Who’s afraid of Rachel Held Evans?

The cover story on the current issue of Christianity Today is “50 Women to Watch.”

Many people seem to have misunderstood that headline. CT meant it in a positive sense — as in “here are a bunch of people you’ll want to keep an eye on because they’re doing interesting things.” But the self-appointed gatekeepers of the evangelical tribe never interpret anything positively. They’re treating this list as if it was a watch-list put out by the tribal Department of Homeland Security. For them, this is a list of “50 Women Against Whom One Must Be Vigilant.”

Denny Burke — Alfalfa to Al Mohler’s Spanky at Southern Baptist seminary — kicked things off by scrutinizing the list for “non-evangelicals” and criticizing CT for treating “high-achieving women excelling in their respective fields as something to be celebrated.”

That’s a no-no for Burke, because in his eyes, women should only be commended for “excelling in roles that the scripture commends.”

And, no, for Burke that doesn’t mean apostles like Junia, deacons like Phoebe, prophets like Huldah and kick-ass military leaders like Deborah. For Burke, “the scripture” is a lot smaller than that. Very, very small. Cramped. Stunted. Tiny.

Burke is particularly irked by the inclusion of Rachel Held Evans in Christianity Today’s list. Well, at first he just seems irked, but then when you read through his own comments in the long thread for his post it’s clear he’s not so much angry as afraid.

This is apparently a thing. Evangelical gatekeepers are scared of Rachel Held Evans. Her next book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, comes out later this month and already they’re panicking. See for example the patriarchal Gospel Coalition’s hatchet-job review, in which designated female complementarion Trillia Newbell slathers on faux-lamentation like a parody of the “it grieves me to write this” passive-aggressiveness that evangelicals resort to when they really hate someone. Or see Al Mohler’s panel discussion defending “Inerrancy,” in which Evans’ book was singled out for supposedly “mocking the Bible.”

This panic is so palpable it’s even getting attention outside of the subcultural bubble. Slate’s Ruth Graham has a rundown of the conservative effort to gin-up some kind of “controversy” over Evans’ book:

What’s oddest about this whole dustup is how uncontroversial Evans’ book is. For most readers, A Year of Biblical Womanhood won’t prompt any pearl-clutching. Its author is a devout Christian, the large Christian publisher Thomas Nelson is publishing it, and Evans calls its content “super-PG” — no bad words, and “not even that aggressively egalitarian or feminist.”

… Evans proudly identifies as evangelical, but not everyone will allow her that label. … Her offenses include insufficient deference to the concept of Biblical inerrancy — the notion that the Bible is completely free of error — and her willingness to serve communion to gay churchgoers.

Graham focuses on the Southern Baptist-controlled LifeWay bookstore chain’s decision not to carry Evans’ book. Graham notes that LifeWay has 160 stores in 26 states and, as one of the largest Christian bookstore chains, it sets the tone for many of its competitors.

That makes LifeWay very influential. They’re like the Border’s of Christian book-selling. And everyone knows it’s impossible for any author to reach any significant audience if Border’s refuses to sell their book … said the marketing analyst in 1994.

Border’s is bankrupt. It’s gone. Amazon.com and the Web killed it just as surely as they are killing the ability of would-be gatekeepers to control and constrain what their congregations are able to read.

LifeWay is bigger and more powerful than Rachel Held Evans. If that were the dynamic here — LifeWay vs. Rachel — then LifeWay might, as Graham fears, succeed at alienating Evans from the evangelical “community she loves and writes for.”

But I don’t think this comes down to LifeWay vs. Rachel. I think it comes down to LifeWay vs. Amazon. Again.

This will simply be a repeat of the same dead-ender logic that caused LifeWay to stop carrying the movie The Blind Side. Here’s what I wrote about that back in July:

More people shop at Amazon. More Southern Baptists shop at Amazon. More conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist Southern Baptists shop at Amazon. Southern Baptist evangelicals are still buying and watching The Blind Side, but LifeWay no longer sees any of the revenue from those sales.

