Rachel Held Evans doesn’t want to talk about her vagina anymore.
“I’m sorry,” said a spokesman for her publisher, Thomas Nelson, in turning down a request for an interview, “she’s a little uncomfortable continuing with this conversation.”
Evans’s modesty at this juncture is surprising, given that she’s led the charge for anatomically correct speech in evangelical Christian circles for months now. “Christians,” she wrote on her blog in May, “who wish to remain engaged in culture can’t afford to be scandalized by a li’l ol vagina.” In fact, Held’s advocacy on behalf of genital correctness — and the controversy it has stirred — has propelled her new book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” into triple-digit Amazon rankings, even though the book is not yet available for sale in stores. Evans may not relish being pigeonholed as the Christian Naomi Wolf, but she staked out this turf, and I wish she would keep defending it.
Evans is a young Christian blogger and a leading member of a new tribe of evangelicals who, raised in traditional families and churches, are straining to hold onto the faith of their parents while rejecting the righteousness, moralizing and knee-jerk conservatism of the past.
Other members of her tribe include Rob Bell, whose book “Love Wins” argued that everyone, and not just born-again Christians, can get to heaven; and Mark Driscoll, who preached in his book “Real Marriage” that all kinds of sex play (including oral and anal sex) are approved by God within a monogamous marriage. (All three have been called heretics by their outraged Christian opponents, and though they share an “outsider” identity, these young Christians do not necessarily share perspectives or priorities: Evans panned Driscoll’s book on her blog, deriding his view of sex as macho and narrow-minded.) But the aim of this group is, broadly, the same: to rescue evangelical Christianity from the mean-spirited name-calling of the past – to open its doors to a broader way of thinking that accommodates the complexities of modern life.
During the Chick-fil-A scandal this year, Evans took a stand against joining culture-war divisiveness: Culture battles, she wrote, “mobilize us around insignificant ‘wins’ that, in the long run, only make things worse.”
She sealed her notoriety earlier this year when she announced on her blog that her publisher had recommended scrubbing the word “vagina” from her forthcoming book, fearing that its presence there would disqualify it from being distributed in Christian bookstores nationwide. A storm ensued. Evans’s Christian followers and fans encouraged her to resist. They made “Team Vagina” T-shirts. They created a petition on Amazon. They blogged and tweeted their support. Happily, “vagina” was reinstated – and predictably, one prominent Christian retailer said it wouldn’t carry the book, though it did not specify the reason why.
In “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” in which Evans attempts to live out the Bible’s instructions for women, the word “vagina” appears exactly twice: once, in a passage describing a brutal rape, and again in a passage in which Evans describes signing a sexual abstinence pledge as a 15-year-old high-schooler.
“I used the back of my chair to scribble my name across the dotted line,” Evans writes, “before marching to the front of the room to pin my promise to God and my vagina onto a giant corkboard for all to see.”
Indeed, what’s transgressive about Evans’s book is not her word choice at all, (though it may mortify her parents and grandparents.) No, what makes her and her generation interesting is her insistence that the old codes of behavior that reigned for so long in conservative evangelical circles simply don’t apply to her or her husband or her friends.
When Evans writes about her abstinence pledge, she does so lightly, and so implies that such pledges do not work. She discovers, further on, that biblical praises of female beauty have nothing to do with looking perfect for your husband so he won’t leave you, and that being submissive has nothing to do with fixing your husband lunch. In defending herself to her public, Evans might well argue, as she does in her book, that nothing she has written matches the charged eroticism of the Bible itself. The Song of Solomon is full of sex. “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,” writes its narrator, “and my inmost being yearned for him.”