Kathy Keller vs Rachel Held Evans?

Was Rachel missing the point of the Bible or was Kathy missing the point of Year of Biblical Womanhood?

Update: Rachel has now provided her own response to Keller explaining the point of the project since Keller seems to have missed it, as I also say more about below.

I initially thought I was done discussing A Year of Biblical Womanhood. But then I got asked via my Facebook page what I thought of this article on The Gospel Coalition. My short answer is posted there, but I thought I would expand on it more here. My general thought is that Keller missed the point of the book, and because of that, Keller is actually not as far off from Evans as she probably thinks she is. I’m not entirely sure if Keller actually read the book – many other reviewers clearly didn’t but without strong reason to believe otherwise I’ll assume the best – or whether it was a matter of defensiveness which made her see more opposition than I think there actually was.

The critique Keller offers is that Evans did not apply even basic hermeneutics to her reading of Scripture. She took as much literally as possible. To which I say: that was the point. The point was that everyone picks and chooses, or to put it a bit more academically, everyone has a hermeneutic. Evangelical subculture/theology claims that they follow the Bible literally as much as possible and proclaim the ideals for everything to be “biblical”: biblical politics, biblical manhood and womanhood, biblical economics, and so on. Keller accuses Rachel of becoming what she claims to despise, which is again the point: living it out in order to show that it isn’t healthy for anyone.

Keller critiques on 4 points. First, Jesus replaces the Old Testament laws. That’s one of Rachel’s main points, too. Second, Keller points out the difference between narrative texts and prescriptive texts. Rachel’s point at multiple times throughout the book is that narrative texts are often being used as if they are prescriptive, and she shows that this doesn’t work very well as with what is commonly understood as a to-do list taken from the Proverbs 31 woman. Again, I think they would completely agree on this.

Thirdly, Keller discusses the intended meaning of the text, which is something that most conservatives don’t understand at all: we need to pay attention to context. Keller says this:

A much more serious example of ignoring context is found where you [Rachel] write,“We tend to ignore the embarrassing bits [of the Bible], like when Paul tells Titus, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’” (259). However, what Titus 1:12 actually says is, “Even one of their own prophets has said,‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’” (emphasis mine). Paul is citing what the Cretans say about themselves, quoting Epimenides of Knossos. In context the statement makes sense. (See Gordon Fee’s commentary on this passage.) Taking it out of context, however, makes it look like a racist statement. Why would you do that?

This is some serious irony. Rachel’s point in quoting that out of context is that we shouldn’t quote the Bible out of context. But Keller seems to have not paid attention to the context of Rachel quoting it out of context. To me it was pretty obvious, but I have read some articles pointing out how conservatives just won’t understand this book because they can’t understand irony. Wow. It is things like that which make me wonder if Keller did read it and was clueless of the purpose or whether she is just picking up on other negative reviews and piecing critiques together without reading. I’m still being optimistic that it was the former – I’d rather assume someone misunderstood irony than that they were reviewing without actually reading.

Finally, on the last point there may be some genuine disagreement because this is where Keller seems to completely undo most of what she just said – most of which was agreeing with Rachel. Keller has just established that you must approach the Bible with a hermeneutic. The point of the book is that you must approach the Bible with a hermeneutic. Rachel asks that people read the Bible through the lens of Jesus (typical of Anabaptists, so I must agree) or to put it differently, through a lens of love. Keller rejects this by suddenly now saying that only the Bible, absent of any outside influence, can be your authority. Even what Jesus calls the greatest commandment, loving God and loving neighbour – which is ironically found in the Bible – is not a suitable thing to use as a guiding principle for reading the Bible. If what the incarnate Word of God (Jesus) calls the greatest commandment is not a good hermeneutic for reading the Bible and for life in general, I don’t know what else can be. Keller accuses Rachel of getting her definition of love from outside of the Bible since Rachel says that there are parts of the Bible expressing power interests. What makes this ironic is that she is once again contradicting what she said earlier in the post where she quite clearly said that not everything in the Bible is an ethical guideline to be duplicated because “it is a record of human sin [among other things].” So when Rachel calls these power interest narratives in Scripture sin, she’s accused of imposing an external definition of love and therefore mocking the text, but when Keller does it, it is just being true to the text. 

Kathy Keller has missed the irony of A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I’m pretty sure she also doesn’t see the irony in her own review. I kept thinking I was reading Keller wrong, that I was missing something she was saying, because it really didn’t line up at all with what I read from the book. Maybe Keller was trying to be ironic, too, actually agreeing with Rachel and she just wasn’t nearly as good at it, but I doubt it. More importantly than missing the point of the book, Keller isn’t able to see the inconsistency in her own modernist conservative framework. And what’s really sad is that Rachel’s work was so well thought out that Keller’s response just makes her look silly in her inability to grasp it.

Buy on Amazon.ca:A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Kelly J Youngblood

    Thanks for writing that. I read that review, and it confused me, and I couldn’t quite come up with the words to convey what was going through my head. You did just that.