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VOL. 37 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 18, 2013

Controversy, fans lift shunned Tennessee writer

By Linda Bryant

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Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans calls herself an evangelical, but she also uses words such as ‘feminist’ and ‘progressive’ to describe various aspects of her spirituality. Hardly a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, Evans says Al Gore makes her nervous and confesses voting for a pro-choice candidate makes her feel uncomfortable.

The Dayton, Tenn.-based author and blogger found herself at the center of a religious controversy in 2012 surrounding her book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master.’’’

To write the book, Evans tried to live according to biblical principles in order to illustrate what worked about the experiment and what didn’t. She made her own clothes, wore head coverings and sat on the roof for penance.

Initially, Evans’ was asked by her publisher, Nashville-based Thomas Nelson Inc., to remove the world “vagina” from her book. Evans reluctantly agreed, but readers were incensed when she wrote about it in her blog and started a petition on Amazon.com. With the support of Thomas Nelson, Evans decided to leave the word in the manuscript.

As a result, Nashville-based LifeWay Christian Resources, the largest distributer of Christian resources in the world, opted not to carry the book. Evans’ story was well-publicized on air and in print.

When asked about the controversy, LifeWay supplied the Nashville Ledger with the following statement:

“LifeWay Christian Resources is not able to comment regarding why specific products are not selected from the thousands we review. However, we select resources that are consistent with the expectations of our customers based on several issues including alignment with evangelical beliefs, how they fit within LifeWay’s values and vision, and past sales by an author. LifeWay carried Mrs. Evans’ first book for two years and sold significantly less than an average of one per store.”

Evans, who is able to make a full-time living from a combination of book sales and speaking fees, says her blog gets around 1 million views a month. She recently weighed in with the Ledger about her work and the controversy surrounding her new book.

Do you think there’s a ‘generation gap’ in the evangelical community?

“I think there is definitely something of a generation gap in the evangelical community. The most common concern I hear among young evangelicals is that they have grown weary of evangelicalism being so closely tied to politics, particularly when their own political views include elements from both conservative and progressive platforms. They may be opposed to abortion, but also concerned with creation care and immigration, for example. So there is a sense among many young evangelicals that the teachings of Jesus cannot be fully represented by a single candidate or platform, and I think that’s a healthy, constructive attitude to have.’’

What was your overall reaction to Lifeway deciding not to distribute your book?

“I was disappointed that Lifeway chose not to carry my book, as I would love to see Christian bookstores carry more books about faith and theology written by women who don’t necessarily fit the mold we associate with women’s devotional material. But, in the end, I suspect the story that emerged around Lifeway’s decision ended up helping me more than hurting me.

“This is because organizations and companies like Lifeway that create a culture of isolationism (and rely on gatekeepers to protect that isolationism) are ill-equipped to handle the Information Age, in which the truth tends to work itself out, often in public forums. And so when I shared my story on my blog, my readers responded with support, and the story was picked up by media outlets around the world.’’

Who is your audience?

“I would say most of them are young adults, ages 18-35, with religious backgrounds. I write for folks who feel out-of-place in their religious communities, especially women who have been told that their passions, callings, and personalities don’t measure up to some amorphous, undefined standard of “biblical womanhood.” (My goal in writing, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,’’ was to address some of those standards.) There are a lot more of us out there than you might think.

What is your experience with Thomas Nelson? How have it supported you?

“My team at Thomas Nelson has been incredibly supportive. Not once have I felt like they’ve tried to silence me or control what I say, and for that I am immensely grateful. I think the folks at Thomas Nelson “get” the fact that the publishing world is changing dramatically as a result of technology, which means I suspect they will not only survive, but also thrive, in this uncertain future.’’