Underneath the Tunic or, What Do Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell Have In Common?

Equal treatment. Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell suffered the same hammer when facing the prospects of offering a different vision for how we talk about others in relationship to our pronouncements as final. For many the hammer is the only tool in the box and everyone who disagrees, or poses a different possibility, becomes the nail. Criticism is egalitarian.

Piper bid farewell to Rob Bell over Love Wins and Rachel Held Evans faced the prospect Christian booksellers would not carry her book, allegedly over her reference to female parts according to medical parlance. The result? Rob Bell owes Piper for the negative publicity that resulted in huge sales for Love Wins. And, Rachel Held Evans owes Lifeway for the negative publicity generating interest and sales for her new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

The kerfuffle created by the report that Lifeway will not stock Evans’ book, either a result of the poor sales of her first book or another unmentioned reason, continues to spur points and counter-points. This amounts to reader titillation. Baptists, and many Evangelicals, really do not care to be told what to read, or what not to read. We are often like kids who when told not to do something do so just because. When Lifeway decided not to carry Evans’ new book, it was akin to inviting their constituency to get it for themselves.

I read somewhere that after the Rob Bell incident a group of bloggers decided not to comment about a popular writer, I think Brian McLaren. They realized that their negative buzz spurred more people to investigate, purchase, and read for themselves thereby increasing sales.

Many of us know the conventional wisdom from businesses. People will generally tell another person if they had a good experience with a product. But, if they find the product lackluster or poor, they will tell as many as five friends. Do the math. Book sales seem to have a correlation. Recommend a good book and someone might order it for themselves – at least religious/theological books. Offer a devastating critique and the results may increase sales five times, especially if those warning of the dangers of a book are viewed as Gatekeepers.

Attempts to quash other views often leaves people wondering what do the powers want to keep under wraps. We are beyond the days of a formal magisterium, at least in the Free Church tradition. Gatekeepers in these contexts must constantly maintain their stranglehold on what is approved by publicly decrying and warning of the dangers. People cannot be trusted to read, think, and have conversations in which healthy conclusions are drawn. The real fear is that the position held by the Gatekeepers will not win the day.

A young friend emailed recently. He observed in his own tribe that many appear to be more interested in power than their purported interest in the Gospel. Job security and stability tend to be supported and framed when held alongside the party line.

My young friend confessed encroaching disillusionment. His only hope is a day when, in his tribe, there is a post- effect. That is, he hopes younger people will see through power groping to the re-formation of spirit and, akin to Jesus’ call to eschew the Gentiles lordship, a willingness to serve others. What my young friend longs for is an admission that there is something underneath these moves of power. It is really not the Gospel. My young friend and I belong to the same tribe.

My college friend Jerry Faught, a former Southern Baptist, weighed in on Vaginagate, as the Evans’ incident has been labeled. He was not the first. Christian Piatt wrote on the subject for the Huffington Post. In his Religion Dispatches piece, Jerry offers a scathing critique of the Southern Baptist Convention through the lens of Evan’ treatment by Lifeway, and others in the SBC. I warn you Faught’s conclusions are harsh. He writes,

In the end, Lifeway will not stock Rachel Evans’ book not because of her choice of words but because she is not a fundamentalist. She is a young evangelical who will never be comfortable in the male-dominated SBC. That Lifeway will not carry Rachel Evans’ book should be something she wears as a badge of honor. She is far too talented to waste her time dealing with persons or churches or bookstores that will never appreciate her and her viewpoints. To other gifted Baptist women who want to pursue your dreams, I implore you not to waste your time with the sexist SBC.

I hope young women, any women, will not abandon their dreams in the SBC. I fear they will. I really hope that these sorts of high profile events do not prompt our leaders to double-down but instead open up the possibilities of embracing and promoting that women make as important a contribution to the Kingdom of God, even in its expression among Southern Baptists. And, I mean equal contribution. I do not mean to hail them great nursery workers and cooks. I mean to honor their insight, theological reflection, and gifts of leadership.

We give more evidence of our natural bent to preserve our tribe at all costs – original sin? Evolutionary theorists would consider the approaches of more fundamentalist expressions are in themselves acts of self-preservation. Consciously or unconsciously tribes must always be in opposition to others out of fear of extinction. Moves to preserve a pattern of life may result in choosing to behave in ways that require a suspension of belief.

For instance, if we believe all people are created in the image of God but treat a group, any group, as less than equal, we have suspended our belief in favor of a decision to protect my tribe, group, even gender. Many do not like to face the prospect that how we hold our beliefs is as important as the beliefs we say we hold. It is enough to say the right thing, doing the right thing is secondary.

Sadly, in religious experience – even in America – gender is only one issue that illustrates how we program protecting our tribe into the fabric of our structures and systems.

What we need is a good dose of the very Scriptures we say we believe are an infallible guide for life. For example, the Apostle Paul radicalized the law by summing it up in one dictum, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Often we want to soften the call to follow Jesus in this way by pointing to contextual places where Paul calls for pointed action. If, we arrive at the place where our aim is loving our neighbor as ourselves, then maybe we could move on to considering the contexts in which that love may need to take the form of exhortation to faithfulness. But, most of the time what I witness is the move to apply those exceptions long before pursing the way of love.

When this occurs, the exception proves the need for the rule.

Underneath it all must be our willingness to love. The Hebrew Scriptures remind us, it is the loving-kindness of God that leads to repentance. Maybe we should follow that pattern in our own lives.

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About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.