Book Review: Eve in Exile, by Rebekah Merkle
Rebekah Merkle, Eve in Exile: The Restoration of Femininity. Canon Press, 2016. 208 pages.
After I recently listened to Rebekah Merkle read her book Eve in Exile: And the Restoration of Femininity (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2016), I tweeted this about it: “Breath of fresh air. Sanity. Wisdom. Verve. I want my four daughters to think this way about God’s high calling to be a woman.” Then I read the book slowly with my eyes. Then I listened to it again. My wife, Jenni, listened to it several times because she finds it so helpful and motivating. Our eleven-year-old daughter, Kara, has started reading it. We shared it with friends. Now I’m sharing it with you.
But first, a disclaimer. As soon as you hear about a good book for women, you may form an idea in your mind of what the book must be like. But the golden rule of book reviewing is to judge a book based on what the author is intending to do—not based on what you would do if you were the author. This isn’t a book on singleness; Merkle briefly addresses single ladies along the way, but she focuses on women who are (or who are aspiring to be) wives and mothers. This isn’t a biblical theology of women or a treatise on marriage by John Piper; Merkle addresses women in the canonical context of the Bible’s storyline, but her focus is on how wives and mothers should live in our cultural moment.
The first part of the book is negative (Merkle shrewdly explains and critiques feminism), and the second part is positive (she explains that God has designed women to subdue, fill, help, and glorify, and she shows how women live out that design, especially in the home). I’m not going to focus on summarizing the book’s content. Instead, I’m going to reflect on the book by suggesting four reasons that Christian men and women should read Rebekah Merkle’s Eve in Exile (and I’ll give you a taste of her writing along the way).
REASON 1: HER BOOK IS TIMELY
One reason her book is timely is obvious: our culture today is rebelling against how God designed men and women. A second reason is that waves of feminism have conditioned our culture to think in worldly ways about “fulfillment” and stay-at-home moms:
Just run this thought experiment. Two women, both thirty years old. One is a successful lawyer, single, well dressed, with a glamorous social life and a gorgeous apartment in the city. The other is married with three small children, making dinners for the family every night and dealing with laundry and carpool and messes. Put those two women in any movie, any TV show, any book—any story whatsoever. Who is living the fulfilled life? Who is doing important stuff? Who is a little bit pitiable and a bit of an also-ran? Who feels silly at her high school reunion? Who is “working” and who isn’t? Obviously this is a no-brainer. We have all been conditioned to think that one of those women is fulfilling her dreams and the other one has “settled.” One is doing big important things and the other . . . well, why did she bother getting a college degree again? Oh, I suppose maybe someday she’ll go back to work. . . . Our society has this so ingrained that it’s almost impossible not to think this way. Women who stay at home with their children will answer the question, “Do you work?” with an embarrassed, “No . . . not anymore. I studied business in school and someday I’d like to go back to work.” (pp. 29–30)
A third reason her book is timely is that complementarian Christians disagree about how to apply the truths they cherish. Complementarians believe that men and women are equally in the image of God and have different and complementary roles in the home and the church. But complementarians are feeling a tension with each other on how best to apply those truths. There’s a larger spectrum that spans from feminism to egalitarianism (i.e., what John Piper and Wayne Grudem call evangelical feminism) to complementarianism to authoritarianism or hyper-headship.
Within complementarianism, there’s a spectrum from what we could call thin or narrow complementarianism (e.g., Kathy Keller, Village Church, J. D. Greear) to thick or broad complementarianism (e.g., Herman Bavinck, John Piper, Kevin DeYoung). Jonathan Leeman’s recent five-part article “Complementarianism: A Moment of Reckoning” helpfully summarizes the current tensions between narrow and broad complementarians and the reasons for those tensions (the entire journal is worth reading carefully).
More recently, some who are within the complementarian camp reject the label (and especially how John Piper applies biblical principles) while claiming not to be egalitarian. See Rachel Green Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission and Aimee Byrd’s forthcoming Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (see insightful reviews of Miller’s book by Steven Wedgeworth and Mark Jones).
