Christian Publishing v. the Vagina

When Christian author Rachel Held Evans finished her last book, her publisher suggested she remove the word “vagina.”

“Your editors consult with you about what will not get past the Christian bookstore gatekeepers,” she told me. Words like ‘kick-ass’ and ‘damn’ are out, naturally. But as Evans said, “I was fine with it, until they got to the word ‘vagina.’”

While the author did agree to the edit, she later mentioned it on her blog to let off some steam—her readers were incensed.

They “were really up in arms about the fact that I would have to take out something like that, you know, just basic anatomy,”  she said. One even started a petition on Amazon to let Evans keep the word in her book. She talked again with her publisher, who agreed to put it back in. “I guess we kind of won ‘vaginagate,’”she jokes. “I just don’t know if it will be in Christian bookstores.”

Evans says publishers feel obligated to cater to standards of major bookstore chains—retailers can dictate writers’ creative choices simply by virtue of their commercial clout. “Lifeway hadn’t even seen the manuscript yet,” she says. “This is just sort of standard procedure.”

For authors and publishers, that means trying to create compelling work while avoiding a myriad of words and themes that might leave a major retailer cold. “There’s just sort of an understanding among authors that if you’re working in a Christian industry you’ll probably have to engage in this dance at some level,” she says. “What am I allowed to write? What am I not allowed to write? What can I sneak in?” 

Sanitized Language

Just this month, Lifeway has come under fire for refusing to stock The Blind Side, a movie about a wealthy white Christian family that supports a black teen from a broken home. The store refused to answer most questions by email, and denied requests for an interview, but they did send a statement about the film. “We agree the movie as a whole promotes Christian values and a redemptive message,” they say. However, it includes “incidents of street language and racial slurs against African Americans.”

LifeWay Christian Resources was founded in 1891 as a nonprofit arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. It has 156 stores across the United States. Lifeway also includes a publishing group, two conference centers, and two online shopping websites.

Eric Metaxas is the author of the bestselling biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor Martyr, Prophet, Spy, published by Thomas Nelson. He told me that he thinks the retailer’s decision was “a misunderstanding of God’s idea of holiness.”

Metaxas says that when Hollywood makes a film that portrays evangelical Christians in a positive light, Christians should embrace it. “When a ‘Christian bookstore’ does something like this, they send a… fundamentally wrong message about what Christianity is,” he says. “If you read Scripture, obviously in context, there’s all kinds of stuff that’s unpleasant.”

The Blind Side incident reminds him of his first experience writing a Christian book for adults. In 2005, he was working on Everything You Wanted To Know About God (but were afraid to ask), for Waterbrook Multnomah. Metaxas is a Yale-educated Manhattan-dweller and a late convert to the religion: “I have been in the secular world my whole life.” As a result, he says, “I want to actually speak the [mainstream] cultural language.”

So Metaxas described the search for purpose within a Darwinist atheist world as “a total crapshoot.” Facing the Christian subculture for the first time, he was in for a surprise. “The editor objected strongly to the term,” he says. “What he said was ‘It’s a gambling term, and we don’t want to, like, frighten a large bookstore account.’”

“I just couldn’t believe that [my editor] was serious,” remembers Metaxas. “You could hear the fear that this book needs to be bought by these major stores. If they do not buy tons of copies of this book, we’ve got nothing here, because we’re probably not going to sell a lot into Barnes and Noble or the secular chains.”

Metaxas believes that the industry’s sanitation of language makes it harder for Christian writers to spread their message. “This culture is starving for a robust, passionate Christian art,” he says. “For your average beginning writer this would have a chilling effect.”

Caryn Rivadeneira, has written two books for Tyndale House Publishers—Grumble Hallelujah and Mama’s Got A Fake ID. Rivadeneira faces pushback over moments as small as using the word “crap” or the depiction of a character drinking a glass of wine in a bathtub.  

“It’s never the publishing houses themselves,” she says. “It’s not that the editors are upset about it, or even that they think readers will be.”

“There are certain bookstores who won’t carry books if there’s any of what they deem [to be] inappropriate language or situations.”

Metaxas agrees that editors don’t relish these changes: “I think most people who are in this world know that this is ridiculous.” But that leaves him more frustrated. “The question is, whom do they fear? What world have we entered, and can’t we all admit that this is not working for God’s glory?”

Why Isn’t She Married?

When I ask Eric Metaxas if he thinks that this heavy-handed editing is happening more frequently to women, he rejects the idea outright. “It’s definitely equal,” he says.

Metaxas—who later declines to give an example of some of the crude language in his Bonhoeffer book (from some Luther passages), telling me, “my wife is in the car, and you’re a lovely young woman”—is more concerned with “the idea that [Christian writers] should be marginalized into this somehow manicured ghetto.”

But women in the industry aren’t so sure. They themselves don’t describe their experiences as discriminatory, but some wonder if cultural factors leave their work subject to a more watchful eye.

