How Rachel Held Evans Beat the Evangelical Decency Police

David Sessions on how Rachel Held Evans beat the evangelical decency police in the fight over her new book.

Just ahead of the book’s release Oct. 30, evangelical author Rachel Held Evans announced that LifeWay Christian Resources had refused to stock her second work, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which describes her humorous year-long attempt to follow the Bible’s rules for women. LifeWay, which is operated by the Southern Baptist Convention, gave no official reason for the censorship, but it wasn’t difficult to guess. Just a few months earlier, Evans had revealed a tangle with her publisher over the word “vagina,” the inclusion of which they feared would be too offensive for Christian bookstores. Evans had allowed other mild profanities (“damn,” “kick-ass”) to be stripped from her manuscript, but she drew the line at “vagina.” Her publisher, Thomas Nelson, allowed her to keep it in, but their fears proved correct.

Ask almost any evangelical writer, musician, or artist who came of age in the past two decades, and he or she will have a similar story. Thanks to a combination of evangelical prudery and corporate anxiety, popular Christian books, music, and films have been part of a totally sterilized landscape. Curse words or mentions of female genitalia weren’t the only things off limits: so was any serious portrayal of evil, suffering, anxiety, or doubt that wasn’t presented in a carefully calculated formula where good and bad were always clearly distinguishable, where pain was always resolved in redemption and hope.

Countless evangelical artists have chafed at the sanitized version of reality imposed by recording and publishing gatekeepers who seemed to live in fear of the waves of Victorian outrage they imagined would come hurtling their way if a single “damn” slipped through the cracks. (LifeWay immediately pulled the 2009 film version of Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side, a hit with evangelicals, when a lone Florida pastor complained about its vulgar language. Other authors faced questions over “masturbation” and “crap shoot.”) To many Christian writers and musicians, this extreme sensitivity seemed like a capitulation to a few overwrought objectors. But with very few exceptions, evangelical cultural producers had no choice but to surrender their creative vision to the censors and conservatives if they wanted to reach a significant audience.

“Christian bookstores have a chokehold on the Christian publishing industry,” Evans wrote after The Blind Side flap. “As a result, the entire Christian industry has been sanitized, while its best artists look elsewhere for publication.”

As the controversy over Evans’s book shows, evangelical publishers and vendors still do their best to shelter their consumers from a depraved world where writers openly refer to their vaginas. But Evans also illustrates the impending collapse of the gatekeepers’ influence. To be sure, she’ll lose a handful of readers who would have picked up her book at LifeWay thanks to its excellent title and cover. But like other book retailers, Christian stores are on their way out. As the Christian blogger Fred Clark wrote, “I don’t think this comes down to LifeWay vs. Rachel. I think it comes down to LifeWay vs. Amazon.” A majority of American readers, including those in fundamentalist bubbles, discover and buy books online. An overwhelming majority of Evans’s fans found her through her blog, not her spot in a Christian catalog or on a retail display table. She’s attracted the attention of the mainstream press and television. To put it mildly, A Year of Biblical Womanhood will do just fine without LifeWay or any other bookstore.

Evans isn’t the first Christian artist to stand up to the decency police and win. In 2009, the Christian record label INO refused to release an album by Derek Webb, a popular singer-songwriter and member of the band Caedmon’s Call, because one if its tracks, questioning anti-gay bigotry, included the word “shit.” The conflict created an Internet sensation, and Webb self-released an uncensored version of the album. INO’s bleeped version failed entirely to blunt the impact of Webb’s lyric, which dominated the Christian media coverage of the album. Again, the gatekeepers lost not only because they had a naive view of what the evangelical market could handle, but because the Internet had provided Webb an even bigger platform than a traditional album release.

The near-overnight transformation of the Christian music industry was the first blow. As recently as the late 1990s, Christian rock was a booming industry that commanded serious attention from evangelical teenagers and young adults. By the early 2000s, the explosion of the Internet, and the arrival of Pitchfork, MySpace, and YouTube, made it easier for Christian teens to explore music outside the evangelical subculture, and more difficult for parents to keep it out. It’s not an overstatement to say the Internet remade the evangelical relationship to pop culture, and spawned a deep backlash to the sanitized, message-driven material that had previously passed for art. The wide-open field cut deeply into Christian rock’s market share, and there was no longer any plausible justification for an industry known to impose “Gods-per-minute” requirements on radio singles. In 2007, CCM, the leading Christian-music magazine, had expanded its focus to include mainstream music; a year later, it folded.

The decline of book publishing has come at a much slower pace, and writers hoping to reach large audiences must still face the formulas and shibboleths of the traditional publishing world. For authors dealing with evangelical publishers, those can involve near-absolute prohibitions on “dirty” language, hostility toward liberal theological views, and intense pressure to deliver a redemptive take-away. But gradually, authors like Evans and Matthew Paul Turner have built loyal followings online, making them less and less dependent on the publishing industry. Those audiences sometimes even take authors’ sides against publishers and distributors, like when Evans’s readers started an online petition to her publisher to keep “vagina” in the manuscript. The Web has not only revealed evangelical publishers’ and distributors’ shallow understanding of their target demographic, but also has given authors the means to circumvent them.

The most recent clashes between Christian artists and industry gatekeepers have ostensibly been over language, but there are usually deeper issues lurking. Evans is treated with hostility by some conservative evangelicals on account of her more liberal view of scriptural interpretation and her explicit opposition to the idea that women should be relegated to submissive roles. There is no doubt that the censorship from LifeWay, which carried Mark Driscoll’s explicit and controversial sex manual Real Marriage, is a sexist double standard.

Similarly, political censorship was beneath the objection to Webb’s profanity: Webb had long been demonized for his lyrical attacks on the Christian right’s alliance with conservative politics. The “offensive” language that ostensibly sparked the censorship was a convenient way to hide the fact that some evangelical businesses suppress certain viewpoints to placate their most conservative customers.

In the Internet age, this kind of capitulation comes across as pointless and absurd, even to certain conservative evangelicals. Like everyone else in the world, they’re used to a constant barrage of information from every source imaginable: acquaintances on Facebook, celebrities on Twitter, mainstream news websites. The evangelical blogosphere frequently hashes out contentious issues.

In that environment of information and debate, a retailer harassing a Christian writer for having a marginally different theological belief, or using an anatomical term for genitals, seems like a something from an era that has all but disappeared. Thankfully for Christians like Evans and Webb, the industries on their backs won’t be far behind.