The women who remake popular religion into a women’s playground

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October 13, 2019
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October 13, 2019

The women who remake popular religion into a women’s playground

The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities by Kate Bowler, Princeton University Press, US $29.95, Pp 340, October 2019, ISBN 978-0691179612

Like in most world religions, women usually have only small roles in the Christian church such as nuns. The reason is that, like in any other major religion, the Christian traditions bar women from ordained ministry and high-profile roles. In the 1970s, a new female evangelical figure emerged on the scene — the celebrity preacher’s wife. Many evangelical women followed this path to power in defiance of Christian history and tradition. This is an unofficial position, outside the church. These evangelical stars — such as Beth Meyer, Joyce Meyer, and Victoria Osteen — write best-selling spiritual books, appear on Christian TV and radio channels. This is their way of preaching. In The Preacher’s Wife, leading historian of religion Kate Bowler offers revealing portraits of these female evangelical women who have to struggle within the male-dominated faiths. Some of these evangelical women stand alone while others stand next to their husbands. They are pretty but not immodest; they may be vulnerable to sin but not deviant. The black evangelical women wage an uphill struggle. They may have broken the glass ceiling of Christian establishment, they are still denied the pulpit — the most important symbol of power.

Kate Bowler writes, “She may be the one on the main stage, smiling into the spotlight, telling a lightly worn anecdote as she sets her dog-eared Bible on the podium. She might be seated in the darkened first row, a wide-brimmed Sunday hat nodding up and down, or behind the stage in the green room clucking at her kids to mind their business. She could be the mother, silvered but stately, the matriarch of a charismatic son and the symbol of her bygone generation… This was the presumed order of Christian mega-ministry, the yin, and yang.” Kate Bowler says that these women lived with many forms of power. She says that these women populated network television lineups, megachurch main stages, SiriusXM radio station, Barnes & Noble bookshelves, and stadium events in every major city. They went by many names: pastors, co-pastors, bible teachers, authors, speakers, executive directors, or, more commonly, pastors’ wives, and they pitched their expertise in any number of ways, from women’s ministry directors to teachers, preachers, singers, bloggers, advocates, nutritionists, parenting experts, sex therapists, prophetesses, life coaches and television hosts. Some grew so famous that they, like Oprah, need only one name. Beth, Joyce. Victoria. Jen.

Kate Bowler argues that the success of women in mega-ministry shows how women — especially conservative women — have negotiated places for themselves and re-made popular religion into a women’s playground. One of the most famous Christian women in America sprang from the hard soil of Southern Baptist life. Her name is Beth Moore, and she routinely outsold and outperformed her fellow evangelists as the singular attraction of one of North America’s largest spiritual conferences. What we see in her career is what we find in so many others, that her popularity began as a delicate dance between professed submission to men and implicit independence from them. Continuing the story of Beth Moore, Kate Bowler says that she promised that she was under the authority of make pastors and that she sought to be a leader only of other women, but her constant presence on television made it impossible for her to maintain the appearance of teaching an all-female audience. Her power could never lie in the wooden pulpit of a brick-and-mortar church. Instead, she was a traveling evangelist whose products — books, speaking tours, and bible studies — were among the largest money-makers for LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Without a church, she ruled a theological kingdom.

The central theme of The Preacher’s Wife is the cluster of unlikely women who became stars of American Christianity after the rise of mega-ministry. They were theologically conservative, far lass equipped and encouraged than their liberal counterparts, and confined to a small number of eclectic roles that largely rested on the fame and institutions of others. Boxed in by high expectations of modern Christian womanhood, these women both broke the rules and played their parts, winning wide recognition as the spiritual go-tos for millions of Americans. In effect, conservative women were driven into the marketplace because of the restricted organizational roles they could occupy in their home churches.

The Preacher’s Wife looks at the lives and works of celebrated female evangelical preachers. Kate Bowler sheds a light on one of the most ignored aspects of modern evangelicalism. The Preacher’s Wife is the story of Christian women’s struggle to have better roles in the male-dominated Christian church. Kate Bowler very astutely explores how these women manage their beauty, sexuality, family life and being a celebrity in the man’s world. These celebrated women have posed one of the biggest challenges to church leaders. As a historian and a Christian leader, Kate Bowler has the right credentials to write about this subject. She shows that these celebrity women have to constantly remain on the alert and maintain a difficult balance. They make every effort to not disturb the balance — at least for now. It is a must-read to understand modern evangelicalism and how traditional balance each other.

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