“I looked through other authors who shared my publisher and who had been carried, whose books had been carried in Christian bookstores, and these were guys and they had referenced testicles and penises—so it seemed like at least with this, there was a double standard,” says Evans. She doesn’t want to point to sexism to explain the disparity—the books might have been considered more literary, she adds.

Andy Meisenheimer is a book editor who worked for six years at Zondervan before he became a freelancer. He told me that while female writers may be held to a higher standard in the industry, the reasons aren’t quite what an outsider might expect. “That’s not because the writer is female, but because the intended audience is female,” he says.

Meisenheimer explains that female-authored books published by Christian publishing houses are usually targeted for female consumers. “There’s the implicit assumption that male readers are going to be less offended by things than female readers.”

Caryn Rivadeneira seems to agree. She says writers are given more or less leeway because of their particular market and audience. “I think that might have more to do with it than being male.”

On the other hand, Evans says, “just being an evangelical is harder for a woman.” She points to debates within the faith about how much authority women are allowed to exercise. “I can’t imagine that that doesn’t affect how evangelical women are read and how seriously they’re taken.”

Karen Spears Zacharias is an author who has published two books with Christian publisher Zondervan and three for the general market—most recently releasing A Silence of Mockingbirds (MacAdam/Cage) last year. 

Zacharias’ Christian books are published with gender-neutral covers and, yes, the occasional straight-shooting swear word. In an interview with RD, she says she’s not sure Christian consumers are as quick to revere a female writer. “I definitely think that there is a standard of expectation for women that is different than it is for men,” she says. She points to 2003 Christian cult hit, Blue Like Jazz. Its author, Donald Miller, is a single 40-year-old man.

“You try to think, now could a single 30-some-plus woman go out there and write Blue Like Jazz and have it resonate within the Christian community the way Don Miller Did?” Zacharias says the answer is no. “The Christian community… would have been saying ‘What’s wrong with her, why isn’t she married?’”   

Irrelevance is Not a Negative Term 

While some authors say their publishers are intent on pleasing religious retailers, Andy Meisenheimer disagrees. He says the question of whether bookstores have an ideological stranglehold on Christian books is about five years too late.

When he was at Zondervan, he says, the publishing house was already learning how to market its Christian books to a younger, more secular crowd. “Lifeway looks like they sell a bunch of Zondervan books,” says Meisenheimer. “Well, yes—but they’re mostly Rick Warren. They’re not our hip, young cool books.” Zondervan does not release sales figures and couldn’t speak to the claim. 

Tyndale editor Adam Graber usually edits Bibles, although he’s also edited two other Tyndale books. He says the publishing house’s rules come from within: they aren’t reflective of retailers’ wishes, but rather of its Christian mission. “At Tyndale, we have pretty clear standards ourselves about what we do and don’t want to publish,” he says. “We’ve never had clear standards dictated to us by someone who’s trying to sell our books.

“That said, Lifeway’s a huge sales channel for Christian books, so they do carry a lot of weight.”

A statement from Meisenheimer’s former publishing house seems to reflect that industry weight. “Zondervan and Lifeway sales representatives communicate regularly with any questions and concerns to ensure the consumers are provided with the most relevant, high quality, high value Christian products,” a spokesperson wrote. 

But as Meisenheimer suggests, that influence may be on the verge of waning. In 2011 the venture’s researchers reported Southern Baptists’ fourth straight year of decline in overall membership. This year, a Gallup Poll has revealed Americans’ confidence in organized religion is at a new low.

In 2008, LifeWay cut five percent of its staff—about 100 jobs—because of financial concerns, according to Associated Baptist Press.

But unlike secular businesses, which stay relevant in order to make a profit, Christian ventures have a mission that may leave them uninterested in compromise. “Irrelevance is not a negative term to them,” Meisenheimer says. “What’s more important… is that they’re publishing truth.” 

“You can publish my work or not, but if you don’t want it somebody else will,” says Zacharias. Christian businesses have to consider their markets, she says, and she’s okay with that. Where’s Your Jesus Now (Zondervan) included discussions about how to fix the relationship between the church and the gay community. It was not carried by Lifeway. “That’s Lifeway’s loss.”

In that situation, Zacharias did her own heavy lifting. She found an independent publicist to help her market the book, and connected with business owners who had supported her work in the past. “There are plenty of independent bookstores out there who championed it.”

While some people find life after Lifeway, Rachel Held Evans is caught in transition. “I do know authors who have chosen secular publishers just to avoid this entire situation,” she says. She hopes that by speaking out, authors can change the process behind Christian books. “I just think if we are all aware of it and we all start talking about it, maybe we could all improve.”

[This article was changed to correct the suggestion that Eric Metaxas is at work on a biography of Luther—the crude language the author referenced was actually from the Bonhoeffer biography, in its section on Luther. –The Eds.]