Opinion | Discipleship

Why Female Theologians Take Flak in the Public Square

The potential rewards of celebrity culture are many, but so are the risks.
Why Female Theologians Take Flak in the Public Square
Image: Bonnie Kittle / Unsplash

When Tish Harrison Warren’s article “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?” crossed my Twitter feed last spring, I braced myself for a strong response.

In the piece, Warren claims that the blogosphere has exposed a longstanding authority crisis within evangelicalism, especially for female writers, speakers, and theologians. As a historian of American evangelicalism, I knew that her call for a reestablishment of church authority in the digital age would elicit an intense social media reaction. And it did. Although responses included digital high-fives to Warren for her analysis of evangelicalism, many others (including Christian female bloggers) accused Warren of “elitism, snobbery, sexism” and ugliness.

Our national outrage culture helps explain much of the strength and speed of this response. But there was something more at play in the reaction to Warren’s article. In her critique, Warren called into question what is arguably the most significant source of evangelical authority: celebrity culture.

In many evangelical circles, the biggest star with the biggest audience—usually someone who is populist and speaks in popular parlance—becomes by default the most powerful theologian. Evangelical celebrity status makes popular, public theologians arguably more powerful than university-trained, denominationally vetted, seminary-ensconced “professional” theologians.

It’s a type of democratic authority that appears to place power directly in the hands of lay people. It’s also a tradition within American evangelicalism. Nineteenth century preachers Phoebe Palmer and D. L. Moody displayed and maintained authority through packed revival meetings. Aimee Semple McPherson and Lucy Smith did the same through radio programming in the early 20th century. T. D. Jakes, Beth Moore, Max Lucado, and Joel Osteen have used television.

Celebrity authority is often ridiculed in the academy, but—as everyone from Kim Kardashian to Donald Trump will tell you—this kind of authority can take you places in American society. Bloggers are the latest wave of evangelicals who rally thousands of followers around a specific cause or brand, this time using a hashtag or retweet instead of pamphlets and tracts.

For women who do theology via blogging in the public sphere, celebrity authority offers enticing rewards and extraordinary risks.

There are distinct benefits to using the power of celebrity authority in evangelicalism. For one thing, many female Christian bloggers note that blogging gave them a platform and a voice when their churches did not—a point which Warren makes in her piece. Evangelicals have a long history of excluding women from theological conversation through official prohibitions (based on interpretations of the apostle Paul) and through unofficial, unspoken cultural norms.

For example, liberals and conservatives alike tend to support popular theology done by white men who are bearded, bespectacled, wear corduroy jackets, and are reminiscent of C. S. Lewis. Women—even women who wear corduroy jackets—cannot compete with the kind of public theologian that evangelicals have imagined since reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and long before).

Blogging gives women the tools to circumvent gender discrimination, to celebrate being a woman, and to exchange theological ideas. No wonder it has been so life-giving to so many! If you read popular female bloggers like Ann Voskamp, Rachel Held Evans, Anne Carlson Kennedy, Sarah Bessey, Jen Hatmaker, Club 31 Women, or (winner of my favorite blog title) Mama Bear Apologetics, you will discover a recognizable pattern: (1) A celebration of womanliness (usually in the form of wifedom or motherhood), (2) Theological stories interwoven with personal trials and triumphs of middle-class American (or sometimes Canadian) life, (3) The dissemination of these ideas on a plethora of social media platforms.

The media platforms may be innovative, but here again, Christian female bloggers are following in the footsteps of those who have gone before them. Phoebe Palmer, Lucy Smith, and Aimee Semple McPherson had public personas of wife and/or mother, told personal stories alongside their theological claims, dispensed their ideas with new media, and changed the trajectory of American evangelicalism. So, while evangelicals have a lengthy tradition of excluding women, evangelical women also have an equally lengthy counter-tradition of using celebrity culture to get around the powers that be.

Social media enhances a woman’s ability to become part theologian, part celebrity. Bloggers deliver stories of motherly trials and wifely exasperation, images of middle class (usually white) motherhood or marriage, and theological musings to hundreds of thousands of followers. The reach of their voices, with the reach of the internet, is without historical precedent.

In addition to giving evangelical women a say in contemporary theological conversations, new technologies also make it possible for women to profit from them—for good or for ill. Top celebrity theologians—or even those who identify as “faith bloggers”—are able to translate their work into book sales, television appearances, speaking tours, and more. (It’s worth noting that this applies to only the top; the vast majority of women who blog earn little to no money for the hours they invest in social media labor.)

Take a glance through any popular blogger’s site and you’ll likely see revenue-generating advertisements, lists of paid speaking gigs, and opportunities to buy books and other merchandise. For example, for only $24.98, you can display your status as a “Faithful Woman” and devotee of Club 31 Women, with a coral-colored T-shirt. (You can also get a black t-shirt for your “Faithful Man.”)

