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

RHE Project Rachel Vs Rachel
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.

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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.


Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004.He is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. Christian has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due DateVisit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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About the Author

Christian Piatt

Christian PiattChristian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004.He is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. Christian has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date. Visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.View all posts by Christian Piatt →

  • http://www.facebook.com/rickmcopy Rick Middleton

    Is it an issue about female sexuality, or just sexuality in general? The impression I get from Christian bookstores is that they cling to a sanitized, 1950s view of the world — they offer preachy-silly children’s products, gobs of lousy but clean fiction, and nothing edgy. Evans’ book was written for adults and had the V-word, and this didn’t fit into the Norman Rockwell/Leave it to Beaver ethos that pervades the Christian product industry. It speaks volumes about the juvenile immaturity of the modern evangelical mind, I think.

    • Jordan Bradford

      No, because LifeWay carries Mark Driscoll’s recent book “Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together” which contains explicit discussions about specific sexual acts in the chapter entitled “Can We __?” But it also has a chapter called “The Respectful Wife,” so maybe that’s LifeWay accepted Driscoll’s book and not Evans’…if LifeWay is indeed an organization that wants to promote a patriarchal theology.

      • SamHamilton

        deleted, double post

      • SamHamilton

        I wonder why Rick hasn’t responded to your well-made counter-point.

  • Mike Ward

    This is from Evans’ own site on the page linked from the above article:
    “5. Did Lifeway really ban your book because you used the word ‘vagina’?
    We don’t know exactly why Lifeway will not be carrying A Year of Biblical Womanhood. My editor had warned me that if I left the word ‘vagina’ in the book, it might not be carried by the Christian bookstore. I left it in anyway, and sure enough, Lifeway chose not to carry it in stores. But it’s important to note that this could be a result of many other factors besides ‘vaginagate.’ And, of course, Lifeway has the right to carry whatever books they please.”
    But now there is a concerted effort in various parts of the interent attacking Lifeway for banning the book because of the word “vagina” even though Evans’ herself admits that she does not know why Lifeway chose not to carry it.
    This has very little to do with the word “vagina” and a lot to do with the long-standing antagonism between Lifeway and that segment of Christians who are hostile toward Lifeway for promoting a Christian world-view which is different from the Christian world-view that they themselves promote.

    • Jordan Bradford

      Indeed. I suspect LifeWay’s refusal to carry the book is more about Evan’s theology that she conveys throughout the book than about the use of one particular word.

    • SamHamilton

      Good points. I suspect the bloggers promoting Held-Evans book know the more they play up the vagina angle the more attention their blog posts, and the book, will get.

      • TT

        There was an article on Christianity Today which showed that Lifeway carries plenty of books which include the word vagina. I don’t Christian Piatt or anyone else should be saying or implying that Lifeway has some sort of ban on the word.

        • SamHamilton

          Thanks for the heads up on the article. I don’t think it’ll stop Piatt and others from promoting VAGINA-GATE! to create controversy, draw eyeballs to their blog posts and perpetuate the stereotype of uptight, puritanical Christians.

  • Jason Bowker

    I think it is funny that Lifeway’s ban is undoubtedly going to to result in more publicity and possibly more book sales than if they would have just allowed the book in their stores. Much like John Piper’s infamous “Fare well, Rob Bell” tweet ignited a fire that ultimately led to more readers than if he would have stayed silent. There’s no PR like a banned book. We want to read what someone says we can’t or shouldn’t.

    • SamHamilton

      That’s the way things usually work. The protester gives more attention to the item being protested than it was ever going to get.

      I wonder if Piatt and others zeroing in on the vagina issue is also a way to gain publicity for the book. It’s all just presumption that this was why the book was banned, but they’re all talking about vaginas as if that is the main issue, which gets people’s attention. “Christian Bookstore Refuses to Carry Held-Evans Book” doesn’t exactly attract all that attention on the internets, but slap “VAGINA-GATE” on a blog post, now that’ll wake people up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Craig.Emerson.Thompson Craig Thompson

    Did Lifeway say that the use of the word vagina is why they won’t carry the book? Or is that just speculation on your part? Maybe they think the book wouldn’t sell in their stores so why waste the shelf space? Oops looks like others thought of this first. Oh well

    • SamHamilton

      Did Lifeway say that the use of the word vagina is why they won’t carry the book? Or is that just speculation on your part?

      Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer to this question… It’s much more fun to mock Christian “puritans” who supposedly blanche at the word “vagina” than it is to determine the truth.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with Mike Ward’s and Jordan Bradford’s comments. It has more to do with worldview than with a particular word.

    But judging from the Amazon ranking today (#3 in Theology books), all of the kerfuffle is working!