The walls are gone and no one — not even conservative, sheltered, evangelical-leaning-fundamentalist Southern Baptists — needs to go through the gates or the gatekeepers anymore.

I think that’s the real cause of the panic we’re seeing from folks like Burke, Mohler and John Piper. Their control depends on preventing their followers from being exposed to other ideas, but they are no longer able to prevent those followers from accessing those insubordinate ideas because the Web has put them all one click away.

And because the Web exists outside the boundaries of the subculture they control, it also tends to operate according to the rules that govern the wider world. Inside their bubble, “controversy” is used to silence authors and to ban books. Label an author “controversial” and her book becomes viewed as dangerous — as something to avoid. But out here, outside the bubble, controversy sells books.

Evans, then, represents both of the things that terrify them. First, she’s a smart, engaging, outspoken woman who knows the Bible, and as such her words must be kept from reaching the flocks these gatekeepers are fleecing. And second, she’s a Web-savvy writer who has risen to prominence through her blog and through Twitter — the media forms these gatekeepers haven’t yet figured out how to constrict and control. She’s kind of their worst nightmare.

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  • Morilore

    And second, she’s a Web-savvy writer who has risen to prominence through her blog and through Twitter — the media forms these gatekeepers haven’t yet figured out how to constrict and control. 

    Here’s hoping that the Christian misogynists don’t swap notes with the atheist misogynists who have their own set of tactics for silencing women online.  Although maybe Rachel Held Evans has already experienced that.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I watched the comment thread on Burke’s post evolve, and found it bloody ridiculous and plain arseholish the way he “defines” RHE.

    Commenter: Rachel Held Evans — what do you mean, “non-evangelical”?

    Burke: The article identifies her a “post-evangelical.” Did you think she was an evangelical? She’s very clearly established herself as a theological liberal on a whole range of issues.

    Burke again: I would just argue that evangelical ought to denote a convictional position. Bebbington’s approach is still useful here. And on that framework, Evans is not convictionally an evangelical, despite her past associations with the movement. I would be very surprised if she self-identifies as an evangelical. I don’t think she does, even though she pitches her writings to evangelicals.

    RHE (after several people have weighed in):
    I identify as evangelical – like it or not.
    Committed to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.High view of Scripture.Always reforming.Faith is very personal to me, but also has implications for the world.Visiting churches currently – Methodist, Episcopal, Bible
    Also, I don’t think there is anything wrong with celebrating high-achieving women excelling in their respective fields. And it makes me sad that you do.

    Burke: I stand corrected. I speculated that you would not self-identify as an evangelical. Obviously, you do. Having said that, I think you and I have really different views about what an evangelical is.

    Thence lots of faffing about egalitarians, who I read to understand are a bad thing apparently

    Tough luck everyone; your identity is whatever Burke decides it to be, not what you identify as. He also has the magic ability to know your inner convictions, so don’t come close with thoughts you want to stay hidden.

    What a berk.

  • mcc

    What Fred doesn’t see fit to mention– I assume because it doesn’t fit his thesis– is that Rachel Held Evans is a *vampire*. Conservative evangelicals are right to be afraid of her.

  • SketchesbyBoze

    Rachel Held Evans is a vampire? I will embrace this new allegation with a minimum of research or reflection!

  • SketchesbyBoze

    I like the part of the Slate article where the author points out the uncomfortable fact that Mark Driscoll’s  book includes casual, bantering mentions of inappropriate body parts also. What the author of the Slate article is of course forgetting is that Mark Driscoll is a manly manly man, and Rachel Held Evans is a brazen hussy.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    But don’t all Evangelicals have crosses?  They should be fine.

  • Nick Coller

    Which is fitting, considering this newfound knowledge means that RHE has no reflection at all…

  • I thought most religious vampires were old-school Catholic, like good old Clan Lasombra. Evangelical vampires? I suspect the Mormons might have Clan Tremere ties, what with the Amway-style pyramid structure, but can’t think of any vampire types corresponding to evangelicals.