All that to say, complementarians need to think and talk about these matters. It’s a front-burner topic for many of our churches and parachurch institutions right now. And Rebekah Merkle’s Eve in Exile is a timely contribution to that discussion. She presents a broad complementarian view similar to Abigail Dodds and Joe Rigney.
REASON 2: HER BOOK IS WISE
Some complementarians think complementarianism is embarrassing. They’d rather not talk about it. They’d prefer not to emphasize or celebrate it. They hold to it reluctantly because that’s what the Bible says even though it might not make sense. They believe it, but they don’t love it.
That’s not how we should think about what God has revealed. We must not only believe whatever God reveals to be true; we should cherish it. It’s not okay to say, “The Bible teaches that, but I don’t like it.” It’s a bad sign if we want to ignore or apologize for what God has revealed in the Bible. If we have a problem understanding the nature and rationale of what God has revealed in his word, then the problem is with us—not with God and not with the truth he has revealed. (Cf. Joe Rigney’s diagnostic question about slippery slopes).
Rebekah Merkle gets that, and her book wisely celebrates how God the Creator has designed women to flourish in the home, in the church, and in society. She doesn’t buck against what God’s word says. She cheerfully submits to it. Her attitude is refreshing:
When God tells you what to do, hop up and cheerfully do what He’s asked of you. Embracing your role at home with a fussy heart, a fat-face, and a floppy walk is not the same thing as obeying. (133)
I would never say that a wife’s place is in the home, but I would absolutely say that a wife’s priority should be her home. If a woman is managing her home in such a way that it fills up and overflows and spills out into business endeavors, it should be the kind of thing that is a blessing to her people—giving more to them and not less. . . . There are many ways in which a woman could work outside the home in a way that makes the home itself more potent, more glorious, more compelling. (136, 165)
She listens not only to the Book of Scripture but to the Book of Nature:
On a physical level, women are designed to have babies, and this is so terribly obvious it’s almost embarrassing. Everything about us is meant for mothering, from being sexually attractive to men in the first place, to being able to conceive, to the ability to weave together another little human inside of us without even trying, to the breasts that feed the baby, to all the mothering instincts that are hard-wired into us. We live with the reality of our fertility monthly. This is not a minor part of our design, it is our design. And the feminist agenda has been systematically attempting to separate women from their creational purpose in this regard for the last century and more. . . . God made Eve to be innately gifted for and driven to do both of those things [i.e., to subdue and to fill]. If you try to make women, as a group, do nothing difficult except have babies, they’ll be wretchedly unhappy. If you try to make women, as a group, work like dogs but deny their roles as mothers, they’ll be wretchedly unhappy. (108–10)
REASON 3: HER BOOK IS WITTY
Merkle is not just wise—she’s witty. She writes with a colorful verve. It’s wholesome entertainment that makes you laugh for the right reasons:
Bruce Jenner has started calling himself a woman publicly . . . and no one is allowed to argue. . . . Glamour magazine has named him woman of the year [in 2015]. Incidentally, how hilariously insulting is that to all women everywhere? Glamour has declared that a middle-aged white man who has been pretending to be a woman for a grand total of one year is already doing it better than all the rest of us. . . . If there are no lines, if Bruce Jenner can win the game that is “being a woman,” I may as well chuck it and decide to be a penguin instead (8, 11).
A woman raising her children is not only shaping the next generation, she is also shaping little humans who are going to live forever. The souls she gave birth to are immortal. Immortal. And somehow, our culture looks at a woman who treats that as if it might be an important task and says, “It’s a shame she’s wasting herself. She could be doing something important—like filing paperwork for insurance claims” (42).
Many Christian feminist scholars have devoted years of their lives and thousands of pages to doing extraordinary gymnastics with the grammar and the vocabulary of this verse [1 Cor 11:3: “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”]. They will import scare quotes into the text as if Paul were using a funny voice when he said this—to show us we weren’t really supposed to believe it. Or they will turn themselves inside out trying to say the Greek word kephale (“head”) doesn’t really mean “head,” which we would understand if we would only get dual master’s degrees in Suspension of Disbelief and Corinthian Cultural Studies ( 116).