  • keith

    I read down to this passage which suggests that you, somehow, think that God was so stupid that he CHOSE 12 men to write those passages you are berrating in this article. Once again, you think you are smarter than God and I would love to be there when you ridicule him for CHOOSING 12 MEN to spread his word and that he allowed those MEN to write things about women…lolllllllll It just keeps getting better the more these progressives push the boundaries. Watch out, there is an edge to your cliff ;)
    “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”.

    • Josh

      It’s always great seeing all these men like Keith defending God’s chosen gender.

  • Alastair Shaw

    I don’t think much of the Lifeway decision, but this post is hardly an adequate response. What a flimsy article. It reads like the kind of rant you might find in a high school essay.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DeepNarcosis William J. Green

    Women in the West are freer than they’ve ever been in history. Prima facie this is a good thing. Or is it? If life was lived within a series of “bubbles” with each bubble having no connection to or influence on any other bubbles we could declare Nirvana, or heaven on earth. Women have come a long way, baby, and they’ve got the vaginas to prove it.

    But since we don’t live in a bubble world and cause and effect, and correlation: positive and negative exist, what has been the cost of all this freedom, emancipation, and the nostrums about the liberating power of vaginas? Asked another way, how pleased and glorified is God given the following:

    1) Forty-one percent of babies born in the U.S. are born to unwed mothers.

    2) Annually, expectant mothers who have liberally welcomed penises into their vaginas annihilate 1,300,000 prenatal babies formed in the Imago Dei within the God-given sanctity of their uteri; over 55,000,000 since 1973′s Roe v Wade — one of the worst and most un-Godly pieces of jurisprudence in our nation’s history.

    3) The general fertility rate (63.3 per 1,000 women age 15-44 years) in 2011 declined to the lowest rate ever reported for the United States.

    4) The fertility rate of the total U.S. population is at the replacement level of about 2.1 children per woman. However, the fertility of the population of the United States is below replacement among those native born, and above replacement among immigrant families.

    5) The poverty rate for women was 14.6 percent in 2011; 17.7 million women were living in poverty in 2011.

    6) The poverty rate for black women was 25.9 percent in 2011.

    7) The most lethal locale for Blacks is their own mothers’ wombs, not the mean streets of inner-city ghettos or prison.

    8) Among women who head families, 4 in 10 (40.9 percent) lived in poverty in 2011.

    9) The child poverty rate was 21.9 percent in 2011; more than half (58.0 percent) of poor children lived in female-headed families in 2011.

    10) Twenty-six percent of American women are on some kind of mental-health medication for anxiety and depression and related problems.

    11) Using 35 years of data from the General Social Survey, two Wharton School economists, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, made the case in 2009 that women’s happiness appeared to be DECLINING over time despite their advances in the work force and education.

    12) In support of number 11 and in refutation of the myth that women are HAPPIER as a result of the Sexual Revolution, Mary Eberstadt recently asked:

    a) Why do the pages of our tonier magazines brim with mournful titles like “The Case for Settling” and “The End of Men”? Why do websites run by and for women focus so much on men who won’t grow up, and ooze such despair about relations between the sexes?

    b) Why do so many accomplished women simply give up these days and decide to have children on their own, sometimes using anonymous sperm donors, thus creating the world’s first purposely fatherless children?

    c) Ms. Eberstadt concludes with, “However one looks at the situation, it seems difficult to argue that the results of the (SEXUAL) revolution have been a slam-dunk for happiness.”

    If it hasn’t become apparent by now let me make it so. My presupposition has been that talking vaginas — whether giving monologues or paeaning panaceas for vaginal oppression — and the Sexual Revolution have been virtually synonymous. And the rotten fruits have been mixed at best within the secular world, and horrific at worst within the Kingdom of God.

    Perhaps, having been so outspoken and unbiased in the lodging they’ve provided to wayfarers unruly and un-Holy, vaginas would do well to retreat awhile and reconsider their raison d’etre and the best role for them in the sexually mangled, socially screwed up economic maelstrom that has been their 15 minutes of public fame in contrast to their eons of service to the pleasure and perpetuation of the human race.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304724404577297422171909202.html

    http://ricochet.com/main-feed/Has-Sexual-Liberation-Made-Women-Happy

    • Drew

      I know you probably failed Sex Ed, along with Economics and Government, but I hope you do realize it takes a man to procreate as well, correct?

    • Questioning

      and your point is?

  • Abe

    I take issue with the comment mentioned in passing, “like when she
    has to live outside in a tent while menstruating (an actual Biblical
    requirement, mind you).” Very briefly: There is no biblical requirement, at least as far as Hebrew scriptures are concerned, for a woman to live “outside in a tent.” In the Bible, menstruating women lived apart from their families and thus many moved out to other tents, recall that the biblical patriarchs being described all lived in tents! There would be no issue for the woman to move into a stone dwelling if she so chose and there was one available, or to a five-star hotel if the family could afford it. As an aside to this comment, menstruating women would not engage in any work during the period of their period, frequently having other clansmen cook their food for them, so in a sense, menstruating women were on vacation and lounged about through the day.

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