Of course there is conflict from the southern evangelical community with a project like A Year of Biblical Womanhood. And yes, I know it is annoying that every time there is a scandal, we add “Gate” to it, but it quickly became known as Vagina-Gate by the readers of Rachel Held Evans’ blog. Maybe “gate” is a little extra unfortunate when paired with vagina. But I digress. In case you haven’t heard, here’s what happened and what I think about it.
Twice in the book, Rachel uses the word vagina. Once is strictly anatomically when referencing a woman who had been raped. The other is in discussing a youth group experience when she pledged abstinence until marriage, “a promise to God and her vagina.” Her publisher recommended to her to remove the second reference or some Christian bookstores might not carry it. Originally Rachel agreed, bowing to the pressure in order to keep sales up (although how many she would sell to the conservative base anyway I’m not sure). Then she mentioned it on her blog, many of us complained that it was ridiculous suppression, and she decided to leave it in. So it is now nearing release, both vaginas still appear in the book, and LifeWay (one of the largest Christian bookstore chains in the United States) is refusing to sell it.
Apparently these Christians have something against saying the word “vagina.” When I posted about this on Facebook, a friend of mine who teaches in Sweden shared how over there in Sex Ed classes they force the kids to play a game saying the words “penis” and “vagina.” So here’s your challenge, reader: every time I write the word vagina from now on, which will deliberately be a fair bit, say it out loud (maybe not if you’re at work or somewhere else inappropriate). Of course, LifeWay has no problems carrying Bibles which portray incest, rape, polygamy, etc. They also carry far more explicit conservative books like Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage which talks bluntly in graphic terms about things like anal sex, pornography, and sexual role-playing. So it is impossible not to conclude that they are ok with talking about sex in general, as long as it fits with their understanding of it.
It seems pretty clear, then, that there are one of two problems going on here. One option is that the decision-makers, being all men, are afraid of or at least awkward around female sexuality. Unlike those students in Sweden, I guess these men never had to say that dreaded anatomical term. In the same Facebook conversation, my friend suggested that they have Mark Driscoll come and lead them in a vagina game (hey look, I found something I can respect Driscoll for). And to be fair, why would they have had to say it before now? For almost two millennia, a lot of men have had power over the church including and especially over women. We haven’t had to pay attention to vaginas except to know that it is where we stick our penis whenever we want a good time (and I do mean “whenever we” since it was usually entirely our decision). To me, this is the best-case scenario: they simply find it awkward to say it.
The other option is that they’re afraid of the message and the word vagina is simply symbolic of it. I imagine this is the more likely scenario, but I included the first to give them the benefit of the doubt. Men leading in conservative churches don’t have to talk about vaginas because they don’t have to pay attention to those who have them. By allowing the word, but more importantly the message, the decision-makers at LifeWay would be allowing people to see teaching that can find scary. Suddenly men in leadership have to pay attention to the 50% of the population with vaginas. And this one particular member of that 50% is saying something that LifeWay disagreed with, and is saying it gently, lovingly, and intelligently. You can imagine their panic as they realized the strength of her work. What if other women read this and started thinking they could have a voice in Christianity, too? And if women suddenly get a voice, maybe others who are deprived of one will also be willing to stand up? People might catch on to the idea that LifeWay, and the Southern Baptist Convention that runs it, are not the only understanding of truth. To employ the slippery slope argument technique common in conservative Christian circles, this little prophetic book by a proud evangelical could get out of hand really quickly. I get why it is so scary for them: that could shatter their whole system of control. The irony, of course, is that thanks to the availability of the book through other means like Amazon the controversy they’ve created will actually help spread her message faster (see Rob Bell’s Love Wins and the sales that controversy created).
To sum that up, LifeWay is perfectly entitled to make their own decisions about what to carry and what to reject. But we are also entitled to call them out for their attempts to cling to power and how it is hurting many men and women, including themselves in the long run. We are entitled to simply buy it from somewhere else or to read and write blogs about it so that the book’s impact is at least as big except that LifeWay misses out on the profit. We are entitled to walk into LifeWay stores to ask for it so that they know that they’ve lost our business. If we’re so inclined, we’re entitled to peacefully protest with signs in hand proudly proclaiming that those of us who have penises are happy to be equal with those who have vaginas. That last one is mostly joking, but if you do it, please send me photos and I will gladly post them.