The Bible is pretty clear that one role women are not to fill is that of preacher or elder in the church, and this has caused a great deal of angst among women who would like to be both Christians and feminists. Paul really could not be clearer on the subject: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12). This unfortunate bluntness of his has kicked up a huge amount of dust. It has also treated us to a vast array of complicated and gymnastical studies of the Greek and Ancient Near Eastern context, by which feminist biblical “scholars” have managed to prove that when Paul says he does not permit a woman to teach or have authority, what he actually means is that women are most definitely supposed to teach and have authority. “If you don’t understand the argument then you obviously have not read my thesis on the subject, which is very, very scholarly and also scholarly” (171–72).
[Some people] suggest that a daughter needs to be given an education in case she never gets married or she loses her husband or something—“She needs to have something to fall back on if she needs to support herself.” I truly don’t think that even the most ardent feminist could be more insulting to homemaking than that (178).
How could we look at our task and think it’s demeaning, or brainless, or small, or a distant second fiddle to the men’s assignment? How could we see that opportunity and then fuss because we wanted to stand in the pulpit or sit in a cubicle instead? (183).
It’s a joy to hold up Rebekah Merkle as an example to my daughters. She is a Christian wife and mother who is at the same time wise, witty, skilled, well-educated, and rock solid on believing and cherishing what God the Creator has revealed about how men and women are equally in the image of God and have different and complementary roles in the home and the church.
REASON 4: HER BOOK IS MOTIVATING
Some complementarians focus on defending complementarianism against evangelical feminism. I’m thinking of Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than One Hundred Disputed Questions, an 856-page encyclopedia that responds to egalitarian arguments. That’s a helpful book (and I require my seminary students to read it!). But we also need resources that focus on going on the offense. We need resources that don’t simply defend a view of men and women that is traditional and countercultural; we need resources that show that complementarianism is beautiful. That’s what Rebekah Merkle does in Eve in Exile.
You cannot treat a racehorse like a doll and hope for the best. You cannot use a knife as a can opener and expect awesome results. And women were created by God to run. To charge at things. To work like crazy. I think this is actually why women can be incredibly successful in the corporate world—because, contrary to the beliefs of traditionalists who think that “weaker vessel” means that women are too tender to do anything much, women are actually capable of killing themselves for others (104).
It’s all too easy for us to work in order that we may have leisure, rather than working because we’re convinced that we’re building something phenomenal—and that mindset makes absolutely all the difference in the world. It is the difference between the employee and the boss, the hired help and the entrepreneur, the servant and the free man. Imagine a woman who aims to get through all her housekeeping jobs as fast as possible so that she can enjoy her afternoons at the gym or on Facebook or whatever. That’s a woman who will be looking for every corner she can possibly cut—from what kinds of recipes she picks to the kind of furniture she buys. She is acting like an employee fulfilling the duties that were prescribed by another—and as long as she tags the bases, no one can complain or ding her on her performance evaluation. Now imagine another woman who is owning her job as a housewife, who is convinced that it is culturally transformative work, and who sees the scope of her work as absolutely vast. Those are two women who are approaching nearly every task completely differently, and they will achieve very different things (141–42).
Her thesis: “There is truly unlimited scope for us to excel in the realm of homemaking” (153)—whether that involves food or clothing or the home itself (153–65).
My wife, Jenni, first listened to the book during the busy Christmas season last year—a season that can be debilitating for homeschool moms who on top of everything else feel pressure to make Christmas memories happy ones! Jenni shared that Merkle motivated her to rise to the challenge and to enjoy it—the sort of enjoyment an athlete gets when he gives everything he’s got in a playoff game.
Be the glory of your husband. Be the concentrated, intoxicating, incarnate poetry that tells the story of death and resurrection, and then throw yourself into the task of glorifying. Be fruitful. Build your house. Work hard. Be ambitious. Be productive. Learn more. Run harder. Take the gifts God has given you, the desires He has given you, the constraints that He has given you, and then figure out how to weave those into something glorious, something compelling, a beautiful aroma that can’t be contained and that beckons a broken world to come and taste, to see that the Lord is good (195).
The book motivates men, too. It motivates us husbands to love and lead our wives and daughters so that they flourish as God intends. It motivates us pastors to shepherd the women in our flocks so that they flourish as God intends.