    (Sorry, had to use old WOD because that’s what I know best…)

  • minimum of…reflection

    I see what you did there. 

  • …Elaborate, please? oO

    EDIT: Ok, so it was clearly a joke, and I would’ve known that had I updated this page before replying. The cost of opening 4-5 tabs and letting them be up for an hour or so before reading them. My bad.

  • Tom S

    Haha, wow, I read that Burke article when Fred first linked it and couldn’t really penetrate the subculturese well enough to figure out what he (Burke) actually meant- but yup, it’s straight up ‘hey guys you should be more sensitive to the beliefs of those who think women aren’t real people (who are the only real Christians, by the way)

  • Amaryllis

    I read Evolving In Monkey Town, and no, to a non-fundamentalist, it really doesn’t seem that Christianity has anything to fear from Rachel Held Evans. And  I admire her for resolutely refusing to collude in the confusion of “Evangelical” with “Social Conservative” or with “Theological Fundamentalist.” A confusion which isn’t justified by either history or theology.

    She says in that book that graduating from an evangelical Christian college left her armed with answers to questions that no one was asking. And with no answers at all for the questions she was asking herself.

    And yet I’m slowly learning to love the questions, like locked rooms and mysterious books… And slowly I’m learning to live the questions, to follow the teachings of a radical rabbi, to live in an upside-down kingdom in which kings are humbled and servants exalted, to look for God in the eyes of the orphan and the widow, the homeless and the imprisoned, the poor and the sick…serious doubt begins not when we start asking God questions but when, out of fear, we stop.

    No wonder they’re afraid of her.

  • Off topic but I would reconsider thinking of Amazon as “no more walls.”  They are just different walls.  A monopoly (or well, monopsony) is hardly a great equalizer, even though it might seem that way now; Amazon has demonstrated its willingness to not sell entire swaths of books to prove a point.  That hammer can fall wherever, whenever, again.

  • Not a very nice thing to say but modern American evangelicals bear a strong resemblance to  Tzimisce,  Rachel is antitribu of course

    From the wiki

    The Tzimisce value the appearance of many things: the
    appearance of honor, the appearance of generosity, and the appearance of
    authority. So long as the rules of conduct are not forcibly thrown out
    the window, members of the Clan can get away with some truly inhuman
    acts. It should be noted that these rules only apply to the Tzimisce
    themselves; other Clans are on their own, and considered free game for
    anything a Tzimisce wishes to take from them.

    Clan culture has devolved noticably from the ancient days when
    Tzimisce ruled the nights with an iron fist, but offered unconditional
    hospitality to their guests. Now, the tables have turned: Tzimisce rule
    other Tzimisce with an iron fist, and seem to cater to the whims of
    other Clans in order to fulfill their political goals. The ancient fear
    of diablerie is present nightly in the Clan. If rumors are true, elder
    Tzimisce not only have to fear their childer, but their own
    cannibalistic Antediluvian, as well. This breeds a society of paranoia
    and jealousy like nothing else on earth. Old Clan Tzimisce are very
    popular as targets, since they tend to rule huge estates, have armies of
    retainers, whole yards of herd-humans, and are of low generation. Oh,
    and they are not protected by the Sabbat. That said, there’s also some
    very good reasons why they’ve managed to survive for the past
    five-hundred-plus years: they rule huge estates, have armies of
    retainers, and are of low generation.

    This dichotomy is prevalent among the Clan, whether New or Old.
    The appearance of a Tzimisce is often genteel, beautiful, intriguing.
    Though many of the youngest generations promote aspects of brutality and
    monstrosity, the Tzimisce who have any real power in the sect must
    cultivate their appearance for the benefit of politics. Typically, this
    contrast of appearance hides an ironic nature: young, demonic-looking
    Tzimisce are often still “too-human”, and use their constant cruelty and
    depravity to conquer their own fears and misgivings. Keep in mind, dear
    reader, that most “shovelheads” were mostly normal humans prior to
    their Embrace – it is the shock of the Creation Rites that drives them
    mad, not their own personalities.