Perhaps most importantly, celebrity authority gives bloggers a way to sidestep traditional modes of theological critique. In the early 20th century, seminary-educated liberal Baptist Harry Fosdick used classic academic arguments to speak out against fundamentalists. Conservative evangelist Billy Sunday, who probably never finished high school, criticized liberals with folksy stories and baseball metaphors. In the eyes of his nation-wide audience, Sunday’s approach trumped Fosdick’s hoity-toity theology every time.

Many bloggers today continue this tradition. As seminary-trained, denominationally authorized Warren found, if the authority of an intellectual tradition or denomination is an apple, the authority of thousands of clicks and retweets is an orange. And it’s hard to put apples and oranges in the same conversation.

For example, it’s difficult to counter Natasha Crain’s characterization of progressive Christianity as “feelings over facts” when she is telling you a delightful story about citrus trees in her home garden. And it’s hard to challenge Jen Hatmaker’s analysis of the “Christian Machine” when she identifies her feelings of betrayal and sorrow with the crucifixion of the Christ on Good Friday, in part because her comparison puts the critic in the place of the Son of Man’s executioners.

It’s equally difficult to challenge the authority of an evangelical celebrity with followers of said celebrity, who feel deep personal connections to the women whom they see not only as theological heroes but also as partners in the struggles of parenting, marriage, and other aspects of domestic life. To reject one part of an argument is to “takedown” the entire blogger, it seems, and also the fan of the blogger. Bloggers lose no time in mobilizing their followers; indeed, many social media posts rally celebrity bloggers’ “squads” for or against some critic, cause, or topic.

Of course, bloggers are just the outer edge of this phenomenon. N. T. Wright and John Piper might engage in something like civil debate, but have you ever tried to disagree with a superfan of Wright or Piper? How did that go for you? Not well, I would guess.

Beth Moore, one of the biggest evangelical celebrities around, recently acknowledged the perils facing women seeking to build a platform online. Moore’s blog post demonstrates that the potential rewards of celebrity are many, but so are the risks. One hazard of using personal celebrity as a form of authority is that it naturally leaves you open to personal critique. Female bloggers know this all too well. (You, dear reader, will notice that I have not told you one detail about my personal life in this article and now you know why).

There is a painful double standard for women who theologize in the blogosphere as opposed to men. While it takes accusations of reformulating the doctrine of the Trinity to bring Wayne Grudem’s evangelical orthodoxy into question, Rachel Held Evans’s Julian of Norwich-esque celebration of the feminine qualities of the Godhead—a relatively standard Eastertime offering—led her to be labeled a heretic.

Moreover, celebrity authority often obscures a female theologian’s intelligence and skill. Many stars of the evangelical blogging world go out of their way to portray themselves as average “everywomen.” And, they are often trivialized by critics and labeled pejoratively as “mommy bloggers.” But in reality, they are smarter, more attractive, funnier, better culture critics, and just plain more talented than the general public.

Ultimately, authority based in celebrity culture is risky because it is fragile. And it is fragile because it is fleeting. The internet creates a wide audience but also increases competition for followers. And, as is the case with any democratic institution, what the people give, they can take away. No matter how many theological controversies one perpetuates on social media, no matter how many retweets one accumulates, no matter how many conference seats one fills, one cannot escape the fact that the American public has a short attention span. And, the general public is not kind to women as the years go by.

These social media controversies are revelatory in various ways. They show deep fissures present in American evangelicalism. They demonstrate that female theologians in the social media sphere experience disproportionate attacks compared to their male counterparts. And they reveal the limits of social media, since the speed and style of theology done on digital platforms discourages thoughtful engagement, precise theological language, and intellectual generosity.

This lack of true exchange is toxic to theological discourse (also to public conversation in general) and especially limiting for women, who struggle to establish their legitimacy as theologians even in the most thoughtful and generous environments.

These kinds of think pieces usually culminate with some sort of ethical imperative: What should we do about all of this? I could say that evangelicals should be more thoughtful about how they authorize theologians (which they should); women are hard on one another and ought be more generous when they engage in public discourse (which they ought); everyone should be fairer with women on social media (and they so often are not).

But I’m a historian, not an ethicist. The best recommendation I can make is a modest one: Evangelicals should do more theology face to face. Theology is an embodied practice, not just a mental exercise. Just as the body of Christ—his suffering and resurrected form—is key to the Christian enterprise, so are the bodies of theologians, who carry within them the particularities and breadth of human experience with the Divine that are needed in order to for any church to become like Christ.

Rich, creative theology depends not only on the ideas being exchanged but also on the bodies that carry them into the world. It’s wisest to bring our whole selves to the task. If church history demonstrates anything, it’s that the so-called “theological greats” —who may not share much in common when it comes to their doctrinal conclusions—share the notion that the best theological conversations come from face-to-face encounters, preferably with good food and drink.

Leah Payne is an assistant professor of Christian studies at George Fox University and author of Gender and Pentecostalism: Making a Female Ministry in the Early Twentieth Century(Palgrave, 2016), winner of the Society for Pentecostal Studies’ Pneuma 2016 Book of the Year. Her current research explores politics in Pentecostal and charismatic communities, and she blogs about religion & pop culture at leahpayne.blogspot.com.

December
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