“The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities” by Kate Bowler

Brooke Ventura
Wednesday, July 29th 2020

In October of 2016, LifeWay retailers announced that they would cease distribution of Jen Hatmaker’s books in response to her controversial statements on support for LGBTQ+ marriage. It was a bold move—Hatmaker’s broad appeal and ardent following made her a New York Times bestselling author whose books continue to generate significant revenue for the Christian publishing industry and attract an enormous following among mainline Christian women. It was not, however, a surprising move—as Kate Bowler documents in her third book, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, there are certain crimes that result in a definitive fracture with the Christian celebrity culture, and Hatmaker committed the biggest one. In deft, attractive prose, she describes the development of the female evangelical celebrity, tracing her origins in the early 20th century Women’s Missionary Auxiliary to her present-day iteration as a Christian Insta influencer (e.g., Rachel Hollis and Jessica Duggar), explaining how “[…] the visible and invisible rules that govern the lives of evangelical women can be mastered and occasionally subverted by those willing to play a difficult long game with handsome rewards and harsh penalties.” (xiv)

According to Bowler (who’s buttressed her assessment with 74 pages of appendices, endnotes and statistics), the successful evangelical woman celebrity (hereafter EWC) is one who has harnessed the tenuous authority of ‘wife and mother’ (either of a pastor or a layman) and coupled it with market branding to create an influential and lucrative platform by which she alternatively (1) supports and establishes her husband’s ministry (both in and out of the church), or (2) grounds her own platform as a bible teacher, musician, or author. As an ordained pastor, she possesses ecclesiastic authority, but little influence (e.g., Susan Gillies or Dr. Jo Hudson); as an unordained bible teacher (e.g., Beth Moore or Lysa TerKeurst), she commands a wide following. As a homemaker, she can be either the power behind the throne (á la Mrs. Norman Vincent Peale or Dorothy Patterson) or a private (yet supportive) guardian of hearth and home (like Ruth Bell Graham). If she possesses musical talent (Arvella Schuller), beauty (Victoria Osteen), or simply a quirky, endearing personality (Tammy Faye Bakker), she adds grace and warmth to her husband’s theological, homiletical, or evangelical substance. Lacking a husband, she can be an influential model of godly womanhood (like Jaci Velásquez and Amy Grant)—until personal developments (like divorce) call her fitness for that role into question. If she experiences a personal tragedy or crisis, her experience can be shared as one to encourage and edify (though it will require an ironclad commitment to telling and re-telling the story of her personal pain and trauma over and over again. No matter which role she occupies, the evangelical woman celebrity must walk an extremely fine line between humble self-effacement and engaging spectacle, domestic guardian and independent woman, earnest Christian and entrepreneurial prodigy. Bowler’s conclusion is that, “The women of megaministry are exceptional, but they are not simply exceptions. They are religious reflections of almost-mythic American ideals of women as wives and mothers, pillars and martyrs, in a culture divided over whether women should lean in or opt out.” (16)

It was an endlessly fascinating read—Bowler takes us on a simultaneous whirlwind tour of both the history of the EWC and the legendary figures that have emerged onto the national stage; from their historic beginnings in the Women’s Mission Auxiliary, suffrage and abolition movements and the televangelistic empire of Tammy Faye Bakker, Jan Crouch, Rexella Van Impe and Mother Angelica to the explosion of CCM artists and publishing industry powerhouses of Jen Hatmaker and Joyce Meyer, explaining how and why it is that the conservative Christian women continue to dominate the market. Perhaps most importantly, she clarifies in painstaking detail the uneasy partnership between broadly ‘Christian’ theology and American branding and marketing. This is the most important takeaway from her book—charisma, beauty, and wit are nowhere listed as fruits of the Spirit, but they are both (1) necessary and sufficient conditions for Christian celebrity, and (2) the greatest dangers to a Christian woman’s platform. She must be charismatic and engaging, but not so much that she makes her power and influence explicit. She has to be beautiful, but not sexy. She needs to be funny, relatable, and (most importantly) tweetable, but she cannot step outside the confines of encouragement and upspeak that signal her willingness to stay in her place.

To be fair, male Christian celebrities face a degree of this pressure as well. Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, etc. regularly appear in tailored suits, hair carefully gelled and teeth gleaming. Their messages / sermons are delivered passionately, peppered with anecdotes and jokes, and their credibility is as much dependent on their roles as husbands and fathers as their wives’. The difference lies not in the nature of the expectation but the degree to which it is applied. Women in conservative Christian circles may not hold ordained office; as such, the authority they hold is necessarily ephemeral and tenuous; the measure of her influence is largely determined by how well she combines the best of what is perceived as ‘godly femininity’. An ordained pastor or elder will certainly see his ministry / platform affected by his charm and physical appearance, but it will rarely be determined by it.[1]

It was gratifying to see the markers of EWC legitimacy clearly articulated in black-and-white—anyone who’s spent any time in a Christian bookstore will almost assuredly recognize the patterns Bowler describes—and it was interesting to learn the inverse relationship between ecclesial authority and ecclesial influence. But it was also slightly gut-wrenching to see the relentless pressure each of these women faced on a national (or international) platform—the need to have every aspect of their life camera-ready at all times, the tact and discretion necessary to be able to navigate the scandal or catastrophe while simultaneously processing your own reaction, the strength of will and character needed to defy expectations in order to speak where your conscience compels you and weather the fallout.

In an interview with Kate Shellnutt for Christianity Today magazine, author Hannah Anderson wrote: “[…] if the majority of female leaders are operating in the marketplace (as opposed to the institutional church), women’s ministry as a whole can reach a point of critical mass where an audience-centric philosophy creates wider expectations about style, topics, and content.” When the message is driven by an undefined union between broad ‘Christian’ theology and market demand, the result is a very fine line that requires a delicate balancing act and provides almost no net to catch the woman’s fall.

Brooke Ventura is a writer. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her family.

[1] There are instances where moral failures on the part of certain celebrity pastors have resulted in the diminishment of the pastor’s platform, but not his ministry (e.g., Tullian Tchividjian and Mark Driscoll).

Wednesday, July 29th 2020

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