    On the other hand, the elder Tzimisce who make the effort to
    appear more beautiful and human have the darkest, most twisted natures
    of any vampire Clan. They have distanced themselves from anything that
    is human either by pursuing intellect to its highest and most detached
    form, or by giving in to their rabid natures and descending to the level
    of the Beast. Either way, even the most degraded Tzimisce knows that
    the best way to capture prey is to present a beguiling face.

  • Carstonio

    I wish Fred had gone further and condemned not only Burke’s cramped view of scripture but also the idea of limiting the sexes to certain roles. Imagine if Burke had said that African-American evangelical writers should only be commended when they hew to scripture-defined roles for different ethnicities.

  • Jim Roberts

    Mordicai, it was implicit in Fred’s post, but not explicit: anytime you’re getting a product through at third party, there’s always the potential for a barrier. What he’s talking about here is specifically the lack of walls around the Christian conservatives that Burke and company are trying to shelter – while Amazon has acted as a censor before, they typically did so for business reasons. In the past when they’ve been pressured by the right-wing religious community to surpress a book, they’ve promoted it to the front page. More controversy = more sales.

  • This explains why I’ve never seen her eating garlic!

  • Victor

    Fred, I’ve read a great deal of this post and to be honest, “IT” confuses me and scares the hell out of me so forgive me if  “I” don’t read “IT” all.

    My questions is why can’t we simply focus on “The Christian Family” and learn to love each other and in doing so, we might start learning to love GOD (Good Old Dad) so…….


    “I’M” sorry sinner vic! What didn’t you understand?

    Look Victor! You’re just as bad as those other male show off who want recognize U>S and we’ve gone along with “IT”, (your sillyness) for too long NOW! We’ve let you even call U>S (usual sinners) but you’ve gone way too far when you try to hold back our female godly cells and we’re not going to stand for “IT” any longer.

    Come on sinner vic! Don’t be like that! Be nice NOW! Are we not all in some way a part of “The Body of Christ”? Please let’s put away our hatred and enjoy “The Fruits that Christ gave all of U>S. and then….

    Ya then you men will start thinking that we Christian woman and our vagina don’t really count for anything! So what do you want from U>S Victor? A Fruit, Un Fruit and/or a simple  fruitcake? Forget “IT” Victor cause we’ve got an agenda and until we’ve gone around the world educating these silly countries who don’t know how to treat their Christian woman, well long story short, come hell or high water, we’ll make “IT” clear to all woman haters that a vagina is more important than a simple penis and personally Victor, our 92% reality spiritual  body cells are really tired of trying to educate cellfish males as yourself on “biblical womanhood” and that’s all we’re going to say for NOW period

    Forgive this (A)nnoying (S)uper (S)inner folks cause he’s not so much angry as she is afraid.!

    GO Figure!


  • Gelliebean

    More and more, I’m seeing so many of the significant problems in the church as attempts by humans to limit God.  If love is a blessing and a gift from God, who can I be to demand that He limit it to only the people I find acceptable?  And if spiritual discernment and teaching is a gift and a calling, what right do I have (or anybody else who is a fallible human) to declare that gift unsuitable for someone He has chosen?

