Well, this has been a week. Year #2 of my job at the school has concluded, my husband returned from his whirlwind trip to Europe, and now we get to talk about juicy topics like sin nature and the Proverbs 31 woman. Uff da!
We’re checking out p. 31-57 of Leslie Ludy’s Set-apart Femininity. This chapter is dubbed “Sacred Design: Discovering femininity’s blueprint for beauty.” Oddly enough, this chapter has made me think of European culture and the differences between America and other parts of the world. So grab a glass of wine and a love poem and let’s get started.
Proverbs 31 confusion
Ludy spends a lot of this chapter critiquing the Christian women’s book Captivating by Stasi Eldredge. Specifically, Ludy dislikes how Eldredge criticized the Christian emphasis on the Proverbs 31 woman.
It seems that in recent years, Christian femininity has decided to boycott heroic womanhood–especially when it comes in the form of the “stay-at-home supermom” portrayed in Proverbs 31. . . .We are tired of hearing about all the ways we don’t measure up, and Proverbs 31 seems to only rub salt on a painful wound.
The authors of the popular Christian book Captivating (a book we will discuss later in this chapter) express it this way: ‘We are all living in the shadow of that infamous icon, The Proverbs 31 Woman, whose life is so busy I wonder, when does she have time for friendships, for taking walks, or reading good books? Her light never goes out at night? When does she have sex? Somehow she has sanctified the shame most women live under, Biblical proof that yet again we don’t measure up.’
Such sarcasm toward this particular section of the Word of God almost seems justified. . . . It’s easy to just roll our eyes at Proverbs 31 and assume that there is some vague, allegorical reason why it was included in the Bible and that we certainly aren’t supposed to apply its message to our daily lives. . . . The long and short of it is that the Proverbs 31 woman is a set-apart woman (p. 36-38).
I read Captivating as a college student, and at the time my take on it was that Captivating did not treat the word of God with sarcasm; rather, it questioned a particular interpretation of the word of God, one that viewed this passage as a checklist. And honestly, much of the evangelical world does treat Proverbs 31 as a checklist women must follow. Women are preoccupied with the subject and ask all the wrong questions about it. But what is not mentioned by Ludy is that this section of scripture was never meant to be a challenge at all.
For her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Christian author Rachel Held Evans corresponded with an Orthodox Jewish woman from Israel to get a better understanding of some Old Testament passages that seemed lost on American ears.
I asked Ahava if Jewish women struggle as much as Christian women to live up to the Proverbs 31 ideal. For the first time in our correspondence, Ahava seemed a bit perplexed:
“Here’s the thing. Christians seem to think that because the Bible is inspired, all of it should be taken literally. Jews don’t do this. . . .Take Proverbs 31, for example. I get called an ‘eshet chayil’ (a valorous woman) all the time. . . .Every week at the Shabbat table, my husband sings the Proverbs 31 poem to me. It’s special because I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity.”
I looked into this, and sure enough, in Jewish culture it is not the women who memorize Proverbs 31, but the men. Husbands commit each line of the poem to memory, so they can recite it to their wives at the Sabbath meal, usually in song. . . .
Eshet chayil is at its core a blessing–one that was never meant to be earned, but to be given, unconditionally (A Year of Biblical Womanhood, p. 87-88).
I feel I can relate to this. Growing up, my dad would stand up at the beginning of a meal to give an “announcement.” He would stand, raise his wine glass, look at my mom, and beam, “Kids, I love this woman!” On cue, us kids would groan while my mom would glow brighter than the sun. It was our own version of eshet chayil: a public declaration of devotion from a loving husband to his beloved wife. Had we been a Jewish family, I have no doubt that my father would have recited Proverbs 31 to my mom with gusto: an act of unabashed honor and love.
However, Christian culture has sucked all the romance out of this poem and has turned it into a checklist for women to live up to. And honestly: how American can you get?
Imagine if, thousands of years from now, someone uncovered a love poem that my dad wrote about my mom, and began to treat all of her character traits as a checklist they must live up to in order to be loved. Would they be living in the same grace and peace of my mom, knowing that my dad loves her for who she is? Of course not! By no means should Christian women treat this passage as additional requirements for justification not included in the gospel, or as something that must be achieved first in order to be loved.
The entire theme of Proverbs 31 is a husband noticing the day-to-day things his wife does and praising her for it. As Evans points out, the message of Proverbs 31 was meant to be an unconditional blessing: a celebration of the woman you love.
Is there anything to celebrate in people?
Ludy further criticizes the book Captivating for assuring women that there is something beautiful about them, and that on a soul-level, God created people to be beautiful. She then goes on to cite Ezekiel 16:4-13 (a prophecy about Jerusalem and how they had strayed from God’s covenant) as proof of how we are, in fact, not beautiful.
The Bible makes it very clear that we were born into sin, not beauty. Yes, we were created in the image of God. But sin has warped and twisted all the goodness and loveliness we were originally designed to possess. As a result of sin’s defilement, we no longer carry an essence of beauty from the moment of our creation–we carry an essence of sin and selfishness. Our womanly souls are no longer beautiful. They are revolting, ugly, and deformed (p. 46).
