Kate Bowler: Why Christian Women Become Celebrity ‘Influencers’

Tish Harrison Warren lit up the internet with an essay for Christianity Today that asked, “Who’s in Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?” In her piece, Warren addressed “a crisis of authority” resulting from so much de facto discipleship occurring on social media rather than in the church—a phenomenon that, for a variety of reasons, women have experienced most acutely.

Even before Warren’s essay was published, Kate Bowler, associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School, was compiling years of research on the conditions within modern American evangelicalism that helped lead to this state of affairs. She discovered that evangelical women, denied traditional means of authority within the church (and sometimes the culture), were becoming increasingly adept at tapping into newer forms of authority brought about by the age of mass media and the cult of celebrity it has wrought. In The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, she examines how Christian women—within both conservative and liberal church traditions—have exploited the power of beauty, therapy, family, and pop art to exert authority of their own. Author and Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior spoke with Bowler about her book.

One of the unique qualities of your research and writing is that you bring the sort of personal experience to your subject that many scholars, particularly in the field of religion, lack. You have roots in a conservative Christian tradition—but you’re not mad about it. Can you talk about that?

I grew up among the Mennonites in the plains of Manitoba in a broadly evangelical tradition, which meant that we talked a lot about loving Jesus, but because we’re Canadian we had absolutely no idea why InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was urging us to pray around the flagpole. We have no civil religion. But I was raised with a fair amount of VeggieTales and Focus on the Family, along with theological vagaries around why I would never be allowed to be a pastor. That was pragmatically fine with me, because I was already committed to a life of poverty as a historian. But I became pretty feisty early on when I realized that the spiritual gifts I saw in women did not always find expression in the church.

Despite the title of your book, The Preacher’s Wife, your work is not solely about pastors’ wives. In a larger sense, it’s a metaphor that gestures toward the way in which the influence of evangelical women is almost entirely dependent upon men, whether those men are husbands, pastors, or the gatekeepers of the marketplace. Can you explain your thinking behind the title?

The title is a shorthand for my thesis: Modern megachurch ministry does not authorize women to be spiritual leaders based on their education, credentials, or experience. Instead, they are billed as wives and mothers, famous for spiritual gifts that do not directly interfere with pulpit preaching (like singing and leading other women or children). As such, the easiest path to fame is to be the wife, mother, or daughter of a famous godly man—someone, in other words, who offers complementary spiritual sustenance to audiences that he is not directly targeting. For instance, megachurches frequently need a woman to run their women’s ministry, and the pastor’s wife is one of the most obvious choices.

Just look at the small gestures, like her Twitter bio or the way she is announced as she goes on stage: Taffi is Creflo Dollar’s wife. Dodie is Joel Osteen’s mom. Priscilla is Tony Evans’s daughter. There are many scrappy women who built ministries from scratch, but it is a far smoother road to be married to the ministry.

Speaking of the marketplace, your analysis sheds light on what you describe as “the dark logic of the marketplace,” one based on a “limited spiritual economy” that encourages women to create platforms built on competition, resentment, and comparison. Can you talk about how the sexism and entrepreneurism present in both evangelicalism and the broader American culture have turned insecurity into a source of power for evangelical women?

When conservative women are barred from the pulpit—or any situation in which they appear to be teaching men—they must find other ways of reaching an audience, ways that center on stereotypically gendered tropes. For this reason, women in ministry might build their platform on their expertise in parenting, cooking, nutrition, weight loss, or beauty. Those who directly take on the work of preaching and teaching will call themselves “Bible teachers” instead. No matter how closely their work resembles that of a senior pastor, women in megaministry will be introduced as authors or speakers, television hosts or parachurch founders. It is a delicate balance of professed submission to authority and implied independence from it.

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Source: Christianity Today