    Even in the Bible, God was known to change His mind on occasion.  I don’t find it unreasonable to believe that the same may be true in the intervening time from then till now, even if one believes that the ‘clobber’ verses as they stood at the time they were written mean exactly the same thing as the many years of translation/interpretation/reinterpretation have given them to be understood today.  And I’m not all convinced that the interpretation today has it exactly right, either.  :-p

  • Fred, you hit the nail on the head. It’s about control, and the Reformed/Southern Baptist/conservative evangelical branches of Christendom are panicking because they have totally lost control. I’ve experienced the same sort of thing, though my platform and reputation aren’t nearly as prominent as Rachel’s. My own church (now former church) leaders called me into multiple meetings to try to shut me up. Not coincidentally, they are Southern Baptist Moehler followers. :( 

    Thank you for drawing attention to ugly underbelly of the conservative “concern” about Rachel’s book. As I told her recently, the more controversy around her book, the more it will sell. Now if Mark Driscoll would just wave it around and condemn it, her book will be a best-seller!

  • One reason I use Barnes and Noble (I’m not trying to say B&N, nor any other single bookseller, is necessarily better, but rather that we NEED to ensure that no single bookseller has a total stranglehold on the industry).

  • Carstonio

    The rise of the religious right in the 1970s was essentially a rebranding of the opposition to civil rights. From the beginning the movement was about opposition to gender equality as well. Men like Mohler and Burke sound as if they would express puzzled disbelief that anyone would object to white Protestant men being the nation’s de facto aristocracy, but that’s only my suspicion.

  • Tricksteron

    Atheist mysoginists?  examples please?  Not aiming to mock or argue, genuinely curious.

  • myeck waters

    Tricksteron, google “elevatorgate” and be prepared to need brain bleach.

  • Jim Roberts

    To be fair, a number of prominent “internet atheists” came down on the side of the (completely non-supernatural) angels on that one, but, yeesh, that was a mess.

  • Jennrenee

    I think another aspect is that Rachel is pointing out the emptiness of the Chrisian self-help approach, in which you must constantly “fix” yourself and your family until you match the stereotypical “perfect” Christian. Lifeway has multiple books based on the idea that Chrisians (especially women) must fit an impossible mode. They throw away references to grace and forgivenesss while stressing you need to follow ther plan or you’ll be divorced with children in rebellion. Never mind that no one really fits that model.

    It turns Christianity into hiding yourself with a heavy dose of self-hatred, instead of a loving God who loves and forgives. A public untrue face that turns others off.

  • I have to laugh that anyone could possibly be surprised by this.

    Oh, Fred. I’ve been scaring people since I was a teenager, simply because I have always refused to pretend I was anything other than a person. Women who don’t shut up, smile, and take it get used to this. 

    Every time I say something they find hard to hear
    They chalk it up to my anger and never to their own fear
    Imagine you’re a girl
    Just trying to finally come clean
    Knowing full well they prefer you dirty
    And smiling.

    ~ Ani Difranco, “Not a Pretty Girl”

  • Saffi

    Even better, use an independent neighborhood book store.  Alas, this option is becoming less and less available for too many people.

  • Saffi

    When Fred wrote —

    “Denny Burke …kicked things off by …criticizing CT for treating “high-achieving women excelling in their respective fields as something to be celebrated.” “– I had to click through on the link.  Sure Fred must have misunderstood somehow.  But no, Burke is ACTUALLY CRITICIZING WOMEN FOR EXCELLENCE.  The mind boggles.

  • JustoneK

    Misogyny is another axis (mostly) independent of religion.  Assholes are everywhere, dood.

  • AnonymousSam

    Definitely not better. Lately, every time I look up my favorite authors, I have to double-check what it is I’m looking at because B&N is not adverse to selling the first couple of chapters of a book under a new title for the same price as the book itself, sometimes more.

    Then again, the site I had considered superior– Biblio.com –misled me the other day with a title that would have done ebay sellers proud. “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (Harry Potter book series book six Harry Potter series softcover Harry Potter movpost)”

    “Movpost” means it was a Scholastic book of about 15 pages with pictures of the actors from the movies. $3.98 down the drain.

  • I read Rachel’s new book and there is absolutely nothing radical in it. All of her theology can be found in plenty of evangelical seminaries committed to the authority and inspiration of the scripture. The only difference is that she’s a woman, and those who find her threatening will continue to put up their walls and create their own irrelevance. 

