sections of all the Council documents, and Martin, a theologian at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, offers an in-depth analysis of LG16 in light of its controversies and what it means for the New Evangelization.

In the 20th century a popular notion emerged known as universalism, which holds that most, if not all, people will attain salvation. This idea made its way into the Church around the time of Vatican II and became manifest in the way contemporary Masses for the Dead tend to take the form of a celebration of the deceased’s presumed resurrection, rather than the more traditional and solemn invocation of God’s mercy on behalf of the departed. Another more consequential manifestation has been the rapid decline in the Church’s missionary activity around the world, given the popular new idea that the Church is no longer the necessary means of salvation she was once thought to be. This idea contradicts what the Church has consistently taught, including at Vatican II, and Martin presents a study of the unfolding of the Church’s understanding of the doctrine known by the axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”) as it pertains to the unevan­gelized. He does so with the understanding that LG16 is the most recent authoritative teaching on this issue, one that synthesizes centuries of doctrinal development.

In LG16 the Church teaches that there are conditions by which salvation can be attained by those who, through no fault of their own, are not visible members of the Church and do not profess explicit faith in Christ. Yet, the passage’s final sentences note that these conditions are often not met, and the Church is urged to evangelize the nations with “zealous care.” Supported by sections in Gaudium et Spes and Ad Gentes, the traditional teaching of the Church is presented in LG16, which affirms the role of Christ as the one true Savior of man and the unique mission of the Catholic Church to incorporate all of mankind into the Body of Christ. Since no salvation can come from outside the Church, the greatest assurance we can have of our salvation is by faithful, visible membership in the Church. But even this full incorporation requires perseverance in charity until death with the constant help of God’s grace.

For those who have not been evangelized, salvation still comes only through Christ and by baptism of desire, where the right responses to actual grace result in their receiving sanctifying grace. Simply abiding by the natural law is not enough for the unevangelized to be saved, nor can their unwilled ignorance itself be seen as a cause of salvation. Martin gives ample proof from Scrip­ture, as interpreted by the Mag­is­terium, that the unevangel­ized are to be held morally accountable for their actions and that their salvation is indeed questionable.

After a thorough study of LG16, its context, and its basis in Scripture and Tradition, Martin spends two chapters addressing the theological speculations of Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Many theologians after Vatican II cited LG16 to support their universalist theories, yet none had so great an influence on both the academic and popular spheres as Rahner, with his theory of “Anonymous Christians,” and Balthasar, with his “hope” for universal salvation. Despite their nuances, what is common to these theologians’ arguments is that they either gloss over or completely ignore the last sentences of LG16, which state that the conditions for the salvation of the unevan­gelized are often not met. With theological rigor, Martin demonstrates how both Rahner and Balthasar fail in maintaining theologically orthodox positions, and how their misguided pastoral motives led to radical speculations that find little to no support in Scripture or Tradition. Unfortunately for souls, these ideas have spread far and wide, and now the Church faces a serious crisis in evangelization. Martin says it best: “How tragic if the promulgation of a theoretical or practical presumption that almost everyone will be saved actually became the cause of many people being lost.”

Martin recognizes the benefits in the pastoral shift that began at Vatican II, which places greater emphasis on the positive reasons behind the Church’s mission to evangelize. Yet he understands that the moribund state of the Church’s missionary efforts requires that the possibility of damnation be taught more often. In fact, Martin argues that in order to be true to what the Church teaches in LG16, sin, damnation, and the eternal consequences of human actions must be boldly preached. Silence on the reality of Hell too easily leads to moral indifference and the loss of missionary zeal. Hence, Martin calls for a renewal of the Church’s pastoral strategy.

Ralph Martin is to be commend­ed for this book. It is a long overdue clarification of a serious doctrinal matter that has impacted the life of the Church. A renewed missionary fervor, inspired by a proper understanding of Vatican II, would put wind in the sails of the New Evangelization and bring the Church closer to fulfilling the Lord’s will as revealed in Scripture: “God our Savior desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4).

The Future of History

By John Lukacs

Publisher: Yale University Press

Pages: 192

Price: $16

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

The main theme of John Lu­kacs’s Future of History is that the crisis of civilization in which we live is reflected in many of the books on history published since 1960. As we move toward “a pictorial and primitive and increasingly abstract age” — indeed, toward a new “barbarism” — history is changing. It now wants to pass for a science. Much of what is written today is “social history, which often turns into retrospective sociology, or a scientific sociography.” Multi­­cultural and gender histories are recent contributions to this social-scientific approach. While such histories seem broad in scope, they are often shallow and suffused with materialist determinism. Even so, Lu­kacs does not deny that “good, even remarkably good, history is being taught and written and published even now,” though diplomatic and military history is “diminished and even neglected.”

The prevailing opinion today is that our world is “overwhelmingly materialistic.” Lukacs, on the other hand, thinks that our age is characterized by an increasing abstraction of matter and that the main division in society, in the end, will not be between Left and Right. It will be, as Wendell Berry said in 1999, “between men who think of themselves as creatures and men who think of themselves as machines.” (One cannot help but recall Humanae Vitae here and recognize how prophetic it was!)

The problem of writing history in a “mass democratic age” like ours, Lukacs explains, is that the evidences themselves are “generalized and abstract.” People make “largely predetermined” choices in elections and answer limited and predetermined questions in opinion polls. Moreover, publicity not only shapes public sentiment but may even “simulate the existence of a majority.” Historians of a democratic age lean toward determinism and want “to show that events could not have occurred otherwise.” Well, sure they could have.

After 1960 the teaching of history in high schools declined and the number of history majors in colleges fell drastically. Yet at the same time there arose a phenomenal new appetite for biographies, an appetite the author suggests was fueled by widespread anxiety: “In a world of increasing (and often overwhelming and oppressing) abstractions…, the descriptions of the lives of men and women who unquestionably and evidently existed are attractive and perhaps even inspiring.” Lukacs wonders, though, if such an interest in serious biography can endure despite the general decline of the humanities.

The central point of Lukacs’s book is that history is a form of literature and not a science. Yes, professional historians must have “serious archival knowledge and practice,” but they must also be dedicated to finding out the truth about the past. “The purpose of history is understanding even more than accuracy (though not without a creditable respect for the latter).” A good history is “unavoidably anthropocentric” because it conveys “the knowledge that human beings have of other human beings.” Historians should be willing to consult not only the documentary evidence but also the great literary achievements of past ages in order to delve into the minds of those about whom they are writing. They are involved in the retelling of the words and acts of persons who really thought and lived.

Here is where Lukacs throws down the gauntlet before the materialist historians of our age: What people think and believe is the most important factor in their lives. “What marks the movements in the history of societies and peoples is not the accumulation of capital,” he writes. “It is the accumulation of opinions.” In defense of this countercultural view of history, Lukacs points out that people do not “have ideas,” they “choose them.” Yes indeed, there is such a thing as free will. Ideas and beliefs are not necessarily the “outcomes of some kind of a Zeitgeist.” The author praises Burck­hardt, Hui­zin­ga, and Tocqueville, among other fine historians, for having tried to “describe and even prove what and how some people were thinking at a particular time and in a particular place.” Historians must show how freely chosen ideas have made a difference in history.

The conquest of science over history is not inevitable, Lukacs concludes. Rather than seeing themselves as scientists dealing with material objects, historians should take up the role of “humble but steadfast guardians of civilization — protecting, practicing, cultivating, preserving its verbal and written tradition.”

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