On Rachel Held Evans and Why “Vagina-gate” Matters

On Rachel Held Evans and Why “Vagina-gate” Matters October 18, 2012

Some may be aware of the dust kicked up around Rachel Held Evans‘ new book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” but in case you’re unfamiliar with the “vagina-gate” phenomenon, let me catch you up.

For starters, I think the whole name for the phenomenon is a little bit unfortunate. Yes, I know that every time something seems to be a little bit scandalous or sensational, we have to attach “gate” to the end of it, but the phrase “vagina-gate” is more than a little intimidating for a guy like me. The female body is mysterious enough for me without adding gates or other prohibitive means of access, thank you very much.

Okay, now I’ll be serious.

Basically, Rachel Held Evans is one of the better known Christian writers in mainline and progressive circles these days. Her new book examines what it would mean to live life as a woman according to the Biblical laws for a year. It’s in the vein of books like AJ Jacobs‘ “The Year of Living Biblically” and other “human guinea pig” projects. The book is funny, thoughtful and empowering for women seeking to understand where they fit within a faith that has largely been controlled by men for centuries.

In talking about feminine identity and sexuality as part of the project, Evans speaks plainly about many things addressed in the Bible, including how and when certain parts of the female anatomy should be employed in the company of men, and so on. In doing so, she uses “grownup” words to talk about things like (gasp!) vaginas.

Yes, a Christian book with the word “vagina” in it. That’s what the fuss is all about. And because the word is in her book, the Christian bookstore chain Lifeway has refused to carry her book. We had Rachel on our Homebrewed Christianity CultureCast a few weeks ago to talk a bit about this, and since then, the story has been picked up by Slate, Huffington Post and apparently the Today Show in the near future.

Full disclosure: we heard about the issue first from Matthew Paul Turner, so far be it from us to claim to have broken the story.

I should say up front that I believe LifeWay, a private nonprofit organization, is within their right to sell or not sell whatever they want. They’ve taken other popular titles off their shelves before, such as Michael Lewis’ Bestseller, “The Blind Side” following complaints from a pastor in Florida. But just because they have the right to control the flow of media through their stores doesn’t mean they’re not open to criticism in doing so.

As one of the largest and most powerful Christian media outlets in American retail, Lifeway has a great deal of power over what people read, and therefore, think and believe. They are connected to the Southern Baptist Convention historically, and tend to be fairly conservative in their social and theological views. But to me the fact that an anatomically proper word like “vagina” is barred from use in any literature in their stores points to a deeper problem within Christianity as a whole.

Though I haven’t personally perused every book in their stores, Rachel Held Evans noted in our interview with her that the word “penis” is used more than once in Lifeway-carried books, so why is it that “vagina” is particularly scandalous? My response was that it’s because the folks with penises are likely the ones making the rules, as has been the case in Christianity since, well, the beginning of Christianity.

The subjugation of women to a lesser role than that of men is a time-honored endeavor in the faith, and unfortunately, it’s not one that is merely a relic of our past, pointing to a shameful inequity that has since been abandoned. Rather, many churches and denominations explicitly ban women from holding certain positions. Patriarchy, it seems (often argued based on a few select passages from Paul’s New Testament writing) is all part of God’s greater plan for humanity.

The resistance to frank, open talk about feminine sexuality particularly promotes the notion that a woman’s body and sexual identity is somehow bad, dirty or otherwise objectionable. And again, we can look to scripture for examples of women and their sexuality being the downfall of men throughout much of the Bible. How convenient, though, that such passages apparently are written by men.

Rachel Held Evans tries to point to some of these issues in her book, like when she has to live outside in a tent while menstruating (an actual Biblical requirement, mind you), and yet the same systems that hold on to such archaic values has sought to limit her book’s reach. But there’s something even bigger, I think, that this points to.

Yes, such practices indicate the significant barriers women still face in trying to achieve equality within Christianity. But beyond that, this points to a way in which the institutional Church still tires to cling to an old imperial model for controlling how its faithful think, believe and act.

It’s more than a little ironic to me that, although Martin Luther – the father of the Protestant Reformation – sought to break the grasp of power of the Church over individual people’s lives and faith, so many of us who have benefitted from his efforts still seek to do much of what he fought against, five centuries later. Yes, we celebrate the freedom to interpret scripture on our own terms, but only until someone tries to raise women to a level of equality with men. Yes, we value Luther’s emphasis on each person developing a personal relationship with God through study, prayer and worship, but only if it plays within the particular boundaries we establish as acceptable.

In a sense, I think it’s a potentially good thing that this story has raised the eyebrows of so many, because in doing so, it shines a bright light on the very dynamics within organized religion that still seek to control, subjugate and manipulate people in to being what they think God requires. But not all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus feel this way. It’s time for Christians to do what they say they believe when it comes to giving voice to those who have been silenced,  and to empower the marginalized, even if that subjugated group makes up more than half of the world’s population.

And serious props both for Rachel and her publisher, Thomas Nelson, for leaving “vagina” in the book, fully knowing the consequences that might follow. Your book is a light of truth, perhaps in more ways than you had even intended.


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  • Point of clarification: Rachel Held Evans is careful to say (here, for example: http://rachelheldevans.com/biblical-womanhood-faq ) that Lifeway’s reasons for not carrying her book have not been formally announced. It MAY be because of the word “vagnia,” but it’s possible that it’s something else. She traces the cause-and-possible-effect fairly clearly in #5 of the FAQ link.

