Kate Bowler began to take an interest in the role of evangelical women as a 14-year-old at Mennonite Bible camp.
Only men preached at nightly gatherings, she noticed. And only men were allowed to baptize and serve Communion. Women were relegated to singing, praying and the occasional informal speaking roles.
One day she would return as “a lady James Dobson,” she imagined.
Instead, as many of her ardent followers now know, she became a historian of American Christianity — a rising star after penning her first book on the prosperity gospel and then receiving a diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer.
Her second scholarly book, “The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities,” was written mostly in the corridors of Duke Hospital. The book, which looks at the women who carved wildly successful perches of unofficial power, has finally been published and it comes after her own wildly successful “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” a memoir of her struggle with cancer.
“The Preacher’s Wife” may be scholarly, but it’s an entirely accessible account of the influence of female co-pastors, Bible teachers, authors, speakers and life coaches — people
As Bowler shows, these women — without any kind of theological credentials and while toeing the line of the subservient wife — were as successful as their husbands in the capitalist marketplace of sold-out arenas, best-selling books and stratospheric social media followings.
Religion News Service caught up with Bowler in her off-campus office, about a mile and a half from Duke Divinity School, where she works on her Everything Happens podcast and book club when she’s not teaching. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
How are you doing?
I’m doing really well comparatively. My illness has moved from a crisis to a chronic situation. So it sets a different horizon, where I have episodic scans and episodic terror and patching it together in the middle.
This book was written in between surgeries. Why did you continue?
I had to figure out, “Do you write a long-winded historical book in your free time during that period?” For other people it would have seemed like a waste. But we all need to figure out what our gifts are. For me, I’m best as a historian. I may as well be a historian in that situation.
I did almost all the research before. I wrote the memoir in the middle. The experience on the circuit, talking about (my) book, gave me more awareness and more compassion for the women I wrote about. You feel the weight of words and what public perception feels like. Because like, Who cared before? I was grateful if they ran 500 library copies and sold out.
Do you get the sense that complementarianism is still as strong, or are some of the women you wrote about ready to move on?
It was more performative than a doctrine that was preached. It felt dated to be pro-complementarian. But the performance of yin and yang was ubiquitous. It felt like every woman who was on stage explained where her husband was and how he was very approving of her in that moment, and how she would give it all up in a heartbeat if he just said the word.
One of the most fascinating paradoxes you point out is how evangelical women were so much more successful than women in mainline Protestant churches who are able to pastor churches. What accounts for that?
I don’t think the women who are theologically encouraged to take leadership are equipped with the same set of skills that make evangelical women famous. They’re not rewarded for things like charisma or popular appeal or even producing artifacts for industries. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone encouraging (a female mainline pastor) to have a cheap paperback at Target.
The condescension of the mainline toward things that are deemed popular contributes to insularity. I also think we imagine leadership purely as institutional leadership and give women very small institutions to lead, without much promise of advancement. There’s the sense that there’s a ceiling on what they can accomplish.
I interviewed a lot of female heads of denominations and none of them said it was easy. All of them felt they had to downplay that they were female leaders because they had to prove themselves in an open institutional market where they’re a leader, not a female leader. But then, they forgo all the opportunities that are available for people who do sex-specific marketing. So since most book buyers are female, it makes more sense to play to a female audience. But when you want to be a serious Presbyterian pastor, you’re not going to slap orchids on the front of the cover and yell, ‘This one is for the ladies.’ It puts them in a very weird spot. They have all the education and skills to do it. But they’re not encouraged to test their wares in the market.
Is there something about the culture of proselytism that makes evangelical women so successful?
Totally. Why get people in an arena if you’re not for mass evangelism in some way? I suppose you could tell everyone about the environment. Bring Al Gore back. It’s hard to know what topic they want to listen to in that context.
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Source: Religion News Service