I was born into sin and ugliness. Because of sin’s rule over me, I was deformed, defiled, and despised–thrown out into an open field like garbage, covered in my own filth and blood…the blood of my guilt and shame. There was nothing worthy or noble within me. I deserved nothing but death (p. 53).
First off, I find it interesting that Ludy assumes her readers don’t understand their own failures, given that the book seems targeted toward insecure girls (some of us are born acutely aware of our own failings, despite the bizarre myth that non-Christians think they’re perfect).
But apart from that, where shall I begin?
With the fact that one cannot be created completely warped and filled with sin and still be created in the image of God? (The two are, by definition, incompatible.) With the fact that if humanity is by definition born sinful, guilty and selfish, that Jesus could not have been born fully human? With the fact that if people indeed bear none of God’s beauty until they become a born-again Christian, we would be living in a world more hellish than you can possibly imagine?
These topics are sticky, because some opinions declare that a belief in carrying God’s image at birth is also a belief that people are perfect and can take credit for their goodness. Which is odd to me, because those who believe in a persevering Image don’t believe that it’s an image unscarred by sin or that it’s something we can take credit for (I certainly don’t take credit for being born with my parents’ genetics). Merely, even though we are scarred by our sins, and need salvation from death, we can still say that we are God’s image. Not as a concession, or a pesky verse to acknowledge and then get out of the way, but as an inheritance, a claim, an identity.
It’s who we are.
God formed us, fashioned us in his image, and loved us because he made us. Not because of anything we did, but because there is a beauty in our created being that not even human weakness can obliterate.
Sanctification by works?
Then I washed you in water. Yes, I thoroughly washed off your blood, and I anointed you with oil. . . .I clothed you with fine linen and covered you with silk. . . .I put a jewel in your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown in your head. . . .You ate pastry of fine flour, honey, and oil. You were exceedingly beautiful, and succeeded to royalty. Your fame went out among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through My splendor which I had bestowed on you,” says the Lord GOD.
As this Scripture expresses, I did not automatically radiate with His royal beauty simply because He had rescued me from sin and death. In order for His spectacular beauty to come cascading through my being, there was a major transformation process–a spiritual makeover–that was required (p. 55).
Ludy continues citing Ezekiel and uses it to say that being saved by Christ isn’t enough, and that a further transformation is also necessary. And I would agree with that. However, the details of this “spiritual makeover,” whereby one becomes a set-apart woman, form bulk of the rest of this book. And unfortunately, it’s not a grace-filled anecdote on the workings of the Spirit (immediately following this chapter on salvation is a chapter on how to become attractive to Christian men).
Which is interesting, since in the above Ezekiel passage, I don’t see following “set-apart” guidelines as the means to transformation. There’s no mention of dating (sorry, courting) rules or modesty guidelines. In fact, I don’t see anything about human effort to be good. Rather, this spiritual transformation seems to be God’s work, with references to his presence the sacraments: baptism (washing with water, clothed with fine linen), chrismation (anointing with oil), communion (flour, honey, and oil), and perhaps even marriage (I put a beautiful crown on your head).
Aside from about five years I spent as an evangelical, I am and have been an Orthodox Christian for most of my life. Despite some people’s concerns about Orthodoxy being too ritualistic or legalistic, I actually returned to the Orthodox faith because I found rest there from the endemic striving and legalism I experienced in the evangelical world. In Orthodoxy, I found a sort of peaceful, holistic faith: one that feels like a full immersion experience. One that, frankly, felt easier. Kind of like the difference between learning French by studying a book every day and learning French by going to France.
I think when we get rid of some of the means God uses to touch us (i.e., symbolize the sacraments, learn about feast days instead of celebrating them, talk about God during church instead of talking to him) we end up cutting ourselves off from much of the Christian experience and becoming very dependent on individual effort and holiness rules as substitutes. I can’t tell you how many people at my evangelical church (myself included!) agonized over not reading the Bible enough and whether they could “get something” out of it. Or listened to only Christian music and online sermons because they feared God would grow more distant if they didn’t. At times I remember feeling like I had to choose between my humanity and the Christian life, because the two were made incompatible.
I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t feel that that panic in my Orthodox faith, in the more “European” way of the Christian life. Doing all the right things to be a good evangelical was exhausting. And I don’t feel exhausted anymore. I don’t feel like I’m trying to leave my humanity behind, but rather that I’m becoming fully human.
I think this chapter has reminded me why I left modern American evangelicalism. It may be the answer for many people, but it didn’t work for me. The checklists and Bible scouring and lifestyle rules didn’t work for me. Being told to ignore friends’ and strangers’ smiles, laughter, art, and kindness to see non-Christians as “ugly and deformed” definitely didn’t work for me.
Personally, I’ll be walking the European road, with my love poems and mysteries, celebrations and sacraments, community and savoring good food and wine.
And I’ll see you next week to talk about boys (p. 59-66).