  • AnonaMiss

     Fuck off Victor, nobody’s trying to persecute you for being male. Reread Fred’s article on the Persecuted Hegemon.

  • No one is afraid of Rachel. Just annoyed by her preciousness and self-righteous pronouncements.

  • vsm

    Wow, Richard Dawkins is an asshole.

  • Lori

    If being precious and self-righteous is now cause for being deemed not an evangelical then based on my experience I can only assume that there are very few evangelicals left in the world.

  • What a sad little try on your part.

  • Meh, the tactics are all the same. Misogynists are not original people. 

  • 2-D Man

    You understood Victor’s wall of bizarre ranting? …How?

  •  Um – it’s Rachel *Maddow* who’s the lesbian vampire, not RHE.

    (I know Paul Day, the comedian who started the “Maddow is a lesbian vampire” thing in his satirical persona of Billybob Neck – great guy, although I always thought Billybob was not quite over-the-top enough – he got hit by Poe’s Law way too often).

  • Josh McDowell flat out said the internet is the greatest threat, precisely because people could go get information for themselves from others you disagree with.

    It’s the exact same reason people didn’t want the Bible itself translated into other languages. Then anyone could read it!

    When I was evangelical, I was in a band Global Wave System, it was Christian industrial, and we got banned too from Christian bookstores. And the more conservative christians thought we sounded “evil”.  I at least took it as a sign we were doing something right, that plus the letters we received from people who were moved.

    No sort of prohibition or control has ever worked. The only thing that ever works is you have to be more convincing.

  •  So totally with you on the Amazon thing. That’s why I refuse to use the kdp select program. They’re only offering preferential terms for exclusivity in order to destroy their competitors.

  • Mark Z.

    Burke’s rhetoric goes like this: There’s a dispute in the evangelical community about the role of women. “Complementarianism” is a legitimate position on that question. Since it’s an ongoing dispute, Christianity Today should report neutrally on it without taking sides, and celebrating the real achievements of women is taking sides, because obviously one faction would like those women to be recognized and the other side would prefer them not to exist at all.

    In other words, he’s figured out how to use teach-the-controversy phony neutrality as a sword. Good for him.

  • Morilore

    In addition to “elevatorgate,” consider the tsunami of harassment that Jen McCreight, just to pick one example, has received.  Google “atheism plus” and “blag hag.”

  •  I was wondering the same thing.

  • LL

    Damn, I clicked on that Denny Burke link just to see if it said what you have here — and it does.  

    So I guess if you’re a woman and you’re not excelling in the fields of laundry, cooking, cleaning, food shopping, gestating and childcare, you deserve no special mention. Or, maybe, if you’re excelling in something besides those things. If you excel in the womany things but nothing else, RTC Seal of Approval for you! But if you excel in something besides those, well, let’s not speak of it, you really should be in the kitchen making a sammich for someone, preferably a male person. 

    Well, we can’t say that they’re subtle, so we were fooled into thinking they are decent people, or anything like that. They’re pretty up-front about how awful they are. I guess that’s something to be grateful for. 

  • LL

    This. It read as if someone was having a stroke while typing. 

  • “Josh McDowell flat out said the internet is the greatest threat, precisely because people could go get information for themselves from others you disagree with.”

    I’ve noticed a huge wave of anti-internet sentiment on conservative-leaning Christian blogs for women recently.  “Stop spending so much time on the internet and more time with your kids!”  Because, of course, pre-internet all anybody did was stare meaningfully into the eyes of their children.  I can’t help but think that the root impulse isn’t the desire to have people connect with their children more, but rather to keep people away from “heretical” ideas.

  • I agree.  And I will admit that I find a certain irony in someone employed by the IRD suggesting that self-righteous pronouncements are a source of annoyance.

  • Tricksteron

    I’ve known some cool vamps both psychic and fetishistic.