Recently, Christian author & blogger Rachel Held Evans created a little controversy over her newest book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Specifically, LifeWay Christian Resources, a large, conservative Christian book chain, had decided not to carry this book, apparently because she used the word, “vagina.” (Note: LifeWay is the same bookstore chain that previously created a stir by banning the popular and well-intentioned movie, “The Blind Side,” from their stores.)
Early in development, Evan’s publisher, Thomas Nelson, had recommended that she delete the word from her manuscript, and she did so. It was simply used in a colorful phrase, and wouldn’t change the overall meaning of her point in context. However, her blog readers began writing in to her (and even started a petition which they sent to Thomas Nelson) to encourage her to keep the word in the manuscript. So she did.
Her ruminations on this are well documented on her popular blogsite, and you can read up on it if you want more information. There has certainly been enough press on it, from The Huffington Post to Slate to The Christian Post.
Now on some level, I commend her for trying to maintain integrity in her writing and in her life by keeping the word in. I also commend her publisher for allowing her to do so, even at the risk of sales repercussions. On some other level, I also understand that keeping the word in has probably generated lots of media coverage and other sales, and she is probably enjoying all the controversy and notoriety as well, but I’m not going to judge their motivations on that one. But this does bring up some interesting questions, from the nature of censorship to what makes a book Christian.
First off, I’m not against censorship per se. Practically every medium you see has a necessary degree of censorship, from motion picture ratings to the dress codes established by public schools. Just the act of deciding what goes on the front page of a newspaper versus the back page (or not at all) is an act of censorship. Censorship is a necessary part of communication—just think about all the things you said in your mind today that you didn’t say out loud.
Censorship is a necessary part of the artistic process as well. As authors and songwriters, we are constantly choosing words, evaluating their nuance and intention and power. All artists—from dancers to sculptors to graphic designers—exercise a form of self-censorship, as we strive to evoke ideas and emotions from our work. Recently, we performed a drama sketch at our church involving two people in conflict. One of the characters was supposed to say, “what the hell!,” in a derogatory manner, which was consistent with the role and setting. However, during rehearsal, we decided to change the dialogue because we knew that the phrase might hinder some people from hearing the real message of the piece, and we were able to find other ways to dramatize this person’s anger artistically.
In the case of Evan’s no-no word, however, something else is going on here. I believe that at the heart of this controversy are two things: a legalistic view of what it is to live in the Kingdom of God, and book sales (i.e., money). And one leads to the other, I’m afraid.
Now when I say a “legalistic view” I speak specifically of those who think that Christians are people who don’t swear, or don’t drink or smoke, or don’t have body piercings or tattoos, or don’t fill-in-the-blank. And while there isn’t anything necessarily good about any of these things, to use them as boundary markers to the Christian faith is somewhat absurd. The life of a follower of Christ is one of wholeness restored, goodness prevailing, grace abounding, love motivating and superceding everything. It is not defined simply by external behaviors (the sin of the Pharisees), but completely defined by interior, spiritual rebirth that leads to changed life. But somewhere down the line, the word “vagina” became a boundary marker for what is not acceptable for Christian authors to use in their works.
All authors eventually face this at some level. My Waterloo was the phrase, “kick butt,” which I penned in the original manuscript for my book, Imagine That, to humorously describe a scene from the seventies TV show, “Kung Fu.” Late in the editing process, my publisher asked that I change the phrase to something more benign, like “beat up.” While it wasn’t a deal-breaker by any means, I felt that their phrase completely loses the meaning of what I was trying to say. So we compromised with the term “whomp” which is a made-up word—and an inside joke that they didn’t get—coined in the Saturday morning cartoon, “Recess.” (If you have ten minutes to spare, I highly recommend this clip for some surprisingly refreshing perspective.)
I’ve blogged before on the importance of being honest in our art. Artist Edward Knippers states, “The believer’s art should be rooted in the rich soil of believing that humanity is far worse off than we think and God’s grace extends far beyond what we can imagine.” Art, if it aspires to Truth, must be real in portraying the realities of a sin-bathed world as well as God’s great love for that world. If this is true, then being truthful to these realities must occasionally mean that we will use words like “vagina” and “butt” and other vulgarities. Certainly the Bible—the divinely-inspired but also R-rated Story of God in the universe—does not shy away from such realities.
Or to be more crass, let me quote Rachel Evans herself: “…if Christian bookstores stuck to their own ridiculous standards, they wouldn’t be able carry the freaking Bible.”
Which brings me to the second thing, money. Christian publishers, like all publishers, are motivated primarily by finances. They have to be. They are in the business of selling books, and the people who run these businesses have mortgages to pay and families to feed. So loss of sales becomes this unspoken but all-pervasive threat that Christian publishers always feel. The easy road for publishers is to simply avoid the controversies, the boundary markers, which might stir up the conservative segments of their audiences. To state the obvious, we as authors and readers must understand that the Christian book industry primarily functions—for better and for worse—as an industry. And one corollary to that is that the best books are not always published, but the most popular (and often benign) books most certainly are.
So where does that leave us? Ultimately, we Christians finds ourselves squarely along the path of missing the point once again. Evans’ book will not be known for what it was written for — as an experiment in Christian complementarianism — but as “the vagina book.” Those conservatives who oppose the book will unwittingly add to its sales, fueled by a titillated public. Christian evangelicals have once again displayed that we define ourselves according to what we are against, not what we are for. And the secular public and media will have one more excuse to poke fun at the ignorant Christians.