  • I’m on their launch team so started reading through it. My first blog post that I’m writing right now uses the word “vagina” as much as I could find reasonable excuse to put it in.

  • Waiting for John Piper’s “Farewell Rachel.” Sales will skyrocket.

    • I’d welcome a Farewell from him. Best thing that could ever happen publicity-wise.

  • Ha. I bet Rachel would count it a gift if she were to get a Piperesque “farewell” tweet. I’m a (Jesus-loving) midwife. We cling to the right to use the word vagina. Glad Rachel found a publisher with some courage.

  • SamHamilton

    Has Lifeway ever said that they won’t carry the book because of the word “vagina?” Labeling this affair as “Vagina-gate” seems to be more about getting eyeballs and attention on blogs and books than it is about accurately depicting the heart of the issue here. “Christian bookstore refuses to carry Held-Evans book” doesn’t bring as many viewers to a blog as “Christian bookstore bans book that mentions VAGINA!”

    It’s also a lot easier and more fun to play on the “Christians as puritans” stereotype than actually say “we don’t know why they’re not carrying the book.”

  • Tony

    What!!?? They publish books with the word ‘penis’ in them?? I’ll never buy from them again!!. Not.

  • Tony

    Excellent observations on Church manipulation and control again, Christian. Small wonder the World takes no notice of the Church, innit?

  • It really is sad and sexist that vagina is a bad word in Christian circles. I was posting about sex education on Sonlight forums, (a Christian homeschool curriculum provider) and penis makes it through to the post just fine, but vagina gets turned into a bunch of asterixes, like it is some cuss word or something. I also think it is a nice double standard that Lifeway will sell Mark Driscoll’s book where he goes into his typical adolescent tirades about how anal sex and sex toys are totally cool if you’re married and all men need more wifely strip tease in their lives, (which I find a little more raunchy than “making a pledge to God and my vagina” which was Rachel’s big bad line) but John Piper gives Driscoll the seal of approval, so on the shelf it goes.

    • SamHamilton

      There was no evidence the book was banned because it used the word vagina. Held Evans never says there is.

  • A God Fearing woman and wife

    I am what is termed as a “baby Christian”, being that my conversion happened very recently, so in no way am I assuming to have all the facts or a full Biblical understanding…yet I am struck at how self focused this whole line of thinking is.

    To my understanding, our purpose here on Earth is to serve our Lord. We are bond servants bought at the price of blood, and yet all I seem to read just as little about how to live God serving lives on these blogs as I do on The Independent or The Guardian.

    I believe that egalitarianism feminism is derisive and foolish. There is wisdom in obedience and that submitting to authority does not mean women being treated as lesser or disgusting. Citing Old Testament beliefs that women are unclean during menstruation and must be put out of camp as an example of that is puzzling to me. Didn’t Jesus Christ himself said he was the fulfillment of the Law? Under the New Covenant no Christian woman is bound to any of those OT rules. Questioning the authority of scripture on such grounds as “How convenient, though, that such passages apparently are written by men.” is another puzzling comment. The Holy Bible is the Living Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit himself and written by chosen men. You’re not questioning Paul or Moses when you say something like that, you’re questioning the one true God, and that is a terrifying prospect indeed.

    Titus 3:9-11 says is all far more clearly than anything I could say

    “9 But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. 10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. 11 You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned.”

    • Uh, right. No new Christian talks like that. But anyway, why not? I’ll play along.

      Since you say you are a new Christian, let me tell you what was _not_ told to me when I was a new Christian: submission goes both ways. For all the hammering of Ephesians 5:22 going on, everyone with the XY chromosomes in my churches failed to point out that the verb doesn’t really show up there. The verb “submit” shows up in verse 21, which applies to all believers. We all submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, not this one-sided “submission” which the patriarchalists conveniently opt out of. If submission is so great, they need to get in an do it alongside the womenfolk. But… oh, not manly in their eyes, so no. Now notice, I am not anti-submission. Rather, I am anti-letting power-hungry men opt out of a universal command to do so. Big difference.

      Also, since you say you are a new Christian, why not find out what those of us who have been in much longer have to say? Our female bodies were treated as inherently evil and shameful, and even disgusting. I talked to someone who investigates sexual abuse in the church, and he asked me point-blank if certain Christian groups taught that merely being a woman was a sin. I replied that nobody would say that openly, but everyone definitely acted that way — because that’s what happened. A lot of what is taught as “Biblical” is actually interpretations from people bringing in their own biases, which is why Paul commended the Bereans for searching the Scriptures themselves and not just swallowing what they were taught. Fortunately, other Christians who have searched the Scriptures and who actually do things like “talk to real women” and “ask egalitarians what they really believe” do not readily swallow the anti-woman spiel coming from Fundamentalism and similar forms of Christianity.

      But then, what do I know? I’ve only been a Christian for decades, graduated from a Christian high school and university, and take my faith dead seriously. What would I possibly be able to tell a “new” Christian, right? BTW, you wouldn’t happen to know Poe?

    • zaksmummy

      Citing commandments from the old testament. Womes were “unclean” in that they couldnt go into the Temple to worship during menstruation, in the same way that a man was “unclean” if he had leaked semen in the previous day. This is about ritual purity, and coming close to the total holiness of God, not a criticism of the person, or making them out to be a second class citizen.

      I have always found It helpful to have an understanding of Jewish culture and practices, to fully understand how the commandments were lived out.

    • Donde

      Nicely said, “Baby Christian” Some of the more “mature” could learn a thing or two from you, like reading the bible! Thanks!